What if you had no alternative but to live out your life in the very narrow, unsatisfying society you were born into?
Oops, that pretty much describes the human condition, doesn’t it? By that measure, Robert Silverberg’s novel The World Inside is successful. Unfortunately, it’s not successful in a very deep or satisfying way.
First published in 1970, the novel gives us a sociologist’s-eye view of a future world in which tens of billions of humans live in three-kilometer-tall skyscrapers called urbmons. People live out their entire lives in these monstrous structures, and never venture outside. One lives and dies in the building in which one was born.
In an urbmon, the sex is plentiful. Indeed, we learn very little about the inhabitants of Urbmon 116 except who is having sex with whom. Fecundity is worshipped, nudity is normal, and birth control is an obscenity. Antisocial behavior is punishable by being sent down the recycling chute — and there’s no trial. If the police spot you engaging in antisocial behavior, they toss you down the chute immediately, so as not to disrupt the harmonious adjustment of the other inhabitants.
Near the end of the novel, two men try, in different ways, to escape from Urbmon 116. They both fail. And neither of them manages, in the process, anything like heroism. They’re no more than confused victims.
Michael walks out through a side entrance, but after a single day in a farm commune, where the farmers swiftly decide to burn him on a pyre as a human sacrifice to their gods, he retreats back inside. He is immediately arrested and tossed down the chute for the crime of being discontented enough to venture outside. Siegmund’s revolt is more internal, more cerebral: At the end of the book, unable to escape from his awareness of the meaninglessness of his life in this heavily artificial world, he climbs up onto the roof of Urbmon 116 and jumps off.
His suicide has no effect on anybody. His wife and children? They were never real characters, and they aren’t mentioned at the end. Siegmund erases himself, and that’s the end of the book.
The speculation at the heart of the book (a projection of 1970-style Free Love into the distant future) is not very credible — but hey, it’s only science fiction. We shouldn’t expect too much. Women in the urbmon society are not allowed to refuse male sexual advances, and never even consider doing so. Men are not jealous when other men wander into their tiny, cramped apartments and climb on top of their wives. And yet, curiously, the men in this society know the word “rape.” I’m still trying to figure that out.
What’s worse, none of the characters in the book seems very concerned with anything but sex and the intricate, yet one-dimensional dynamics of their own society. The book is full of breasts being grabbed, full of descriptions of women’s hair and complexions and filmy garments, full of erections, ejaculations, and moans of pleasure. It’s boring. When not humping one another, the characters endlessly analyze and justify to themselves the wisdom of their own social arrangements. It’s as if Silverberg had no real story to tell, so he just riffed on his imaginary future for 165 pages and then mailed the manuscript off to his agent.
Considered in a positive light, The World Inside is reminiscent of both 1984 and Brave New World. But it’s weighed down by the relentless and numbing mediocrity of the future that Silverberg envisions. The possibility of nobility, even a nobility tragic in defeat, never emerges. When the novel’s characters are so handily defeated by the tawdriness of their society, so is the reader.
Oh, well — I’ve got my books unpacked now, and on the shelves. Maybe I can find something more rewarding to read next.