Son of Man by Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg is a favorite of mine, but I have to acknowledge frustrations with his corpus. The Son of Man is a novel on the verge of greatness, though it is marred by some significant flaws.
One of Silverberg’s strengths is making characters whose viewpoints force the reader to consider life from a different–and often uncomfortable–perspective. This novel is replete with examples of that, as Clay, a man from the 20th century, is thrust forward in time billions (??) of years and encounters the future of humanity. The future humans are familiar, yet alien, tantalizing, yet appalling. Questions about the nature of humanity and its future are found in abundance, with very little by way of answers. What is humanity if all its heroes are forgotten? What kind of continuity is there between Clay and these telepathic, self-changing, apparently immortal beings?
Clay lustfully mates in almost every combination possible–something that seems often par for the course in a Silverberg novel. Along the way, questions about sexuality are approached in ways that seem surprisingly blunt. The future humans can change their bodies at will, oscillating between male and female and even in new combinations of the two. Silverberg, through Clay, seems frustratingly stuck in binaries of gender, though the writing and characters themselves almost force him to go beyond and outside of those same binaries. Is the work a kind of trans-friendly reading of future humanity? I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that–but it does ask intriguing questions that seem forward thinking for 1971, when the novel was published. At the same time, Silverberg’s obsession with sex soaks the novel, with Clay’s lust being almost insatiable, while also often appearing along rigid and nearly misogynistic levels of thinking about male and female. Such thinking is challenged by the intersex/sexless/transitive nature of sexuality among the future-humans, but these challenges are only vaguely acknowledged in-text, leaving the reader to draw conclusions that likely go beyond Silverberg’s basic points.
What is man, that you are mindful of him? The novel has a few allusions to the term and theme of “son of man,” though these are barely touched upon and only vaguely thematically related to the content. It is a missed opportunity that this theme wasn’t more fully expressed, as it could have elevated the content.
The plot itself is non-existent. Clay goes into the future and has a bunch of vaguely framed interactions with future humans, most of which end in sexual encounters or thinking about sexual encounters of various styles. The novel is ultimately forced to rely entirely on the strength of those themes discussed above, leaving characterization and plot by the wayside.
Son of Man was an interesting, if sometimes frustrating, read. It showcases some of Silverberg’s best and worst aspects. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to Silverberg, but for fans of the author–or people who are interested in New Wave science fiction, it is worth checking out.
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