interviews Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg is one of the living giants of science
fiction. His writing has been in constant print for well over fifty years and
has been a defining influence on more writers than we will ever know. No
science fiction reader can ever consider him or herself to be well read without
at least one of Silverberg’s masterpieces under the belt. We were lucky enough
to catch up with him at his lovely home in the San Francisco Bay area.
Joy Ward: How did you get started writing?
Robert Silverberg: I started reading science fiction when I was ten or eleven
and by the time I was thirteen I decided I could do this too. This was not
actually correct at that point. I did send some stories to magazines and, when
they figured out it was a boy sending them and not a demented adult, they sent
me very gentle rejection letters. But I continued writing. By the time I was
sixteen, seventeen I was getting published. That's how I began writing.
JW: Tell me about the early days of writing. What kind of stories were you
RS: Probably not very good ones.
I lived in New York then and I sent the stories, nearly all of which were
edited, in New York, and they sent them back with encouraging letters. Then
they started sending checks. The editors invited me to come down and meet them.
I hastened to do that. I think they were surprised to discover I was eighteen
or whatever but I got to know them, became part of the New York science fiction
writers group as a kind of mascot, really, and as the editors discovered that I
was a very dependable craftsman they began calling me and saying "Bob, we
need a story of five thousand, five hundred words by Friday to fill a hole in
an issue. Can you do it?" I would say yes and I did do it.
JW: How did that feel to be with all these literati?
RS: Well, I was accustomed to that because, more or less against my knowledge
or will, I got skipped through the early grades very quickly. I could read when
I was about four. I didn’t spend much time in kindergarten. I zoomed through.
Suddenly I was in the fourth grade and I was a year and a half younger than
everybody else; and when you're seven and a half and they are nine that's a big
difference. So all through my childhood and adolescence I was younger than
everyone else. Then I started my career and the same thing was happening so I
assumed this is what life is like.
What is really strange is now I'm practically eighty and
I'm older than just about any functioning science fiction writer. Not that I'm
functioning much anymore but I'm still up and moving around and it’s a very odd
experience for me after having been so precocious, to be older than everybody
that I know.
It’s kind of lonely. I've always gone to the science fiction convention every
year, Worldcon, and I formed friendships with writers who were fifteen or
twenty years older than I was. People like Frederik Pohl and Lester Del Rey and
L. Sprague De Camp and Gordon Dickson and on an on and on. Because they were
fifteen or twenty years older and I am now eighty they are all dead. There's
one writer left, James Gunn who is 91, of all the writers that I knew from
those early conventions. So I've had to form a new set of friends among young
people like George Martin and Connie Willis and Joe Haldeman who are only
sixty-five or seventy or so.
It's been a conscious act on my part to form new friendships because otherwise
I would be all alone. (I would be) that guy with the white beard standing in
the middle of the convention hall saying, "Where did everybody go?"
Science fiction writers are a very collegial group. Before science
fiction was big business it was a downtrodden minority. It was a funny little
pulp fiction field. Gaudy looking magazines with names like Amazing Stories,
Astounding Science Fiction and we were considered pretty weird. So we
banded together, a league against the world. Of course that all changed,
changed almost frightingly, and science fiction became such big business that
it's impossible now to keep up with the whole field, to understand what's going
on. When I go out into what I laughingly call the "real world" I hear
people talk about aliens and alternative universes. All of those esoteric
things that were our private property are now in everybody's vocabulary because
you can't go to the movies without seeing five trailers for what they call the
new sci-fi movies. I hate that sci-fi word.
So science fiction writers tend to choose other science fiction writers as
their friends. Not exclusively. Also, I have no family to speak of. I have a
wife and a brother-in-law and sister-in-law. That's about it. I have no
ancestors left. I have outlived them all and I never had children. So the
science fiction writers are sort of surrogate family for me. That's why when I
go to the convention I don't want to stand there and say, "Where did
everybody go?" It's an unpleasant feeling. But I don't. I've known a young
whipper snapper like George Martin, I've known him for thirty-five years or so.
This is not a recent friendship.
The big high point of my career, not a very difficult one to understand, was
2004 when the science fiction writers gave me the Grand Master trophy. What was
special for me about that, I had been a member of SFWA since it was founded. I
was there when the Grand Master award was invented and given to Heinlein and to
Jack Williamson and to Clifford Simak and to Sprague De Camp— and these people
I'm naming are all writers I read and admired and idolized when I was twelve,
thirteen, fourteen years old. Suddenly in 2004 I'm getting the same award
they got, which told me that you have achieved something in your career.
