A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

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Nebula-winning A Time of Changes (1972) recalls the story of an exiled prince and his new found love of self-expression and emotional sharing in a society which strictly prohibits and regulates such behavior, where to refer to ones self as ‘I’ is blasphemous and profane. It is a tale told by autobiography in the first person, after events occur. It is a novel which is reflective, spiritual, and philosophical in tone; concerning the self, the soul, society, and language’s role in reconciling these things.

The chief pleasure of this novel is reading Silverberg’s depiction of an extraterrestrial society which regulates all ‘self baring.’ The eventualities are intriguing; the formal ritual of a man having two ‘bond-kin’ appointed from childhood, who are the sole confidantes of a man’s life; the necessity of contracts in everyday affairs, because the motives of the self become obscured. Elsewhere, in a parallel with Catholicism, transgressions and doubts are heard by ‘drainers’ for a fee. For the latter, in an implied critique of the church, these clerics are ugly ‘toads’ who appear transformed by the burden of hearing the grief of the people. Silverberg portrays a dour, ritualised dystopia which limits the human spirit.

The first half of the novel is markedly slower in pace, as the order and geography are established. Here, early on, the narrative takes a familiar form; a tale of an exiled fugitive prince. Penniless, he is forced to live and work among humble loggers, farmers, and sailors. By this account, both character and geography are developed in preparation for the spiritual enlightenment of the later novel. The prince learns to prefer the company of humbler folk, and their less formalised mode of expression, and the seeds of doubt about his society are sown.

The second half of the novel is faster-paced and more concise. The revelation arrives via an Earth man, a charismatic Colonel Kurtz-like figure, and an illegal drug. Revelation and drug are obtained during an exploration through a tropical continent. The protagonist then seeks to transform his homeland by the soul-emancipating drug and becomes a messiah-like figure.

The passages which relate the experiences of drug-induced enlightenment are the best in the book. They are fiery, fluid, poetic, momentum-gathering long bursts of prose. Silverberg readers will be reminded of passages from his Dying Inside, Book Of Skulls, and Downward to Earth, where he writes about transcendental moments of rebirth equally well. Without spoiling much, it turns out enlightenment isn’t for everybody, and this is the central drama of the novel.

Overall this is a thought-provoking book about the spirit. The slow pace and lack of action may be forbidding for readers. However, those seeking SF that is philosophical will be edified.

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