“He doesn’t guess. I guess. He sees.”

The Stochastic Man, by Robert Silverberg

I got the SF bug early, which is pretty much how everyone gets it. If you don’t love SF by the time you’re 14 the odds are you’ll never love it. These days I don’t read much SF – I follow a half dozen or so contemporary authors at most. There was a time though when I couldn’t get enough of it, when it was like ice cream on a hot day.

Robert Silverberg is one of the field’s greats. Silverberg never cared about technology or credible futures, for Silverberg it was always about people. His best known novel, Dying Inside, is about a neurotic US academic who was born with the gift of telepathy and wasted it, and who in late middle-age finds it departing him. How do you cope with the loss of something that defines who you are? How do you face the death of what makes you, you?

Like many writers Silverberg has ideas he’s returned to over and over during his (so far) sixty year career. One of these was the idea of what it might be like to live with perfect foreknowledge. What it would be like to know, precisely and unerringly, your own future. He explored the idea in several short stories, but for me to best effect in his 1975 (oh so very 1975) novel The Stochastic Man.

Lew Nichols is a pollster and statistician in the heady futuristic America of 1999. He’s one of the best, and he’s tied his already risen star to a young politician named Quinn who Lew thinks has the potential to go all the way to the White House. Lew’s confident that nobody can guess the shape of the future better than he can. He’s probably right, but he’s about to learn that not everybody needs to guess.

In the absolute universe all events can be regarded as absolutely deterministic, and if we can’t perceive the greater structures, it’s because our vision is faulty. If we had a real grasp of causality down to the molecular level, we wouldn’t need to rely on mathematical approximations, on statistics and probabilities, in making predictions. If our perceptions of cause and effect were only good enough, we’d be able to attain absolute knowledge of what is to come. We would make ourselves all-seeing. So Carvajal said. I believe he was right. You probably don’t. You tend to be skeptical about such things, don’t you? That’s all right. You’ll change your mind. I know you will.

Carvajal is a rich private investor who’s backing Quinn’s campaign. He wants to meet Lew, to work with him, and when you’re putting as much money in as Carvajal is you get what you want. Lew thinks Carvajal’s a rich crank, a political amateur who wants to use his money to get closer to the action. Lew couldn’t be more wrong. Soon Caravjal is feeding predictions to Lew about upcoming events, and while Lew is used to being able to call trends Carvajal calls specific circumstances with a level of precision and accuracy that simply doesn’t make sense.

Carvajal replied. “When I want to, I see. A vision of things to come plays within me like a film.” His voice was utterly matter-of-fact. He sounded almost bored. “Is that the only thing you came here to find out?” “Don’t you know? Surely you’ve seen the film of this conversation already.” “Of course I have.” “But you’ve forgotten some of the details?” “I rarely forget anything,” Carvajal said, sighing. “Then you must know what else I’m going to ask.” “Yes,” he admitted. “Even so, you won’t answer it unless I ask it.” “Yes.” “Suppose I don’t,” I said. “Suppose I just leave right now, without doing what I’m supposed to have done.” “That won’t be possible,” said Carvajal evenly. “I remember the course this conversation must take, and you don’t leave before asking your next question. There’s only one way for things to happen. You have no choice but to say and do the things I saw you say and do.” “Are you a god, decreeing the events of my life?” He smiled wanly and shook his head. “Very much mortal, Mr. Nichols. Decreeing nothing. I tell you, though, the future’s immutable. What you think of as the future. We’re both actors in a script that can’t be rewritten. Come, now. Let’s play out our script. Ask me—” “No. I’m going to break the pattern and walk out of here.” “—about Paul Quinn’s future,” he said. I was already at the door. But when he spoke Quinn’s name I halted, slack-jawed, stunned, and I turned.

While it’s clear from the opening pages that Lew will learn to accurately see the future, for the vast bulk of the book Lew has no more gift of prophecy than I do. He does though see how useful foreknowledge might be for Quinn’s campaign, which raises a question: if what Carvajal sees absolutely will happen, is as fixed as the past, then does it actually help to know it? If the future is predetermined, knowing it can’t change it.

This leads to the meat of the book, which lies in the discussions between Lew and Carvajal regarding Carvajal’s ability. Lew persists in thinking about changing the future, about exploiting knowledge of it. He sees himself as a protagonist on the political stage, and can’t accept that everything is essentially pre-written.

