An Audiobook Review: Two Vintage Silverbergs For the Price of One!


The Happy Unfortunate and The Hunted Heroes

By Robert Silverberg

Published by Librivox

Read by Phil Chenevert

The Stories:

This is a pair of old stories that, apparently, Robert Silverberg saw no need to renew the copyrights too, or perhaps the rights expired back in a day before the US copyright laws were revised. I’m not sure. I am not sure anyone other than a public domain publisher would pick them up anyway. They are not bad, but neither are they anything special, although I suppose they are both very good examples of science fiction short stories from the mid-1950’s and they are also the sort of stories that made me realize that SF was so much more than horror flicks and monster movies (neither of which, in my opinion deserve the designation of science fiction).

The Happy Unfortunate is an interesting slice-of-life story set in a future when humanity has been divided into two forms; Spacers and Earthers. The Spacers are descended from the largest, heartiest individuals; those who were capable of withstanding the immense gravitational forces of space travel, while the Earthers are small puny things being that they are descended from those who were not fit for Space.

That is an interesting concept. We do not know how long it has been since the occupational dimorphism between Spacers and Earthers began, but one gets the notion it has been quite a long time and they, for the most part, think of themselves as two distinct species, although that is not true since the main character is a Spacer, whose mother was an Earther, so they can breed, but that is very unusual since in comparison, the Spacers are large, hulking and apelike. In fact they are frequently called apes in a derogatory manner by the Earthers, most of whom secretly envy the large and ugly Spacers.

That envy takes an odd, but predictable form in that the Spacers are forced, when on Earth, to live in a ramshackle ghetto, whereas the Earthers live in ultra-modern and very clean cities. To further contrast their differences, the Earthers engage in radical plastic surgery, adding extra arms, or unicorn horns to their bodies, etc. And yet the Earther men, especially, long to go to space and one actually comes into Spacetown to invite a Spacer (our main character) to a party. The party does not go well for our Spacer and, feeling humiliated, he leaves early. The problem is, unlike a lot of Spacers, he grew up on Earth and wants to be an Earther. Desperate, he turns to a plastic surgeon, who refuses to work on him, and he must come to terms with being who he is.

The concept, as I said, was interesting and thought-provoking, although at this time, it does not look like people who go to Space need to be incredibly stronger than those of us who stay on Earth. In fact many authors have speculated that people who live entirely in the freefall environment of space or even on low-gee worlds like the Moon will be weaker and more gracile in bodily development than those living their entire lives on Earth. However, it is not the freefall conditions that Silverberg is considering but the immense acceleration of spaceships. At the moment, the only intense acceleration is in lift-off. After that, acceleration and deceleration is considerably gentler. Perhaps in the future we will manage to develop a propulsion method that will allow us to travel under constant acceleration. That would speed up interplanetary travel amazingly, allowing passage to take days to weeks where now we have to coast for years (which is part of why we have not sent a manned mission to Mars) although even then 1 gee sounds like a fairly high rate of acceleration to me. However, if we could accelerate halfway (approximately), flip around and decelerate the rest of the way that would really cut down the time it takes to get anywhere and if we could do that are even higher accelerations all the faster.

In any case, while on the surface this is not much of a story, it does explore some very interesting facets of how future life might adapt. Even if you use the story to point out everything you think is wrong with Mister Silverberg’s early speculations, it serves to keep us thinking, which is what SF is really all about.

The Hunted Heroes has considerably more plot to it, but also brings up the possibilities of what life and its problems will be like in the future. In this, Earth is running on nice clean atomic power. Anti-nuke people, check your prejudices at the door, please. For the sake of this story, let’s assume it really is nice and clean, although not without its dangers, as becomes apparent later in the story. The problem is, Earth’s supply of uranium is close to being used up. There is a project involving search for uranium on the ocean bottoms (interesting concept again. Since the world’s surface is about three-quarters ocean, there is a lot of unexplored territory down there and while conditions on the sea-bed are different, there are probably all sorts of resources down there we have not found yet. Currently we’re extracting petroleum from various sub-oceanic sources, so… I’m not so sure about uranium down there, but uranium is as common as tin in Earth’s crust, so maybe.

One might ask, why is there no controlled and sustainable nuclear fusion in the future? Well, why not? but not in this story. In this case it is expected that oceanic searches will eventually resolve the uranium shortage, but in the meantime people are searching for uranium on Mars and mining it there. This story follows a pair of volunteer uranium hunters on Mars. They are there for the same reasons men and women join the Peace Corps; the desire to do good and benefit all. The fly in this ointment is that, as I mentioned above, nuclear power is not without its problems and in this case a nuclear disaster on Earth in the past killed and crippled many people and one such victim is taking out his revenge by capturing and killing the volunteer explorers on Mars.

The resolution is based on forms of nuclear power adaptation we do not yet, and may never, have, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless, with a slight twist in classic short-story form. Both stories are worth reading.

The Audiobook:

 Phil Chenovert reads both stories well in an easy manner and once again he seems to be enjoying himself as he goes. He gives just enough vocal differentiation between the characters’ dialogue to allow us to keep track of who is who, but there are no funny voices nor does he try to force a performance out of this. He’s reading the story and not over-acting. I very much enjoyed it.

So these are two dated, but still worth-reading stories and are narrated in a fun and engaging manner by Phil Chenovert.

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