Author: Robert Silverberg
Genre: Dystopia, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Orb Books (Tor)
Publication Date: 1971 (1st Ed) / March 2010 (2nd Ed)
Paperback: 256 Pages (2nd Ed)
Welcome to Urban Monad 116. Reaching nearly two miles into the sky, the one thousand stories of this building are home to over eight hundred thousand people living in peace and harmony. In the year 2381 with a world population of over seventy-five billion souls, the massive Urbmon system is humanity’s salvation.
Life in Urbmon 116 is highly regulated, life is cherished, and the culture of procreation is seen as the highest pinnacle of god’s plan. Conflict is abhorred, and any who disturb the peace face harsh punishment—even being sent “down the chute” to be recycled as fertilizer.
Jason Quevedo, a historian, searches records of the twentieth century hoping to find the root of his discontent with the perfection of Urbmon life.
Siegmund Kluver, a young and ambitious administrator, strives to reach the top levels of the Urbmon’s government and discovers the civilization’s dark truths.
Michael Statler, a computer engineer, harbors a forbidden desire. He dreams of leaving the building—of walking in the open air and visiting the far-off sea. This is a dream he must keep secret. If anyone were to find out, he’d face the worst punishment imaginable.
The World Inside is a fascinating exploration of society and what makes us human, told by a master of speculative fiction.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book: An older take on a dystopian (or is it utopian?) future, filtered through the lens of speculative fiction…what doesn’t say “Thea” all over that?
The sun rises on Urbmon 116 (god bless! god bless!), and the vertical world of some 80,000 men, women, and children awaken to another day full of simple bliss. Life in the Urbmons is one of contained, maintained control. Each floor of the literal skyscraper is named after an old city, and each level represents the class and importance of its inhabitants – those on the mid-lower floors of the 600s such as Prague are lower in status than those of the upper echelons of Chicago, Shanghai or, at the pinnacle of Urbmon 116, Louisville.
It is the year 2381, and Earth has a population of 75 billion, and climbing each day, as the single, enduring desire of the Urbmon way of life is simply: procreate.
As young as eleven years old, children are married and begin their unyielding mission in life to have as many children as possible. The size of one’s family equates to one’s position in society; the earlier one has children, and the more children one has, the more likely one is to move up in floors.
The World Inside examines this bizarre society through the eyes of different Urbmon inhabitants – a precocious social climbing golden boy; a historian gathering evidence for his hypothesis concerning the sustained success of the Urbmon way of life; a computer programmer that dreams of stepping outside; an ambitious wife, whose mindset might be more at home in the 20th century; a musician; a childless woman who cannot fathom leaving the Urbmon; etc. More a series of character montages than a straightforward, traditional novel, The World Inside takes a a bizarre, intriguing vision of the future of mankind – one in which all our desires and goals stem from a distorted view of sex and procreation.
In many ways, I found The World Inside to be reminiscent of Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World (what with the mood altering drugs, the rigid social strata of people and the overarching need to be Happy – OR ELSE). Stylistically, I loved the way this novel – nominated for the Hugo in 1972 – was written. The World Inside is powerful yet elegant, encapsulated but non-linear. Instead of following a single character struggling to “break out” of the Urbmon (which seems the obvious route to go), Mr. Silverberg rather writes a collection of what are almost overlapping short stories, providing brief insights into many different characters trapped within this vertical buttress that is Urbmon 116. A future dystopian world set in behemoth skyscrapers, where everyone is “trapped” within a structure of their own creation seems like an interesting metaphor for life even today, and I loved this clever insight to the niches people carve out for themselves.
While one facet of Mr. Silverberg’s message is, in my opinion, this critique of man’s enduring ability to pigeonhole himself in a cage of his own making, the other (more dominant) theme is that of sex and reproduction. The residents (citizens?) of Urbmon 116 and all the Urbmons on Earth embrace unrestrained reproduction vigor as they try to reproduce as quickly and plentifully as possible. Couples are “married” and share a single family unit, but there is no such thing as monogamy in this future world. Men “nightwalk” to other units in the Urbmon, and may sleep with anyone they choose. There is no refusal, no sense of possessiveness or proprietary rights – people are encouraged to sleep with their neighbors, brothers, sisters. In a society that values birth as the ultimate purpose, the only sin is refusal.
