Saturday, August 23, 2014

Master of Life and Death by Robert Silverberg

On August 8 of this year I received from SF blogger extraordinaire Joachim Boaz three books from his "SF Wall of Shame," nine science fiction novels he feels are "some of the worst SF ever written."  Joachim and I have different tastes, and I'd give at least four of these books (Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Heinlein's Beyond this Horizon, Knight's Beyond the Barrier, and Platt's Planet of the Voles) passing, though not high, marks.  Today I finished another of Joachim's Wall of Shame books, Robert Silverberg's 1957 Master of Life and Death.

Joachim traded to me (more details of the trade here and here) a severely worn copy of the 1986 Tor paperback edition of the novel. The cover proclaims Master of Life and Death a classic, and upon the first page is inscribed the mysterious code "MAB."  Is there a science fiction collector out there calling herself "Queen Mab?"  I hope so!

Master of Life and Death has been printed again and again since it first appeared as half of an Ace Double, so somebody must like it.  Joachim is not one of those people.  Am I one of those people? 

Queen Mab, your legend lives on!
It looks like I am not one of those people. Master of Life and Death has lots of crippling problems, perhaps more than I can enumerate here. 

Master of Life and Death is one of those books with an unsympathetic protagonist. Roy Walton is the head of the Bureau of Population Equalization, a new agency founded just a few months ago to deal with the population problem that is plaguing the 23rd century.  To deal with the population problem (the Earth's population in the novel's 2232 is at seven billion...just like in real life's 2014) the Bureau puts to death babies with defects (examples provided include blindness, a propensity to suffer tuberculosis, and being "spastic") and old people who are unproductive.  Even if you are healthy you might not be safe from the Bureau.  If you own a large piece of property the Bureau can seize it to settle people on, and if you live in an overcrowded place, like Belgium, the Bureau can compel you, and your entire town, to move to a place that isn't overcrowded yet, like Patagonia.

(That's right, our main character Roy Walton thinks the world would be a better place if Stevie Wonder had been killed at birth.  Hey Roy, I just called to say I hate you.)

If this sounds elitist and anti-democratic, don't worry, it gets worse.  Roy Walton isn't just some cold bureaucrat, he has serious opinions about architecture and poetry.  And he is corrupt.  When his favorite living poet's son is born, and is identified as tubercular, the little boy is slated for the gas chamber.  So Roy goes into the computer files and falsifies the records so the poet's kid will not be killed.

The Bureau's powers are vast, and it is not, as we say nowadays, transparent.  The Bureau, in a way I didn't quite understand, is in charge of the top secret effort led by a famous scientist to terraform Venus, and of man's first interstellar space flight, a top secret one-year mission that started like 10 months before the Bureau was founded.  When somebody comes up with a way to prevent aging, Roy tries to hide this breakthrough from the people.

And then there is Roy's attitude towards free speech and the freedom of the press.  When a guy gives an anti-Bureau speech Walton inspires a mob to riot and kill him with their bare hands!  Roy uses Bureau funds to purchase the leading anti-Bureau newspaper and turn it into a pro-government rag.  Best of all, Roy puts subliminal advertising on TV to win everybody over to Bureau policy.

I kept thinking Roy was going to realize what he was doing was wrong, and dismantle the Bureau and/or introduce the sorts of checks and balances that make government bearable. But I was wrong; the book justifies all of the killing and torturing Roy does, and the favoritism he showed to the poet, and when Roy kills somebody who had information Roy needs (oops!), space aliens take the info out of the dead body deus ex machina style on the 217th page of the 219 page book!

A lot of things in the book ring false.  How is the Bureau, which is only six weeks old, in charge of all the outer space stuff, including a space flight which began almost a year ago? Shouldn't a research agency or the military be running something like that?   And how does the Bureau keep such things secret from the public?  There are sixteen people on the starship, and there are the scientists, technicians, and ground crew who must have worked on it. And why did all all the elected officials of all the powerful wealthy countries, and all the tax payers who voted for them and are footing the bill, meekly surrender all their power to the Bureau, whose leader hasn't faced election?

