A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

Posted on Jun 1, 2023
tl;dr: The objectification of women detracts from the otherwise interesting exploration of psychedelics and significantly dates the text.

‘A Time of Changes’ by Robert Silverberg puts us in the mind of Kinnal Darival, a middle-aged exiled Prince as he’s pursued across a punishing desert for his counter-cultural transformation. In Borthan, no greater a verbal crime exists than that of ‘self-baring’. Like a high-school history essay, ‘I’ and ‘me’ are illegal according to the Covenant of the world’s colonisation, and citizens must speak in verbose roundabouts to avoid too great a focus on their own existence or feelings. As presaged in the title, Kinnal undergoes a ’time of changes’, where he comes to see the repression of self-expression as contrary to good human living. Integral to this, and perhaps parallel of Silverberg’s own life experiences in the 60s, is the frequent use of psychedelics. Despite holding the promise of the 1971 Nebula Award, ‘A Time of Changes’ unfortunately suffers from some significant shortcomings such that I’m pretty sure you could clearly chart its Goodreads ratings according to the age and sex of the reader.

The (Mis)representation of Women

Throughout the novel one gets a consistent waft of women not being real people. This comes through not simply because the society of Borthan is sexist; it does not seem to be in any special way. The main character is insufferably obsessed with rehashing all of his past sexual exploits, or his regrets about those he had not pursued, at least once a page. Despite being well and truly into middle age, he never seems to grow beyond evaluating every woman he meets by the prospect of their sex despite otherwise going through a significant change in world-view. Even the woman with whom he was platonically closest to cannot be mentioned without him also lamenting the fact he never got to fuck her, and he goes so far as to marry her doppelganger cousin so that he could fantasize about doing so. The reader is exposed to pornagraphic imagery of throbbing ovaries and a true variety of breasts (in fact, most of the women are identified by their breasts rather than their names.) As much as representation of premature ejaculation issues is probably not a bad thing, the fact that it consumes so much of his self-reflection about his life is patently ridiculous. This is a father of four, with a failed marriage, who held great positions of power throughout his life. Yet his most recurring observations are about his premature ejaculation and underwhelming ‘wenching’ experiences. 

A World of Self-Repression?

The linguistic self-abnegation of Borthan was not consistent with communitarianism. The nations of Borthan were repeatedly in conflict, were capitalistic and utilised hereditary forms of governance. Similarly, personal names are gained in ceremony. To me, this did not always seem consistent with the values espoused by their Covenant and religion. If self-reference is a crime, then why have personal names at all? If self-reference is a crime, why are some raised above others by birth? This is not necessarily a criticism of Silverberg’s world-building. It is true that a culture can claim certain values without applying them to their fullest extent, especially when we are many centuries past the original declaration of the Covenant. Indeed, some of the inconsistencies are realised and criticised by Kinnal himself. Others, however, remain glaringly out of place.

The shallowness of his ‘changes’ is present in his very shallow understanding of his own privilege. Spending several years among the working class while in hiding, he idealises the working class as more ‘real’ than the upper class he grew up amongst, but on gaining a position of immense power does nothing to improve their condition. Indeed, he seems critical of his ruler brothers own concern for famine resolution in their home province.  Kinnal only ‘transforms’ or becomes critical of his own society in so far as he believes he should be able to talk about himself as much as he wants. He preaches love and connection through mutual understanding (and a good helping of psychedelics), but I guess through the limited experiences of real connection he has he fails to personally explore societal changes that widespread connections might allow. Indeed, Kinnal is shocked that some do not experience soul-baring as loving communion. I do wonder if Kinnal’s campaign were to succeed whether some of the ills of Earth, now poisoned and exhausted, would eventually befall Borthan.

Can fertility and sexual freedom coexist?

The sexual freedom present throughout the novel is inconsistent with the level of technology/development available to the people of Borthan. More than ‘wenching’ activities, casual sex is widely accepted and practice by all classes and all people. This does not make sense given that the availability birth control is also not discussed or implied, and given that resources are fairly scarce and unreliable. In such circumstances, sexual freedom for women especially does not make sense since pregnancy is heavily labour and resource intensive. The ‘bastard’ consequences of his own brothers exploits are even noted. Yet, Kinnal claims it would be his right, and culturally polite, to have pursued the young daughter of an impoverished farmer who housed him in exile. While a lack of loyalty does make sense within his own feeble marriage, no mention is made of the main character producing bastards even as his wife repeatedly falls pregnant. And similarly, no mention of how the paternity of his own children can even be ensured in such a marriage. Additionally, in a society where repression of self-expression is central, I’m not sure it makes sense for sexual desires to be flagrantly pursued. I am not critiquing the morality of a sexually free society, I simply do not think it makes any sense in a context where there is an apparent lack of resources, and no mention made of birth control. Indeed, I believe that the sexual freedom of the society is simply used by Silverberg to justify the whoreishness of the main character whilst assuring himself that he is not a sexist because ~the women can do it too.~

Redemption in Psychedelics

The second half of the book is where the real meat of the novel lies. Prior to Kinnal actually meeting Earthman Schweiz, who introduced him to the ’love drug’ that caused his changes, I was pretty much ready to give up on this book. The drug caused the mind of the taker to expand such that they would be able to access the minds of others who had taken the drug at the same time. In this way, the exceedingly private people of Borthan would be able to quite literally see into each others souls. For Kinnal, this constituted a far preferred state of existence over that of the Covenant, where knowledge of the souls of others through the drug only created love for others. This experience was not, however, universal to all users of the drug to significant consequence. This psychedelic aspect of the book was certainly thought-provoking. As someone who has not partaken in any psychedelics, I related more with the characters who reacted badly, who saw the loss of boundary as a violation and cessation of control rather than a communion. Kinnal’s repeated use of the drug sees him lose his grip and standing in society, and he becomes incompatible with the culture of self-repression. I think this provided a somewhat interesting, if shallow, parallel to the exploratory drug cultures of the 1960s and 70s where subcultures formed around psychedelic use, love and freedom (though I don’t know enough to say how accurate a representation it is.) Silverberg, certainly, is a champion of psychedelic use in this book, but he doesn’t completely shy away from negative consequences. In the end, Kinnal is left estranged from all but maintains that he would still do it again if it meant he would discover real love.

Concluding Remarks

I do not expect a text from over 50 years ago to necessarily meet the standards of today in terms of female characterisation. However, ‘A Time of Changes’ was more distractingly infuriating than fiction far its senior. I simply don’t believe that being published in 1971 is an excuse for the extent of objectification, nor do I think that it is justified by any sort of literary intent. Kinnal remains selfish, narcissistic and unlikeable throughout the book with little literary satisfaction for the reader that could justify it. While I can’t speak from experience in evaluating its representation of psychedelic use, I don’t think this could possibly be best fictional place to read about it. Silverberg can clearly write well so I’d be willing to give him another shot, but I give this one a hard pass.