You have found a place for yourself among them. I never really, I don't
see myself as being among them. I'm just that kid that managed to get a lot of
stories published back there in 1956. But from the outside I know it looks
It feels wonderful because I was a reader, a fan, and came to conventions when
I was fifteen, sixteen and looked at these demigods and grew up to be a demigod
myself. I can only feel that I did it the right way. That's a good feeling. You
don't want to know that you have wasted your life or you bungled your ambition.
I haven't. I remember at a convention about twenty-five years ago I was
standing in the lobby of the hotel talking to Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke,
both of whom I had known for many years and I regard as friends. But the teenage
boy within me could not help thinking, "You're talking to Asimov and
Clarke." Then I heard somebody about twenty feet away say, "Look.
There's Asimov, Clarke and Silverberg." It put everything in perspective
when you see it from the outside like that.
To them, standing over there, that was a group of big-name writers. To me, time
traveled back to 1953. I'm a kid who mysteriously finds himself talking to
these titans of the field. A lot of double vision involved.
I've done a lot of writing that isn't science fiction. I wrote a number of
books about geography and geology and scientific subjects. I wrote a few
western stories. I wrote some detective stories, even though I wasn't very good
at that. Mostly what I thought when I did this is this is what I do when I'm
not writing science fiction. A lot of hardened science fiction writers have
felt that way that it's not really sensible or justifiable but I remember James
Blish, a writer who I revered who has been dead a long time now, Jim was a
great science fiction writer but to pay the rent he wrote for sports pubs and
westerns, which was funny because I don't know Jim knew which end of the
baseball bat to swing and as for westerns, he was a New Yorker through and
through. But still that's what he did and he always regarded the other stuff as
something you did when you didn’t have a science fiction idea but your main
business was writing science fiction. On some level, I think that too.
JW: Is there anything you would have done other than write science fiction?
RS: Well, when I was in high school when people would ask me what are you going
to do when you grow up, I couldn't say, “I want to be a science fiction writer”
because that's like saying, “I'm a lunatic.” You didn’t say that back there in
the 1940s. So I said, “I think I'm good at writing,” and they translated that
into journalism. It was assumed that I'd become a journalist. And indeed, I was
the editor of my high school paper and I was a fairly important figure on the
college paper but I knew what I was going to do. Then midway through my college
years I began doing it, and I've been doing it ever since. So I guess this was
what I was meant to do and I'm glad that I did it pretty well. How sad to have
spent the last sixty years writing bad science fiction.
JW: Is there anything you haven’t written that you want to write about?
RS: Not at this point. I've written everything and I don’t feel any hunger to
tell some story that's untold. Not after all this time. My bibliography is the
size of the phone book. I don’t mean the Podunk phone book; I mean the
Manhattan phone book. So I'm really done so far as conquering new worlds goes.
I'm very far from young. I don't have the energy I once did and I don't have
anything left to prove. What I am happy about is keeping everything I wrote in
print and seeing the stories of yesteryear printed in places like Galaxy's
Edge or in anthologies, and of course there is the wonderful world of
electronic publishing. I confess I don't own a Kindle or any such gizmo myself
but I've taken great pains to see to it that the people who do can find my work
very easily and I'm all over the electronic world. So I'm still here; I'm just
not writing any more or feeling the need to do so.
It says that I'm still alive. I still go to conventions. I still go meet
editors. I make deals. I have a real agent, a very good agent, but I make the
connections. Roger Zelazny, dear man, has been dead for twenty years and James
Blish almost forty years. It's very hard to keep your career going when you're
just a ghost. You need a passionate agent or a very capable widow and widows
get old too. So that's the easy part of the answer that yes, I'm still here and
still doing deals for myself. It also says to me the stuff is probably pretty
good. I think it was. I gave my best effort but it’s nice to have the
confirmation coming back in the form of new editions, Grand Master awards.
There's nobody so sure of himself he doesn't mind validation.
JW: As you look forward, what do you want people to say about you in the
RS: I hope they will still be reading me. I hope they
will still be reading anything. I don't give much thought to what people will
say a hundred years from now. I can barely understand what they are saying
right now. The language has changed so much in my lifetime, the mental
attitudes, the political attitudes. Occasionally I wander through the Internet
to see what people are saying, or it comes to me. I don't go looking for it.
Some of the comments, other than the praise, are incomprehensible to me. I
assume that a hundred years from now nothing would be comprehensible to me if I
was reading it but I won't be reading it.
I've already seen the world morph beyond recognition in
my lifetime. I began writing professionally, I guess, in 1954. That's sixty
years. I'm living the science fiction world that I wrote about and then some.
