Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dark Roasted Science Fiction: A Double Dose of Robert Silverberg

As previously mentioned here's another of several brand new reviews of classic science fiction novels that are either up on the always-great Dark Roasted Blend:

The World Inside (1971)
Robert Silverberg

Welcome to the year 2381. Things are perfect: very, very perfect. Everyone is happy, everyone is satisfied within the towering blocks of the Urban Monads -- monster monoliths of humanity towering hundreds of floors, and thousands of feet, above the surface of the planet.

If there is one rule, one overriding philosophy of the people living in the monads -- beyond their pathological satisfaction with the state of the world and their lives -- it’s “be fruitful and multiply.”

Each monad is made up of 25 cities, each existing within their own sections of 40 floors. Urban Monad 116, the setting of Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, has a population of 800,000 happy, happy people, with the world population at 75 billion people … and climbing.

There have been many books about the horrors of overpopulation, most notably, Harry Harrison Make Room, Make Room, which you might know better as Soylent Green when it made it onto the big screen. But The World Inside is unique and powerful: a nightmare dipped in a super-sweet glaze, a hell made of smiles and sex. The residents of Urban Monad 116 -- the musician, the bureaucrat, the rebel, and all the other characters that rotate onto the novel’s stage -- don’t know they are living in a nightmare of bodies, bodies, and more bodies. For them, births -- and huge families -- are not just the norm but the ultimate desire of every citizen. To encourage this population explosion, the male residents roam their tower, falling into every available woman’s bed, each carnal encounter a possibility for -- joy, joy -- even more life.

The World Inside is, itself, a seduction. Because the reader follows each character, we first see their world as they see it: a bountiful celebration of humanity, a sensual monolithic rave. But then the glaze, the smiles, and the sex begin to wear thin for both the reader as well as the people of Urban Monad 116 we are following, and the book begins to show the horrifying isolation, the hollow monolith that is their building as well as their life.

As with everything Robert Silverberg has written, The World Inside is a literary treat: vivid and kaleidoscopic, richly textured but also smoothly told. It’s far too easy to read a book like The World Inside and forget the awe-inspiring literary skill and storytelling mastery that’s going on right before your eyes. The World Inside is a book that shouldn’t just be read but re-read and re-read and re-read: once for the pure enjoyment of this unique and powerful story, again to enjoy Silverberg’s magnificent talent as a writer, and yet again to enjoy the story's careful weaving of plot and story and theme.

The World Inside is a perfect example of a master storyteller’s craft: a timeless book and an eternal warning of substituting quantity for quality.

Born With The Dead (1971)
Robert Silverberg

Simple is hard: very, very hard. Not that complexity is, therefore, easy, but writing a story that's elegant yet lean, graceful yet subtly complex, lyrical yet spare -- that demonstrates the skill of a true master. A true master like Robert Silverberg. It's no wonder his Born With The Dead won the Nebula: the story is the absolute essence of a simple, powerful story told with true mastery of the storyteller's art.

The plot is pretty easy to explain. In the future (well, the 1990s ...according to the story) the recently dead can be reanimated, "rekindled" to use the term in the novella. The problem is that while they aren't dead, they aren't quite alive either: distant and removed, the resurrected live among themselves in Cold Towns, forming a whole population, an entire world, apart from the rest of still-alive humanity.

Having recently lost Sybille, his wife, Jorge is having a hard time adjusting to seeing her rekindled into an aloof and distant version of herself. A very hard time. In fact he begins to stalk her as she slips into the life of the reanimated dead. This is where Silverberg again shines: the world he creates, if just for the length of a novella, is rich and sensory, full of sparkling details woven with musically brilliant prose. Silverberg also manages, in the space of a few spare pages, to investigate and ponder the role of death in human society, as well as in various flavors of culture.

The ending of Born With The Dead comes almost too soon, but when it does come it arrives like a thunderclap. And like a thunderclap, when you think back on its arrival, you realize you saw it coming for a long time - a short journey of Jorge and Sybille makes for a perfectly executed story, a tight little package of character, theme, style. Born With The Dead is considered one of Silverberg's best works, and it's definitely worth to seek out.

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