Thursday, May 13, 2021

The World Inside

The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg
September, 1972  Signet Books

Robert Silverberg was very prolific in the early ’70s, especially in the short story market, and this is where The World Inside first took shape; the “novel” is really a fixup, as they’re called, of a handful of stories and novellas Silverberg published in various sci-fi magazines and anthologies in 1970 and 1971. It would appear that he wrote the stories with this very novel in mind, so in essence the book does come off more as a novel than as a short story collection, with the understanding that there isn’t a main plot that runs through it – other, that is, than the general overarching plot of the “horizontal” society of the year 2381. 

So the novel clearly delves into the overpopulation concerns of the era, a la Futureshock and the like (starring Orson Welles in the film adaptation!). Silverberg clearly seems to be satirizing it, though, as the Earth of his future is incredibly overpopulated, however the denizens are damned determined to keep adding to the number. We learn that, sometime in the 22nd century, the people of the Earth (now of course united in a sort of hive mind global community, per another recurring theme of the era) decided to take up the challenge to see how many human beings could actually live on Earth, and thus changed their society from “horizontal” to “vertical.” Ie instead of building out, they built up, erecting towering structures which could hold hundreds of thousands of people. And if you run out of space, why you just build another structure. 

These are the “urbmons,” aka “urban monad” dwellings; buildings that span nearly two miles high and have a thousand floors. The World Inside concerns Urbmon 116, which as the novel opens has a current population of 881,115 people. It’s in the “Chipitts” region, which gradually we learn is what was once known as the “Chicago-Pittsburgh” region of the US, however these names are mysterious to the people of 2381. As with most other sci-fi of the day, the story has dystopic roots, as we learn some great calamity in the past also befell the Earth, leading to this vertical approach. Also it’s worth noting that while the novel is entirely earthbound, mankind has ventured into the solar system, with colonies on Venus and likely elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that the offworld colonists live in places more like the “old” Earth than the people of Earth do. 

Another hallmark of the era is the psychedelic vibe that permeates the tale, with a “new morality” of open sex and wanton drug use. Society has completely changed in that there is no such thing as privacy, and people enter into marriage while in their preteens, the goal to have as many children as soon as possible. All this, including the rampant psychedelics, is very similar to Logan’s Run, even down to the fact that the majority of the characters are incredibly young. So while there is indeed a lot of somewhat-explicit sex in The World Inside, the characters engaged in the shenanigans are teenagers. So we’ll have stories concerning a 14 year-old boy who has “had hundreds of women” in his time, or about a fifteen year-old girl desperate to get pregnant, else she might be moved out of Urbmon 116. 

Personally this sort of killed my enjoyment level; I mean even when I was a teen I wanted to read about adult protagonists. A curious thing though is that these kids act and talk just like adults, to the extent that you could read the book and think it features 30 and 40 year olds. (Even more curiously, 30 and 40 year olds are rarely mentioned.) The implication here is that people in this future world have become so self-involved that they have grown exponentially more self-aware and wise than modern kids their age, to the extent that even a 14 year-old is so intelligent and observant that he’s being groomed for the highest echelons of Urbmon 116. However unlike Logan’s Run this “kid’s world” element isn’t due to a lifespan cutoff or anything; it’s just that Silverberg has decided to only focus on preteens and teens for his stories. 

That said, Silverberg has created an entire world in Urbmon 116, which really is the main character of the novel. Each Urbmon is essentially a country in itself, and there doesn’t even seem to be much communication between the various buildings; even though the other Urbmons are visible from the windows of Urbmon 116, they’re basically mysteries – mysteries that no one is interested in, at that. What I mean to say is, the hive mentality is so strong that people only care about the Urbmon they live in, with no desire to leave the place or see the world. In fact there is almost an air of desperation in how “happy” the occupants claim to be. At any rate, groups of floors are blocked together into separate “cities” named after cities of the past; for example, top floor Louisville is the pinnacle of Urbmon 116’s social and political order. 