This is, frankly, a bizarre premise that seems ridiculously counter-intuitive. The goal of this society is to continue reproducing at what must arithmetically be an exponential rate…but WHY? This was the largest disconnect of the novel for me, as there is no reasoning behind this proclivity to procreate. I was hoping for something more nefarious or Dark City-esque (WHY can’t anyone go outside? Maybe there IS no outside!); perhaps Alien creatures are farming humans for food! You know, that sort of thing. Another question I found myself asking throughout the novel was HOW do all these people eat? Urbmons must have the most amazing recycling facility EVAH! Which then led me to believe that perhaps these people are eating those “flippos” that have gone down the chute in a Soylent Green style twist (which, if you didn’t know, was also based on a scifi novel about the horrors of overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. And apparently a remake of Soylent Green is in the works…I digress).
But rather, what you see is what you get with The World Inside.
As it stands, it’s a bleak, absurdist view of the future. Many reviews of the novel mention that this is, undoubtedly, a product of its time. There is no denying the influence of the late 1960s boom of sexual experimentation and drugs. What I mean is, this is a sexually explicit book. Like, really explicit. I’m talking orgies, knee spreading, hallucinogenic drug explicit. The people of the Urbmons are extremely sexual creatures. I’m not quite sure if I buy Mr. Silverberg’s solution to the cabin fever that seems inevitable when humanity is stuck in an overpopulated box – would universal sexual availability (any man or woman you want, regardless of gender or blood relation, can be yours) really make for a calmer society? I don’t think I can buy sex as the root of all of man’s foibles. Certainly it’s a contributing factor, but even with universal availability the Urbmons just don’t seem very feasible. (On that note, why would anyone be married as marriage is essentially a monogamous institution?)
Another niggle – this is apparently a very advanced society that has mastered synthetic food manufacture, power recycling, etc. So why, then, with this shortsighted goal of birth as many people as possible? Taken in historical context (the overpopulation fears of the late ’60s and ’70s) I understand what Mr. Silverberg was trying to do with this novel; that is, extrapolate a vision of the future where the worst possible scenario of overpopulation has come to fruition. Hey, every dystopian author has their own thing – nuclear annihilation stemming from Cold War fears, deadly viruses as the result of bio-terrorism, environmental catastrophe in this green-conscious era. But at the same time, this wonky humans propagating without any rhyme or reason premise is the only thing that kept me from truly loving the book.
Is The World Inside an impressive work of speculative fiction and an important work in the dystopian canon? Well, yes (though overpopulation and unflinching totalitarianism have been examined in other novels, and better). Did I love this book with full abandon? Not really. Still, it’s certainly worth reading and recommending, especially for connoisseurs of the dystopian subgenre.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the first chapter:
“Good morning,” says the screen heartily. “The external temperature, if anybody’s interested, is 28°. Today’s population figure at Urbmon 116 is 881,115, which is +102 since yesterday and +14,187 since the first of the year. God bless, but we’re slowing down! Across the way at Urbmon 117 they’ve added 131 since yesterday, including quads for Mrs. Hula Jabotinsky. She’s eigh teen and has had seven previous. A servant of god, isn’t she? The time is now 0620. In exactly forty minutes Urbmon 116 will be honored by the presence of Nicanor Gortman, the visiting sociocomputator from Hell, who can be recognized by his distinctive outbuilding costume in crimson and ultra violet. Dr. Gortman will be the guest of the Charles Mat-terns of the 799th floor. Of course we’ll treat him with the same friendly blessmanship we show one another. God bless Nicanor Gortman! Turning now to news from the lower levels of Urbmon 116—”
Principessa says, “Hear that, children? We’ll have a guest, and we must be blessworthy toward him. Come and eat.”
