Thursday, February 16, 2012

Review: The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg

The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg
Published: Harper & Row, 1975
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell, Locus SF, Hugo

The Book:

Lew Nichols is in the business of stochastic prediction. A mixture of sophisticated analysis and inspired guesswork, it is the nearest man can get to predicting the future. And Nichols is very good at it. So good that he is soon indispensable to Paul Quinn, the ambitious and charismatic mayor of New York whose sights are firmly set on the presidency.

There is nothing paranormal about stochastic prediction: Nichols can't actually see the future. However, Martin Carvajal apparently can, and he offers to help Nichols do so, too. It's an offer Nichols can't resist, even though he can clearly see the devastating impact that knowing in advance every act of his life has on Carvajal. For Carvajal has even seen his own death.”

At long last, here’s my first review for WWEnd’s GrandMaster Reading Challenge, a challenge to read a novel by twelve different Grand Master authors during 2012.   I picked up The Stochastic Man at a library discard sale, back when I was around ten years old.  For some reason, 10-year-old me had a hard time getting into all the political and statistical talk, and it languished on my bookshelf unread for about two decades.   This seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally get around to reading it.

My Thoughts:

In the beginning, The Stochastic Man was mostly about politics, and the use of predictive powers—either using stochastic methods or clairvoyance—to succeed in politics.  As a result, there was a lot of discussion of campaigning tactics, often involving local New York City politics.  I’m not a native New Yorker, so most of the references to major political figures in NYC’s history were little more than vaguely familiar names to me. Aside from the political discussions, the actual environment of NYC felt very lightly sketched, which made me feel even more distanced from the story.  In broad terms, Silverberg’s ‘future’ NYC—which is set in the period of 1997-2000—was a dangerous place populated primarily by the sexually permissive, ‘bone smoking’ ultra-rich and violent, gang-dominated poor communities.  I don’t think it was a particularly accurate vision of turn-of-the-century NYC, but I admit that I have only a tourist’s view of the city.  

The Stochastic Man is not a particularly character-driven novel, and there is very little focus on characterization outside of the major charactrs, Lew Nichols and Martin Carvajal. I appreciated the ethnic diversity of the secondary characters, but, in the absence of significant characterization, they tended to be defined almost exclusively by their ethnicity and associated stereotypes. For instance, Lew’s wife Sundara, who grew up in California, was of Indian descent.  The fact that she is Indian is explicitly referenced with respect to just about every character trait the reader is given for her—her beauty, her high libido, her mastery of the Kama Sutra, and even her supposed ‘natural affinity’ for religion, which led her to join a cult.  The same goes for the Jewish financier Lombroso, whose elegant office contains a large display of historical Jewish artifacts.  I’m not sure to what degree this kind of characterization might be annoying to other readers, but for me it was more of a minor irritation.  

For me, the strongest part of The Stochastic Man, was its exploration of ideas relating to free will and determinism.  The characters, world-building, and plot all seem to be essentially a structure within which to examine these central ideas.  This theme becomes more prominent in later parts of the book, as Lew learns more about Carvajal’s clairvoyance and Sundara becomes involved with a cult known as Transit.  His obsession with Carvajal’s supernatural certainty begins to take precedence over both his career as an expert at stochastic prediction and Paul Quinn’s developing presidential campaign.  I liked how Silverberg used Transit and Carvajal’s clairvoyance to show two extreme views of the world, which are ultimately very similar.   

One the one hand, Carvajal represents absolute certainty, but that same certainty removes his own ability to control his life.  He knows exactly how his life will play out, and he is powerless to change even the smallest aspect of it. As a result, he moves through his life like a puppet, slowly approaching his inevitable death.  The Transit cult, on the other hand, glorifies randomness and uncertainty.  Its followers attempt to set their ‘selves’ at a remove from the world, and let their lives become a series of causeless actions.  Their future cannot be set in stone, because it has no pattern and no human intent.  Though these two views are completely at odds, they both seem to feature the destruction of the decision-making self.  Carvajal is living with a script from which he can never deviate, and the Transit followers discard their own agency in order to live without any kind of script.  Therefore, neither side truly has free will—Carvajal lacks freedom, and Transit lacks will. Lew is attracted by Carvajal’s certainty, but he also wants to shape the future with his own hands.  I think the story of Lew’s struggle to understand his own desires in relation to Carvajal’s power was ultimately more important, and more compelling, than the story of Paul Quinn’s political career.   

My Rating: 3/5

The Stochastic Man was a story about a particular man’s political campaign, but I think its main intent was to address interesting ideas of concerning free will and determinism.  I found the story to be much more interesting as it moved away from the day-to-day details of Paul Quinn’s political career and began to discuss the implications of the Transit belief system and Carvajal’s devastating supernatural clairvoyance.  Aside from Lew and Carvajal, the characters weren’t particularly deeply developed, and most minor characters were primarily characterized by their ethnicity.  Silverberg’s ‘future’ NYC may have little in common with actual turn-of-the-century NYC, but the location never felt much more than sketched out.  I’m glad to have read The Stochastic Man, in the end, but I have a suspicion that this is not the best of Silverberg’s novels.

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