Book Review: Needle in a Timestack, Robert Silverberg (1966)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1966 edition)

*Review for the 1966 edition.  The 1979 and 1985 editions were revised.*

collated rating: 3/5 (Average)

Needle in a Timestack (1966) is an uneven collection of ten short stories from the late 50s and early 60s by Robert Silverberg.  By the late 60s and early 70s Silverberg was producing his masterpieces.  However, earlier in his career he wrote mostly pulp novels and short stories.  A few in this collection tackle, in varying degrees of success, social science fiction themes: the media, war propaganda, colonialism, unusual criminal punishment, the suburban lifestyle etc.  Many of these themes Silverberg returned to in a more satisfactory manner in later works.

Although none of the stories are masterpieces a few are worth seeking out: ‘The Pain Peddlers’ (1963), ‘To See the Invisible Man’ (1963), and (perhaps) ‘There Was an Old Woman–‘ (1958).

A collection for fans of Silverberg — especially those interested in his earlier non-novel attempts at social science fiction.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

‘The Pain Peddlers’ (1963) (13 pages) 4.25/5 (Good): The 1960s and 70s saw a growing interest in and concern with the negative ramifications of media, in this case television.  D. G. Compton, Brian N. Malzberg, and Norman Spinrad wrote numerous woks on this theme.  In Silverberg’s short story the media purchases painful experiences by offering money to individuals about to undergo expensive and extremely painful operations.  Of course, the amount of money offered is contingent on the quality of the pain experienced — and thus, the less the anesthesia the more the cash.  The pain is “recorded” and sold to adoring fans.

‘Passport to Sirius’ (1958) (16 pages) 3.75/5 (Good): In this short story Silverberg draws heavily on a fecund theme trod by Orwell’s 1984 (1949), simulated war for economic gain.  This satirical story pits Consumer Sixth Class David Carman against the system (your consuming power i.e. income denotes what class you’re assigned to).  Carman, fearing that a predicted economic downturn that will dash his life savings, forges a passport to serve in the war effort on Sirius.  Little does he know, Earth has never been to war with Sirius.

‘Birds of a Feather’ (1958) (25 pages) 3.25/5 (Average):  This story has a intriguing premise which is never developed.  Imagine if there were hundreds of sentient alien species yet Earth was completely closed to them.  The only way for humans to see the fascinating variety of aliens is a zoo masquerading as a research institution that shows its alien “specimens”.  Strangely, a rare visit to Earth is held in high regard (and a matter of pride) by the denizens of the galaxy who sign up in droves.  Silverberg is clearly writing a commentary on colonialism and referencing Victorian scientists who showed those whom they described as “primitive” humans to gawking crowds.  But with a twist…. The work devolves into a rather insipid conning to the con artist narrative.

‘There Was an Old Woman–‘ (1958) (16 pages) 4/5 (Good): I’m not exactly sure of my final assessment of this story.  Definitely the oddest one in the collection.  A female biologist decides, for unknown reasons, to create thirty-one identical sons.  Each one she grooms for a different profession: historian, criminal, bar tender, scientist, lawyer, athlete, etc.  The story told is the official account by the historian son.  Each son excels in their field both while home schooled by their mother and after heading to college.  Eventually each becomes dissatisfied with the profession forced upon them.  Soon they decide to take things in their own hands, and, each utilize the skills ingrained in them to achieve their goal….

‘The Shadows of Wings’ (1963) (15 pages) 1/5 (Bad):  By far the worst in the collection….  The sole individual able to read the supposedly long dead Kethlani language is hastily summoned with shocking news: a live Kethlan has been discovered and he is needed to in order to establish communication.  A Kethlan looks like a bat.  The Kethlan speaks of an evil race.  End of story.  Really, that is all.  An uninspired clunker — clearly Silverberg cranked this one out in a few hours.

