Recalled to Life by Robert Silverberg was a quick read that was rather apropos for a major election year. This novel was originally published, as a novel, in 1962 (Lancer). There was a revised edition published by Doubleday in 1972 and then the ACE edition that I read, published 1977. Frankly, I think the ACE has the best cover art – courtesy Don Punchatz. Also included in the ACE edition is an Introduction written by Silverberg in which he tells us much of the history of the novel.
The Introduction tells us that Silverberg was influenced, at least for the title of the story, by Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (a work that I find over-rated and epitomizing Western European writing). Silverberg says he first encountered the phrase “recalled to life” when he was eight or nine years old. In June 1976, when he penned this Introduction, he shares that upon re-reading this “thirteen year old novel” it struck him that it is not written very well.
I cannot say that I agree with Silverberg. The writing style is no polished Nabokov or Dostoevsky or Flannery O’Connor. It does not have to be; because the rather sparing and direct way that it is written melds well with the political and social nature of the plot. I have certainly read things that were far more poorly written. In fact, if Silverberg had not brought it up, I would not have even thought to make comparisons.
So, the plot of the novel is quite straight-forward. This novel is about the reanimation of recently deceased persons. This science fiction novel is realist and focused on political and social context. Throughout the novel, the reader is forced to consider how the reanimation of the dead affects society – in both the sphere of morality and in everyday living. The novel takes place in the year 2033 during the 123rd Congress of the Union. (For reference, in the real world, 2015 – 2016 brought us the 114th Congress in the USA.) The main character is James Harker – former Governor of New York State with aspirations of attaining the presidency.
From what I have said already, the realist nature of the novel should be clear. This is no pseudo-Frankenstein situation with hocus pocus and monsters. The word “zombie” is bandied about, but this is very far away from the Walking Dead and anything of that genre. In this novel, a group of doctors and scientists approach Harker to be their lawyer/public relations front. They work for Beller Industries and have managed to successfully bring corpses back to life – using medical advancements. Ultimately, their main development is the stimulation of specific brain-cell regeneration processes.
Harker is a politician and lawyer. He is no scientist or magician. His world is the world of political agendas, political parties, shifting alliances, and fickle journalism. So, the novel does focus more on the political machinations and social ramifications of the medical advancement than on character development. The reader follows Harker’s (and Beller Industries’) struggles that occur once their practice of experimentation becomes public knowledge.
If nothing else, the shifting sands of the ill-informed, irrational, emotional masses is very disturbing, but not unfamiliar. Similarly, the two political parties in the novel are as obnoxious and toxic and ridiculous as the current day political parties. Petty, knee-jerk reactions with concern over elections and “holding the Party line” as opposed to public welfare, common good, and social stability. Again, there’s nothing new about any of these scenarios. However, the hypothetical situation that Silverberg presents does place the political/social mess in an interesting light. Frankly, yes, it would be exactly as Silverberg has imagined it here. And probably worse….
One of the best parts of Silverberg’s novel is that he does not divorce religion from the plot. There is this horrendous exclusivism rampant in people’s thinking that tends to draw a severe and harsh line between religion and science. As if the two must be opposed. And even if they seem to contradict, that it is somehow possible to blindly ignore one or the other in the face of a problematic. In this novel, Silverberg does a bang up job presenting a very reasonable and strong religious position. This comes in the form of a Roman Catholic priest with whom the main character consults. And neither the priest nor the science suffers due to the inclusion of this character and his thoughts. No one is mocked or insulted.
Now, the main character ends up having to play a sort of combo Jesus/Sydney Carton rôle. I think Silverberg manages this subtly, but maybe not as realistically as the rest of the plot demands. Still, it is not impossible for the hypothetical to follow this trajectory, just, perhaps, a bit unlikely. Overall, it is an interesting Jesus/Carton play; not too overdone, thankfully.
This is an excellent novel for readers who like politics and morality in their fiction. I would have students read this for a philosophy contemporary issues course. Heaven knows they won’t read De Anima any more. This might suffice as a substitute point of departure. Anyway, this is my first Silverberg read and though this is not a five-star novel, it definitely has shown me that Silverberg is an intriguing author.