Monday, January 19, 2009

Robert Silverberg - Son of Man (Book Review)

"Son of Man" (Amazon: US, UK)
Format: Paperback, 225 pages
Publisher: Pyr (June/July, 2008)
First off, I'd like to warn all those who read this – this is not one of my ordinary reviews, and it doesn't come with a rating at the end. I did read the book – very slowly and carefully so – but despite everything, I just couldn't manage to fully understand it. I tried real hard to probe the deeper layers of meaning of all the events and happenings in "Son of Man", but they kept eluding me and finally, I had to give up. It’s why this so-called review is more about my experience with the book and plain facts than about any real analysis (if it can be called that) of "Son of Man".


When I heard that Silverberg’s classic, "Son of Man", is going to be re-published, I was pretty excited. I’d read his Book of Skulls and enjoyed it much, so I expected something similar with Son of Man. Well, I couldn’t have been further away from the truth. I got the book in the summer and took it with me to the seaside, but when I tried to read it, I had to give up after the first few pages. I didn’t get more than a glimpse of the content, but the beginning struck me like a fist in the face. Voodoo space-travel and hermaphrodite beings who seemed to be some distant cousins of those in Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness (I know it’s probably the other way around, regarding the fact that “Son of Man” was written in 1971, it’s just that I read “The Left Hand of Darkness” first) were a bit too much for my lazy, sun & sea & beach-oriented brain (though I had a laugh about what John called ‘a quick inspection of Clay’s genitalia’). I realised that this is probably a very good book, at least where the style of writing is concerned, but it was impossible for me to read it right then, in the middle of my vacation. Therefore, I put it down for the time being.

From that day on, I was sort of caught into a weird cycle of reading “Son of Man”, putting it down and a few days/weeks later, picking it up again. It’s been four months from that first time I took “Son of Man” in my hands to when I finally finished it, which is extraordinary enough – I usually read a lengthy novel in a day or two, if it intrigues me enough. I’ve never yet read a book for such an extended period of time – I usually either read my books fast or put them down immediately (and that does not happen very often).

The story revolves around a man named Clay, who wakes up in a strange new world. After a few moments of confusion, he figures out that he was caught in a time-flux (I’m still not sure how he got to that conclusion) and thrown onto a distant-future Earth, which is barely similar to the planet he knew. Befriended by the previously mentioned hermaphrodites, who call themselves Skimmers, he journeys around this future Earth and its five zones of unease, participates in the Five Rites of the Skimmers and gets to know the other beings that descended from the race of men.

Plot-wise, this is just as far as “Son of Man” goes: exploration of the future Earth mixed with the sensual Five Rites. There is a lot of sexuality throughout the book, as (or so I guess) it’s presented as one of the main human attributes – it’s explicit, but I didn’t find it exactly vulgar. “Son of Man” also felt strangely devoid of all emotions; despite the five zones of unease, despite the Skimmers constantly repeating they are love and despite Clay’s constant mood swings, I felt unable to feel any of these emotions myself. Except maybe confusion, at first, and resignation, but these are not the feelings a reader usually seeks in a book – or are they?

The problem with “Son of Man” is that it isn’t a bad book – it just awful hard to read. I’ve had similar problems when reading Phillip K. Dick’s novels, but “Son of Man” is even more difficult than those. It’s full of subtle meanings, philosophical musings and hallucination-like scenes, and overall the kind of book that you read because it’s a classic, not because it’s a joy to read. The style of writing is brilliant, but at the same time, a major pain for the reader. If you wish to read about a weird, sexually explicit, philosophical and voodoo-like wandering, then feel free to read “Son of Man”. If you want an easy, possibly amusing and touching (or at all emotional) read, skip it.
Rating: N/A
- Trin -


Thea said...

Huh. Very interesting review/analysis, Trin! I have had similar experiences with certain novels (haven't we all?), appreciating that they are beautifully written but really not able to like them. I kinda felt this way with Neuromancer, and books like War and Peace. You know they are important books...but they just aren't that fun or interesting.

At the very least, you tried and gave the book a fair shot :) And you have your first DNF (non)review! That's a pretty big milestone in itself ;)

Trin said...

It's not actually a DNF review, because I did finish Son of Man, but it is the first 'ok-wtf?' one xD And yes, it's really a lot like reading War and Peace, or maybe rather Crime and Punishment ... great style, great importance, but you still can't bring yourself to really, really like it. xD

the RoseWood Beast said...

I read Son of Man in High School believe it or not, and I am buying it again because it was probably the most interesting book I've ever read... I thought it was beautiful. and Also, when I describe the feeling I got from reading it to people I usually tell them "the book had sex with my mind".... Thats REALLY how it felt... it was like peyote.

Anonymous said...

Do not feel bad about struggling with this book, only feel sad about the time you wasted in the process. How anyone ever came to consider it a classic is baffling. I'm sorry but it's terrible. The writing style is redolent of a third rate grade school essay (although with more references to genitals). The story is a cursory mix of flimsy hippy cod-philosophy and dubious sexual obsession. Indeed it's being generous to say the thing even has a story - it's more of a bad acid trip. At 192 pages it is about 190 pages too long. Maybe it's weaknesses have something to do with the fact that Silverberg was churning out novels a bit like Ford churning out cars. But some of it is unforgiveably bad. Why did no one realise before they published it? It has to be said this book is very much "of its time" - the early seventies, when the swinging and psychadelia of the sixties had evolved into sleazier and more selfishly hedonistic forms. There was a lot of SF written in that era which probably looked adventurous then but now seems cringeworthy. Probably the same things could be said about porn. It's no wonder that eventually the punk movement came along to spit on all that went before it and declare you should never trust a hippy.

Phubar Baz said...

I can honestly say that Son of Man is one of my favorite books of all time. I read it the first time when I was about 20 years old and it just floored me. It's one of the most strange and thought provoking books I've read. I've never had a problem reading or finishing it; for me it flows. But then I like the philosophical and archetypal references. I can see where it might be a lot like reading a Joyce novel though. I re-read it every couple years and every time I get more out of it as I mature.

Anonymous said...

I am re-reading "Son of Man', having last read it a year or two after first publication. I suspect Silverberg wrote in this style (very unlike heavily plotted stories, e.g: anything happening on Majipoor) to out-do H.G. Wells' "Time Machine" and Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men" and "Starmaker". It compares well with them, but you will be disappointed if you expect any of them to be like Vance's "Dying Earth."


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