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Conceptual Fiction: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

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Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.

In the final month of a turbulent decade, Robert Silverberg came up with the title for his novel Dying Inside. “I found myself wondering,” he recalls, “whether the phrase ‘dying inside,’ taken literally, might generate some useful fictional idea.” This odd method was a proven opening gambit for our author. In the past, the prolific Silverberg—for a stretch in his early twenties, he generated a million words per year—often found that titles came before the story, and paved the way for a plot.

The whole genre was struggling with plots at the time. Much had changed during the 1960s, but science fiction books had hardly budged—most of them still were caught up in the pulp fiction formulas that had been around since before World War II. In this instance, Silverberg decided that his best way of creating a vivid fictional future was by tapping into the raw energy of the present moment. The result was one of this author’s finest novels—a book that might have developed a cult following at the time if it had been packaged and marketed with a little more panache.

Ballantine’s paperback edition featured a slimy monster on the cover—an illustration that would puzzle anyone who read the book, and dissuade many from buying it in the first place. Hidden inside the binding was a story that defied most conventions of the genre. How many other sci-fi books of the period serve up LSD trips gone bad, student protests, racial tensions, muggings, the sexual revolution and Richard Nixon? Silverberg aimed to enhance the verisimilitude of his story by latching on to these contemporary elements. At the same time, he wanted to build his story without relying on (in his words) “science fiction’s customary gaudy trimmings.”

Silverberg completed this novel in nine weeks, which was a slow pace for him during his younger years. He claims that he typically wrote a novel in three or four weeks at the time, and his 1967 book Thorns was actually finished in ten days (and was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula). Dying Inside marked a turning point for Silverberg, and the pace of work that seemed slow to the novelist at the time set the tone for his future projects. “Never again, after writing Dying Inside,” he admits, “did I write a full-length novel in as little as nine weeks. But it was an abnormal skill in the first place.”

Strangely enough—or perhaps not—the protagonist of Dying Inside, David Selig, is also on the brink of losing an abnormal power. Selig is a telepath. He can read minds, sometimes grasping just a few words at forefront of an acquaintance’s consciousness, at other moments probing deep into their souls. He finds the experience exhilarating, yet this skill has ironically crippled his social interactions, setting him apart from the rest of humanity.

In mid-life, Selig starts to lose his special talent. At first, the process is so slow that he hardly notices it. But in time, the decline becomes unmistakable. His mind-reading is often blocked, and brief periods of recovery cannot hide the overall trend. Silverberg draws out the implications in a series of memorable interludes, and we see how Selig’s plight impacts his friendships, his family ties, his romantic interests, his livelihood and day-to-day experiences. Much of the allure of this story stems from the author’s penetrating grasp of what such superhuman power really does to its beneficiary, and how its loss might impact the lifelong mind-reader.

The result is a novel that is more psychologically charged than your typical sci-fi story. You might think that the subject of telepathy itself would inspire this richness of inner detail, but the history of the genre shows that this is far from the case. Even an often-praised novel such as Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953)—usually cited as the preeminent fictional account of mind-reading—comes across as hollow and contrived by comparison to Dying Inside. Silverberg, in sharp contrast to Bester (who developed his skills writing radio and TV scripts), is aiming for a more consciously literary effect.

Sometimes he tries too hard. The frequent literary allusions in this book—Beckett, Eliot, Yeats, Aeschylus, etc.—don’t always work. At one point, the book devotes six pages to an exegesis of the novels of Kafka, and though our author tries valiantly to connect this to the overall story, both on the level of plot and symbolism, the effect comes across as forced. Even so, Silverberg is mostly on the mark, and his willingness to take chances in a genre that often settles for flashy and obvious effects, sets this book apart.

This is most apparent in the equivocal response of Selig to his loss of telepathic powers. Silverberg’s hero has mixed feelings, and the prospect of “dying inside” is not without its promise of rebirth into something purer and better. Issues of aging and decline, maturity and grace—rarely dealt with in any popular fiction, and with a few exceptions (such as Flowers for Algernon) almost completely neglected in sci-fi—are the key themes at work here.  They are handled so deftly and vividly that one inevitably wonders about the connections between David Selig the character and Robert Silverberg the author.

Silverberg has played down the autobiographical angle. Yet when he submitted the manuscript to Betty Ballantine, she expressed her concern—based on her sense that the protagonist of the story was a stand-in for the writer. "While I admire the book," she wrote, "I am also worried about you." Certainly readers today will find it hard not to link this story with at least some elements of the author's own personal history.

Although Dying Inside did not recieve much acclaim at the time of its first release, it has build an audience the hard way—slowly and over a period of years.  Its gradual recognition as a classic is well deserved.  Working in a genre that suffers from the curse of perpetual adolescence, our author shows that senescence can also be the basis for a gripping story. This was heavy stuff for sci-fi back in the day.  It still is now.

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About Ted Gioia

  • David Scholes

    I’m intrigued by Siverberg’s approach of offtimesletting the title come before the story. Perhaps only the truly great writers can succeed with this approach?

    One does wonder what may have been achieved at the time had the book been packaged and marketed with more panache. Perhaps by some of todays marketing experts.

    I’ve recently been published myself in the US. Just a modest collection of short science fiction and one or two alternate history stories.

    The book is on Amazon and many of the major sites and the link to my author page.