(1975 (2005ed) Robert Silverberg, Gollancz, £6.99, pbk, 201pp, ISBN 0-575-07525-2
First published in Britain in 1975, and copyrighted 1972, this is volume 59 in Gollancz's 'SF Masterworks' series. It is also one of around a dozen or so novels from around that time that I believe constitute Silverberg's best work; eg. Tower of Glass (1970), Son of Man (1971), The Book of Skulls (1972, vol.23 in SFM series), and so on. David Selig has been a telepath since birth, able to read other people's minds effortlessly but now, in middle age, his power has started to wane and, he knows, soon it will be gone forever. He makes his money ghostwriting term papers for students. He has not managed to harness his gift to make a fortune and he has had as poor relationships as any normal, ungifted person. The only real constant in his life is his adopted sister Judith and, though they've never really liked each other, indeed, hated each other at times, they have started to get on better as the years have gone by. Now, as his power dies, he reviews his life, including a friendship with the only other telepath he's met, and the best two of the relationships he's had all, ultimately, lost because of his abilities. Will Selig be able to make peace with his loss, or will dying on the inside mean dying on the outside?
I don't think I'm alone in thinking that Silverberg really was at the height of his powers in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, and this is one of the books that proves it. I don't think I've read anything like it until Dan Simmons' 1992 novel The Hollow Man (in which a middle-aged telepath suffers the death of his wife who had provided a 'buffer' for his telepathy, helping keep the chaotic thoughts of others at bay). It's always hard to write about loss and melancholy without becoming maudlin and mawkish, but Silverbob manages just the right tone so that there is, at least in part, some celebration in with the grief. Certainly at the time it was an unusual take on telepathy (a 'gift' most people have at one time or another craved, and therefore can identify with); such power, the SF of the day said, would lead either to a superhuman or a monster as, for instance, in the work of Theodore Sturgeon and AE van Vogt respectively, and that was that (with the honourable exception of John Brunner's Telepathist (1958/59, novel 1965)). But Silverberg's Selig is, if anything, too normal; too timid to be a superman, too mundanely selfish to be a true monster and, ultimately, too self-obsessed to be of much use to anyone except his student clients, who rely more on Selig's ability to mine his old past papers for inspiration than on his unknown abilities. This definitely belongs in the Masterworks series and I unhesitatingly recommend it to all lovers of quality SF.
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