Thursday, September 11, 2014

Son of Man

Robert Silverberg
Completed 8/28/2014, Reviewed 9/1/2014
3 stars

“Son of Man” is a strange novel.  It’s about a present day man named Clay who goes through a time-flux, ending up millions of years in the future.  He meets all the species that descended from humans, the “sons of man”.   A group of six Skimmers take him on a whirl-wind tour of the planet, where he meets the other species:  the Eaters, Awaiters, Breathers, Interceders, and Destroyers.  He also travels through distinct areas: Slow, Heavy, Fire, Ice.  The Skimmers take him to distant planets and through wild rituals.  And every few pages, Clay has an orgasm.

I had to read several other people’s reviews to get a handle on the point of this book.  It’s sort of a post-modern science fiction deconstruction of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Clay gets a guided tour of the future, with beings and concepts wildly extrapolated from the present.  Through it all, Clay experiences every aspect of the future completely through his whole being, which of course would include the sexual.

At times, the phallocentricity is overwhelming.  It reminded me of the episode of South Park where Mr. Garrison writes a romantic novel which turns out to be a huge gay literary hit because Garrison used the work penis 6,083 times.  While Silverberg doesn’t go to quite that extreme, I had to seriously think about the appropriateness of the sexual content in relation to the story.  The open, speculative part of me asserts that this book being from 1971, near the heart of the sexual revolution, of course an extrapolation to millions of years into the future would necessitate sexuality as being an integral part of the experience. 

However, in another segment, Clay changes into a woman, experiencing the fluidity of sexual identity that the Skimmers experience.  But he doesn’t take it well.  In fact, he runs into the forest ashamed.  I have to question Silverberg’s intentions here.  If he’s writing such a sexually liberated novel, why have the male character horrified to become a woman?  Wouldn’t it have been a better story to have him be as curious and exploratory as he is throughout the rest of the novel? 

So that, plus my own political-correctness, makes me wonder if the emphasis on Clay’s penis is a statement, an expression, or plain shock fiction.  I have to admit, the sexual references eventually does become normative.  I did find myself accepting it as part of the way Clay experiences everything revealed to him. 

Even though I only give this book three stars out of five, I have to say it is quite an experience.  It is incredibly written prose.  I found myself flowing through it with ease.  Silverberg gives you is a sensory journey through his uncensored imagination, and it is prolific, at times, unbelievably overwhelming.  The problem for me was that it got a little boring.  I needed a little more action, just to give a little more structure and movement to the story.  By the end, I felt a little empty, like I just had a one night stand, like there was no depth to my relationship to the novel.  It was simply a literary experiment in speculation.

At my SF book club, one of the members expressed his (rather parochial, to me) definition of SF.  “If you take the science out of the book, do you still have a book?  If you do, it’s not science fiction”.  I think it’s a stupid restriction since most SF can be said to be morality plays, disguised literature, or derivative of earlier genres. Well, this may be one of the few books where if you take the science out, you don’t have a book, so it’s definitely science fiction.  I have this cruel desire to torment this guy, by suggesting “Son of Man” to him, since it meets his definition, and ask him the real ultimate significant question, “If you take the penis out of the book, do you still have a book?”

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