Vintage Sci-Fi Month is back! January is here! After great response to my posts during last January and beyond, I’ve decided to make it an ongoing feature to read and review individual vintage sci-fi books. As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like. Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too!
The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg
I found this a fascinating take on a time travel novel. Okay, it’s not actually a time travel novel, but it addresses quite directly some of the central questions that time travel is often associated with. The plot’s main workings are also very similar to what one might expect in a time travel novel. The story centers around Lew Nichols, who uses statistics to very effectively predict the future in broad terms. Later, he meets Martin Carvajal, who can actually see portions of the future–his own–but is quite lackadaisical about it. Nichols enlists Carvajal to help him win the Presidency for his chosen candidate, Quinn. The way it works is part of the similarity to time travel as well. Carvajal can see the future, but Nichols can only see the present and predict trends in the future. So Nichols, in his present, tells Carvajal things that are essential for Quinn to have done in order to bring about his election. Carvajal cannot see whether Quinn wins because he can’t see past his own death, which is apparently coming before Quinn gets elected (or not). But Nichols can use his statistical projection to estimate the long term impact of some of the actions. Carvajal then dutifully reports what future Nichols reported to him in their shared (future) present to the (real) present Nichols. Nichols then relays the information to Quinn and the team they’ve built to elect him.
As the two work together, questions of the unchanging nature of the future abound. Is Carvajal right in that they can’t change the future? His feelings about this means he never even attempts to do so, and one is left at the end of the book wondering whether Carvajal could have been manipulating events in his own way the whole time. Is Nichols ushering in a horrible future where his chosen candidate becomes a dictator? He’s predicted some of the outcomes of this and even sees them at the end of the novel when he discovers his own capacity for seeing the future. Are they, together, bringing about the future rather than predicting or seeing it? These questions are asked around a central pillar that is so subtle it might almost be missed: what would it be like to have time travel or foresight only to know that nothing can possibly be changed? It’s a question that looms large in works on time travel, but Silverberg’s spin by playing the question out in a much different way, by having a hyper-focused scale instead of expanding it out over major events in a timeline. Along with this, he addresses it in the unexpected way of having it not be true time travel involved but rather future prediction and statistical projection. This makes it a fascinating way to play ask the question, and of course Silverberg leaves readers with it as an open ended question, ready to debate on their own.
There are a few problems for this reader in the content of the novel. Silverberg’s major strengths of tight plotting and fascinating character pieces are there, but there are really only two characters that are anything more than foils for plot elements. Other than Nichols and Carvajal, there is very little interaction between characters beyond simply reporting what they are to do and a few arguments over the strangeness of some of Nichols’s advice to Quinn. No women are given any significant role. Nichol’s wife is primarily used to show some sex dynamics that are very 70s (shifting marriage-like relationships for the sake of sex, so far as I can tell). There’s a definite sense of her being the “exotic” woman because she’s non-white, which smacks of some misogyny or at least being quite creepy. She’s also used to introduce a kind of pseudo religious element into the book with a play on some Eastern philosophy. I’m not sure what it would have read like during the 70s, but now it feels much more dated and possibly even colonial in its treatment of the rise of an Eastern-inspired religion.
Looking back over most of the review, it’s easy for me to tell that it was difficult for me to convey just how compelling the central questions in the novel were. The Nichols-Carvajal interactions had me constantly asking myself questions about whether Carvajal was manipulating Nichols, why Nichols didn’t try at least once to change something, whether Silverberg was intentionally trying to say the future is fixed, or whether it was the opposite, and many, many more. The Stochastic Man the kind of science fiction that absolutely forces readers to think a mile a minute, and will leave them thinking about it long after reading the book.
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