Review: Robert Silverberg - The World Inside

[The World Inside cover]

The World Inside is one of Robert Silverberg's relatively few fixups [1], being composed of six stories published from 1970-71 [2]. It was published in book form by Doubleday in July 1971, though the book I read was the September 1972 Signet paperback.

The stories feature distinct plots (though they aren't very strongly plotted) but recurring characters in which a peripheral character in one story will be a main character in another and vice versa. They all share the same basic setting (Urban Monad 116) and, together, paint a picture of a future society in 2381 where overpopulation has been embraced and many billions of people actually take up less land area than they do now, as almost everyone has been packed into immense skyscrapers called "Urban Monads", several of which form physically proximate but socially isolated "constellations". Within these vast and heavily populated buildings, a velvet-gloved dystopia lurks behind lots of late 60s/early 70s sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. Almost all of Silverberg's 70s works are a barrel of laughs but this one is even more Leonard Cohenesquely suicidally depressed than most. And I have a hard time taking the physical and social structures seriously. But it is a very thought-provoking book that focuses on a kind of social science fiction that seems to have undeservedly become less popular than it was. The books that most spring to mind in connection with this are Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (for the overpopulation), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (for the hedonistic dystopia), and both The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (for the claustrophobia/philia and the packed/isolated social structures).

The first chapter/story (1/"A Happy Day in 2381") uses the "strange visitor gets a guided tour by the native" method of showing us this timid new world. The native is the sociocomputator, Charles Mattern, and the stranger (whom we never see again) is Nicanor Gortman who is visiting from a terraformed Venus which has a horizontal social structure more like what we're used to. (Siegmund Kluver, who stars in the final story, is a side character here.) Via the proud tour guide, we learn that procreation is a religion, that men prowl the building at night, randomly sleeping with other husbands' wives which is considered "blessworthy" by all - indeed, to refuse is a capital offense, which results in getting sent "down the chute" to have one's combusted matter provide energy for the urbmon. At the start of our story, Urban Monad 116 has an ominously young population of 881,115 and the "Chipitts" constellation (what used to be the region of Chicago to Pittsburgh) has a population of 40,000,000 [3], while the earth has a population of 75 billion. Aside from natural births and deaths, it's one less by the end of the story as we meet a "flippo", or someone who just can't handle so much utopia and starts attacking people but is apprehended and disposed of. "It has been a happy day in 2381, and now it is over."

Chapter 2/"In the Beginning" introduces us to Aurea Holston and the idea of people just short of flippos and what happens when an urbmon becomes overpopulated by even its own standards. A misinformation campaign is launched magnifying the number of volunteers who will be shipped off to a newly built urbmon and however many necessary people fail to volunteer are randomly drafted. Since the urbmon is the whole world any of them know and womblike in many ways (while being symbolically phallic as well) this is too traumatic for some, such as Aurea, who is sent off to be reprogrammed when she too vocally expresses her inability to accept her fate. If "blessmen" (priest-like) or "consolers" (psychologist-like) can't pacify her, the "moral engineers" will. I guess the title must refer to "the beginning" of a new monad or perhaps to the "new" Aurea but it's not very clear to me.

Chapter 3/"All the Way Up, All the Way Down" is Dillon Chrimes' story. He plays the vibrastar in a cosmos group. His is the sex-drugs-and-rock'n'roll-iest story of them all, perhaps, being a musician who takes a drug and has sex while high so that he becomes one with the building. But it's a Silverberg story, so he comes down.

Chapter 4/"The Throwbacks" may be my favorite of the tales. In a way, it's silly but I still like it. Jason Quevedo is a historian whose thesis is that the humanity of the urbmons has become genetically distinct from, e.g., 20th century humanity due to rigorous self-selection for surviving in a very distinct environment. Modern humanity is free of jealousy and sexual hangups and so on. His wife, Micaela, disagrees with his thesis. This story is not all that much more strongly plotted than the rest but due to the psychological paranoia and the sense that a crisis is approaching and some nice misdirection as to its nature (I thought Jason might well be going batty and imagining everything, for instance, but wasn't convinced either way) this story was more compelling than some others. I also enjoyed its historical perspective and some of Jason's reflections on profanity and so on. And, of course, the real point of subversion and being alone together was more optimistic and less punitive than most of these tales.