These little machines that everybody holds in his hands and keeps his nose in,
well, there were computers or what we used to call thinking machines back there
in the fifties and it took a whole gigantic room the size of this and they had
punch cards and things like that. Now everybody has one in his hand and has a
million times the computing power of those giant IBM mainframes of the fifties.
So I'm living in what for me is a very weird futuristic world.
I can't keep up with it. I don't even try. I don't have a smart phone. My need
for one is small. I do have a computer, in fact, several of them. I do know how
to drive. A few of my late colleagues couldn't drive. Ray Bradbury, for
example, a man who had a vision of the future that was splendid but in the
present he needed somebody to drive him around. Well, I can drive. What I feel
now looking out at the world of people with telephones in their hands and the
strange clothing that they wear and the strange apparel of the body, the people
of the shaven heads and the unshaven cheeks, I realize I've lived on into a
different time. I'm not a man of this era and I take that very calmly most of
the time. When I go to restaurants—I go to restaurants a lot—I wish things were
not so noisy. But it's a different culture.
Remember I am a science fiction writer. I spent my life writing about people
who traveled in time and found themselves embedded in some strange era that
they could barely comprehend and learning the ropes as they were dumped down in
the far future of, say, 1979 back in a story written in 1955. So I expect
change. I'm not astounded that the world has changed out of recognition all
around me. I'd be pretty upset if it hadn't. The fact that I'm now old and no
longer living in the world that is familiar to me seems quite normal to me. I
don't object to it and fortunately I don't have to get out there and deal with
it very much. I'm not looking for jobs. I'm not worried about my privacy
issues. I don't live the life of an active forty year old. I would be surprised
if I did.
JW: Also, what advice would you give to someone trying to get into science
RS: I don't know how you go about starting a career today but I edited a book
called Science Fiction: 101, which has thirteen of my favorite stories,
thirteen stories I admired enormously when I was learning my craft and I
accompanied the stories with essays explaining why I admired them, what was
there to admire. So it was a kind of tutorial anthology. One day I was up at
the offices of Locus and a member of the Locus staff then, this
was fifteen, twenty years ago, told me she wanted to be a science fiction
writer and how I think she should get started. I said, "You know, take a
look at Science Fiction 101 and read Alfred Bester's “Fondly Fahrenheit”
and Cordwainer Smith's “Scanners Live in Vain” and write a story just as good.
That will start your career." She looked at me stunned and she began to
laugh. It's a huge field, gigantic. Several thousand books get published every
year and when I was beginning my career ten or twenty books were published.
There were six or seven science fiction magazines when I began writing. Now if
you include all the online ones and desktop ones there are dozens. I don't know
how many. Of course, there are an infinite number of would-be writers. So you
have a vastly expanded market and vastly expanded ambition. When I was
beginning back in the fifties the number of new writers could be counted on one
hand. Now I don't even know them. I went to the Worldcon in London and I went
to a party given by the science fiction writers association and there were two
hundred people in the room of which I knew about four. They knew who I was but
I didn't know who they were. That's a little distressing because I used to know
everybody. It was just a little gang of thirty or forty and I knew everybody.
Now I'm in a group of my colleagues and I have to say to Joe Haldeman, "I
don't know anybody."
JW: Do you appreciate when writers introduce themselves or do you prefer to
keep a distance?
RS: Oh no. I don't want to keep a distance. I want to get to know them. I'd
like them to be relaxed with me. I've had people practically have a convulsive
fit upon meeting me and that's not a good experience for me and it certainly
wasn't for them. Trembling and I can't believe I'm talking to you. Look,
I was a kid once and came up to X, Y or Z and felt the same way.
A lot of contemporary science fiction…I don't read it. I find a lot of it
uninteresting. I find a lot of it baffling. A lot of it is written in the
debased modern version of English and style is important to me. It sets my
teeth on edge to come upon some of the mannerisms that are now accepted and so
instead of going "harrumph" and bang my cane around I just don't read
it. That, incidentally, is a metaphorical cane. I can still walk!
Lester Del Rey, who had a kind of “Dutch uncle” relationship with me, always
told me what I was doing wrong but in a loving way. Lester used to throw books
across the room and when I would ask him, Have you read such and such
he'd say, “I read about ten pages and threw it across the room." I
wouldn't do that. I'm not a violent man. I don't read contemporary science
I always come back from the Worldcon interested in reading the latest thing and
I buy it and I don't read it.
JW: Where do you see science fiction going in the future?
RS: I think science fiction will continue to be published, written. Science
fiction I regard as a branch of fantasy, of fiction that allows for the free
play of the imagination and fantasy has been written for thousands of years. So
why would it stop?