Tuesday 10 September 2019

The Stochastic Man - Robert Silverberg (1975)

Rating: Excellent

Robert Silverberg is one of those science fiction writers who has seemingly been around forever (born in 1935), and is legendary for his prolific writing; he began submitting short stories to science fiction magazines when he was a teenager and apparently at certain stages in his career wrote over a million words a year. Fortunately Silverberg is also a quality writer and I read quite a few of his novels when I was a teenager, enjoying them immensely. The Stochastic Man happens to be the last novel Silverberg wrote before 'retiring' from writing in 1975, before returning in 1980. The novel is set in 1999 and features a protagonist, Lew Nicholas, who has 'stochastic' skills that allow him to hone in on statistically probable future events. Into Lew's life comes Martin Carvajal, a man who can actually see the future. Precognition is an almost irresistible premise to the average science fiction fan and fortunately in this case The Stochastic Man does not disappoint.

Despite the fact that much of the narrative is politically focused, with Lew using his future wrangling skills to try and help the Kennedy-like presidential aspirant Mayor Quinn, the novel is taut and compelling. The Stochastic Man is also a fascinating glimpse into what Silverberg thought the future might be like, in New York at least. In the mid 1970's when the novel was written New York was in decline and Silverberg extrapolates from there, placing a wealthy elite in security protected buildings whilst the rest take their chances on the mean streets. Drugs are legal and are just another consumer product, sexual mores are loose to the extent that open relationships are the norm, but perhaps the most prescient future event is revealed when Lew wonders why the host of a party has the window screens shut on one side of his apartment. Lew realises it is to block the view of the ruined Statue of Liberty, destroyed by a terrorist attack - wrong building and a few years too early, but it still sent a shiver down my spine regardless. The primary reason why The Stochastic Man works so well is the range of sympathetic characters, in particular Lew Nicholas, whose life radically alters in challenging ways when he meets Martin Carvajal, the sad-eyed "destroyed" individual, haunted by his visions of the future. One can't help but feel sorry for both characters, but the novel ends on an unlikely positive note that strangely made me feel a little better (but not for long...) about the current dysfunctional era we are living through, that it too will pass and better times may be ahead (but I doubt it...).

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