Then there are the Herschelites, a political faction opposed to the Bureau because they think the Bureau should be even more ruthless.  Roy Walton, who kills your baby and your grandma, steals your land and forces you to move three thousand miles at gunpoint, considers himself a moderate and deplores the Herschelites as radicals because they advocate sterilizing defectives.  Silverberg, I guess, just includes the Herschelites to try to make Roy look more moderate; they don't figure very much in the plot and aren't mentioned in the second half of the book at all.  Most of our villains are people who object to the Bureau stealing their stuff.

Another issue is the fact that we are repeatedly told that a world-wide referendum gave the Bureau all its powers, and that the UN supports the Bureau, but that the most popular newspaper is anti-Bureau (until Roy buys it with the taxpayers' money, I mean.)  Roy spies on a community meeting, and everybody hates the Bureau.  It feels like Silverberg is trying to have it both ways, telling us that the Bureau has an irrefutable public mandate but is also the underdog.  (I know real-life politicians do this, but it is annoying when they do it and it is annoying when an author does it.)

Master of Life and Death is dripping with elitist contempt for the ordinary man; we are told numerous times that the "unwashed masses" spend all their time watching kaleidoscope videos on TV, and that the best-selling newspaper is written in an "illiterate style."  The populace is such a flock of sheep that it only takes 24 hours for them to go from 90 percent against the Bureau to 90 in favor of it. Not that Silverberg doesn't also try to go populist on us, attacking wealthy land owners.    

It's time for your mind-picking!
So I don't like the book's politics or general attitude, some elements feel manipulative and others half-assed.  What about the characters?  Bad.  High points of Silverberg's characterizations of villains in the book include making one guy Roy has killed short, and telling us one of the wealthy landowners he has "mind picked" is fat.  And the plot and pacing?  Weak.  Almost the whole book is a guy sitting in an office having meetings or talking on the videophone! There is no tension or drama and nothing interesting happens.  

If this novel is one big joke, a satire of intrusive and unaccountable government, it is not funny and is incredibly subtle.  If it is a piece of advocacy that argues in favor of extreme government measures during an emergency it is a total failure because Silverberg spends no time or energy convincing us intellectually or emotionally that there really is an emergency.  If you want me to cheer on murdering or torturing a guy you are going to have to do better than just telling me that he's short and fat!

Thumbs down!


After finishing the novel and drafting the above blog post I checked out Joachim's June 2011 review of Master of Life and Death.  Joachim and I may have different taste, but we agree on this one: it's a stinker.

Joachim includes in his review a list of three Silverbergs he has liked.  Silverberg has produced quite a few good novels, and so here's my list of Silverberg novels I am happy to recommend, three different ones than on Joachim's list: Kingdoms of the Wall, Dying Inside, and The Second Trip.  So you've got at least six Silverbergs to read before this one.

Thanks again to Joachim for making such a generous trade; even though this book was pretty weak, it is interesting to be more familiar with Silverberg's long and productive career.


  1. I loved Dying Inside and The Second Trip as well (I have a review of the latter on my site). So, I think we are rather in line on Silverberg :)

  2. If only to save you further pains:

    Silverberg has admitted that anything in sf written by him before 1962 was really just hack work. He was famous among his contemporaries for his prolific but undistinguished output which was formulated to be acceptable to specific magazine and book publishers – or the consummate dependable professional if you want to be nice about it. By the early sixties he’d written so much in so many fields including non-fiction and pornography that he was effectively a millionaire and could afford to write with art and integrity in mind – or pretentious, depressing New Wave guff if you’re of another mind.

    - matthew davis

    1. Despite his early SF hack work I would argue that a handful of his early short stories show the promise that his later novels would deliver... ‘Passport to Sirius’ (1958), ‘Birds of a Feather’ (1958), ‘There Was an Old Woman–‘ (1958). That said his short stories do improve radically around 1963 -- ‘The Pain Peddlers’ (1963) is emblematic of this shift.