Wednesday, August 4, 2010

SF Masterworks #59: Robert Silverberg, Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg's SF writing career spans 55 years and hundreds of novels, novellas, short fiction collections, and anthologies edited.  He has written pulp fiction in the 1950s, more stylish and deeper prose in the 1960s, took a hiatus in the mid-1970s before returning in the 1980s with his Majipoor fantasy novels (which are a personal favorite of mine), with more novels and anthologies appearing in the 1990s and 2000s.  His stories run the gamut from historical fiction to alt-histories to fantasies to SF, "hard" and "soft" alike, to even softcore pornography in his earlier years.  On the surface, this wide range of narrative modes would seem to make it nigh impossible for the reader to pick out one quality that is common in most, if not all, of these disparate stories.  However, I believe that if there were to be a single common element to be singled out, it would be Silverberg's penchant for developing vivid characters and placing them in memorable situations.

That certainly is the case in his 1972 novel, Dying Inside, as David Selig is perhaps one of Silverberg's better-drawn characters.  Selig is a rarity, a telepath from a young age who can read most people's minds at most situations.  However, he has failed to make much of his life.  When the story begins, David is twenty years removed from his college days and he does not exactly have the most steady of jobs:

So, then, I have to go downtown to the University and forage for dollars again.  It doesn't take much cash to keep me going - $200 a month will do nicely - but I'm running low, and I don't dare try to borrow from my sister again.  The students will shortly be needing their first term papers of the semester; that's always a steady business.  The weary, eroding brain of David Selig is once more for hire.  I should be able to pick up $75 worth of work on this lovely golden October morning.  The air is crisp and clear.  A high-pressure system covers New York City, banishing humidity and haze.  In such weather my fading powers still flourish.  Let us go then, you and I, when the morning is spread out against the sky.  To the Broadway-IRT subway.  Have your tokens ready, please.

You and I.  To whom do I refer?  I'm heading downtown alone, after all.  You and I.

Why, of course I refer to myself and to that creature which lives within me, skulking in its spongy lair and spying on unsuspecting mortals.  That sneaky monster within me, that ailing monster, dying even more swiftly than I.  Yeats once wrote a dialogue of self and soul; why then shouldn't Selig, who is divided against himself in a way poor goofy Yeats could never have understood, speak of his unique and perishable gift as though it were some encapsulated intruder lodged in his skull?  Why not?  Let us go then, you and I.  Down the hall.  Push the button.  Into the elevator.  There is a stink of garlic in it.  These peasants, these swarming Puerto Ricans, they leave their emphatic smells everywhere.  My neighbors.  I love them.  Down.  Down. (p. 1)

This opening reveals so much about Selig's character.  He is shown, via his own words and the hints he drops within, to be a lazy, conflicted, scheming soul.  He does not trust his sister (presumably, his parents are now dead).  He seems to be divided between fearing the loss of his telepathic powers and relieved that this "intruder" might finally be leaving his skull.  He distracts himself easily, switching away from personal reflections almost as soon as he touches upon a sore personal point.  He is obviously a very educated individual, but there is no sense that his talents, telepathic and ordinary alike, have been applied to any real just cause.  David Selig appears to be a true loser, one who has squandered virtually every single advantage that he has ever had.

Over the course of this novel, Selig shifts from the present October 1976 setting to flashbacks to his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.  In these vividly-drawn flashbacks, he reveals the layers of deception (including self-deception) that he had to employ with his family, schoolmates, lovers, and another associates (with nary a mention of a "true" friend, it ought to be noted) to cover up his ability to read their thoughts.  Selig's life is a deeply unhappy one.  He knows what others think of him.  He knows that he is different, a freak, someone who just does not fit in at all with his society.  He is a very intelligent person, but also one that is more conniving than anything approaching industrious. 

