by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
In the introduction to this story in The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg: Volume 1: Secret Sharers, Silverberg states the following: "I do think the story recaptures the tone of Son of Man to a considerable extent, but whether it has the headlong wildness of that book is not so clear to me." The reader should obviously judge for himself. I personally think that it is not really possible to create the same effect with a short story as with a novel, especially when dealing with something like Son of Man. I remember reading that book in two afternoons (I actually had to stop my greedy eyes from reading on after getting about halfway through, because I could feel I was becoming overwhelmed with ideas and imagery and did not want to become desensitized through sheer excess). There was something definitely cumulative about it, the sense that not only were things crazy but that they remained crazy and even seemed to get crazier towards the end. The sustained level of it is one of its many qualities that really amazes me. That kind of cumulative energy, or inventive momentum if you will, can't really be built up in a short story. So even though the style and thematic approach are similar in this story, the overall feel isn't. It wouldn't really be fair to either piece to compare this story to the novel: even though they share the setting, they are quite distinct pieces. And yet I can't help myself from making that type of constrast/compare remark.
In Son of Man I immediately noticed that Silverberg made a deliberate choice not to present the main character as a main character usually would be in a novel. He doesn't give us his thoughts, his emotions, his background. In fact, if I remember correctly, we are given such sparse knowledge about his situation on Earth that we don't even know what his job was, whether he was married, what his interests were, etc. In other words, the characteristics we would usually think of as character-defining. Yet this strategy works wonderfully. We are given the protagonist's actions, and these are fully sufficient. Why? Because it is irrelevant what the specifics of his case are: he is everyone of us, he represents humanity as a whole, and the discoveries he makes and experiences he has don't so much affect him personally as they affect the very humanity inside of him. Thus there is enough room to explore the new world, the different types of life-forms, the various landscapes, etc. I think it is, fundamentally, this lack of character description that makes the book so unique, so enigmatic, so uncompromising and pure, in its own way, obviously two highly artistic merits that exceed mere storytelling or craftmanship.
The situation is different in this short story. The main character reveals quite a few details about his life, his situation, his job, his surroundings, etc. before being whisked away by the time-flux. This automatically reduces the scale of things, making the story less cosmic and universal in its vision, rather more concrete, more limited. Fair enough: it is, after all, a short story. We can't expect the same grandeur, the same pouring sense of wonder, as in a whole novel. But, concerning character, there is an added difference: in Son of Man the reader's point of view was the same as the protagonist's, the human of our times. This is not the case in this story, since for the first two and a bit pages Oliver van Noort hasn't even yet arrived into the story's time-frame. The point of view must therefore be Bhengarn the Traveler's, although there were a few moments throughout the story when I wasn't sure whose point of view we were supposed to have. Seeing things from Bhengarn's point of view is exciting and fascinating in its own way, and possibly creates a more dynamic, surprising start than if the first scene had described van Noort's arrival in the new world. And in those two pages we learn something interesting about how the world works, namely the cause of the time-fluxes responsible for sweeping up creatures of different places and times. When the Traveler engages an Eater who opposes him:
There is a dull droning sound that the Traveler knows is the song of the time-flux, an unpredictable force that often is liberated at such moments.
So, now we know, to some degree, how the time-flux currents originate. Perhaps not only Travelers can elicit them, but other life-forms as well, we can't rule that out. But this is at least one way in which they form. In the story, the time-flux that results directly from the Traveler's actions is responsible for bringing Noort into the scene. We are given details about Noort's life for about a page-length, composed largely of phrases linked by a string of gerunds. It's obvious Silverberg knows a lot about Noort, a true historic figure. He mentions the fact that he had written about him at length "years before in a nonfiction book called The Longest Voyage." Waste not, want not. Of course, Noort's background in exploration and so forth make him a suitable choice... Still, I've always thought a woman's point of view would be interesting in the world of Son of Man (no pun intended). Apparently Silverberg did too, for he had originally intended for the story to deal with a twentieth-century woman, but then changed this. At one point when Noort asks the Traveler what he is, Bhengarn responds that he is a human being of the Traveler sort. Fair enough. But wouldn't it have been truer to the book and the universe therein presented to have him answer that he is a "son of man," or at least for Noort to make some reference, mental or spoken, to him being a son of man? One detail I really liked from the original and which Silverberg maintains is that when Noort tells the Traveler that he speaks his language, the Traveler replies that it is actually Noort who speaks his language. A wonderful touch, if you ask me.
Other details I noticed: