The Stochastic Man (1975) by Robert Silverberg

TheStochasticManA mathematical and political twist to the predictable oracular tale, the 1976 Hugo- and Nebula-nominated The Stochastic Man at first sight appears to be Robert Silverberg’s effort to legitimize one of SF’s favorite tropes, though he’s certainly not the first to try. Portraying telepathy as random probability forecasting in a political setting explains away many of the fanciful notions that might hinder the believability of yet-another SF work about preknowledge and predestination, but, considering earlier SF writers explored the same ideas with a similar conceit of logic, Null-A, and psychohistory, which, as Max Cairnduff cleverly reminds us in his review, is now called consulting, the attempt to blend superpowers with real-world reasoning is neither new nor fresh. What makes The Stochastic Man different from its pseudoscience ilk, aside from a gritty ‘70s essence, is that Silverberg draws from far older inspirations, adding a decidedly Faustian framework to this tale.

In brash, first-person style, Lew Nichols recounts his days as a budding and ambitious stochastician (trends analyst) vetted to aid the campaign of an equally budding and ambitious, and overwhelmingly charismatic politician, Paul Quinn. While Nichols’ stochastic inner-eye sees vague probabilities of Quinn’s rapid rise to the presidency, he never quite achieves the clarity of real predictive sight until he meets the aging and mysterious Martin Carvajal, who promises him the gift of prophecy, in exchange for control over all of his decisions, or, as Carvajal calls it, a surrender to the destiny that he knows will occur. Nichols’ vacillating assent comes at a price: his rickety marriage collapses, he loses his job, and his own faith in causality is rocked to the core. But were these things inevitable anyway?

Do you believe in simultaneity? I do. There’s no stochasticity without simultaneity, no sanity either. If we try to see the universe as an aggregation of unrelated happenings, a sparkling pointillist canvas of noncausality, we’re lost.

Carvajal, whom Nichols describes as “dark and tortured,” presents an “improbable access of strength” with “eyes, bleak and lifeless, still betrayed some vital absence within.” To be alone with him “was suddenly overwhelmingly disturbing” to which he “perceived something terrifying and indeterminable, something powerful and incomprehensible”. “That ghostly smile, those burned-out eyes, these cryptic notations.” Clearly, you see, Carvajal is the Devil, and he’s got a deal to offer.

But this is an SFnal deal with the Devil… a ‘70s SFnal deal with the Devil… a Silverbergian ‘70s SFnal deal with the Devil– that is to say there is a twist. Nichols’ wife, Sundara, is the non-Christian, non-innocent manifestation of Faust’s pure Gretchen– and the random detail in Nichols’ safe and structured life. Sundara is wanton and bohemian; they share an open sex life with which Nichols suppresses his discomfort, making his insecurity amid all that brashness all the more noticeable, especially when Sundara announces her desire to obtain a prostitution license in order to “subordinate the demands of [her] ego to the needs of those who come to [her].” It’s clear to all but Nichols that the marriage is deteriorating long before Carvahal’s influence, and long before he finds his wife nude and on the floor with another woman in a ritualistic fervor, “the dark nipples and the pink,” as Nichols puts it.

TheStochasticMan3And that’s where many readers will object, and should, and it can’t be explained away. The sex is fine, the T&A is fine– it fits their lifestyle and the narrative, and it’s portrayed as sexy rather than leery– but the objections arise when Sundara’s ethnicity is eroticized every time she’s in the room, shrinking the obviously complex Sundara to nothing more than a Kama Sutra diagram. Granted, Lew Nichols’ first-person POV is to be blamed for simple and misleading impressions of others, but Sundara gets 2-D treatment when even the cryptic Carvajal or charismatic Quinn display more realism, making her depiction most likely a cheap effort to incorporate eroticism into the story. Moreover, the unreliable POV can’t be completely blamed considering the story is told in flashback form, from a proud, but lonely moment in Nichols’ future: post-divorce, pre-vision-inspired-reunification, when Nichols should be missing his ex-wife. But to do that would deepen Sundara’s character and perhaps take the fun out of all her naked, Kama Sutra glory.

Sundara’s immodesty isn’t the only twist in this deal-with-the-Devil tale. The story subverts expectations with its conclusion: by knowing and ultimately accepting his own inactive bystander role in the death of Carvajal, Nichols completes his metamorphosis as a believer in predestination, thereby incorporating Carvajal’s role as his own, the soul transfer in reverse. Rather than lose his soul to Satan, he absorbs the soul of Satan:

The real script called for me to do nothing. I knew that I did nothing…

I ran to him and held him and saw his eyes glaze, and it seemed to me he laughed right at the end, a small soft chuckle, but that may be scriptwriting of my own, a little neat stage direction. So, So. Done at last… The scene so long rehearsed, now finally played. (ch. 43)

Carvajal died on April 22, 2000. I write this in early December, with the true beginning of the twenty-first century and the start of the new millennium just a few weeks away… We have been here since August, when Carvajal’s will cleared probate with me as his sole heir to his millions.