Selig's character is certainly the key to Dying Inside.  By telling his tale in fragments, the reader is either sucked into the story or is otherwise repulsed by Selig's rather unsavory character.  For myself, I found him to be a fascinating, flawed character, one that was drawn very well by Silverberg.  There are more layers to this story than just Selig's recounting of his wasted life with his telepathic powers.  There is the acute sense of loss that Selig experiences as his powers suddenly begin to fade.  He obviously does not enjoy having the sensations that come with being able to read another's thoughts (and the resulting ability to manipulate that person), but he is confused and worried about his future without the familiar, albeit odious, ability to read thoughts.  Silverberg displays this confusion well and it crops up in several places, from the flashbacks to the "present time" to the term papers he writes for pay for students at Columbia University.

Selig's plight also contains allusions to literary stories, from Kafka's The Trial and The Castle to Aeschylus' tragedies, among others.  Silverberg adroitly connects the themes he discusses via excerpts from the plagiarized papers that Selig composes to problem areas in Selig's life, from trust to empathy to fighting to create meaning in a world that is seemingly devoid of it.  The result of this is a very powerful tale, easily one of the better SF character conflict stories that I have read in quite some time.

Is Dying Inside a true "Masterwork"?  Yes, most certainly so.  David Selig's character is one of the deepest, best-developed characters that I have read in SF tales in quite some time.  In addition, Silverberg engages in a sort of thematic dialogue with a host of other literary stories, particularly those stories that deal with humans caught in difficult or even impossible situations and how those characters came to terms with their predicaments.  The prose is excellent throughout and the flashbacks add greatly to Selig's character and to the impending loss of his telepathic powers.  The story ends on a slightly optimistic note, one that does not cheapen what the reader has witnessed through Selig's thoughts and flashbacks, but rather it serves to reinforce the possibilities that Selig only now has begun to realize that he could accomplish, telepathy or no telepathy.  Dying Inside is an excellent introduction to Silverberg's output and certainly deserves to be read by readers of all ages.


  1. Oh well, the way I see it, we've both seen the same things in both Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang and Dying Inside, but we've switched the way they influenced us :) I have to say that appreciated this book a lot, but never came even close to liking it. Also, the ending was to me vastly inconclusive, and not in a good "let's think about it" way.

  2. I thought that might be your reaction ;) Selig certainly isn't the most likable of characters, is he? As for the ending, it could be that I just wanted to interpret it in as positive of a light as possible, considering how much angst was spilled out throughout the novel.

    The Lindsay review will be tonight, I think. I might take a nap first.

  3. This'll be the... fifth consecutive you've put up, right Larry?

    Damn squirrels.

    Well, for anyone who might be wondering: the rest of us are still here. Biding our time, you know. And reading while we do, like at the Doctor's office... Masterworks mayhap.

    Thanks for holding down the fort while we mere mortals play catch up though, Larry. You are the walrus. :)

  4. About to be the sixth, once I finish writing my review of A Voyage to Arcturus later today. The squirrels are in a rush, as I start training for my new job on the 16th and at some point after that, I might not have time for any reviews for a while.

    And yes, the squirrels haven't killed the others...yet ;)

  5. " By telling his tale in fragments, the reader is either sucked into the story or is otherwise repulsed by Selig's rather unsavory character. "

    Or both. I was sucked into the story, but I found Selig repulsive. He almost became a train wreck - I pitied him, but I couldn't look away, couldn't put the book down.

  6. I suppose there is that as well. I think our different reactions to the character of David Selig (plus our mutual enjoyment of the book) speaks volumes about the type of characterization Silverberg achieved here.

  7. Very good review, it even made me overcome my laziness and register on Google to be able to post this comment. Given the user name I chose, it's hardly a surprise I adore this book and find the main character one of the most fascinating and well drawn in all of speculative fiction. I never found him repulsive or unsavory, BTW. Pathetic at times, sure, too lazy (something which I can certainly relate to, unfortunately) and seriously flawed, but he has enough compassion and restrain not to abuse his power more - he could've certainly became richer if he wanted it by cheating on a bigger scale, like Nykvist, but chose not to.

  8. I really liked this book when I read it over 8 years ago, but I never once thought of it as Science Fiction. It certainly uses the Telepathy trope from Science Fiction, but seems nothing more than a contemporary character study, much like Silverberg's other SF Masterwork The Book of Skulls, which is basically just a road trip between 4 young men. But that is essentially what makes his novels so good - the focus on the characters and how and why they react to the situations they get into. Very absorbing.