THORNS Mass Market Paperback – Feb 12 1979
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About the Author
Robert Silverberg was born in 1935 and began to write while studying for his BA at Columbia University. He is one of the most prolific of all sf writers and among his many fine novels are Dying Inside, Downward to the Earth, The Stochastic Man and Shadrach in the Furnace. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Silverberg's brooding, post-utopian, rumination has the makings of a great science fiction novel. This horrifically dark vision follows two psychologically devastated characters who are set up to fall in love for the entertainment of the world. The cracks in the work's delivery appear about a third of the way through when the two characters meet -- the uncanny edge of the situation and its players loses some of its precision and verges into a somewhat soap opera infused interplanetary meandering which reveal the tensions and growing dislike between the main characters. There's nothing wrong with this per se since it's definitely the object of the book to pastiche (somewhat) Beauty and the Beast, but, the first third is definitely superior in every regard. I also found the heavy "sleaze" undercurrents that crop up every now and then frustrating and distracting...
Brief Plot Summary
Minner Burris, a spaceman, returns to Earth after captivity among a group of aliens -- whose motives are never uncovered -- horribly disfigured and modified. His body chemistry has been changed, he has extra joints, peculiar eyes, a tentacle attached to his hand... He hides in his room afraid that the world might see his face.
Lona Kelvin, a 17-year old young woman, is psychologically scarred after a fertility experiment (I guess in the 60s in vitro fertilization was a shocker) that made her a mother of one hundred children yet still a virgin. She never sees her children... After the brief media sensation she retreats away from the world and attempts to commit suicide.
Enter, Duncan Chalk, a massively obese man who peddles pleasure and pain for the entertainment of millions. He arranges for the two characters to meet and fall in love -- bribing each with vague promises: Burris will receive a new body and Lona will have at least some of her children back.
The first third of the novel is masterful. And the rest, well, somewhat laborious. It's inevitable that the relationship will eventually fracture -- the characters are so drastically different from each other. Lona acts like a child. Burris, a 40-year-old man, definitely wants an intellectual equal. However, what is so impressive is that Silverberg never indulges in the more obvious sorts of clichés. The visceral realism of the relationship is maintained throughout.
My main complaint is a rather minimal one. Duncan Chalk's role in peddling their suffering to the populace is never made explicit. And here, I find the disturbing/creepy edge so prevalent in the first third could have been highlighted.
That said, this is a worthwhile read which rambles along a dark path... Well done.
In the book, we meet three very unusual people. Duncan Chalk is one of the richest men on Earth, the 600-pound owner of an entertainment and real estate empire. Putting on shows for the masses is just one of Chalk's endeavors, and when we first encounter him, he is arranging the newest installment of what today would be called a "reality TV program." Chalk, the reader soon realizes, is something on the order of...well, do you recall that classic episode of "Star Trek," the one entitled "Day of the Dove," in which Capt. Kirk & Co. encounter an entity that feeds on hatred and violent emotions? Well, that is what Chalk is...a psychic vampire who gluts himself most especially on the sorrow, misery and negative emotions of others. For his next TV show, he aims to bring together two miserable people--one physically damaged, the other mentally--and get his jollies as the enforced pairing turns from love to bitterness. The first of that pair is Minner Burris, a starship explorer who, on a recent visit to the planet Manipool, had been captured by the aliens there and surgically altered. Now living on Earth in shame over his altered physique, Burris' scars are actually both mental as well as physical. And then there is Lona Kelvin, a 17-year-old girl who is popularly known as "the virgin mother of 100 children." Lona, you see, had agreed to donate her eggs for an experiment in extrauterine fertilization, but now that 100 babies have been brought to life from her ova, via mechanical incubators and other women (another instance of prescience on Silverberg's part), she is not being allowed to see any of them. This has resulted in Lona becoming a, uh, loner, as well as a suicidal wreck, after two failed attempts. Chalk promises each what matters most to them--a brain transplant into a new body for Burris; two of her babies for Lona--and the stage is set for Chalk's latest misery maker....