…What we’re doing is a species of witchcraft… (44)

More like soul heir, amirite.

Interestingly, Nichols explains this witchcraft as an effort to counteract the imminent rise of his one-time employer, now turned foe, the awe-inspiring and charismatic Paul Quinn, which Nichols’ Carvajal-influenced visions eventually view as “the coming führer,” a threat to democracy and free speech, though with zero evidence (beyond an empty, yet inspirational, utopia speech) that this will ever be the case. It’s never clear by book’s end whether Nichols is responding to a real threat, or just paranoiac hallucinations inspired by his termination– or a devil-inspired concoction of deceptive visions.

Speaking of paranoia, so much of the political, metropolitan atmosphere brings to mind a New York City estranged from modern collective consciousness. Without enough exposure to old Saturday Night Live! episodes, it’s easy for my generation to go on unawares of pre-Hershey’s Chocolate World Manhattan. Most recently for me, both this novel and Katherine MacLean’s Missing Man (1975) have not only reintroduced me to the mythical seediness of a pre-Giuliani’d Big Apple, but both books also portray the alarmist White fears of non-White danger that spurred mid- to late-20th urban White flight (which has somehow circled back around to urban White gentrification– the double-whammy post-post-imperialist urge, I suppose). Between MacLean’s race-based burrough-kingdoms and Silverberg’s race-based commando-gangs, the real truth lies in the authorial psychology of these surface depictions: privileged reticence to acknowledge the roots of social problems, fueled by sensationalized fear and disguised as witty cynicism.

In this city we invent new ethnic hostilities. New York is nothing if it isn’t avant-garde.

Race riots are the new Dadaism, y’all. If only it were that simple.

Structurally, The Stochastic Man is a story written in 1975, told in 2000, about the previous thirty-five years, while heavy on the speculative nineties, and with flashes of post-2000 moments, having more in common structurally with the time-travel subgenre than its own predictive peers. But that’s what keeps the story interesting. The tension between will and destiny drives these types of tales, and to begin at the ending and work your way back adds its own bit of mystery. (Evidence that spoilers can make a tale more successful because the experience of how is more surprising than the discovery of what.) Most interesting, however, is that The Stochastic Man, in all its prophetic posturing, can tell us everything that happened, but when Carvajal throws causality out the window, as Lew Nichols puts it, “we’re lost.”

TheStochasticMan3As dynamic as it is flawed, Silverberg’s work straddles the line between rude and galvanizing–my kind of fiction– though he doesn’t take care to avoid the more problematic elements, thanks to that 1970’s grit. I can put up with problematic grit for a twisty Silverberg tale, but what’s most bothersome about his success is the taint of what I like to call Johnny Depp Syndrome, by which I mean Silverberg was inexplicably in everything for most of a decade, dominating attention by appearing on SF awards lists and in anthologies, calling into question, perhaps unfairly, the worth of his work over what might instead be accounted for by a formidable blend of commercial status and unadulterated fan-feeding male charisma. My own generational distance buffers that lack of credulousness just enough to take his work seriously while also wondering what other dynamic and rude and galvanizing 1970’s authors might be buried by those nine Hugo Best Novel nominations, among a myriad of other honors.

Which brings me back to 2016, where my own stochastic sight foresees a summer of at least a couple of Johnny Depp Syndrome blockbuster novels, probably more, and while I side-eye their Big Media Squee Reviews, I will likely read them all, apply my free-time thinking thoughts to them, and maybe even give them a pass, all while wondering to which devil did I sell my soul when I surrendered to this literary destiny.

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17 thoughts on “The Stochastic Man (1975) by Robert Silverberg

  1. Warstub says:

    Although, I imagine Silverberg might have more of a personality than Depp, though I guess that is dependant on how much each gets lost in their own fictions/characters (I saw Depp on TV the other night and he seemed completely void of character).

    “Evidence that spoilers can make a tale more successful because the experience of how is more surprising than the discovery of what.”
    – This is what I loved about The Demolished Man.

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    • Yeah, Johnny Depp Syndrome afflicts without prejudice, regardless of personality, the only major symptom being me wondering why a certain person is always in my face.

      Ah, The Demolished Man. I’d forgotten about that, but looking at my review, I even described it as a howdunnit. Speaking of! I have The Computer Connection to read this week! (if I can ever get through Footfall…)

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  2. marzaat says:

    Silverberg really came to hate his native New York City before he left.

    Later this year, a book of interviews with Silverberg is going to be released, so that will give us something to look forward to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ooh, that is something to look forward to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • zinosamaro says:

        Enjoyed this review a great deal, and found it completely serendipitously–the closing down of SF Signal, which used to collate a lot of useful links, meant looking for good review blogs/sites and adding them directly to my feed reader, and this was one of the sites I added a couple of days ago. Oh, and I happen to be the guy behind the book of interviews with Silverberg, called TRAVELER OF WORLDS, which comes out August 16th from Fairwood Press 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh good! Glad you’ll find this site a useful addition to to your blog feed! If you find me on twitter (@couchtomoon) I often retweet posts from lots of other great blogs that off-the-beaten-blog-path. There’s lots of great stuff out there from the non-commercial arena.

