Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dying Inside (1972)

Dying Inside is science fiction because author Robert Silverberg is a science fiction writer, with numerous Hugo Award and Nebula Award nominations and wins to his credit. The story has a fantastic element in the telepathy of its main character and first-person narrator, David Selig, a Jewish native of New York City in 1972 present time. But the latter elements tend to overrun the former, which is a good thing, because it ends up feeling more like a lost Philip Roth experiment than the typical technology speculations I associate with science fiction. Selig can read minds, that's all—he can't use his powers to control others or put thoughts in their heads, let alone predict the future or move physical objects or bend spoons. Reaching middle age at the time of the novel, in his early 40s, he finds his mysterious power leaving him. The sadness of this book is often overwhelming. It casts a dense pall. Most of this is due to Silverberg's ability to imagine life with this power, and the subsequent calamity of losing it. Silverberg creates a fully developed character in Selig, who is sustained by New York cultural currents and can't quite bring himself to "grow up" and take on a conventional life. He has a history of fractured relationships, as his power with his personality make him just a little creepy. He survives by hanging around the Columbia University campus, where he ekes out a living by writing term papers for students too busy or uninterested to write them themselves. There are a few samples and excerpts of that work here, familiar enough five-page double-spaced (it's the early '70s) exegeses on Kafka, Euripedes, and other usual suspects of undergraduate literature courses. What works best are the flights about the power. If anything, it is closer to a superhero comic book tale that way than science fiction or fantasy. Imagining myself with superpowers was always the main draw of superhero comic books when I read them faithfully. And mind reading (after only invisibility and super-speed, like the Flash) was a power that caught my imagination. Silverberg explores deep into that fascination—the voyeurism and sense of seductive spying, the potential for a perfectly "safe and harmless" (because one-sided) intimacy. You get to know everything about another person without having to reveal anything of yourself, hence no risk of rejection (which is mitigated anyway by finding out about it privately). Silverberg is so good at this that we feel both the exhilaration of Selig's power and the desolation of its loss. On an obvious level, of course, it's more about youth than telepathy. But it's still one not to miss.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. I first read this book probably 40 years ago. It has stuck with me since although I think I've only reread it once. I thought the sheer ordinariness of David Selig (except for the telepathy) along with the fact he wasn't a "success" in life (again except for what his telepathy gave him) was what made this book so good. That and the desolation and loss as that deep (albeit secret) connection to others, the thing that made him special, even if only known to him, started to slip away. I rarely see this book mentioned, but often when it is it is listed among Silverberg's best.

  2. Thanks Joel! My brother is the reason I know about this book in the first place.