He Watched the Secret Sex Rites of Uganda: Robert Silverberg’s Exotic Adventures

❉  Wyatt Doyle uncovers the Science Fiction Hall of Fame Grand Master’s pseudonymous work as a young jobbing writer. 

“In 1944, someone gave me a subscription to the National Geographic—I get it to this day—and instantly I yearned to see with my own eyes all the places in those wondrous photographs, where bizarre creatures dwelled, where alien architecture brightened the landscape. I longed to climb the Pyramids and trek the Gobi and stare up at the redwood trees of California. Coral reefs, rain forests, geysers, volcanoes, Mayan jungle temples, the dunes of the Sahara, the cactus forests of Mexico—so long as it was something qualitatively different from Brooklyn, NY, I wanted to see it. It was wartime, then, and nobody went anywhere except with government permission; but I have diligently spent my adult life searching out those myriad places which, back then, I was able to visit only vicariously, via the National Geographic.”

—Robert Silverberg, Other Spaces, Other Times

Say you’re Robert Silverberg.

But not yet the Robert Silverberg known and admired today as one of the most honored and celebrated authors of science fiction in the field’s history. Not yet the multiple award winner, not yet the esteemed member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, not yet recognized as a Grand Master. Say you’re 23-year-old Robert Silverberg, the young jobbing writer. Already a Hugo Award recipient with a handful of books on the shelf, but still some years from the status and approbation to come.

And then, in 1958, not long after your initial successes, it all comes to a screeching halt. In the US, wide public interest in science fiction in print proves fickle and fades suddenly; magazines fold, outlets for your work evaporate. There’s not only no longer a place for you at the table, but for all practical purposes, there’s no longer even much of a table! As you’ll describe the situation years later: “A dozen or so magazines for which I had been writing regularly ceased publication overnight; and as for the tiny market for SF novels (two paperback houses and one hardcover) it suddenly became so tight that unless you were one of the first-magnitude stars like Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov you were out of luck.”

Too ambitious, too driven to consider a change of career, you seek out other markets for your writing, working outside your preferred genre, making rent penning hard-boiled stuff for crime and detective digests. Then you hear from an editor you know from the SF magazines, Monty Howard, who’s shifted gears and is running a pair of low-budget Playboy imitators, the short-lived “bachelor mags” Venus and Mermaid. Now he’s looking to launch something slightly different, to cash in on yet another emerging trend in magazine publishing with a periodical that takes cues both from bachelor magazines and the burgeoning men’s adventure magazine (MAM) format. A relatively recent publishing success story, the MAM formula emphasizes macho, high-energy adventure fiction frequently presented as true accounts, often accompanied by racy (for the time) black-and-white pin-up photo spreads thrown in as value-adds to goose the libido—and most importantly, sales. The best titles in this new format are flying off the shelves, and even lesser-tier efforts are selling well.

Thus, Exotic Adventures is born. Really more of a test flight, an experiment in quick profiteering, than something expected to endure. Your not-particularly-exotic college sex story “Campus Hellcat” sees print in the first issue. There’s nothing of yours in the second issue, though it is notable for its damsel-in-distress cover painting whose damsel is modeled by Bettie Page. And thanks to you, its table of contents includes a story by your neighbor and pal, fellow freelancer Harlan Ellison. But then you place three stories in the third issue — “Safari of Death,” “I Was a Tangier’s [sic] Smuggler,” and “Attacked by Monster Crabs” — and you’re off to the races. For the remainder of the magazine’s brief six-issue run, you’re writing pretty much the whole damned thing, drafting salacious first-person yarns like “Saba, Land of Love-Starved Women,” “Opium Den in Vietnam,” and “I Watched the Secret Sex Rites of Uganda.” Your many stories appear under more than a dozen different pseudonyms; the byline “Robert Silverberg” never once appears in its pages. But then, the whole operation is slightly cloaked and perhaps a bit shifty; publisher Gladiator Publications isn’t an established house, and the magazine’s listed editors aren’t familiar from any other publications, suggesting they are pseudonyms as well. For any number of possible reasons, Exotic Adventures isn’t something anyone, it seems, is especially eager to post to their résumé.

After those six issues are published in 1958 and 1959, Exotic Adventures folds, swiftly disappearing from memory to take its place among the many short-lived, quick-buck MAM cash-ins—and there were plenty. After all, the MAM life cycle spanned three decades, from the 1950s through the late 1970s, during which at least 160 different titles from a variety of publishers saw print. Exotic Adventures was not particularly missed. There were dozens of short-lived magazines in its class; few today could name any of them.

But you’re Robert Silverberg. Your career is only just beginning, and the future is bright. The shuttering of Exotic Adventures is a barely registered speed-bump in your career momentum. You’ll next plunge into the lucrative world of sex paperbacks, penning books of sex fiction (over 150, often as Don Elliott) and non-fiction sexology (frequently as L.T. Woodward)—excerpts from which are then sold to MAMs as articles, reaping ancillary financial rewards. Under your own name, you’ll go on to write the finest SF of your career, and become recognized the world over as one of the most prolific and highly respected authors in your field.

