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Book Review: Son of Man by Robert Silverberg

* Genre: Science Fiction, Philosophy
* ISBN: 1591026466
* ISBN-13: 9781591026464
* Format: Paperback, 225pp
* Publisher: PYR
* Pub. Date: June 2008
* Quasi-Official Author Site

Science Fiction Grand Master Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man is a Jackson Pollock painting in words. It is a philosopher’s allegory and a product of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. It is eloquent words and beautiful imagery, and it is an exploration of the nature of humankind.

The story opens with a twentieth century man named Clay awakening, naked, many millennia in the future. After a quick inspection of his genitalia, Clay begins to experience the surreal world around him. It is Earth, but it is not Earth. Fortunately for his survival, Clay is quickly befriended by Hanmer, a bipedal human from the future in which Clay finds himself. Hanmer is godlike, having all the powers of the ancient Greek gods. Hanmer and his five companions lead Clay through five rites, rites whose purpose is never clear, but which seem to make the world go round. Along the way, Clay meets humans that have evolved into a variety of shapes, from bestial, to fish-like, to egg like shapes. All are human, and all are descendents of man, or rather, they are Sons of Man.

Son of Man relies on imagery and sense to tell its story. Silverberg has not written a tale with a traditional plot, nor does it have a standard action, reaction, consequence style of writing. Clay is many times saved by the deus ex machina of Hanmer. Normally, that would be a no-no in fiction writing, but this story is not about Clay as an individual, but Clay as an archetype of the human race as it exists today. It is meant, I think, to awaken the senses of its reader, to engender a reminder of the basic nature of man in those who flip its pages. And it is meant as an attempt to understand the who and what humankind really is, rather than what we think it is.

The novel has much more in common with the allegories of the great philosophers than with traditional storytelling. Like those allegories, the story is meant to provoke thinking in its readers, not necessarily to be entertainment (think, Umberto Eco). Son of Man is not the entertainment most science fiction or fantasy readers are looking for. It does, though, awaken the perceptions, and cause the reader to think about the very nature of humanity, what it is that makes us human.

Because of its focus on imagery, and lack of clear indicators of plot (i.e. the rising action, climax, and aftermath) the novel is not an easy one to read. The story moves forward towards a climactic moment, but in a roundabout way, never clearly marking a line from point A to B. Fortunately, the book is short, so this does not get annoying. Mostly, it is a tour of the world in which the story occurs, centered on five inexplicable rites and punctuated by strange encounters with various evolutions of man. This is the type of book readers pick up for the challenge of reading it, not for its ease.

Son of Man is also very sexually explicit. The book opens with a description of a man’s genitalia if that is any indicator. That opening makes sense to begin with, because what else does a man first know about himself but his own physical form? But still, it is graphic. The story then moves on into several spontaneous ejaculations from Clay, as well as many sexual encounters between Clay, Hanmer, and Hanmer’s five friends. Since Clay experiences the whole of human experience, so there is also a graphic description of sex from a woman’s point of view as well. These descriptions are not romantic, not in the sense of a romance novel, but they are graphic and explicit, even at times disturbing.

Reading Son of Man is like trying to read poetry in prose form. Although the story is written in prose, the bulk of the story is made up of all the trappings of poetry. Metaphor, simile, personification, and imagery give the story its heft. In a sense, this story is meant not to be read and analyzed, but simply experienced. As you read, you let Silverberg’s descriptions wash over you in a tidal wave of color, taste, touch and smell. In 1971, when this book was first published, it was pushing the boundaries of what fiction could do. Still, it should be read more as if it were poetry than as if it is a story.

I cannot recommend this book. That is not because it is not well-written (it is, if you like imagery, but if you like story – characterization, etc. – it is most definitely not), nor because it doesn’t dive deep into trying to understand the who and what of humankind. That fundamental question is the very thing we want from a good science fiction story. I do not recommend it simply because I have moral objections to the story’s graphic and over sexualized content. This book made me feel….dirty, as if my soul needed a good scrub. I therefore cannot recommend it to you.

However, I know that since this objection to Son of Man is born of my own understanding of human morality – which is religiously based – that this does not make the book unworthy. I recognize that not everyone agrees with me when it comes to sexual morality. Just because I morally object to some of its content does not make this a “bad” book. It is not a bad book. Robert Silverberg is a SF Grand Master for a reason, after all. He is a gifted writer, and Son of Man shows that clearly (even though as a story it is rather dull). This book expresses much about of the nature of man, and its imagery is many times beautiful and eloquent. If its sexualized content does not offend, and you are in a philosophical frame of mind, this book may be of interest to you. For all others, let it pass.