Silverberg parcels out this info throughout the stories; the new social structures are shown rather than explained, which adds to the enjoyment. The only story that comes close to flat-out exposition is the first one, aka Chapter 1, which concers a visit to Urbmon 116 from “the Sociocomputator from Hell.” This turns out to be a literal title, not a facetious one; the guy in question is indeed from Hell, ie one of the moons of Venus. He is visiting Charles Mattern, a sociocomputator who lives in the Shanghai section of Urbmon 116, which is a little over halfway up the building – though Mattern feels he’d be even higher in the social order if he had more kids. The visitor, Nicanor Gortman, is shown around the building, and while this is a fine intro to the world it comes off more like heavy narrative lifting to set up the story. 

Given the short story origins, characters will come and go in the narrative; Mattern will be the first indication of this, as he drops from the “novel,” only to appear in passing once or twice more later on. But this does add a cool factor to the book, as you see how other characters feel about one another. (As for Gortman, he’s never mentioned again.) Mattern’s story is mostly there to show how Urbmon 116 works, and to explain this weird social structure: there’s no privacy (families even use the toilet in front of each other), there’s no sadness, there’s much pride in the Urbmon overall, and there are free drugs. Free sex, too; “nightwalking” is a facet of this society, with men and women free to roam at night, entering any door (none of which are locked), and requesting to have sex with the person who lives there – and it is socially taboo to turn down the request. 

This sounds like a rapist’s paradise, but we’re to understand that the people of this future are so “advanced” that there’s no such thing as rape or cheating or adultery. The joy is in sharing and giving; thus if someone came into your apartment to have sex with your wife, you would feel honored that he even chose her. Silverberg introduces a great bit midway through the book where an Urbmon couple manages to bring 20th century hangups into this society, with a wife who brings adultery back into a world where adultery no longer exists. This world is very hard for us to imagine, and Silverberg turns this concept on its head, too, with a section where another character tries to figure out the 20th Century and realizes it’s just too weird for him to grasp. 

Another thing I noticed is that, even though childbearing is of prime importance so as to raise yourself up in the social pecking order, the children really don’t seem to matter much to their parents. Again, this is not actually spelled out, but in all the stories the children are just wallpaper, and often just left to their own devices; there are at least a few parts where a “daywalking” character will go into someone’s home, only to find the babies there, unattended in their “slots.” Silverberg does not go for much description or detail, leaving the reader to do the heavy lifting on the whole imaginating department, but we do learn that these “slots” seem to actually nurture the babies, even up to putting a force field around them. We learn this latter tidbit in a part where someone tries to blow the drug of a smoke toward a sleeping baby, and the force field blocks it. 

Speaking of drugs, like Logan’s Run and After The Good War this is a very psychedelicized future. Drugs are available at kiosks on each floor, some of them with extraterrestrial origins; we learn of something called “tingle,” which comes from Venus and is shared in a communal bowl. There are also “multiplexer,” apparently a super-potent psychedelic, which so blows one’s mind that he or she shares a sort of mental link with everyone in the Urbmon. There are also darker drug-world elements; one story concerns a young girl who is unable to get pregnant and learns that she and her husband will be shuttled off to a new Urbmon. She fights against this to the point that she’s sent to a sort of reprogramming chamber, where she floats in serenity while being dosed with various psychedelics. When she comes out she’s happy and positive and seemingly a totally different person. 

Another dark element of this future world is when a person goes “flippo” and is sent “down the chute.” To go flippo means to bug out, specifically to rail against the Urbmon society. Initially I thought “going down the chute” meant being cast out of the Urbmon, but we soon learn that the chute pretty much vaporizes whoever goes down it, their body energies absorbed and funnelled back into the Urbmon. We see this process in action in a later story. But it’s rare that Silverberg actually describes or explains things to us, presenting everything matter of factly and letting us understand what’s what via dialog or action. Indeed, he goes for a “literary” style throughout, writing the novel in third-person present-tense and doling out huge blocks of narrative, to the extent that it sometimes comes off more like Cormac McCarthy than the typical science fiction novel.