When he has cleansed himself, dressed, and breakfasted, Charles Mattern goes to the thousandth- .oor landing stage to meet Nicanor Gortman. As he rises through the building to the summit, Mattern passes the .oors on which his brothers and sisters and their families live. Three brothers, three sisters. Four of them younger than he, two older. All quite successful. One brother died, unpleasantly, young. Jeffrey. Mattern rarely thinks of Jeffrey. Now he is passing through the .oors that make up Louisville, the administrative sector. In a moment he will meet his guest. Gortman has been touring the tropics and is about to visit a typical urban monad in the temperate zone. Mattern is honored to have been named the of.cial host. He steps out on the landing stage, which is at the very tip of Urbmon 116. A force- .eld shields him from the .erce winds that sweep the lofty spire. He looks to his left and sees the western face of Urban Monad 115 still in darkness. To his right, Urbmon 117’s eastern windows sparkle. Bless Mrs. Hula Jabotinsky and her eleven littles, Mattern thinks. Mattern can see other urbmons in the row, stretching on and on toward the horizon, towers of superstressed concrete three kilometers high, tapering ever so gracefully. It is a thrilling sight. God bless, he thinks. God bless, god bless, god bless!
He hears a cheerful hum of rotors. A quickboat is landing. Out steps a tall, sturdy man dressed in high- spectrum garb. He must surely be the visiting sociocomputator from Hell.
“Nicanor Gortman?” Mattern asks.
“Bless god. Charles Mattern?”
“God bless, yes. Come.”
Hell is one of the eleven cities of Venus, which man has reshaped to suit himself. Gortman has never been on Earth before. He speaks in a slow, stolid way, no lilt in his voice at all; the in.ection reminds Mattern of the way they talk in Urbmon 84, which Mattern once visited on a .eld trip. He has read Gortman’s papers: solid stuff, closely reasoned. “I particularly liked ‘Dynamics of the Hunting Ethic,’ ” Mattern tells him while they are in the dropshaft. “Remarkable. A revelation.”
“You really mean that?” Gortman asks, flattered.
“Of course. I try to keep up with the better Venusian journals. It’s so fascinating to read about alien customs. Such as hunting wild animals.”
“There are none on Earth?”
“God bless, no,” Mattern says. “We couldn’t allow that! But I love gaining insight into different ways of life.”
“My essays are escape literature for you?” asks Gortman.
Mattern looks at him strangely. “I don’t understand the reference.”
“Escape literature. What you read to make life on Earth more bearable for yourself.”
“Oh, no. Life on Earth is quite bearable, let me assure you. There’s no need for escape literature. I study offworld journals for amusement. And to obtain a necessary parallax, you know, for my own work,” says Mattern. They have reached the 799th level. “Let me show you my home .rst.” He steps from the drop- shaft and beckons to Gortman. “This is Shanghai. I mean, that’s what we call this block of forty .oors, from 761 to 800. I’m in the next- to- top level of Shanghai, which is a mark of my professional status. We’ve got twenty- .ve cities altogether in Urbmon 116. Reykjavik’s on the bottom and Louisville’s on the top.”
You can read the full excerpt – in fact, the full book – online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: I mentioned Soylent Green above – the 1973 hit movie starring Charlton Heston. The film, particularly the last line of the film (which I won’t relate, just in case there’s someone out there that hasn’t seen or heard of the movie) is pretty iconic in the cautionary scifi thriller tradition. But the movie is actually based on the book Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, which is actually very different from the film. If you haven’t read the book, it was recently re-released in 2008. Here’s the official book blurb:
A gangster is murdered during a blistering Manhattan heat wave. City cop Andy Rusch is under pressure solve the crime and captivated by the victim’s beautiful girlfriend. But it is difficult to catch a killer, let alone get the girl, in crazy streets crammed full of people.
The planet’s population has exploded. The 35 million inhabitants of New York City run their TVs off pedal power, riot for water, loot and trample for lentil ‘steaks’ and are controlled by sinister barbed wire dropped from the sky. Written in 1966 and set in 1999, Make Room! Make Room! is a witty and unnerving story about stretching the earth’s resources, and the human spirit, to breaking point.
You can read the first 100 pages of Make Room! Make Room! online for free HERE.
Verdict: The World Inside is an undeniably powerful novel. Stylistically, Mr. Silverberg has crafted an enduring, beautiful work of speculative fiction. However, the counter-intuitiveness of this dystopian world prevented me from truly loving the book. Still, definitely recommended – especially for the dystopian fan.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
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