Dying Inside Robert Silverberg

I was very excited when I heard that Tor were reprinting Dying Inside. It’s one of those classics of the genre that shows how amazing SF can be at its best, how it can do everything mainstream books do with good writing and depth of character and do something extra besides. It’s been out of print for far too long. Science fiction readers have been born and grown up and become knowledgeable about the genre and never had the chance to read it. There’s not much that I think ought to be canonical, that everyone ought to read, but this was one of my core introductory texts to how brilliant SF can be, and the kind of book I want to share with everyone. My old 1970s edition (with a cheesy wannabe-Magritte cover of a sunset inside a coffin) has been lent to more people than I can readily count. And now it’s in print again… I was excited… but the cover looks kind of drab, and also kind of mainstream. Maybe it’ll encourage lots of mainstream readers to read it, especially with quotes from Chabon and Lethem, but I hope it doesn’t put off science fiction readers. This is not a boring book, people! It’s a serious book, certainly, and definitely a classic, but it’s also the kind of book that makes your head explode because it’s so amazing. It isn’t in any way a YA book, but I loved it to pieces when I was fourteen.

The extra thing Dying Inside does is telepathy—not gosh wow wonderful telepathy, but telepathy as burden. It’s as if Silverberg read one too many Campbellian superman stories about telepathy and asked himself what it would really be like to be able to see into other people’s minds. David Selig is a New York Jew. He’s been telepathic since childhood. He’s mostly hated it. He’s 41, and the gift, or curse, is going away, and he hates that too. The book was published in 1972 and is set in 1976, and it’s only now that I noticed 1976 was the book’s near future not the historical year (I first read it in 1978) because of my inability to sufficiently distinguish science fiction and America.

Dying Inside is written in a jaunty way, with lots of references and wordplay—several years after first reading it I recognised various T.S. Eliot lines from it (talk about getting your culture in reverse). It’s mostly present tense first person Selig as he experiences the world, which almost makes it omniscient at times, when he’s experiencing the consciousness of others. Sections set in the past are third person and past tense. The style is Silverberg at the top of his form, playing with words, going from the present to the past, the scientific to the subjective on the bounce.

It has stood up to time fairly well. It’s set in a very specific place and time, which makes it read more historically now, but that’s not a problem. The only thing that did trouble me were the racial references. I think Silverberg was liberal and enlightened and ahead of his time on racial issues, for 1972, but “liberal for 1972” reads weirdly in 2009 and had me looking sideways at the text a few times. It’s been a long thirty-five years, and while things are still far from perfect on that front, reading this makes it quite clear how much progress there has been. I’d say the same on the gender front, but the gender stuff is easier to take anyway.

It’s mostly a very serious book, but it has its hilarious moments, such as the young David reading the words from the psychiatrist’s mind in a word association test. And the overall message is upbeat. I didn’t realise when I was fourteen that there was a way of reading the book that made it be about aging and the death of youth while life goes on, but reading it now, that couldn’t be clearer. I think that just goes to show what a masterpiece it is.

Of course, I don’t have the faintest idea what I’d think if I read this now for the first time. I have loved it too long and read it too often to be able to detach myself from it sufficiently. When commenting, do mention if you’ve recently read it for the first time. And those of you who haven’t read it yet, do read it now while you have the chance.

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