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).
(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.