It's been quite awhile since I read this book, and while I don't intend to read it again just to write a more detailed review, I can say that the novel had a profound effect on me while growing up. The ambiguity of the conclusion, the sexuality involved in the story, the religious (sacrilegious?) themes involved, and the hints of homosexuality might be commonplace today, but when I read it as a teenager they were all deeply shocking and eye opening.
As reviewers or readers of SF we can look down on a work for being cliche or trite, but I think it's important to always remember that at one point everything was new to us as well. So if I were to read Silverberg's 'The Masks of Time' today I don't think I would find it particularly enjoyable or groundbreaking, when I read it as a sixteen year old it was all that and more.
Masks was written just at the start of Silverberg's amazing run of SF Award winning novels. I've written before about Silverberg's writing pace, but it's always worth an extra look at his bibliography, this guy was ridiculous. Silverberg was a fairly middle of the road SF writer during the 50's and early 60's. There were a few hints of brilliance with works like 'Thorns' (Hugo and Nebula Nominee) and 'The Man in the Maze' (No nominations) but starting in 1968 Silverberg ripped out an eight year run that produced eight Nebula and Hugo Nominated books. This is totally unprecedented.
This period of Silverberg's writing starts with Masks and ends with 'Shadrach in the Furnace.' Shadrach is a near perfect novel that stands up incredibly well today, Masks has a few faults, but you can almost see the brilliance that Silverberg was about to embark upon, and while his treatment of sensitive subjects like religion and homosexuality might inspire more giggles than introspection today, dealing with those issues in SF was unheard of then.
Masks deals with a rather tried SF story of a man who travels back from the future to take advantage of the past. He leaves his origin shrouded in mystery, wrapping himself in a quasi-religious themes. The reader is never given the full story of whether this man really is from the future, or might be God coming down to Earth. It's just a little hard to believe that God would come down to Earth for the purpose of having sex with as many people as he could.
This novel contains a lot of sex. The mysterious traveler from the future (Vornan-19 is his name, and it's been so long since I read this book that I had to look this up) basically has some sort of animal magnetism that allows him to sleep with whoever he wants, male or female, it seems no one can resist him. This makes for an interesting scenario when some purple man from the future shows up and whisks him off. Is everyone from the future as big a jerk as Vornan? Is he some kind of criminal from the future? The author never tells us.
I am unable to take an objective view of this book. I think our age and mindset when we first read a book has just as much to do with our enjoyment of said book as any objective merit a story could have. While a novel dealing with sex, homosexuality, exogenesis, and religion might be overdone in today's SF culture (I just reread that sentence and don't know if I quite believe it myself) but for a sixteen year old being exposed to most of those ideas for the first time they can be incredible.
As we get older it's easy to say that we take a more cynical look at the pop-culture we enjoy. If I had read this book later in life I would have been forced to discuss this novel as an ironic send up of Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land' or even to criticize it for the things that made it impressive when I was younger. Sometimes I find it helpful to think back on those works that got me interested in SF in the first place, but not examine them too closely.