Book Review: Thorns, Robert Silverberg (1967)

Robert Foster’s cover for the first edition

4/5 (Good)

1968, Best Novel Hugo Award Nomination; 1968, Best Novel Nebula Award Nomination

Silverberg’s brooding, post-utopian, rumination has the makings of a great science fiction novel.  This horrifically dark vision follows two psychologically devastated characters who are set up to fall in love for the entertainment of the world.  The cracks in the work’s delivery appear about a third of the way through when the two characters meet — the uncanny edge of the situation and its players loses some of its precision and verges into a somewhat soap opera infused interplanetary meandering which reveal the tensions and growing dislike between the main characters.  There’s nothing wrong with this per se since it’s definitely the object of the book to pastiche (somewhat) Beauty and the Beast, but, the first third is definitely superior in every regard.  I also found the heavy “sleaze” undercurrents that crop up every now and then frustrating and distracting…

Brief Plot Summary

Minner Burris, a spaceman, returns to Earth after captivity among a group of aliens — whose motives are never uncovered — horribly disfigured and modified.  His body chemistry has been changed, he has extra joints, peculiar eyes, a tentacle attached to his hand…  He hides in his room afraid that the world might see his face.

Lona Kelvin, a 17-year old young woman, is psychologically scarred after a fertility experiment (I guess in the 60s in vitro fertilization was a shocker) that made her a mother of one hundred children yet still a virgin.  She never sees her children…  After the brief media sensation she retreats away from the world and attempts to commit suicide.

Enter, Duncan Chalk, a massively obese man who peddles pleasure and pain for the entertainment of millions.  He arranges for the two characters to meet and fall in love — bribing each with vague promises: Burris will receive a new body and Lona will have at least some of her children back.

Final Thoughts

The first third of the novel is masterful.  And the rest, well, somewhat laborious.  It’s inevitable that the relationship will eventually fracture — the characters are so drastically different from each other.  Lona acts like a child.  Burris, a 40-year-old man, definitely wants an intellectual equal.  However, what is so impressive is that Silverberg never indulges in the more obvious sorts of clichés.  The visceral realism of the relationship is maintained throughout.

My main complaint is a rather minimal one.  Duncan Chalk’s role in peddling their suffering to the populace is never made explicit.  And here, I find the disturbing/creepy edge so prevalent in the first third could have been highlighted.

That said, this is a worthwhile read which rambles along a dark path…  Well done.

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: Thorns, Robert Silverberg (1967)

  1. Sounds interesting. Has Lona actually been physically pregnant? I can’t see how she can actually have had 100 children, unless it was just her eggs harvested (and in which case I don’t understand the desire to have some of them back).

    That second cover is really creepy, btw!

    • Yes, the eggs were just removed — and yes, the premise doesn’t make that much most sense — haha. They do let her see her children once (I think) and as a result she starts yearning for them.

  2. I read this book when I was 17 and am just about to read it again at age 48 – I loved it as a young girl but as I shall now be reading it with the dubious benefit of age and experience, I wonder if it will still touch me?…….

  3. This was the first novel of Bob Silverberg,following his rising from the ashes after a dormant period.His next books,”Night Wings” and “The Masks of Time”,would not show any self conscious strain or artless symbolism that I thought was evident in “Thorns”,and had a more effortless flow.

  4. Well,I have given a higher rating.He’s probably written better books,but I preferred it to “Thorns”,which wasn’t bad though.The Wipipedia entry for TMOT,quoted it as being an “almost flawless and brilliant performance”.From what I remember of it,I think I agree.

    Oh well,we all like different books I suppose.

    • Yeah, I’ve read almost all of his novels — other than some of early pulp ones and his later fantasy series etc. Thorns is solid — definitely a turning point in maturity level when it came to SF.

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