cover image Sailing to Byzanthium

Sailing to Byzanthium

Robert Silverberg. ibooks, $14 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-7434-0718-2

In this collection of five previously published novellas, Nebula and Hugo Award-winner Silverberg interprets literary allusions literally, building complex SF scenarios from fragments taken from English literature. Silverberg's eponymous novella transposes Yeats's poem title ""Sailing to Byzantium"" to 50th-century Earth, where tourist-citizens spend their time visiting replicas of long-dead historical cities such as Byzantine Constantinople. The narrator of ""Homefaring"" travels far into the future and finds himself inside the sentient consciousness of a giant lobster, leading him to reflect on time as described in one of Eliot's Quartets. A passage from the Book of Joshua provides the premise for ""Thomas the Proclaimer,"" in which a shaggy prophet's call for a sign from God leads to the sun standing still in the sky. The line ""We are for the dark"" from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra becomes the justification for interstellar colonization in the resulting novella here. And Silverberg draws from Conrad's The Secret Sharer for both the title and structure of his novella in which the captain of a starship befriends a disembodied stowaway who exists as an electric matrix inside his mind. The detailed plots and situations represented in this collection cover much futuristic ground, ranging from the physics of time and space travel to the role of God in societies to come. However, the novellas' literary antecedents seem spectacularly beside the point, since, in almost every case, Silverberg has translated their figurative language into ""what if"" precepts to generate concept-driven stories. Throughout, unusual settings are much more satisfying than the sketchy characterizations and quick plot resolutions for which they set the stage. Unfortunately, the novellas' literary origins throw a very harsh light on what might otherwise have been a sparkling SF display. (Oct.)