01/06/2011. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy
pub: Orb/TOR/Forge. 256 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $14.99 (US), $17.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2432-0).
check out website: www.tor-forge.com
The preface of this book, ‘The World Inside’, is copyright 2010 but the actual novel was written in 1971, the decade when Robert Silverberg produced much of his finest work. Overpopulation was a big issue back then and everyone was doing stories about how mankind could avoid it. Silverberg did stories about how mankind could embrace it and those stories have been adapted into this novel.
Here is the human race madly zealous for more babies, overpopulating enthusiastically and filling the world with life, which is blessworthy. Society has been adapted to the procreative urge and most people live in Urban Monads, gigantic skyscrapers eight hundred stories high, each containing about 880,000 people. They begat about one hundred new lives every day and so have to keep building. The skyscraper is a sealed environment and everything is recycled. Food is provided by farm colonies which spread out horizontally over all the available land on the planet. The urbanites supply manufactured goods and the farmers supply food. The two communities never meet.
Mores have changed. Men and women are married but the men go nightwalking to other apartments in the evening and have sex with whoever they like. It is taboo for any woman to refuse any man, which means that the wife back home is also welcoming nightwalkers. There is little privacy even for defecation and washing. The urban monad is hierarchical with top administrators living on the top floors and manual workers down near the basement. It is unusual but not forbidden to go slumming on the lower levels. Occasionally, someone goes 'flippo' and wants to stop nightwalking or defecate in privacy or just have some time alone. These malcontents are hurled down the recycling chute by the cops. At once. No trial.
Everyone feels that everyone else feels this is the best of all possible worlds and they never had it so good. A few individuals are secretly unhappy. To be publicly unhappy means going down the chute. Silverberg tells us the stories of several different characters in Urban Monad 116: a rising administrator, a pop star, a historian, a sociocomputator and so on. A few of them know each other so their stories interact and though each chapter is from a different point of view this is definitely a novel. It is also, that rare phenomena nowadays, a short novel. Back in the day, SF writers delivered punchy short stories and novels of about 70,000 words that told a cracking story and contained a poignant analysis of contemporary issues like this one and like Pohl and Kornbluth's ‘The Space Merchants’. Nowadays, many novels are difficult to hold open in paperback, weigh about a hundredweight in hardback and take half a year to read. Less is sometimes more effective.
I think Silverberg's best work is among the best in the field. This is an excellent novel by most standards, pretty good by his. The concept is well illustrated by the individual stories and the writing is flawless as usual. I finished it feeling slightly depressed because the malcontents never managed to change anything, as in Orwell's 1984. The system won.
Temperamentally, I am inclined to upbeat fiction where the heroes prevail. If Heinlein had written this, the Urban Monads would have ended up collapsing as the human race expanded out to the stars. Silverberg's artistic intention is more realistic and more downbeat, too. I highly recommend it but must warn men not to take up the customs therein. Nightwalking over to the neighbour’s lovely wife is liable to get you a sock in the jaw.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA