One of the best aspects of speculative fiction is, when in the right hands, an author creates a wholly plausible society not unlike our own, yet bends and twists the tradition, custom, and social habit to suit thematic needs. The narrative which results can subsequently offer brilliant commentary on our real world. Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes is a book that works at this level - like Orwell on LSD.
At heart, the novel is a character exploration of Kinnel Darival, a prince living in the kingdom of Borthan. Ruled by a Covenant, Borthans follow a strict code that renders personal pronouns taboo. While simultaneously setting a stylistic challenge for himself, Silverberg describes a society wherein overt references to the self are forbidden. (The belief is that the repression of such expression makes a person stronger inside, and therefore more suited to the rigors of life.) Due to a family tragedy, Darival soon finds himself on the run from a brother who seeks to eliminate competition for heirs to the throne. In his travels, Darival is slowly introduced to the “other side,” a world wherein a person can comfortably refer to one’s self as ‘I’ and ‘me.’ Helping this transition along is his experimentation with a wonder drug that telepathically links people, bolstering empathy. Not wanting to describe the whole plot, suffice to say the manner in which Silverberg chooses to uses the drug as a literary device is paramount to the novel’s conclusion. John Lennon would have been proud.
By contrasting a society with strong limitations on expressions of the self with one featuring seemingly no socially unacceptable forms of expression, Silverberg creates a juxtaposition not unlike 1984. The lies one must tell themselves and the isolated manner in which people move through society echo in A Time of Changes. While the telepathic miracles performed by Silverberg’s drug are perhaps an idea that only someone from the flower-power generation could sculpt into speculative fiction, the fundamental idea that the freedom to express emotion is something lacking in our present day society still rings true. Though not quite on par with Orwell or Huxley, A Time of Changes is still worth a read, prose and structure nearly perfect. And if not for these reasons, why not for the controversial nature of the story?