"Thorns," with its underlying theme of the protective devices that people and things build to shield themselves from pain, wonderfully explores the relationship between these two broken characters, from initial intrigue and compassion, to a physical coupling, to feelings of love (well, on Lona's part, anyway), to acrimony and recrimination, and to a resolving of their mutual problems. For this reader, though, best of all is the colorful backdrop of the late 21st century Earth and its environs that Silverberg gives us. Minner and Lona are treated to a tour of the planet and beyond in the novel, and so we get to see Chalk's luxury hotel in Antarctica, his Luna Tivoli amusement park on the moon, and the upper-crust resort paradise on the frozen Saturnian moon of Titan. The novel is just chockablock with imaginative throwaway touches, such as the revolving ring on one man's finger, the spray-on garments, and the mercury Whirlpool ride at the Tivoli; it is a fully detailed backdrop for such a slim novel (my edition only runs to 157 pages). Adding credibility to his tale are the instances of scientific goobledygook that Silverberg treats us to, as when Lona thinks back on the incubation process: "As gastrulation proceeds, the mesodermal mantle extends forward from the blastopore, and its anterior edge comes to lie just posterior to the future lens ectoderm...." The novel also gives the reader some interesting secondary characters, such as Chalk's three henchmen, an idiot savant gifted at numbers, and the lustful, masochistic widow of one of Burris' fellow spacemen. As for those literary allusions previously discussed, Silverberg incorporates references to Melville's "Moby-Dick," Langland's "Piers Plowman," Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" and Dante's "Divine Comedy," and mentions, in passing, Tycho Brahe's Uraniborg observatory, the Greek astronomer Aristarchus and the Roman physician Galen. (An extraordinarily well-read man, Silverberg--it should come as no surprise--is also the author of over 70 books on history and science subjects.) This is a sophisticated novel, beautifully written, intelligent and insightful, with wonderful dialogue and a satisfying conclusion. Really, a most impressive display from this great author, already a seasoned pro at this point but clearly venturing into a whole new stage of development in his writing. And for Silverberg (who at this late date is the recipient of--by my count--three Hugo awards and five Nebula awards, not to mention his status as a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and, as of 2004, an official Grand Master), the best was still to come....
But Dying Inside and Thorns took me on a voyage into the minds of human beings who were TOTALLY unlike me, yet TOTALLY understandable. I could LITERALLY feel my mind expanding as I read these books. It was as close as I have ever come to having a 'spiritual' experience. By the time Silverberg was through with me, I was not the same dumb kid. I suddenly saw that people are all DIFFERENT, not alike! I was able to read authors I hadn't appreciated before, because now I could accept not only that people are different, but actually take pleasure in trying to see the world from their point of view!
I didn't read many other Silverberg books after that, sad to say. The simple fact is, these two books were a bit sad for me. The characters and situations are VERY depressing, as well as brilliantly rendered. But I will always be appreciative of the gift reading these books gave to me: The simple ability to imagine the world from someone else's point of view, without judgement.
The world is packed full of people who have yet to learn this lesson, perhaps because they don't read anything that challenges their status quo. They see themselves as the standard of perfection, and feel justified to hate and distrust anyone who thinks differently, goes to a different church, or votes for a different political party. I think this basic lack of imagination and empathy is the core cause of most human suffering.
Just in case Robert Silverberg ever happens to read this review, I'd like to thank him for making me a better person.
I heartily recommend these novels to dumb young kids who need a kick in the brain.
Thematically, this book is about what happens when you force two completely incompatible people to love each other. How this happens and why, I will leave for you to discover. But suffice it to say that they DO NOT live happily ever after. It works as a metaphor for marriage, I suppose. Now that I've been married for 20 years, I can definitely see why its necessary to avoid becoming entangled with someone who you can't truly respect. My wife and I definitely chose the right people, even if our parents did not.
In his literary production there may be signaled at least three different periods: early and almost standard (for the times) production from 1955 to 1959; a more literary ambitious period from 1967 to 1975 and the last from 1980 till present day including "Maijpoor" saga and "Roma Eterna" (2003). Wow!
"Thorns" (1967) pertains to his most productive prolific period.
The plot is as follows: in a future time Humanity has dominated the Solar system and even extended to the stars, there is a mass-media tycoon, wealthy and powerful beyond limits. He is also a kind of "bad" emotions vampire.
To satisfy his devious needs he arrange the improbable encounter between a human male altered by alien surgeons and a teenager virgin that is mother of a hundred babies due to a scientific experiment.
The novel follows the agreements and disagreements of the couple thru a Solar System all-paid tour with some tiny touches of sadism and masochism.
It is a sci-fi novel but... basically an exploration of human drama deeply penetrating the character's idiosyncrasies.
Be warned that there are some realistic sex scenes as is more or less characteristic of the author's style.
This novel transcends the limits and stereotypes of standard sci-fi.
Take a romp thru it, if you dare!
Reviewed by Max Yofre.