We were introduced to Michael and Stacion Statler in "The Throwbacks" but they (primarily Michael) star in the novella that splits "We Are Well Organized": "The World Outside". Michael is on a work detail which enables him to forge an exit/entry pass to... leave the building! There follows an exciting and interesting, if largely conventional, tale of meeting strange aliens in a strange world, though the aliens are just farmers and the strange world is the farmland and a village outside the urbmon. It's interesting that the urbmons are much like spaceships that never take off (which is thematically significant, in my opinion) but that Silverberg doesn't have the city fed by internal hydroponics or some magic but has a secondary culture outside growing good old-fashioned crops (albeit with robot help).

Finally, Siegmund Kluver, who's a social climbing administrator/ruler-to-be and has been popping up throughout the book finally gets his own story. At a climactic part of his testing for rulership, the story stops, goes to "The World Outside", and then picks up in Chapter 7 where it left off in Chapter 6. Mattern and Chrimes reappear and the concepts of the blessmen, consolers, and moral engineers and many other themes reappear. And it's another happy day.

One of the things I think is particularly interesting about this book is that, despite sledgehammer negativity, the urbmon's dystopia has its subtleties. While there is some monitoring of exits and entries and there are cops of a sort and at least one character has a sort of personal paranoia, there's little of the "police state" feeling of, e.g., a Nineteen Eighty-Four. While there is a small administrative elite, there is not much of a feeling of the oppressed masses being controlled by the few, so much as the masses controlling themselves. And it's also reflective of our own current (1970 or 2013) society, as much good SF is. There is an ultimate death sentence for extreme non-conformity but, to a greater or lesser degree, that applies to all societies. And the groupthink has most people self-brainwashing themselves into thinking the urbmon is great and even being unable to survive outside of it. Which applies to a greater or lesser degree to our own technological society (and by "technology", I mean fire and skins and caves and I certainly mean plows and whatnot, as well as computers and drones). And, in its own terms, it's interesting to think about a society where, despite a population of billions, procreation is "blessworthy" and the great evil is "sterility", which trickles down to figures of speech like we might say something is a "bummer" - it's a "sterilizer". And, as I say, it does make one think about being "trapped" on "spaceship earth" whether inside or outside an urban monad and what that does and will do to us as a species - what must we become if we stay here - what must we become to leave?

On the other hand, I find it odd that, in a world full of flippos, people are supposed to leave their doors unlocked so "nightwalkers" (always male) can come in and sleep with whomever they happen to find in a given room - and how this doesn't result in more collisions of ten people in one room and none in nine others (not to mention other logistical/timing problems). And I was never clear on whether, in this procreative society, the children of a given woman had a variety of unknown fathers or not. And I can't believe societies as distinct as the inside and outside (far more different than even our own urban and rural societies and with no movement from one to the other) could exist in harmony rather than splitting apart entirely. And, while some nods were made to the physics of heat and waste management, I'm not sure about even the architectural feasibility of his monads. So this is more in the way of a very solid-seeming, literal-feeling fable (underscored by the somewhat disconcerting present-tense narration) than an actual blueprint of a future. But it's a book that was interesting to read and bears more thinking about. I can understand its being nominated for the Hugo award [4]. At this point, I wouldn't say that it was great, but it's certainly good and worth checking out.

_____

[1] Some, perhaps all, of his fixups were:

[2] The full contents (each story simply being a chapter except for "We Are Well Organized" being split into two discontinuous chapters) are:

ChapterTitleDateSourceCategory
1A Happy Day in 23811970-02Nova 1ss
2In the Beginning1970-12Science Against Manss
3All the Way Up, All the Way Down1971-07/08Galaxyne
4The Throwbacks1970-07Galaxyne
5/7We Are Well Organized1970-12Galaxyne
6The World Outside1970-10/11Galaxyna

[3] The current population of the Chicago and Pittsburgh metro areas alone is about 12 million. "If this goes on," I don't see it taking 368 years to less than quadruple.

[4] Silverberg declined the nomination, though it's probably more accurate to say he withdrew its nomination, presumably to give the Nebula-winning A Time of Changes, which was also nominated for the Hugo, a better chance to win (but it still lost to Phil Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go).