‘Absolutely Inflexible’ (1956) (15 pages) 3/5 (Average): A time travel story with an intriguing twist.  Sometime in the past scientists developed one-way time machines.  The dismal state of the past world means that hundreds of time travelers attempt to travel to the future (the story’s present).  Unfortunately, the past ages were replete with diseases to which the present is horribly susceptible.  Thus, the time travels are imprisoned on the Moon for fear of infecting the general populace.  The leader of the bureau which oversees their imprisonment meets a time traveler from the past who operates a two way time machine and decides to give it a try.  Cue time paradox…

‘His Brother’s Weeper’ (1959) (24 pages) 2/5 (Bad):  A dull story where a man sets out to fix the finances of his supposedly deceased, womanizing, wealthy, and high society composer brother.  A newfangled transportation devices is supposedly the cause of his death.  When he arrives he discovers that his brother was engaged to two money grubbing young women who tur their attentions on him.  Clearly a plot is afoot.

‘The Sixth Palace’ (1955) (15 pages) 3/5 (Average): A massive robot guards a famous stash of treasure.  Numerous intrepid prospectors have met their deaths trying to get their hands on the loot.  Two prospectors create a computer that will be able to answer all the robot’s questions which it uses to screen those that arrive.  Unfortunately, the robot isn’t looking for “correct” answers, rather, a different sort of truth.

‘To See the Invisible Man’ (1963) (15 pages) 4/5 (Good): For the crime of coldness (refusing offers of hospitality  refusing to help your fellow man, etc) a man is punished with metaphoric invisibility signified by a designator on the forehead.  This invisibility means that whatever you do will be ignored by all members of society, including others who are invisible.  Presaging Silverberg’s brilliant character study, Dying Inside (1972), ‘To See the Invisible Man’ tracks the struggles of the unnamed narrator who must serve his time “invisible” to the rest of the world.  Initially he revels in his ability to steal, to spy on others, etc.  Eventually, the true ramifications of such a punishment are felt.

‘The Iron Chancellor’ (1958) (28 pages) 2.75/5 (Average): An overweight suburban family trades in their old robot cook for a newer model.  The new model, quickly dubbed The Iron Chancellor by the family, contains programable weightloss parameters.  As a result, the robot prepares the exact meal needed for each member of the family to lose weight.  Slowly, the robot takes its task to the extreme and the family is powerless to resist.

(David Davies’ cover for the 1967 edition)

(Tom Adams’ cover for the 1970 edition)

(Peter Elson’s cover for the 1979 edition)

(Don Dixon’s cover for the 1985 edition)

For additional book reviews consult the INDEX

23 thoughts on “Book Review: Needle in a Timestack, Robert Silverberg (1966)

  1. Odd Powers cover, not sure what it is about it, maybe the figure with its head popped off!

    And Peter Elson is one of the few of the more recent artists whose work is at all interesting!

    • That Peter Elson’s cover is rather standard space art — I dunno — haven’t looked at too much of his stuff. Any favorites? Probably would have liked it as a kid… never really was in the Chris Foss-esque cover camp — haha.

      I do like the Powers cover — perhaps not his best but intriguing as always — especially the three-dimensional shape at the base.

      • Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer the Powers cover, but of the crop of more recent artists Elson isn’t too bad. There is a certain sameness to a lot of his work, but at least it’s not laughably bad like so many others. How’s that for a back handed compliment!

    • Not sure what I think of the Tom Adams cover…. I like the landscape and the bat creature (from the worst story in the collection, The Shadows of Wings) but not the television in the foreground (a referenced to the collection’s best short ‘The Pain Peddlers’)…

  2. I love the Powers cover, shows just how unimaginative most of today’s cover (and not only in Science Fiction) have become.
    As coincidence has it, I just recently read the second volume of Silverberg’s Collected Stories which contains some of the stories you write about here, and did get significantly better than even in the best of those. I also found it interesting that none of the duds made it into Collected Stories which does rather speak for the quality of those collections.

    • Did you generally agree with my general assessment of the better ones? Just curious… If it appeared in the collected stories, I’m curious what you thought about the oddest in the collection ‘There Was an Old Woman–’ (1958) and one of the best, ‘To See the Invisible Man’ (1963)…

  3. Well, “There was an Old Woman” is in the first volume of Collected Stories – I read that over a year and a hundred books ago, so memory is a bit hazy, but I do remember that having been among the better ones.
    The ones from Needle in a Timestack that are in the second volume are “To See the Invisible Man”, “The Pain Peddlers” and “The Sixth Palace” and I pretty much agree with your assessment of all three of them – “Sixth Palace” is rather meh, a pulp story that only lives for its punchline, “Pain Peddlers” is better because it has an interesting concept but does not really do much with it and “To See the Invisible Man” is a decent story and the best of the three – by no means the best in the second volume of Collected Stories where it has stories like the original novella version of Hawksbill Station to contend with.

