Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Review - A Time of Changes

A Time of Changes
by Robert Silverberg
1971 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Sometimes a novel doesn't click with me. Alright, a lot of the time a novel doesn't click with me but most of the time I can point to the shallow prose or the despicable characters or the ludicrous plot. A Time of Changes is different since while I disliked the book the deciding factor for me was the theme. Silverberg's writing is fine, he tells an interesting story (some of the time), and the characters were interesting but when I try to mesh it all with his central concepts it just breaks down for me.

A religion that is dedicated to the removal of ego has founded their own interstellar colony. Their society is built on the idea that expressions of the self are wrong. English is changed so that only an external passive voice is acceptable: "One disliked the book" rather than "I disliked the book." Using first person pronouns is offensive enough to get you killed in some places. Similarly talking about your feelings is forbidden with the exception of a pair of "bondsiblings" with whom more free discussions are allowed.

The book is the first person account of a prince in this society who has become dedicated to overturning this situation. He was second in line for succession and when his brother gains the throne he flees the country. After some time in hiding he gains a high post in a distant land through his political connections. While there he is told by offworld trader of a drug that removes the psychic boundries between minds; two people taking the drug gain complete knowledge of the other person. After using it he decides to distribute it in order to undermine the foundation of society. In the end this goes badly and he is forced to hide in the wilderness (where he is writing the account of his life).

The story hinges on the concept that a society so tied up and repressed that while they still have the language and concept of the self it is the strictest taboo to express it. Okay, it's a bit rough but I can buy that for the purpose of the story. Also it has managed to be stable in such a state for thousands of years until the protagonist came along. And there goes my suspension of disbelief.

Even with an institution working to maintain that structure over a period of thousands of years where they are not isolated either some kind of contamination or modification is going to seep in. They'll either loosen that taboo over time to the point when it's just impolite in their culture or their world view would shift to something completely different reinforcing the taboo. The idea that such a fundamental element of human psychology could be suppressed for millenniums with no consequences or effects at all gives me a headache.

In addition while the suppression of the ego is the society's stated goal (and the narrator repeatedly goes on about that) in practice it seems to amount to little more than rearranging sentence structures slightly. People still do what they want for their own self-gratification and even in the most fundamentalist sections this is accepted and normal. It's a strong case of "telling not showing" and since the novel revolves around the exploration of this culture it weakens the central theme.

It has been suggested to me that Silverberg was writing an allegory for the alternative culture in the late sixties and early seventies and I can see how that's possible. The main character expands his consciousness with drugs but in doing so fails to see how badly it affects some other people around him. In the course of my reading I didn't pick up on that theme and I'm not sure that it's completely supportable since the the protagonist is rebelling against a culture a thousand times more repressive than anything on Earth.

So thematically the novel didn't connect with me at all. What Silverberg did well was craft the full life of a distinctive character. Since the novel is, in essence, a forbidden biography it should be intensely personal and it does have that feeling. Silverberg also doesn't stray from his chosen format; the book is composed in short snippets which carry a kind of implication that they are hastily jotted down notes by the protagonist.

And yet despite the fact that I can see it's a well crafted book I just didn't like A Time of Changes. Trying to put the entire story in context made me question why things were the way they were. So I don't recommend the novel but at the same time I can acknowledge that if the theme does work for a reader then that reader would enjoy it quite a bit.