A Time of Changes by Silverberg, Robert, 1971

A Time of Changes by Silverberg, Robert

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One of the things that I personally like about Robert Silverberg is that he does not harp on an idea too long, and by that I mean that even though he is a prolific author with many, many titles in his back catalog, he really has not written too many sequels in his life. That can be a hard way to go for a SF author. That means that almost every time he or she writes a new story, a new world must be drawn up from scratch. But for those who can do it; those who can come up with ideas that quickly, it can pay off wonderfully over a long career. Before I am done here you will see me write about twenty Silverberg pieces, and only a few of them (Roma Eterna and Majipoor, for example) are multi-story pieces. This week's review is one of Silverberg's most well known stories, A Time of Changes. It is a single-volume story, and quite honestly it is one of the richest SF stories that I have ever encountered. There are some shortcomings in this novel, but nothing worth harping on. In short, it is excellent.

The most predominant feature of Silverberg's A Time of Changes is without a doubt the world-building. Set on an Earth clone world several millennia in the future, the planet Borthan was home to about fifty million humans. It was a colony world of far-off Earth that was settled by a stoic and taciturn group from some part of northern Europe. Once landed the original colonists devised a system of rules called the Covenant, which is a religiously influenced civil code that, among other things, attempts to regulate interpersonal communication among colony citizens, and proscribes certain behaviors even in privacy. The strictest rules of the Covenant proscribe what the colonists call "self-baring," which means that all colonists are prohibited from sharing their innermost desires and feelings with other persons. Words such as "I," and "me," were considered epithets. Instead of saying, "I love you," a proper citizen of Borthan would say "One is pleased by your companionship," or something like that, though there were exceptions. Each child on Borthan was given at birth a set of "bondsiblings," one bondsister and one bondbrother, with whom it was permitted to share oneself. Also there were members of a class of clergy called drainers who for a price would allow you to empty your soul. Like Catholic clergy they were prohibited from repeating what was said to them in the privacy of the draining session, but the people of this world, who had no way of understanding the intentions of other people or knowing what was in their hearts, had developed a strong civil legal system where most promises between parties were protected by contracts. Drainer sessions are no different. For the most part the Borthan people prided themselves on their honesty: Kinnall was no exception. But contracts protected everyone, so the Borthan had a strong civil society that was backed with religious belief. The civil society was necessary because even though the Borthans were patently honest with each other, the system that they lived under kept them from ever developing trust for one another. One would think that in the absence of some force pushing to keep the system in place, that it would crumble before that alone. Yet it did not, and the reason why was one of the main reasons that Silverberg had for writing this book.

The main character is the younger son of the Septarch, or primary of seven leaders of a particular province on the main continent of Borthan. Kinnall is an impetuous, foppish, immature fool with delusions of grandeur who was driven from his family's lands after his father's death in a hunting accident and his brother's ascension as the hereditary head of government. With the help of his bondsiblings Kinnall left with virtually nothing and went on the run for fear that his brother would either take out his frustration over fixing problems in government, or as a preemptory strike to secure his place as Septarch. After several failures and adventures Kinnall eventually made his way to his bondsister's home province and was given a job in the Justiciary managing the affairs for the Minister of Trade, who was also Halum's (his bondsister's) father.

I spent the better part of the book wondering exactly why this system of interpersonal communications had been implemented in the first place. From all the millennia old evidence that we were given, it seemed to me that it was implemented suddenly, and did not develop over time. There was really nothing so odd about the world that a system of self repression would be required. There was no need that I could see that would, for example, require all the people of Borthan to be of one mind in order to survive. Most of the citizens of Borthan seemed to think that it was just part of the outlook of the original colonists: That it was something that they brought with them from Earth.

"And," I said, "this planet was settled by men who had strong religious beliefs, who specifically came here to preserve them, and who took great pains to instill them in their descendents."

They were taught as children that to allow the individual to share one's self would lead to weakness, to self-indulgence and that the soul would be somehow diminished for it. Others thought that the Covenant arose after the colonists landed, and was a reaction to some environmental aspect of the planet. But I found no evidence to support that notion either. The world of Borthan was not rich in top soil, but that was really the only paucity that the Borthans suffered, and it really was not that big of a problem. It gradually became clear, however, that the Covenant was not a feature of the religious outlook of the original colonists. Instead it was a reaction to something that frightened them.