Carvajal though has lived with foresight for years. His visions have crushed him, emptied his life of hope or desire. He sees himself as a puppet whose strings are pulled by a blind universe:

“… I give to Quinn because I know I must, not because I prefer him to other politicians. I came to Lombroso’s office in March because I saw myself, months ago, going there, and knew that I had to go that day, no matter what I’d rather be doing. I live in this crumbling neighborhood because I’ve never been granted a view of myself living anywhere else, and so I know this is where I belong. I tell you what I’ve been telling you today because this conversation is already as familiar to me as a movie I’ve seen fifty times, and so I know I must tell you things I’ve never told to another human being. I never ask why. My life is without surprises, Mr. Nichols, and it is without decisions, and it is without volition. I do what I know I must do, and I know I must do it because I’ve seen myself doing it.”

Worst of all, Carvajal has seen his own death. He’s seen it many times: he knows the time of year from the weather he sees in his vision, he knows he’ll be shot by a junkie who knocks on his door by mistake; he knows he’ll open that door and he knows what he’ll say that will make the junkie pull the trigger; he knows Lew will be there but won’t help.

I returned to Carvajal. He was sitting motionless, head bowed, arms limp, as if an icy blast had passed through the room while I was gone, leaving him parched and withered. Slowly, with obvious effort, he reconstituted himself, sitting up, filling his lungs, pretending to an animation that his eyes, his empty and frightening eyes, wholly betrayed.

Is Carvajal a puppet? In a sense that’s up to the reader to decide. His future after all is that of a man who can see what’s ahead of him and who believes he has no agency. That future can’t be changed, but perhaps it is what it is because Carvajal is who he is. Lew’s future can’t be changed either, and yet when he starts to see it his future is one where he’s teaching others to do what Carvajal taught him to do, and so changing what it means to be human.

A large part of the book is taken up with Carvajal’s method of teaching his ability, which involves Lew abandoning any sense of agency and doing exactly what Carvajal knows he will do regardless of consequence. A review in Infinity Plus notes that this book came out three years after Luke Rhinehart’s famous The Dice Man, and both have this sense of what happens to someone who volunteers to live by absolutely arbitrary rules. Lew lives as Carvajal tells him to because Lew thinks that by learning to see the future he can help Quinn. Carvajal though just tells Lew to do what Carvajal has already seen himself telling Lew to do. Think too long about that and your head starts to hurt.

If The Stochastic Man was just what I’ve talked about so far it would be an SF masterpiece. Unfortunately, it badly shows its age. The future here (our past of course) is a painfully 1970s future full of drugs, partner-swapping and bad clothes. Every bit of the novel which explores the culture of Lew’s America is, to be honest, slightly embarassing. It’s not Silverberg’s fault obviously that he couldn’t himself see the future as his characters can, and of course like in much SF his future is really his present seen through a scanner darkly, but even so those bits of the book just didn’t work for me.

Much worse is the character of Lew’s wife. Silverberg generally can’t write women, but he outdoes himself with Sindara. She’s Indian-American, which sadly leads Silverberg to some of the most objectifying and Orientalist writing I’ve seen in a long time:

She seemed perfect to me just then, my wife, my love, my other self, witty and graceful, mysterious and exotic, high forehead, blue-black hair, full-moon face—but a moon eclipsed, a moon empurpled by shadow; the perfect lotus woman of the sutras, skin fine and tender, eyes brilliant and beautiful as a fawn’s, well defined and red at the corners, breasts hard and full and uplifted, neck elegant, nose straight and gracious. Yoni like an open lotus bud, voice as low and melodious as the kokila bird’s, my prize, my love, my companion, my alien bride.

Her face isn’t the only thing empurpled in that passage. Sindara matters because her life philosophy is one of randomness and going with the moment, and as Lew increasingly embraces predestination their marriage comes under ever-greater strain. That’s interesting material, but it only works if Sindara is a human being the same way Lew is – if there’s a sense that she’s a person and not just a walking page from the kama sutra (which, naturally, they include in their love life).

The effect of the dated future and Sindara’s terrible characterisation is to act as a drag on the book, making key moments cumbersome and turgid. That’s a shame, because the core concept is brilliant. This is a hugely flawed book, one that on a reread I still love but that I can’t honestly call good.

It’s a curious thing, how one can read a book and see that it’s well written and skilfully crafted and yet be quite untouched by it. One can read another book and see its flaws, here dated characterisation and poor worldbuilding, and yet find a connection to it. That’s part of the alchemy of reading. I do think it’s possible to a degree to be objective in assessing what works in a book and what doesn’t, but any emotional response to it can only ever be utterly subjective.

So, The Stochastic Man. Having reread it the truth is it remains one of my favourite Silverberg novels. The irony though is now that I have reread it I’m conscious that it’s also far from among his best work. So it goes.

If anyone reading this does have an interest in classic SF by the way then there’s nobody who writes about better than Joachim Boaz. His blog is a constant delight. I actually thought he’d written a highly critical review of this one that I wanted to link to, but I can’t find it. Joachim, if you see this and you have reviewed Stochastic please let me know in the comments.


