Tuesday, April 10, 2012
The Masks of Time - Robert Silverberg 
Enter the crazy '60s, where apocalyptic cults (aptly named Apolcalyptics) run wild and Dr. Leo Garfield is feeling in a bit of a rut because he can't quite find the mechanism to travel through time. (Surprise surprise.) He retreats to the isolated desert home of his former physicist colleague and his smoking hot wife in order to get some much needed R&R. Meanwhile in Italy, a self-proclaimed time-traveler named Vornan-19 appears out of nowhere and creates a buzz. Is he a hoax? Is he a new-age messiah? No one really knows.
Through some windy ways somewhat related to his research, Garfield is selected to be part of a government-sponsored committee to figure out what the deal is with Vornan-19. Of course I won't spoil the ending, but don't expect too much.
To be fair, I expected Masks to be much worse than it turned out to be. (The '60s seemed like slim pickings for the Nebulas, it seems.) This is not to say I actually think it's good. In fact, of all the other Silverbergs to read, I'd skip this one entirely if possible. Maybe if I lived through the '60s and experienced the 'free love' craze that was going around I'd appreciate the hippie-esque desert scenes and the hook-ups courtesy of the see-through clothes everyone loves wearing, but it all just seemed overdone and over-the-top for me. In fact, some of the scenes felt so gratuitous (e.g. a voyeuristic experience at a brothel) that it took away from the plot.
In either case, I can't really say I was a fan of the way the subject played out either. Sure, time travelers from the future/past have been done, but this novel plods along quite slowly with no real character development. It felt as if Silverberg set up the plot train (Vornan-19 drops in and becomes a worldwide media sensation! Is he a new messiah or a fake?), gives it a shove, and simply ends the book as the train gradually comes to a slow, unsatisfying stop. I can't in good conscience even call it a slow, unsatisfying climax. Just a stop. I've never been more confused emotionally after ending a book in my life. On the one hand, I was glad it ended. On the other, I didn't feel like I was given enough closure.
I wouldn't go so far as to say this is the worst Nebula nominee I've read, and one must remember that Silverberg has a great many very good books, but this one is a dud. Considering this was his first actual book, I'm willing to cut Masks a little slack, but Nebula committee: Shame on you!
In closing, Masks is at most a one-time deal.
You'll really want this book (like that one date with the slightly crazy girl you met on OK Cupid) to go really well because it's Silverberg, but it won't. Don't worry; it's not you, it's her.