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Torcon 3: the 61st World Science Fiction Convention

 

The Inner Life: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

(originally published in Singularity)

There are those who say that science fiction is sheer, popular nonsense, that it isn’t literature. That it doesn’t do anything to examine the inner life of its characters. For the most part, they’re probably right. I mean, what do a bunch of aliens riding around in silver rocket ships have to do with the human condition? What are these stories of discoveries on other planets but thinly disguised science lessons masquerading as fiction. You and I know that, deep down, they have everything to do with it, but there is a lot of SF that merely focuses on fancy hardware. And don’t even get me started on all the media tie-ins that glut bookstore shelves.

In 1972, one book tried to change all that.

Robert Silverberg’s masterpiece Dying Inside (now available from Ibooks) doesn’t deal with aliens or rockets, nor does it take place in a futuristic setting. In what was then contemporary New York City, a man named David Selig is getting by the best he can, ghosting term papers for college students. But he has one gift that sets him apart from the rest of humanity: he can read minds. He has had this ability his whole life, but now the power is fading, and Selig must learn how to go on without it.

This tale is a quiet one. No alien setting. No flashy technology. The only fantastic element is Selig’s power. When I started reading this novel, I wondered how Silverberg could keep up the pace of such an introspective piece in a novel length. He does this by switching back and forth between the present, told in the first tense, and the past, told in the third, which details David’s life as a boy. He also has a couple of chapters that are nothing more than the actual term papers that he is writing for some students. This is an excellent book, and arguably one of the best this genre has ever produced. Selig’s internal struggle with his power make this book good, solid fiction, regardless of genre. It’s interesting to note what a literary book this is, as the literati would define it. If not for the telepathy, this book would have been readily accepted into mainstream literature. And its stream-of-consciousness diatribes and Selig’s frank experiments with sex place it firmly within the framework of SF’s New Wave, which Robert Silverberg is certainly a part of.

Silverberg lets us watch David cope with his power throughout his lifetime, from his childhood to the waning of his power at middle age. We see the interplay between people in his life. We see his hatred and resentment of his younger sister, Judith, whom David’s doting but understandably clueless parents adopted because a therapist told them that David needed someone to play with. We see his friendship with Nyquist, who also has the power, but deals with it very differently than David. We see him struggle to find love, and watch how he deals with her person his power can’t read.

And then Silverberg springs another telepath on us in the form of Nyquist. Nyquist looks on his telepathy with ambivalence, a feeling that it is neither gift nor curse, and uses it nonchalantly to get women into bed with him. Selig is surprised and shocked by this, for he himself feels guilty whenever he uses it, even though he does so in order to get term paper assignments, going into the minds of the students to get a feel for their intelligence levels and writing styles. Nyquist’s "if you’ve got it, flaunt it," attitude toward their shared power makes David feel uncomfortable. You would think that finding another telepath would give him the personal and emotional connection he’s been seeking his entire life, but it only separates him from the world further. It should now be noted that Selig’s and Nyquist’s power is one-way. They can only receive, not send. Selig and Nyquist communicate telepathically by thinking thoughts that the other person can then pick up.

At the end of the novel David is powerless and, thanks to a violent encounter with the school’s basketball star, jobless as well. But this helps him learn how to relate to other people without his power, without knowing their every thought and feeling, as he patches things up with his sister.

Here we see psi powers at work again. They have been a mainstay of the genre since the very beginning, from The Demolished Man and the The Stars My Destination to More Than Human and Childhood’s End. But Silverberg does the impact of these gifts one better, showing not their impact on society, but the effects such an ability would have on a single life. In The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man, a majority of the populace possess these gifts, and this helps drive the plot. How does a man get away with murder in a world where people can read his thoughts? How would mental teleportation effect the transportation industry, and how do you keep people out? Both Childhood’s End and More Than Human take a science fictional look at the generation gap, turning it into species variation. Silverberg takes the concept of telepathy and turns it on its head, showing the detrimental effects it has on a person who possesses this gift. David Selig is, while intelligent and educated, a loser, a failure at employment and relationships. Silverberg takes a power that is generally used in mindless wish fulfillment fantasies and shows us its darker side. David could have been anything with this power: a politician, a salesman, or worse, a spy, but he doesn’t become any of these things. His power makes him powerless, a freak of nature.

Robert Silverberg is well known in the field, and still publishes mind-blowing fiction today, but it seems that Dying Inside slipped in under the radar. Nevertheless, it remains a powerful work of fiction and, excluding the sparse references to the time period in which it was written, not dated at all. This is an Everyman type of work, timeless in the ways in which it captures snapshots of humanity and deals with some of the central issues that bug us a species. Trust me, you want to read this book.

 

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