Filed under SF, Silverberg, Robert

12 responses to ““He doesn’t guess. I guess. He sees.”

  1. This is not really my type of science fiction, although it sounds intriguing. The problem of laying a book in a near-future time is something I avoid by laying my books several centuries into the future. Chances are nobody will be reading them in the 28th century anyway, so I don’t have to worry about embarrassing anybody with inaccuracies! Also, I might say that I had read probably one SF book by the age of 14. It wasn’t my thing at the time. At the age of 29 I read Tolkien, then lots of high fantasy, and finally got into certain kinds of SF by what I would call the back door.

  2. Silverberg’s emphasis on character is something you might like Lorinda, and on the human over the technological (he’s only interested in science insofar as it impacts people). His difficulty with female characters might be more of an issue.

    If I were to recommend one of his to you it would be Nightwings, which in any event is probably the best book he wrote.

    SF is usually caught in adolescence, but not always. I note though that you went on to write it which is a much greater involvement than most and perhaps suggests that it’s a bit like chickenpox – relatively safe if you get infected in childhood but much more perilous if you catch it as an adult…

  3. Oh, so writing science fiction is a disease? It might be! LOL Actually I started out writing high fantasy, although it wasn’t magical enough for some people, and much of what I write now is really a type of fantasy with only mild connections to science fiction. You might like to read one of my recent blog posts which deals with the nature of fantasy – http://termitespeaker.blogspot.com/2013/10/defining-fantasy-according-to.html

  4. I read some Silverberg years ago, and even though I don’t read much SF, I read two of the novels in the Modern Library’s Classic SF release. Really liked one of them. It had aged well. Dying Inside sounds like a possibility.

  5. I’m not too sure if this would be for me but I’m tempted by what you wrote about Dying Inside. Indeed, how do you go on living after having lost what defines you. Or what you thought defines you.
    The description of Sindara really made me chuckle. If ever there was a passage in purple prose.

  6. Thanks for the link Lorinda, I’ll take a look.

    Guy, Dying Inside is widely seen as his best. I think Nightwings is better, but I understand the love for Dying Inside and it is more original. You might like it, it’s been so long since I read it that in all honesty I don’t recall now much more than the plot.

    Caroline, purple indeed. I can’t recall if Dying inside has any similar issues, but I do recall that while the protagonist there does fixate on a woman and objectifies/idolises her there are definite hints that his doing so isn’t healthy and that she may not particularly appreciate it which alone would make it a more sophisticated book.

  7. It amazes me that each time you review SF, I’ve never heard of the writer. At all. It’s really a whole part of literature I know nothing about.

    I find the concept of knowing about the future and not being able to alter its course utterly depressing.

    It’s interesting that his description of the future 1999 was so impacted by the atmosphere of the 1970s. It’s a flaw of the writer. Of course, you can’t hold a grudge against him for imagining the future wrong but if you can feel the 1970s, in my opinion, it means he didn’t manage to put that touch of universality that makes great books. In other words, if he had written literary fiction, my guess is that his novel would include references to actresses or books or commercials or news items or attitudes that date-stamp a book in the decade it was written in.

    PS : “I got the SF bug early, which is pretty much how everyone gets it. If you don’t love SF by the time you’re 14 the odds are you’ll never love it.”
    Now I get why I’m struggling with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I missed the ship to SF bliss a long time ago. 🙂

    PPS : “purple prose”? That’s a new concept to me.

  8. If someone on our part of the blogosphere posted reviews of romance titles I doubt either of us would recognise them Emma. Someone who’s massive in genre can easily be utterly unknown outside their genre.

    Do Androids is actually fairly difficult Dick. It’s the most famous because of the film, but I think it’s one of his more challenging.

    You’re right that it’s a flaw that it feels so much of its period. Oddly it might have been better if it was more like his period, like Alphaville. It’s the fact that it’s a dated future which makes that so problematic, and like you say the failure of universality.

    Purple prose is a great phrase – overblown, overwritten, too much grand passion. That’s a very good example of it.

  9. I was hoping to meet Robert Silverberg at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton last weekend. When I was a teenager I read as much of his work as I could find, albeit in translation. But sadly he had a heart attack in London and had to fly back to the US. The other guest of honour was Richard Matheson who died a few months back. LonCon (in London next August) had Ian Banks as its guest of honour. UK SF conventions eem to be dangerous to attend.

  10. We should make sure M John Harrison never attends any. Perhaps Orson Scott Card could be next year’s LonCon guest of honour though.

  11. I’m seeing MJH on Thursday. He’s doing a reading at the Horse Hospital prior to Friday’s Weird conference. Hopefully these are too academic to count as fandom and he’ll be safe.

  12. Pingback: The Stochastic Man (1975) by Robert Silverberg | From couch to moon

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