This is not the first “shared world” Robert Silverberg was involved with. He wrote a story for Harlan Ellison’s Medea. He also wrote stories for the Heroes in Hell world from which his Gilgamesh novel To the Land of the Living came.
This is the first time he got to exert editorial control over such a world.
The results were mixed.
A retro review from April 25, 2006.
Review: Time Gate, ed. Robert Silverberg, 1989.
It’s an absurd notion that, by programing in to a computer biographical details about a dead person and their time, you can create a sentient version of that historical personage. It’s probably not even original to this shared world anthology. And, certainly, the idea of sentient programs haunting cyberspace goes back to earlier work by Vernor Vinge and William Gibson.
But Silverberg is a master reclaimer of the old vigor of cliches. And here the effort, under his editorial direction, mostly works.
The usual gimmick in each story is the meeting of two famous people who never met in reality. Between each story is the barest of expository mortar to hold things together, and three fifths of the collection works well.
Silverberg’s own “Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another” begins things with a startling proof of concept: a compare and contrast of Pizarro and Socrates. The ruthless, amoral, and illiterate conquestidor holds his own against the philosopher. After computer simulcra prove feasible, a crash US program to develop their commerical potential is the subject of Robert Sheckley’s “The Resurrection Machine“. But when your products are Cicero and the anarchist Bakunin, rollout isn’t going to happen as planned — if at all. Whether through sheer stubborness or master manipulation, both get their way. Given their frequent use of history in their fiction, it’s no surprise that Silverberg’s story and Poul Anderson’s “Statesmen” are the book’s highlights. Machiavelli and Frederick the Great advise two warring economic combines and reintroduce the world to the finer points of intrigue, statecraft, and propaganda. And Anderson reminds us that, in a world of material plenty, there are still plenty of reasons for war.
Unfortunately, the collection then goes downhill. Surprisingly, Gregory Benford’s “The Rose and the Scalpel” doesn’t work on its own terms or in the context of the collection. Starting from an unlikely premise that the political and cultural future of France hinges on a debate between simulcras of Voltaire and Joan of Arc, he grafts on a farcical war of the sexes and the question of robot rights. Unfortunately, sentient robots only make their appearance in this story of the anthology, so it seems a gratuitious example of a theme better treated in Benford’s independent work. Benford does present some interesting details about Voltaire’s life. Pat Murphy’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” now seems oh-so-1980s in its romantic view of hacker anarchists. It’s clash of historical titans features a return of Bakunin and his meeting with Queen Victoria.
The lives of its famous characters and their unlikely juxtaposition is the delight of this collection, and Sheckley, Silverberg, and Anderson combine that with thoughtful stories that work on their own terms and with the shared world. They make the collection worth reading.
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