by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Here begins a happy review in 1998.
This is one of the most clearly dystopian novels I have read by Silverberg (although I think this hit me more in retrospect than at the time). The central premise is that rather than dealing with the overpopulation problem our future society swings the other way and decides to increase the population as rapidly as possible, adopting a philosophy of life according to which copious copulation is "blessworthy," or God's will. Man's duty, his purpose in life, is to multiply, and thanks to a vertical approach to existence, in which 3-kilometer high structures, urbmons, house over 800,000 individuals, it is possible to accommodate the ever-increasing numbers of "littles."
When I began to read this book, I was overcome by queasiness, a general dizzying sense of guilt. I doubt that when Silverberg wrote it, nearly three decades agonow, he intended it as a warning of the problems of overpopulation. Rather, I see in this work a deeply ironic portrait of what unfortunately seem to be some of humanity's underlying traits — perhaps highlighted at the time, the 70s being, in several aspects, a decade of excess — a metaphor for how we sometimes fail to deal with problems and the nightmarish scenarios this can lead to. Have you ever woken in the middle of the night convinced you have done something terrible throughout your life, absolutely sure that you are guilty of a terrible immoral act, something for which there is no redemption? To me, The World Inside was a voice of darkness answering, "Yes, yes, you have committed the Act, you're not alone, we've all committed the Act, the Act is who we are": the overpopulated world, with its beehive-like urbmons, and the confused, profoundly empty individuals soaked in recreational excesses who inhabit them, are what we become when we shut our eyes and make believe that everything is all right. Permanently. The world inside. Inside us, inside that place where we eternally teeter on the edge of endless self-implosion, of the loss of self, of identity. An extended metaphor for the deliberate and ever desperate abandonment of reason, thought, control. A metaphor for what happens when we live in a world that becomes an orgy of consumption, of indulgence, the ultimate selfish bliss that is the perfect extension of our genetic programming. For when we live right now, right here, and shut out the rest. For when we go about our daily business, drone-like, and don't think about those people we knew who were sent to Auschwitz yesterday, as long as Hitler keeps the economy up, or that family who was shipped to Siberia, as long as Stalin says the farmers are going to be OK. The system of government presented in this novel is vague, imprecise: what is clear, and this is everything we need to know, is that power is in the hands of a few, a class-distinguished elite who make choices for the rest of the people. "Flippos" are sent down chutes and incinerated, so that they may, even in death, contribute some energy towards maintaining the urbmons. What is so horrifying is the way in which the fictional population, with a few exceptions, seems to accept this, the lack of emotional impact. It is the way of things, and the way of things is not to be challenged. Or else.
A distressing aspect of the novel is certainly the fact that, as some characters point out, even though the overpopulation problems have been solved for the time being, and perhaps will be dealt with by vast expansion in times to come, there will inevitably come a time when things must change. Limits must be set, somewhere, sometime, somehow. A time of awakening, of realizing we have wasted our lives. But reaching that moment of collective enlightenment is here, unlike more of his recent works, unimportant to Silverberg: what he cares about is showing us how a few disparate individuals, whose paths at some point converge, struggle to deal with the world into which they have been born (and yet their struggle is not a sign of hope, for there is no liberation from their anxiety, no resolution to the massive denial that has engendered their sense of disconnection to begin with). There is no central plot as such, but Silverberg pulls off the trick of carrying along our interest from one situation and one set of characters to another with ease. As much as the people herein, the urbmon itself, with its dark catacombs penetrating deep into the bowels of the earth, and its soaring, wind-swept top, is a constant presence, the omniscient thread of desperation that links all the people. Each story is relevant in its depiction of a specific individual's reactions and struggle for sanity, for understanding. I think the stories about Michael Statler — and the very physical manifestation of his search for truth, fo rexperience — and Siegmund Kluver are the best, although the others also provide interesting insights into the society Silverberg has created.
This novel presents frustration as something evil, an approach rife with interesting philosophical consequences, considering, for instance, the restriction this causes on individual liberty when this freedom might lead to the frustration of others (e.g. it is very strange to refuse any sexual solicitation by "nightwalkers"; whatsoever, irrespective of one's own condition). Solving the population problem, claims a character, is challenge enough, and since it is man's purpose to meet challenges, what better way than by continuing to procreate? This viewpoint is drenched in irony. Frustration, the struggle for existence, is a driving force, a motivation, something that can be used to give existence meaning, even perspective (a theme upon which Silverberg has touched in other works, for instance the novel Star of Gypsies, or the short story "Trips". The World Inside turns this philosophy inside out by showing how we are so narrow-minded, so small, that we often fail to realize our potential by becoming steeped in problems of our own creation. On a whole, it seems to me that the theme of overpopulation is explored more comprehensively than in his other works (sociological, religious, political and personal consequences being dealt with in an interesting manner), especially when one considers the metaphorical interpretation. This may be the result of the above-average frequency of change in character viewpoint for a mid-period Silverberg novel, which allows us to see how the same basic situation affects different people in different ways (and isn't that what all goodwriting is about?), or simply of a more concentrated, almost feverish approach on the part of the author.