    • Yeah, wanted more from Pain Peddlers — that’s for sure. To See the Invisible Man was definitely the best in this collection…. I have a few more of his collections waiting to be read Godling, Go Home! (1964), Dimension Thirteen (1969), and The Feast of Dionysius (1975)…

  4. at least the cover art didn’t suck. Too bad none of the stories were winners. we all know Silverberg DID crank a handful of these out in a few hours! that’s the thing with pulp – some of it’s great, and some of it’s, well, it’s called pulp for a reason.

    • It isn’t all pulp (and I did like some of them). Many of the stories touch on social sci-fi. Many of the poorer ones are more traditional pulp, robotic guards, silly alien encounters, etc.

  5. I read my first collection of Silverberg pulp era stories earlier this year, Hunt the Space-Witch, and enjoyed it very much. Some stories were certainly better than others but overall I thought he did a really nice job telling stories that mostly fit within the traditional pulp parameters, which I believe aren’t your favorite. The ones you liked in this collection sound very intriguing and I do intend to track more of Silverberg’s earlier work like this down while also eventually getting to some of his more praised work. I’m so enamored of his monthly columns in Asimov’s that I feel I owe it to him to become more familiar with his massive output of work.

    • Ah, if pulp is well done I enjoy reading it… My problem with the majority of pulp is its lack of inventiveness. But yes, Silverberg is incredibly hit or miss. I’d definitely try some of his more famous late 60s early 70s novels: Hawksbill Station, Downward to the Earth, Tower of Glass, etc.

      • I’ll definitely read some of his later fiction. I generally look at pulp as being inventive at the time…now of course all of it wasn’t, it was derivative even as it was being created since so many people were doing the same thing. But like you if it is well done I enjoy it and I think Silverberg’s skill is evident even early on.

  6. I`m a huge fan of Silverberg`s Golden Age–the novels of the late 60s to mid-70s–and some of his best short stories are from this era, too. This doesn`t tell you much but to me his earlier novels are too thin and his later ones too fat [lacking in energy and slower-moving]. I don`t think his late works are badly written, I just prefer the energy and pizzaz of the 60s/70s. I think he and P.K. Dick are interesting writers to compare in terms of execution. PKD had wilder ideas, but to me too many of his novels are sloppily written; Silverberg`s novels always satisfy me as reading experiences. With exceptions, I prefer PKD`s short stories over all but a few of his novels [Martian Time Slip, Do Androids…, Ubik], while I prefer Silverberg`s novels over his short stories. Silverberg always entertains me, and I`ll take an old book of his I haven`t read yet over just about anything being put out today. Downward to the Earth, Thorns, Nightwings, and especially Book of Skulls are just outstanding books.

  7. P.S. I prefer the Dixon cover. It is appropriately evocative of possibilities for a collection with multiple themes and ideas. The others are either too messy or in the case of the Elson too generic. `…Invisible Man` is the best of this collection; it starts out as a story I thought is just an idea, and by the end of the first page I thought `OK i get it`, but by the end I really felt the situation.

  8. I, too, thought Pain Peddlers and especially To See the Invisible Man were great stories. Silverberg’s transition from competent/unfortunate (through the late 50s) to impressive (early 60s — with a gap between the two eras) is fascinating.

    I enjoyed The Shadow of Wings more than you, not because it’s a good story, but because, even as a throwaway, the writing is worthy. Another indication that Silverbob has turned a corner!

  9. I quite enjoyed Needle in a Timestack, to be honest. It’s rough around the edges but one of the few times I think Time Travel is used somewhat well–with direct impact on the practitioners. I haven’t read the other stories yet.

    • I think there’s a bit of confusion here.

      The story “Needle in a Timestack” is from 1983. I haven’t read it yet although I saw that a movie was adapted recently using it as inspiration.

      This is an earlier collection published long before 1983 with much earlier stories.

    • I, too, struggle with time travel stories. If I get around to it, I’ll have a review up later this week with an F. M. Busby time-travel short story that was quite good (which shocked me considering what he normally writes).

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