I’ve talked about the drugs; now let’s talk about the sex. As mentioned, most of the time it concerns teens and pre-teens, so there’s that. (And plus we even learn that kids in the Urbmon start sexually experimenting when they’re nine years old – sometimes even younger!) There’s a lot of sex in The World Inside, but we aren’t talking paragraphs of boinking a la The Baroness. In fact there isn’t that much exploitation at all. We’ll get minor detail of the female characters – usually that they’re “shapely” or whatnot – but even here it’s not very exploitative. What I mean to say is, you won’t read about “upthrusting full breasts” or anything like that. More along the lines of, “…she shrieks and pumps her hips and makes hoarse animal noises as she claws as him. He is so astonished by the fury of her coming that he forgets to notice his own.” This sort of thing is what passes for the sexually-descriptive material, and again it has more of a literary vibe than an exploitative one. 

Okay so the sex and drugs are covered; now the rock and roll. One of the stories here is more “rock novel” than some of the actual rock novels I’ve reviewed on the blog. This one concerns Dillon Chrimes, a 17 year old “who plays the vibrastar in a cosmos group.” Oh, and his wife paints “psychedelic tapestries.” Clearly indebted to the era in which it was published, this one’s basically the late ‘60s psychedelic rock scene projected into the future; Chrimes even lives in the “San Francisco” section of Urbmon 116, an artist and musician section in the 370th floor region. As mentioned Silverberg doesn’t elaborate on much, presenting his future world in matter-of-fact terms: thus what a vibrastar even is remains a bit of a mystery. It seems to be a sort of audio-visual instrument, projecting displays of the galaxy and whatnot, and takes a lot of work to control. Chrimes’s story is one of the highlights of the novel, featuring his group playing a gig. Their music isn’t really described, but it’s clearly instrumental, and seems to have a prog rock-meets jazz fusion sound. After which Chrimes drops a multiplexer and psychedelically communes with the building (while having sex with some random babe, of course). 

I thought Chrimes’s story would be my favorite, but the one that I found most interesting concerned Jason Quevedo, a somewhat nebbish historian whose subject of study is the 20th Century. This chapter is not only entertaining due to Jason’s attempts to understand the alien world of the past, researching it via “cubes” he calls up from a data source, but also because he is slowly “contaminated” by the mindset of the 20th Century and begins feeling resentment and suspicion toward his wife. He’s certain she’s having an affair with her twin brother (incest is condoned so far as only children are involved, we’re told – but one must stop such stuff when he or she is an adult!), and Jason’s jealousies get the better of him. This story is darkly comic and definitely was my favorite of the novel, particularly the O. Henry-esque ending, in which Jason and his wife realize they are more similar than they thought. 

But I have to admit, after this story my interest started to wane. We have a somewhat-recurring character named Siegmund, the aforementioned 14 year-old headed for big things, and his story didn’t resonate with me; same goes for a very long story concerning Jason’s brother-in-law, Michael, who longs to see the outside world. This story in particular just seemed to drag on, with this guy venturing outside the Urbmon, meeting the strange communal humans who live outside them, making a fumbling pass at one of the women, and then foolishly returning to Urbmon 116. After this we return to Siegmund, who actually is the closest we get to a main character in the novel; his continuing story, which finishes off the novel, also displays that not all is happiness and joy in Urbmon 116. 

Overall though I really did enjoy The World Inside. It definitely has that psychedelic sci-fi vibe I enjoy so much, and Silverberg did a great job of projecting the early ‘70s into the future. If anything it’s made me decide to read more of his work, especially from this period of his career.


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Interesting. I’d never heard of that one.

Johny Malone said...

I'm a big fan of Silverberg, although I think his short stories are much better than his novels.