Set in a late nineties that doesn’t feel completely alien, Robert Silverberg’s The Stochastic Man details the relationship between the extremely accurate pollster Lew Nichols, dedicated to the making the charismatic mayor of New York president, and Martin Caravajal, a psychic whose illusion of free will is shattered by his ability to see the inevitable future.
One of the things that makes the world of The Stochastic Man feel so familiar is that Nichols’ preferred presidential candidate, Quinn, is described in the novel’s foreword with comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini. Donald Trump, anyone? Although Quinn, to his credit, seems to actually know what he’s on about. Hyperbolic class inequality, to the point that most of New York is a simmering warzone, also assures the novel a measure of relevance in a time anxious about the growing divide between the rich and poor. Silverberg also averts the classic sci-fi mistake of assuming that there will be no significant cultural changes in the future, although his depiction of a society where free love is unremarkable is a tad optimistic. Probably the biggest thing contributing to the plausibility of Silverberg’s setting is the absence of futuristic technology, although Nichols does use computers in polling and buried cables are used to melt snow – which could be a real thing for all I know. All in all, I would forgive a historian a millennium from now for confusing this novel for a history of the 2000 election.
Race is a recurrent theme in the novel, although this mightn’t be intentional. As part of New York’s social stratification, it has Balkanised into a number of ethnic blocks, little Italy and so on. A big part of making it as Mayor of New York is to placate each of these factions by giving a member of each a role in local government. Nichols constantly refers to his wife Sundara’s Indian ancestry, and is fascinated by the Jewish paraphernalia collected by one of his colleagues working for the mayor. I can’t see Silverberg making any social comment with these theme, besides showing how disintegrated America has become by 2000.
I reckon that The Stochastic Man can be profitably compared to another Silverberg novel, Dying Inside. Now it feels like a decade since I read that book, but I remember that it involved the relationship between two psychics, who were apparently the only two mind-readers in the world. The protagonist wrote essays for college students and had an LSD experience that scared me off drugs for life, but the rest is pretty foggy. But I think Silverberg was doing the same thing with both novels, taking a psychic power and showing how it would affect the perspective of a normal person.
The only thing that bothered me was the cover. I know that this yellow jacket is a distinctive trademark and I hope it sold a lot of copies of this book, because a novel this good deserves a far more creative cover.
If the quality of this review hasn’t tipped you off, I enjoyed this book. I’d recommend it to the usual slew of sci-fi and Silverberg fans, but I think it also has something to offer to anyone who likes introspective fiction or who is terrified of Donald Trump.