A Time of Changes
by Robert Silverberg
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orb Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765322319
Date: 27 April 2009 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Robert Silverberg is one of the most inventive and eclectic authors ever to write Science Fiction and seeing any of his work back in print is a cause for celebration, especially when it is a Nebula award winner and Hugo Nominee. Thankfully, A Time of Changes lives up to Silverberg's reputation for excellence. The story takes place on a world in which any sharing of emotions is forbidden and reviled as obscene, and the plot follows the life of Kinnall Darival as he comes to oppose this society and is destroyed by it. Of course, like most of the great Science Fiction books, A Time of Changes isn't actually about the future but about our own society today.
The story takes place on Borthan, a colony of earth established around a harsh religious covenant which holds that all revealing of one's self to another is forbidden. This covenant extends even to grammar, all use of personal pronouns such as "I" or "me" are considered obscene, replaced with pronouns like "one". The only exceptions to this harsh code are during the religious ceremonies of "draining", in which one is permitted to speak of one's inner self to a priest, and one's "bondsiblings". Each person on Borthan is paired to a bondbrother and a bondsister at birth, and only with these two people can one actually share a mutual friendship.
At first it seems impossible for any society to actually function this way, and one of the strengths of this book is how it makes us feel that this society is plausible, and indeed even uncomfortably resembles our own at times. The first half of the book chronicles the early life of the main character, Kinnall Darival. He is the younger son of the septarch, or king. In seeing his early life, the reader comes to appreciate how destructive the enforced isolation of the covenant truly is. Without ever knowing each other, the citizens of Borthan are unable to trust one another. All deals must be formalized in contracts for fear of betrayal. Kinnall sees his brother ascend to the position of septarch, and slowly be driven mad by the responsibility which he is forced to bear entirely alone. Kinnall is then forced to flee his home because he fears that his brother will have him killed as a threat. Since they can never talk openly, Kinnall and his brother are doomed to distrust each other, and end up as a threat to each other.
This first half of the book is fascinating in its own right, as we get to see Silverberg exercise his prodigious talent for world building. However, it is in the second half of the book that the plot really gets off the ground. Kinnall, in exile from his native land, has managed to procure an important position in a neighboring state. Here he encounters a traveler from earth who tempts him to try a drug which bestows telepathy, allowing him to experience another person's mind for the first time. He becomes convinced that his society's rules against personal contact are mistaken, and sets out to change them.
Like all of Silverberg's work, the prose is delightful. While the novel is reasonably slow paced, the detail and description of the world he has created kept my interest the whole way through. Combine that with a fascinating exploration of the value and importance of human connectedness, and this novel is sure to give the reader plenty to think about. Silverberg makes us believe in his society of absolutely isolated individuals, and sometimes it looks remarkably familiar.