In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Some authors catch your attention because of a large body of work, but there are others who instantly vault into the front ranks on the strength of a single work. For me, one of those authors is John Myers Myers, whose book Silverlock became an instant favorite. The story follows a rather unlikeable protagonist shipwrecked on an island whose inhabitants are characters from stories, literature, and legend. If the premise sounds a bit strange at first, it ends up working very well—the book is a delight from beginning to end.
In 1979, I returned from a few years living in Alaska, and one of the benefits of returning to civilization was finding printed material everywhere: newsstands, racks of books and magazines in drug stores, and plenty of bookstores. This was back in the days before the internet, when I found out about books mainly from seeing their covers on the shelves. One day I spotted a paperback called Silverlock, with a nice cover painting by Walter Velez, an artist who was in doing lots of covers for fantasy adventures at the time. I’d never heard of the author (who seemed to have a double last name), but the book had cover blurbs from three of my favorite writers. And inside the cover, there was an unusual note from the editor, Jim Baen, which stated:
DON’T PUT THIS BOOK DOWN
…until you have read the introductions by Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Seldom has a book received such high and unsolicited praise from masters of the genre. Never in my experienced as an editor have I been surrounded by some of the people I respect most in the field and been told in no uncertain terms that it is my duty to bring a book before the public. Given my respect bordering on awe for the persons involved, I agreed. I didn’t really think they would break both my arms if I refused.
Still, this was a first for me; generally I prefer to read a book before making such a commitment—and I did indeed read it as soon as possible. Within a few pages my duty had become my pleasure, then a sheer treat, then mind-boggled delight…followed at the end by a wistful sadness that never again would I come all-unawares on a book called Silverlock.
Now it’s your turn. Lucky you.
After a sales pitch like that, I couldn’t put the book back on the shelf, so I brought it home to read it, and was delighted by what I found.
About the Author
John Myers Myers (1906-1988) was an American author whose primary output was historical novels and history books, largely set in the American West. He was widely read, and also wrote poetry. He was born and raised in New York State, served in the Army during World War II, and after moving west to do research for his books, lived out the latter half of his life in Arizona. He worked throughout his life as a newspaperman and copywriter for advertising firms. His book Silverlock became a cult classic among the science fiction and fantasy community, especially among the singers and musicians known as filkers.
The World of Literature
Reading classic literature was long considered a cornerstone of a well-rounded liberal education, although that idea of what constitutes the standard literary “canon” has been questioned and reconsidered in recent decades. In my own high school English classes, I remember slogging my way through Moby Dick, enjoying A Tale of Two Cities, Huckleberry Finn, and other books, and being taught the ins and outs of classical mythology. I even remember one brave teacher in my senior year making A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess an optional book for the class, although at that tender age, the brutal nature of its contents proved a bit unsettling to me.
At home, I also received a lot of encouragement when it came to reading. My father constantly had his nose in a book, and saved everything he read, although the science fiction and cowboy adventures he enjoyed would hardly have been considered fine literature. My mother was a big fan of romance novels, especially those of the gothic variety. She used to go to the library every two weeks, especially in the summer, and pick up a pile of books for the family to read. She tried to introduce us to some classics, but mostly gave in to our desire to read science fiction. At one point, noting that we’d read anything in comic book form, she even ordered a boxed set of Classics Illustrated comics that abridged stories of all varieties. I think there were fifty books in the box, and to show my age, I remember it costing her something like four dollars, with an additional fifty cents for shipping and handling. (Those Classics Illustrated books came in handy when reading Silverlock, as it helped me recognize a number of literary references I otherwise might have missed.)
As I’ve gotten older, I increasingly value being widely read, and still make an effort to read books here and there from outside the science fiction field, as well as non-fiction on topics such as history, politics, and theology. I only wish our society would put a greater emphasis on the value of reading and storytelling, and that people were encouraged to engage in complex thought and conversation instead of focusing quite so much on memes, tweets, and sound bites. The world of literature has only grown wider, more welcoming and inclusive, and is still an important one.
The book opens with the sinking of the Naglfar, a tramp steamer; a Chicago businessman, A. Clarence Shandon, is the only survivor. He finds a piece of flotsam to cling to, which is already occupied by a man who calls himself Golias. Golias says they are near the Commonwealth, which Shandon has never heard of, while Golias is unfamiliar with both Chicago and the United States.
The story is narrated in the first person, in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone that keeps the tale grounded, no matter how fanciful the adventures become. And while it’s not explained in the book, fortunately for Shandon (and the reader), everyone he meets speaks English as spoken in the United States in the 1940s. Or at least, whatever language they use, Shandon hears it as English, and the various people he meets understand him as well.