As I read the story I also felt that Silverberg was droning on and on for no real reason, spending time describing Kinnall's innermost feelings, or the minutiae of some meeting with another person. Of course, all of this had a point. The inordinate amounts of time Silverberg spent describing the particulars of Borthan culture served as the only means to show what Kinnall was really up against, and how difficult his task really was; what the effects of the Covenant were on everyday life on Borthan. Kinnall for his entire life seemed to want to violate the Covenant. Whether it was for the excitement of deviancy, or because he really wanted to be free from the bonds of the Covenant early on was not made very clear, but later in his life Kinnall rebelled strongly against it. As a youth he had fallen in love with his bondsister. Sexual relations or marriage between bondsiblings was forbidden, so Kinnall repressed his desires and never told anyone save a few drainers how he felt about Halum. He carried that love through his entire life, and even tried to sublimate his desire by marrying Halum's cousin, who was practically a twin. When Kinnall met Schweiz, a trader from Earth, he was ready for what was offered him. Schweiz brought with him a drug from the unexplored southern continent of Borthan. The drug was able to connect the minds of users for a short period of time. When two people took the drug together they were given the ability to journey through the other's mind and observe first hand what the other thought, knew and remembered. For Kinnall, who was fed up with the rules of the Covenant, it was a dream come true. He longed to use it with Halum and finally tell her how much he loved her. Kinnall though was afraid of how she would react, so he set about gathering others and using the drug with them, just to see how things went. The drug worked perfectly, but the group that used it was eventually caught and a warrant was sworn for Kinnall, who with his friend's help fled back to his home province. Once there he found Halum and used the drug with her. The experience turned out to be too much for Halum, probably because she was also a little bit in love with Kinnall but was unprepared for the intensity of his love for her. After the drug wore off Halum committed suicide, and after that the government led by Kinnall's brother had decided that they had had enough of Kinnall's illegal conduct, and took him into custody.

There are a number of critics out there who think that this book is nothing but a negative reaction to the drug lifestyle of the sixties, and with that in mind call it a drug-induced delusion. Personally I can understand that line of thinking, but I do not think it is a drug fantasy. It reads more to me like a metaphor for the collateral damage that drug use can have on others. Consider; Kinnall uses a drug which properties can melt the walls between individual minds, after a lifetime of dreaming about being free from the civil and religious proscriptions on the very same things. It is almost like Kinnall came to the drug as a junkie already; he just lacked his first dose. After using the drug once Kinnall became fixated on getting more, and even stole a ship and ventured to the southern continent illegally, bought a large quantity of an illegal drug, then imported it back to his home past customs, which put his very good and influential job at risk directly. He then began using the drug as often as he could, and despite being caught and getting his friends into serious trouble, continued to use the drug, and even longed for it after his bondsister died and his freedom was taken from him. Kinnall even lied to his bondbrother about having more of the drug on him after he was driven back to his home province, despite his strong personal feelings about lying about anything. Even though there was no mental or physical deterioration, I simply cannot see how anyone could describe Kinnall as anything but a junkie. His life revolved around the use of a drug, and he cared not a whit about what happened to others, just so long as he could get it and then get others to use it with him. Kinnall had a good purpose in mind: "Love of others begins with love of self, I thought suddenly." But his methods were crass, and doomed to failure. Sure, an argument can be made that Kinnall was crass and immature for his entire life. But not until he got the drug was he driven, and never once did expressions of love for others manifest until he was coming down from the drug.

The book is also about much more. I think that another of the questions this book tries to answer is "what is the self?" Kinnall was so confused by this cultural monstrosity that he rebelled against it virtually from the start of his life. He went through the motions of adherence in public, and even in private he mouthed the appropriate words, but never once in his life did he like it or see the purpose in it. Kinnall longed to define himself through his connections to others. He rebelled against the virtual solipsism of his race's existence and even dedicated himself to changing the way of life. Up against such a giant thing most would have failed, but Kinnall never really was much of a rebel anyway. The real sadness though is that for something as beautiful as this:

Our souls were twined; I could not have known where I left off and Halum began.

Halum had to die and Kinnall had to go to jail,a nd probably his own death too.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)

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