The Masks of Time – Robert Silverberg (1968)
Following Heinlein’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ which showed an ‘innocent’ Messiah transforming human society and creating chaos, Silverberg presents us with a much more structured and indeed literary examination of Humanity’s need for faith, and what a double-edged sword that may be.
The setting is 1999, or at least it begins on Christmas day 1998 when Vornan-19, a visitor from the far future, manifests naked in a public square in Rome.
The date is symbolic for the purposes of the novel, since although the visitor claims no knowledge of Christ or the date of his birth, many people see his coming on this day as a religious sign whereas there is the subliminal suggestion to the reader that he may be the antichrist.
Earth at this time is gripped by a new religious mania, an apocalyptic cult who believe that the world will end at the turn of the century. They are destructive and Bacchanalian, seeing sex and rioting as the preferred activities with which to fill one’s time in the final months before destruction.
Vornan, of course, stands in the face of their beliefs, since if he is indeed from the future, then the world is not going to end.
The novel is the journal of scientist Leo Garfield who has been conducting experiments in how to send subatomic particles into the past. His assistant, Jack Bryant, appears to be on the verge of discovering how to produce limitless free energy, and in a possible crisis of conscience quits his job to live a self-sufficient life in the desert with his wife. This becomes an occasional retreat for Garfield, until he is recruited by the government to be one of a group of scientists assigned to accompany Vornan-19 on his exploration of the US.
From the outset Vornan undermines (as does Valentine Smith in SIASL) the moral codes of society. He finds our need to cover our nakedness amusing and is happy to have sex with male or female with no sense of guilt or shame. Religions are a mystery to him and he explains later in the novel that life on earth emerged through aliens in the area having dumped some of their organic waste on a sterile earth, from which our biosphere eventually emerged. In one way or another he manages to obliquely destroy the lives of several individuals.
Beliefs are destroyed just as casually since Vornan (having already dropped the bombshell that the future does not know who Jesus is) goes on to confirm that religion, capitalism, sexual fidelity and the concept of money are unknown to people of the future.
It’s a vastly underrated novel and deserves to be reappraised as not only one of Silverberg’s best works, but one of the best SF novels of the 60s.