Continuing my brief tour into Robert Silverberg’s “third phase” of post-1979 books, I look at the large 1986 novel Star of Gypsies about a long-absent Roma “king” coming back to reassume his leadership and help his people survive an epic power struggle.
SoG is a far-future SF saga told entirely from the point of view of Yakoub, whose early life spans from a childhood as a wealthy scion to years in slavery and begging. He escapes from poverty through his relationship with a merchant’s daughter, ascending rom society through his street-smarts and competence. Finally, he assumes a position of leadership and unites his star-traveling people – before abdicating to a remote planet. Throughout his life, Yakoub is preoccupied with two aspects of Rom mythology – the first is that he will take his people to a far-off “Star of Gypsies,” their destined homeland; the second is that Rom could learn to project their consciences, or “ghost,” across time and space. All of this is told through flashbacks for most of the book, but there’s few signs of an overcomplicated plot or overstuffed cast of characters.
The supernatural or fantastical element of “ghosting” makes me think that Silverberg has prioritized making a good yarn over trying to couch his mythology in a science fiction context. However, it could be that Yakoub (in the beginning, he admits to not being the most reliable of narrators) is schizophrenic. Among his many sexual partners is one of these ghost-versions, if I remember correctly.
SoG (1986) was published in the same era as Gilgamesh the King (1985), that is, in Silverberg’s “third phase” of longer and more commercially-oriented novels. It shares a few key traits with the Gilgamesh memoir:
- the story is told as a memoir by a character holding supreme authority over his people, with an ego to match. Both Yakoub and Gilgamesh have ambitions well beyond any prior kings in their respective realms.
- each story ends with an attempted return to ascendency and corresponding power struggle – Gilgamesh with the most powerful priesthood and Yakoub with his wayward eldest son.
- both novels are definitely on the long side, but Silverberg fills the space between plot points with sex scenes. These aren’t gratuitous, and serve to help define the main characters. I’d venture that most SF and fantasy media tend to fill its pages or minutes with violence (Lester del Rey’s Police Your Planet being a older example, but pick any large-budget comic book-inspired movie), but that isn’t Silverberg’s style.
SoG is an example of a solid Silverberg SF effort that tells the story of a man and his people, the interstellar version of the Roma. The SF Encyclopedia hinted that Yakoub’s abdication was inspired by Silverberg’s own break from SF, but Silverberg kept writing for different markets (plus he had to deal with a house fire among other things). This writer has always created fiction out of his imagination and research – I’ve never been convinced that he’s put himself into his stories. Recommended: 7/10.