One is finally getting around to the massive bibliography of Robert Silverberg, whom one likes to call the Susan Lucci of the Hugo Awards, (also otherwise known as Calvin Aaargh, the best pseudonym ever), the author most Hugo-nominated, but never Hugo-won, has won one over with his Nebula-winning “memoir,” A Time of Changes, about a far-future alien from a culture of severe self-suppression, where words like I, me, and myself are obscene and forbidden. One may only speak of oneself indirectly.
One really enjoyed this book.
I am Kinnall Darival and I mean to tell you all about myself (p. 17).
Obscene! Obscene! (p. 18).
“I! Me! I! Me! (p. 85).
We meet Kinnall Darival at the end of his tale, in a derelict shack in the uninhabitable lands of his planet Borthan as he recounts his memories into an autobiography, an act of rebellion in his world, where “thou shalt not thrust the inwardness of thy soul upon thy fellow man” (p. 228). We learn that he is on the run from his brother, the septarch of Salla, for crimes to be later revealed, although we know Kinnall’s crimes are related to his profane use of self-referential grammar.
Addressing the vanity of humility that pervades our own culture, what Silverberg, in his preface, calls the “dour, ritualized, formalized pseudo-modesty that conceals ferocious macho self-assertiveness” (p. 11), Silverberg identifies these cultural customs as the ailment that drives us apart, rather than together. I not only attest to this belief but, being a poor girl from the housing projects in the American southwest, I have been baffled more than once by polite conceit, that pretense in which someone goes WAY out of their way to demonstrate an unnecessary courtesy, which usually seems to be more about the person doing the courtesy, rather than about the supposed-to-be gracious recipient. In my neck of the woods, overpoliteness is practically a status symbol, hell, it’s probably a tax write-off. (Because that’s the only reason anyone does anything around here.)
But what’s most disquieting about this predilection toward vain humility is the crumbling of healthy assertiveness, where rational behavior has been repackaged as “ferocious” and “macho,” to use Silverberg’s words. Instead, we encourage illogical, subservient passivity, in the name of etiquette. Our culture upholds a constant fakery in which we do things we don’t want to do, say things we don’t want to say, while at the same time disrespecting others by pretending that we want to do and say those things. We do these things to spare feelings, and to make ourselves look good, yet these inauthentic acts serve only to isolate us from one another.
In A Time of Changes, Silverberg exaggerates these inauthentic acts, illustrated by suppressive language norms. In Kinnall’s culture, it is rude to say “I” or “me.” And Silverberg phrases these restrictive mores of Velida Borthan in such wonderfully discerning ways:
“…twisting everything into a cumbersome passive form to avoid the sin of acknowledging one’s own existence” (p 82).
“I do battle against the self-effacing grammar of my world” (p. 19).
“…here he was corroded with terror and committing the sin of telling me about it” (p. 63).
“Their speech itself displays their constipation of spirit” (p. 82).
To live in such an inhibited culture is traumatizing for Kinnall, and Silverberg provides captivating psychological depth to this narrator who can never attain the desired affections of his family, especially from his powerful father, nor the physical love of his bond-kin Halum. He must pay a lowly drainer, his culture’s hybrid clergy/therapist with servant status, to disclose even his semi-deep thoughts. Family and friendships are purely formal, with only the socially-engineered bond-kinships allowing those necessary, intimate conversations that yet forbid any physical action. For this reason, Kinnall winds up marrying the taciturn Loimel, cousin and lookalike of his bond-kin and forbidden love Halum. “Halum is pure love, and Loimel is pure self” (p. 217), he observes too soon.
And then Kinnall plunges into an underworld defiance, his precipice in the form of fetishizing first-person profanity, due to a parapraxis that occurs during relations with a prostitute, which becomes the norm (“with each jab of my body I silently cried, “I! Me! I! Me!” [p. 85]). Soon after, he befriends the Earthman merchant Schweiz, whose frequent lapses into self-referential grammar fascinate the curious Kinnall. When Schweiz catches on to Kinnall’s desperate need for social communion, he lures him into sampling a forbidden drug, “which has the capacity of opening mind to mind, so that each can read the inmost thoughts of the other” (p. 156).
“I was the messiah of openness” (p. 220).
The strange relationship between Schweiz and Kinnall explores broader themes of faith and religion, where Schweiz declares “Earth died to redeem you starfolk from sin” (p. 142). Schweiz, representing the cold logic of an aged Earth, yearns for something more. “One wants some system of belief, one wants to submit, to get down and kneel, to be governed by metaphysics, you know” (p. 143), envious of Borthan’s standoffish faith, where deities are revered, yet politely unnamed. Kinnall, however, desires a more earthly spirituality, a “community of soul (p.156)” and, ultimately, “to reach out, godlike, and enter Halum’s soul—“ (p. 171). Neither man is satisfied with their cultural cradles, yet both men remain lost, bleak, a stranger to themselves and others, despite their psychedelic connection.
In addition to such deep characterization, Silverberg packs a lot into this intriguing drugventure that starts slow with the dreaded infodump of world-building, but it’s perfectly appropriate when told by this first-person narrator unused to disclosing in first-person. Kinnall distracts with these lengthy descriptions of his world as he “joust[s] with my own muscles for the right to arrange my words according to my present manner of philosophy” (p. 19).
Primarily serving as a character study that undercuts the posturing, suppressive etiquette of cultural mores, A Time of Changes also addresses the opposite threat, selfishness, drawing Kinnall as psychologically wounded, flawed, and overcompensatingly self-serving. His actions eventually cause great harm to those around him, and he will win no awards for fan favorite. Although this motif serves to highlight the unhealthy implications of passive humility, Kinnall’s unapologetic transformation also brings to mind the selfish, grandiose stylings of Cold War revolutionaries, where the man overshadows, and sometimes suffocates, his own philosophy.
An enjoyable, gripping read, despite the slow take-off. Recommended for everyone, particularly fans of NatGeo’s Locked Up Abroad series, because I’m pretty sure I saw the Earthly equivalent of this story on one episode. I think it was about “Mr. Happy” or “Mr. Smiley.” Something like that. Big 70’s druglord guy.
And, as we move into yet another onerous holiday season, I encourage you to take up Silverberg’s flag of self honor and reject “formalized pseudo-modesty.” Be assertive, say no, and do you.