Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dying Inside

There was a time back in the late sixties and early seventies when science fiction was almost as exciting as sex and all the drink and drugs everybody was ingesting. This was the New Wave and for all the unreadable pretentious drek it produced it also brought forth so much brilliant enduring work--Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula LeGuin, Philip Jose Farmer to name just a few of the writers--that reading them was as heady as anything you could ingest or smoke. And the people I knew--wanna be writers, actors, painters, singers--TALKED, ARGUED, RANTED about what they read in a way I've never seen since. These books were holy to them.

I remember when Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside was published. People were consumed by it. There had been nothing like it. Yes it was science fiction but only because of fits central metaphor--a man of enormous intelligence who'd been able to read minds since boyhood was now (as the story began) losing his powers. There had never been a novel that so clearly and powerfully bridged the gap between genre and literary fiction. For one thing it dealt with the era as well as anything I'd ever read because it didn't rely at all on the media cliches of the time (the cliches that many hippies and street people began to adopt for themselves) but rather gave us a voice the defined a deeply troubled man and a deeply troubled time.

ORB (Tor) has republished Dying Inside and Michael Dirda of The Washington post reviewed it Friday. Even if you think you hate science fiction, buy this book. You will never forget it.

Here are some exceprts from Dirda's long excellent review:

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, April 9, 2009; Page C12

By Robert Silverberg

Super Powers, Super Decay
Join the Discussion in Michael Dirda's 'Reading Room'
Orb. 302 pp. Paperback, $15.95

David Selig is in his early 40s, with his youthful promise long behind him. A lonely child and a smart aleck in elementary school, he grew up feeling isolated from the rest of the world, happiest with his books. Even at the age of 10, he seemed so maladjusted that his hardworking parents sacrificed to send him to a psychiatrist, to no good purpose. He and his adopted sister have cordially hated each other their whole lives.

At Columbia in the mid-1950s, Selig did reasonably well in his literature classes, and after graduation he went to work briefly in a stock brokerage firm. Over the years he fell seriously in love twice, and both affairs ended disastrously. Most recently, he has been eking out a living by ghost-writing term papers for the Columbia students of the 1970s. He lives by his wits, just above the poverty line, and he is going bald.

He is also losing his ability to read people's minds -- and with it his entire past life, his very sense of self.

Paradoxically, his easy awareness of people's inner lives has left him isolated and alone. "Without it I might have been a happy nobody instead of a dismal one." Only when he probes deeply into a person, down past the surface personality into the unconscious, does Selig find that his power brings him an experience of nirvana-like, oceanic oneness. Yet now his special gift has grown temperamental, as variable as the weather. But what can he do? "Powers decay. Time leaches the colors from the best of visions. The world becomes grayer. Entropy beats us down. Everything fades. Everything goes. Everything dies."


Silverberg's novel offers an eerily evocative picture of New York life in the late 1950s and '60s: a time of bisexual professors, swinging singles, Black Power, psychedelic drugs and all-round social and political upheaval. Given Selig's bookishness, the novel is also suffused with buried quotations from T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare and many other literary eminences.


Most of the time David Selig addresses the reader in a self-pitying first-person voice, though some sections seamlessly switch to third-person narration. Silverberg is a master of multiple verbal registers, catching perfectly the tone of a term paper on Kafka, the period jive talk of a black basketball player, the flirtatious chatter of cocktail parties, the back-and-forth snapping of a brother and sister, the Yiddish idioms of Selig's parents, the earnest fogyness of a Columbia dean, even the stream of consciousness itself.

Some characters, like Selig's promiscuous sister, Judith, and a racist basketball player, are especially vivid creations. Or take the hip French professor Claude Guermantes-


It's insane that "Dying Inside" should be subtly dismissed as merely a genre classic. This is a superb novel about a common human sorrow, that great shock of middle age -- the recognition that we are all dying inside and that all of us must face the eventual disappearance of the person we have been. More and more, as time goes by, our bodies break down, our minds start to lose their quickness, and, suddenly, inconceivably, our best work is behind us.

for the rest (and this is how reviews should be written) go here:


Scott D. Parker said...

I can't help but notice your seemingly wistful take on SF and reading back in the late 60s and early 70s. Am I too far off in inferring that you think that time no longer exists, at least in terms of ground-breaking SF books? If that is the case, why? Is it because we're living in the future that our SF Writer/Ancestors dreamed about?

Harry said...

I will track this one down again, I remember Silverberg's work very fondly and can personally attest now to the gradual breaking down of damned near everything.

Harry Shannon

Ed Gorman said...

Scott-I feel inadequate to comment on a lot of current science fiction because I stopped staying current sometime in the late seventies. Styles changed and they just didn't appeal to me. There are current writers I still read such as Kris Rusch, John Ford and Robert Charles Wilson (among others) but overall I prefer urban fantasy these days.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am woefully uneducated in science fiction except for some Bradbury, Ursula LeQuin, Heinlein. Who was it that said recently that science fiction writers are smarter than anyone else? That would explain my reluctance to try more.

Todd Mason said...

Part of the problem is that literarily adventurous readers too often refuse to read the adventurous fantastic-fiction writers...unless, like Jonathan Lethem, they also write something else, or like Audrey Niffeneggar or Kevin Brockmeier, they don't publish in FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION but in SEEWANEE REVIEW and eventually in THE NEW YORKER. Which is part of why writers such as Thomas Disch and Joanna Russ see their audiences erode, their books fall out of print. Part of why Avram Davidson dies in poverty and Algis Budrys ends up doing almost anything but writing fiction after he hits 30 (even though he does so brilliantly more often than not when he does) and why DYING INSIDE has been a consistent failure as a commercial property.

Because the publishers, in playing it Safe in packaging everything in sf as if it was Orson Scott Card or worse, ends up with an audience that wants OS Card or worse. How 'bout that. And everything that is relatively complex as if it has nothing in common with anything that can be tagged sf, no matter how much such, say, F&SF contributors as Ellen Gilchrist and Stuart Dybek might protest otherwise.

Makes me wanna holler.