Book Review: Master of Life and Death, Robert Silverberg (1957)

0.25/5 (Terrible)

First, a few words to describe the tattered novel (I hurled it on the ground at one point) in front of me.

Politically dangerous: Master of Life and Death (1957) presents dictatorship (well, so-called “benevolent” dictatorship), propaganda, extreme distrust of the common person, fratricide, surveillance, torture, government control of the press, political assassination, euthanasia of children, among other equally dubious activities as occasionally necessary for the good of humanity.

I understand that Silverberg himself does not endorse these positions BUT he in NO WAY presents the actions of his main character as anything other than exemplarily and a necessary result of the tough position he finds himself in.

Is this a satire of a corrupt future government?  I can’t tell.  A warning? If so, then why does Silverberg try half-heartedly to make us feel sorry for the increasingly corrupt dictator?  One can have antiheroes as main characters — but, Silverberg’s presentation is so straightforward that the actions are never tempered but are presented as necessary.

Slipshod (let’s play the “how many plot devices you can spot”): Aliens? Yes!  Are they more intelligent than humans?  Yes! Did you say, alien death reading powers?  Yes! Venus terraforming?  Well, they tried!  Habitable planets? Yes?  Immortality serum?  Yes!  Overpopulation?  Yes!  Women? Kind of, well, they didn’t do anything…  Faster than light travel?  YES!

Philosophically naive drivel: Our “hero” (Silverberg never censors his egregious actions) is motivated solely by one pathetically simplistic overarching philosophy, the end justifies the means.  Silverberg NEVER tries to make the situation more complicated/sophisticated than that.

Plot Summary (spoilers)

Roy Walton, after his boss is murdered, becomes the director of the Bureau of Population Equalization, Popeek for short.  Earth has become massively overpopulated (Silverberg gives some ridiculously low number of 7 billion) and the UN mandated Popeek is the most powerful entity in the world.  The bureau’s job is to relocate people to sparsly populated areas and kill diseased babies.

Walton discovers a few minutes into his job that the bureau’s ultimate goal was to find a habitable planet — which they do.  So, unbeknownst to Walton, the previous director had ALSO tried to terraform Venus AND sent out a faster-than-light spaceship which finds a habitable planet with angry super smart aliens (who wander around with handy human speech translation devices).

However, just before Walton assumes the position, a dinky tinge of humanity peeps into his brain compelling him to rescue his favorite poet’s diseased child from the Happysleep (think pound puppies listening to nice music, I dunno). Roy’s vindictive brother finds out and later threatens to release the info unless the directorship is handed over to him.

Oh, and a few minutes into the job another man comes to Roy’s office — he’s developed immortality serum!

Ultra-short plot summary: 1. Man sits in office handing out orders (kill person, explore planet, kill brother) 2. People enter office, “hello director, here’s a plot device ____ (alien, immortality, death reading power), now deal with it” 3. Roy’s having a hard time — people don’t like him — Roy makes people like him (death, propaganda). 4. Roy did what he had to do since he cares about humanity 5. The end (oh, Alien makes Roy look like a hero).

Final Thoughts

(read first paragraphs)

Silverberg’s goal: throw together as many plot devices as possibly in the shortest time possible to confuse the reader into thinking that you’re a hack — oops, not a hack.  At least he eventually wrote some great novels (Thorns, The World Inside, Downward to the Earth).

What a stumbling morally misguided mess.  Roy Walton does not suffer a single repercussion for his abuse of power.

Avoid like the pneumonic strain of the plague.

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Master of Life and Death, Robert Silverberg (1957)

  1. “the previous director has ALSO tried to terraform Venus AND sent out a faster-than-light spaceship which finds a habitable planet with angry super smart aliens (who wander around with handy human speech translation devices)” – sounds dreadful, like something from… oh, Baen! I can’t pick up a Baen novel, the covers are just so, so , so tacky.

    Haven’t liked anything Silverberg has written (including The World Inside – 0/5 – don’t get me started). Those Who Watch had predictable tackiness ala Silverberg and The Alien Years *shudder* was *shudder, again* unbearable (he characterizes all the females by describing each and every one of their pair of breasts).

    Great scathing review. Love reading those.

    • Oh, I liked The World Inside — a lot…. And “Downward to the Earth… and Thorns… So, he’s hit or miss for me.

      But yes, this was complete crud.

      Thankfully Master of Life and Death wasn’t plagued by a virulent strain of misogyny (women are simply ignored altogether — they say about four lines total) unlike Downward to the Earth where he describes the one minor female character (albeit the book has only one human main character and really only two other characters) in the same manner as you point out — however, I loved the rest of the work.

    • Hopefully you’ll look out for the other stuff first or else you’ll get pneumonic plague (even more dangerous than bubonic) and die a miserable (lightning fast!) death…. haha

  2. I’ve always been fond of Silverberg, though as I’ve mentioned before I don’t think he can write women at all. They seem more alien to him than any tentacled monstrosity could ever be.

    Still, I didn’t know this one and I won’t be seeking it out. Sometimes when you hear of a rediscovered book by an author you’ve always loved you rush out to find it. A new Brunner you say? Tell me more.

    Sometimes, as here, there’s a reason it wasn’t better known.

  3. I clicked on this expecting a hilarious bad review; I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed.

    I’m surprised to see that Silverberg was the author, though. I thought he generally had a good reputation.

  4. I also reviewed this some while ago. I would say I pretty much agreed with you!

    I note a couple of points — the book is set some 200 years from now (more than that from its publication) and the horrible overpopulation level is — 7 billion. We are already at 8 billion! Approximately that number — 7 billion — was a typical prediction in the 1950s, another example of the often rather timid imagination of SF writers.

    And that scheme for relieving population pressure on Earth by sending people to other planets? If they built and lanched a ship a day, each carrying 1000 people (the capacity Silverberg specified) how long would it take to send just 1 billion people off Earth? 2700 years! I’d think even a Columbia grad like Silverberg ( 🙂 ) could have done that math!

    • As you know, colonization of other planets is a frequent trop used by SF authors to reduce overpopulation. I’d simply assume he dialed this novel in as a quick paycheck without thinking too much through its scenario or implications.

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