It is clear from the start, both from his internal monologue and through his actions, that Shandon is uncaring, arrogant, and depressed. He and Golias witness the first strange event of the novel in the form of an old-fashioned sailing ship whose side is stove in by a pale-colored whale. Most readers will recognize the ship as the Pequod and the whale as Moby Dick. But to Shandon, who has no interest in the arts, or anything beyond business and transactions, it is simply another sinking ship. He asks Golias if he thinks there were survivors, and Golias answers, “Maybe one, it’s the usual number.” And this is our first hint that this new land is controlled not by scientific logic, but by the logic of story.
When they reach shore, Golias drags Shandon beyond the high tide line. When Shandon awakens, he returns the favor by immediately abandoning Golias. He wanders around until he finds a house inhabited by a beautiful woman named Circe. He decides to seduce her, not because of lust or desire, but in order to obtain food and shelter, and to exploit her any way he can. But of course those who recognize the name of Circe know she is a sorceress, and sure enough, Shandon is soon turned into a pig and joins her menagerie. He is rescued by Golias, and as they move outside Circe’s influence, Shandon returns to his human form. Instead of being grateful, Shandon is irritated that Golias has the advantage of him.
They escape from some cannibals, and soon fall among Vikings, who Golias wins over by his talent for story and song. Shandon finds Golias is a “maker,” or storyteller, and somewhat of a celebrity in this land. Because Shandon has a white streak in his otherwise black hair, Golias introduces him as “Silverlock,” and that becomes the name that follows Shandon through the rest of the book. They join the Vikings on a raid against Irish forces, and Silverlock begins to feel some kinship with his fellows, and affection for Golias.
Silverlock and Golias begin adventuring through the Commonwealth, sometimes together and sometimes apart. And along the way, they encounter a whole host of characters from literature and folklore, some of them named, and some whose identity we must guess from clues. There are characters and settings from novels, from legend, from tall tales and from songs. Some have medieval origins, some are from the American frontier, some are from ancient mythology or the Bible, and others are drawn from the works of authors like Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and Goethe.
The common thread throughout it all is Silverlock’s awakening as a mature and caring human being. He has his setbacks, and his doubts, but his growth transforms him from a cad into a character we can empathize with and root for. His adventures are dangerous and sometimes uncomfortable, but there is also a lot of fun along the way. Midway through the book, Silverlock receives a quest from an oracle, and the stakes of his journey are increased. Before his story is over, he will have to face his darkest fears and pass through the very gates of Hell.
If this recap sounds a bit intimidating, giving the sense that the reader needs to recognize all these characters in order to appreciate the book, that turns out not to be the case. When I first read Silverlock, only the most obvious references were apparent, and it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment at all. While recognizing the literary references lends a bit of additional zest to the narrative, the story stands well on its own if you simply take the characters at face value. And the book, despite its episodic nature, does have a clear and consistent storyline that keeps the reader engaged. One of the things that makes this novel worth re-reading is the fact that, every time you do, you will likely understand and appreciate more of the references that you may have missed the last time around. Myers’ novel offers a valuable message about the importance of literature, the importance of opening your heart to others, and the importance of living life to the fullest. This is a story with a lot of depth, and a lot of heart.
The Silverlock Companion
I read Silverlock three or so times during the 1980s, but then put it aside, although it stayed on a shelf with my other all-time favorite paperbacks. Then, at a Boskone convention a few years ago, I was looking at books at the NESFA booth, and noticed that they had published a reprint of Silverlock. This version included not only the novel, but also a concordance of sorts that had first been assembled in 1989, then expanded for the NESFA edition. That document includes a comprehensive glossary of people and places mentioned in the book, essays that examined the book and its themes, biographical information provided by the author and his daughter, and even musical adaptations of the poems included in Silverlock. The music had been created by people within the filking community, where Silverlock has found perhaps its most ardent supporters.
Thus, when I picked up Silverlock for this review, I used that new edition with the Companion. Of course, the presence of that extra material was not the only thing different about this re-read, as the last time I’d picked up the book was some three decades ago. I’ve read a good bit more since then, both in terms of fiction and history, and recognized a lot more of the characters. Plus, I’ve spent a couple of decades playing and singing Irish music in pubs, and gaining a new appreciation for story, verse, song, and drink, and how pleasantly those activities blend together.
I initially flipped back and forth to the glossary whenever I came upon an unfamiliar name, but that started getting in the way of the story. So instead I would just look at it from time to time, at the end of chapters, or when I was picking the book up after a break. One of the strengths of Silverlock is that it is a fine story in its own right, and it doesn’t do the tale justice to approach it like a research project. But the Companion makes an excellent addition to the volume, and helped to deepen my appreciation for the work and its author. NESFA deserves credit for keeping this fine book in print.
If I haven’t convinced you already, let me repeat the fact that this book is a treasure, and if you haven’t read it before, you need to remedy that deficiency. As soon as possible, in fact. There is a reason this book has become beloved not just among fans of science fiction and fantasy, but by so many of the genre’s authors.
And now you have the floor: I’d love to hear your thoughts on Silverlock, and stories of how you encountered the tale. I’d also enjoy hearing about other books you may have read that treat literature as a land to explore.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.