The Masks of Time
Reviewed date: 2017 Aug 23
On December 25th, 1998, a time-traveling visitor from 2999 arrives in Rome. His name is Vornan-19, he's naked, and he has come as a tourist to the 20th century. This upsets the Apocalyptists, who believe the world will end on January 1, 2000; Vornan is welcomed by world governments who wish to quell the Apocalyptist riots.
Vornan is an enigma. He speaks unaccented English, has some minor superpowers, and claims to be ignorant of almost everything. The American government hosts him, and he samples the pleasures and sights of the 20th century while government handlers attempt to pump him for information. It's a bust. He doesn't know much about future history (the nations of the world were eliminated during the Time of Sweeping, he thinks, but he isn't sure.) He can't explain how time travel works (he just entered a room and the operator pushed the buttons), he can't explain the method of power generation used in the future.
What Vornan can do is exude an almost irresistable charisma. Women throw themselves at him. Men serve him. Crowds worship him, first as a prophet, then as a god.
Vornan is neither a prophet nor a god, though. He's a time-traveling dilettante looking for amusement. After he tires of sight-seeing and sex, he gets bored and apathetic. During an interview he lets it slip that life on Earth evolved from garbage left by aliens, and just like that, he sparks social upheaval. He realizes the power he has over millions of his disciples, and he begins to toy with that power--again, for his apparent amusement.
Throughout all this, there's an undercurrent of distrust. Vornan is a genuine time-traveler, but his actual reasons for raising a ruckus in the 20th century are suspect. What is he really doing? And why?
The action rushes toward the big reveal. At a massive rally in Buenos Aires, Vornan enters the screaming throngs of his disciples--and disappears. Gone. Poof. Is he dead? Returned to the future? What was his purpose?
This edition of The Masks of Time begins with a short introduction from the author. I've never read something so arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and completely lacking in self-awareness. Silverberg begins by apologizing for churning out "mass-produced claptrap" in the 1950s. He'd been discouraged, you see, by the attitudes and reaction of the science fiction marketplace, and had stooped to giving the market what it demanded.
Then, says Silverberg, he decided to write some good stories, to reclaim his sullied reputation. So he wrote Thorns and The Masks of Time. They were great, the reviewers loved them, and Silverberg got his reputation back. In fact, they were so amazing, that about the only complaint was that there was just too much characterization and craftsmanship bursting from the pages, like Silverberg had saved up all the characterization he'd stripped from that 1950s claptrap and stuffed it into these two opuses.
I like Silverberg, I really do. But that boasting made me actively want to dislike this book, just to humble the man a bit.