Exotic Adventures, one might think, was nothing special.

But it was special. Not for the usual reasons that made great MAMs great; it was too inconsistent, and too often its presentation betrayed its low budget. By comparison to its better heeled competitors, its covers often lacked a certain polish, and its interior illustrations were of inconsistent quality. Its stories followed a formula — “protagonist gets in trouble in some far-off part of the world, preferably with some sexual entanglement” — that surely would have proved constricting in the long run, particularly compared to most MAMs’ far wider range of subject matter. Even the most gifted writers would likely have run into trouble maintaining freshness and variety eventually. But while the formula was still novel and the ideas abundant, the magazine published 21 works of short fiction by an undercover Robert Silverberg in its pages, and there was no other MAM of that period that can say the same.

It’s not only that Exotic Adventures ran stories by a future icon that makes it worthy of attention decades later. It’s the story behind the stories. Exotic adventure fiction may not have been Silverberg’s chosen genre, but he was a professional, and he attacked Exotic Adventures assignments with intelligence and verve. His agile imagination, lifelong interest in lands far away, and curiosity about cultures different from his own made him well equipped to serve the task—as did that subscription to the National Geographic. Even when Silverberg’s fast-paced, primarily first-person narratives stretch credulity (and they all do), or are demonstrably inaccurate representations (and they all are) of the exotic cultures whose darkened corners they claim to illuminate, the authority of the narrative voice often proves persuasive enough to help curb readers’ initial skepticism about man-hungry female Japanese pearl divers seizing Yankee tourists for sex slaves, or the author’s erotic entanglements among free-loving Tahitians. The narratives carry the reader along on a wave of masculine adventure fantasy, and if there is an eventual crash on the shores of logic, facts, and common sense, it’s after the ride is over.

And the method of their production! How could anyone who writes fiction for a living (or aspires to) not feel the blood race at the unique opportunity Silverberg was able to capitalize on here? You want to write? Here’s an entire magazine in urgent need of your stories; now get typing! Poseurs need not apply; braggadocio and attitude isn’t going to fill that empty table of contents on deadline.

So there’s Robert Silverberg, head down at the typer, spinning these yarns fully formed and at a record pace, filling up entire issues with fiction and cashing those checks. Stories zip from his brain to his fingertips to the presses to the newsstand, still warm from the typewriter. Part Scheherazade with her boundless imagination, part John Henry with his sturdy hammer, Silverberg keeps the flow and variety of stories coming, a pulp-fiction equivalent of the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, trying to anticipate public tastes and turning out hit after hit as a job of work.

The Men’s Adventure Library’s Exotic Adventures of Robert Silverberg (New Texture) collects the author’s pseudonymous work for the magazine for the first time anywhere, compiled with the author’s full support and cooperation. Designed to emulate the stories’ original publication, it’s a kind of annual that never was. And outside of hunting down rare copies of the original magazines, mirroring how they originally saw print is an ideal way to experience and evaluate the stories on their own terms. To format the stories more conventionally would be to squeeze them into literary convention and respectability that ill suit them, like serving hot dogs and burgers on a filigree tray. This is not the kind of meal meant for the good silver, and these stories were never intended for conventional, “respectable” presentation. Similar to the grindhouse-style exploitation cinema that was coming into its own in this era, this particular strain of pulp fiction is best and most totally experienced in its native element (or at least something approximating it), illuminated by the original low-budget illustration art, peppered with bedroom-gag cartoons, and crowded by advertising hawking change-your-life correspondence courses, cheap gadgets, surplus items, naughty merchandise, and comparable dreck. All randomly, at times even carelessly, assembled, yet still very much on-brand and of a piece. Like the stories, like the magazine’s core conceit, it was all intended to tempt its primarily working-class readership with illusions of escape from workaday drudgery into realms of lush, exotic fantasy—offered at bargain prices, in grimy black-and-white.

MAM pulp fiction is literary junk food, heavy on salt and sugar. Exploitable elements are amped up in service of a bolder, more adrenalized reading experience. The goal is to move the reader through the story quickly, distracting him with fireworks, lest he linger too long on gaps in logic or realism. There’s no disputing Silverberg’s Exotic Adventures stories are fashioned out of b.s. and daydream. But in the able hands of so convincing a storyteller, skepticism is easier kept at bay.

Is there any better definition of an expert fantasist?

❉ ‘Exotic Adventures of Robert Silverberg’, Number 14 in New Texture’s Men’s Adventure Library series, collects the author’s work for the magazine in two editions: A 120-page softcover (£ 21.95) containing 17 stories and a 144-page expanded deluxe hardcover (£ 30.95) collecting all 21. It is available worldwide, wherever books are sold.

❉ Wyatt Doyle is ringmaster of New Texture and, with Robert Deis, is co-editor of Exotic Adventures of Robert Silverberg. He edits and designs most New Texture releases.

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