Monday, September 3, 2012

Review of "The Second Trip" by Robert Silverberg

In 1962 Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, the story of a young man attempted to be cured of anti-social behavior by extreme means of therapy, all for naught (the original American/Kubrick version, that is).  Apparently dissatisfied with the dystopian overtones of the novel’s conclusion, Robert Silverberg wrote his own story in an attempt to prove that man, in fact, had the power to overcome his worst temptations—a Counter-clockwork Orange.  The result falls short by comparison.

The Second Trip is the story of Paul Macy, a man just out of a government rehabilitation program which wiped and replaced his memory with implants to eliminate his criminal past.  Stepping back onto the street after four years isolation from the public, Macy has the bad luck to run into an old flame, Lissa Moore, who immediately begins to chip away the layers of pseudo-self to reveal the artist and rapist he had been, Nathaniel Hamlin.  This former identity soon rises to the surface and the fight for Macy/Hamlin’s soul begins.

The premise of The Second Trip is extremely promising (a man battling his psychological alter-ego), however, Silverberg develops the idea incohesively.  1971 productive, he published seven novels around the year, and The Second Trip, unfortunately, seems not to have received his full attention.  Son of Man, A Time of Changes, and Dying Inside­—all written around this time—contain more focused themes and consistently evolving plotlines.  The life of Macy/Hamlin, while at times portrayed in truly human fashion, at others seems engineered.  The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transitions in particular are heavily contrived, the surrounding events not flowing with the tone of the story.  

Many are unaware, but Silverberg utilized a Jekyl-Hyde routine of his own writing soft porn to earn extra money when the sci-fi magazine business went belly-up in the middle of his career.  While the majority of his sci-fi/fantasy works give little hint of this, The Second Trip on numerous occasions indicates the success of his more than dozen “red-light” books.  Simply put, the sexual life of Moore and Macy, not to mention Hamlin’s immoral lusts, play a strong role in the narrative.  The language is not discreet and at times seems comical, euphemisms like “spearing”, “pronging”, “thickened member” and “mast” all used.  

Content can be forgiven, but the manner in which the sexualization is used, cannot.  Far from realistic characterization, every female character besides Moore is ready and willing to tear off their clothes and throw themselves upon Macy/Hamlin.  Burgess used this same motif for allegorical effect, but as The Second Trip story intends to be a work of speculative realism, Silverberg cannot be forgiven.  Sexuality in the novel is nothing more than sensational digression subverting gender, and as a result, the novel’s integrity.

There are, however, a few positive aspects to the story.  Along with the transcendent worldview, Silverberg applies his usual smooth and clear style, making the book easy to read. Likewise, his portrayal of the self-destructive side of human nature, particularly in the Macy and Moore characters, seems more than fit for discussion on the modern social condition.  Though degenerate, it remains realistic, Moore’s character particularly poignant.

In the end, The Second Trip remains second rate to the novel it may or may not have been attempting to subvert, the abridged version of A Clockwork Orange.  The premise promising, Silverberg struggles to develop the story in convincingly enough fashion to match the other’s success, something which the over-sexualization of women does not help.  The book not entirely bad, fans of Philip k.Dick (who obviously influenced the story) may want to have a read.  Containing ideas like ESP, schizophrenia, memory wipes, and broken relationships, there is more than one similarity to the master of the cerebral surreal.  Likewise, given Macy’s experiences of blended memory, fans of Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation may want to have a read—as long as they do no expect a story developed in as consistent a manner and with such convincing plot motivation.  Silverberg has better, more carefully crafted novels (Downward to the Earth, Nightwings, and A Time of Changes, for example) which offer better starting points to his oeuvre.  This is just a mediocre book.


  1. Reading this now.... I've been really impressed with the first 30 or so pages. Silverberg is never that great at depicting female characters --- Downward to Earth was one of my top sci-fi novels until I got to that horrid scene -- a la "she had breasts, and did I mention, she had these HUGE breasts, and they bobbled, and she cried, and she had breasts." Oh Silverberg -- still on of my favorite authors.

    1. 100% agreed. The opener to The Second Trip is very promising. But... Downward to the Earth may have that "one horrid scene", The Second Trip has several more...

      As a whole, Silverberg is on my list of writers who I trust enough to read anything they've written despite his idiosyncrasies. I know that I will always get smooth prose, realistically portrayed characters, and stories that are always more than stories, most having a social, personal, or spiritually transcendent agenda. I see on your site that you are fan of The Man in the Maze and Hawksbill Station. I own the former but have yet to read it. Any other Silverberg titles that are "must reads"? I hear good things about The Book of Skulls...

    2. I loved The Second Trip -- it's as good as The Man in the Maze.... It's better than Dying Inside (which I enjoyed but thought is rather overrated in comparison to the rest of his corpus). I just wrote a review....

      Hmm, yeah, I loved Hawksbill Station and The World Inside.... And of course his most famous, The Tower of Glass but I haven't read that one yet.