          And it’s fantastic that you’re the one behind the Silverberg interview collection. I’m really interested in this, so I’ll be on the lookout for it!

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  3. Very, very nice. I like your Faustian analysis. You’re spot on by the way with the problems of Sundara’s depiction, but sadly difficulty creating convincing women is a general weakness of Silverberg’s work (which generally I’m rather fond of, but Hawksbill Station benefits hugely from having no female characters at all given how bad he is at writing them).

    Thanks for the pingback.

    Liked by 2 people

    • zinosamaro says:

      Max, I’m forced to agree, not his strong suit. Ironically, I think his ability to create compelling women characters improved with post-mid-period works such as the New Springtime books, which for a variety of reasons aren’t considered as strong as his mid-period stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s too bad, though, because he really limited his readership by being so careless with female characters. His popularity might have lasted into this decade if he had been more conscientious, but it’s hard to convince people that’s he’s worth reading nowadays, especially readers whose sexism and racism filters are already clogged.

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        • zinosamaro says:

          I’m not sure that he was “careless” with his female characters, though maybe he was. Part of it may be craft; but I think we should always endeavor to read books in the context of the values and mores of their day, rather than judging them by present-day standards, and that changes things a little too. As cultural perspectives shifted so did much of Bob’s work (though it never became rousingly feminist). I think there’s much to recommend about books like DYING INSIDE, SON OF MAN, NIGHTWINGS, DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH and LORD VALENTINE’S CASTLE, and I would hope that new readers wouldn’t stay away from those novels because of perceived sexism issues. But I may be slightly biased 🙂 I am optimistic that he’s continuing to find some new readers and will do so for a while.

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          • I’m all about being open-minded enough to an author’s limited perspectives in order to appreciate well-written, dynamic SF, but I stop short of calling excusing it based on “the values and mores of their day” because it’s a myth that’s too easily dismantled by asking “Who’s values and mores?” I don’t think Indian women have ever really appreciated seeing themselves diminished to characters with nothing of note but their sexual prowess and exotic religious attractions, it’s just that now people feel safer speaking out against it. It’s hard to turn a firehose on social media.

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          • zinosamaro says:

            I can see how my comment might have come across as justification, and I’m sorry it did. I was conflating two different things, which I shouldn’t have. 1) There are surveys, for example, indicating in a statistical sense how attitudes towards gender roles have changed over the last four or five decades in the US and in the UK. *Those* are the values I was referring to–the nebulous, approximate, statistically inferred values of some ill-defined general population, pre- and post-feminism. I’m with you; sexism offends, whether Indian women (in this case) or others at large, back then, or now; and I agreed that creating convincing women isn’t Bob’s strong suit, and agree that some readers will be put off by it. 2) My comment about trying to understand a work in the context of its day, those values and mores, rather than the context of the reader’s day, wasn’t intended as an excuse but an expression of my belief that historical context typically sheds additional light on both a work’s virtues and faults and can also help us trace how a writer’s work changes over time, often in tune with broader societal changes. To put it dramatically: reading a biography of Stalin is useful to try and understand Stalin, but in no way provides an excuse for his behavior. It would have been helpful if I’d split my points more clearly, as mentioned. Having a personal relationship with the author, and having for a long time been very close to his work, sometimes makes it tricky for me to unpack things appropriately. Hope that makes sense. Now I’m off to read your post on Dick’s TRANSMIGRATION…

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    • You’re welcome for the pingback! I enjoyed your review as well, and yeah, it seems like the most common criticism of Silverberg’s work is his treatment of women characters. I would probably react more strongly about it if I didn’t already know that before reading him.

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  4. […] The Stochastic Man (1975) by Robert Silverberg, which I liked… except for the careless sexism and ethnic eroticism. Bummer. It’s going to suck when his turn comes around for the Grand Master Award because the argument against him is going to be very, very valid. But his tone and ideas are so cool! […]

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  5. I do agree that Silverberg is still an interesting and worthwhile writer. The sexism in his books is unfortunate, but hardly unique to him. It’s a flaw, but a flaw doesn’t make the whole work worthless. Dying Inside, Son of Man, Nightwings, to take just some of those mentioned above are still absolute stone cold SF classics and deservedly so.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I completely agree. I am attracted to the kinds of stories he tells and the way he tells them, and I’m willing to wade through sexist sludge to read them. I can totally understand why many readers won’t bother with him, though.

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  6. […] The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg – A man with– not really, but kind of– precognitive skills is put to work for a political campaign, but a wealthy old man and the onset of new visions convince him that he may be supporting a future demagogue. Silverberg likes dance along the dangerous lines of brash, blunt, and inconsiderate, which could alienate millennial readers, yet his books are hard to put down. Even so, this particular novel’s treatment of a woman of Indian descent is extremely uncreative, to say the least. […]

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