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Book Review: The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

Title: The World Inside

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

Reading Next: White Cat by Holly Black

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  • KMont
    April 29, 2010 at 5:08 am

    Hmmm, well, thanks for the review. I’d kind of been looking forward to this one, but the fact that the sexual olympics that society engages in feels like a disconnect for you, eh, I’m not really interested anymore. Oh well.

  • katiebabs
    April 29, 2010 at 7:40 am

    Soylent Green is one of my all time favorite movies. But after watching that and Night of the Living Dead, I was scared to death.

    My biggest fears is either death by zombie or living in world where there is no food, no kindness and the temperature is never below 95 degrees.

  • Gerd D.
    April 29, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Never read Silverberg, and this doesn’t sound like a good point to start with it. *hah*

    I liked Harrison’s “Make room! Make room!”, but not as much as the movie. In the end the book was “just” a futuristic crime novel for me.

  • Leah
    April 29, 2010 at 8:36 am

    Given all the “God Bless” and “Bless God” parts of the section you quoted, it seems the author’s point was to merge two controversial issues of morality, pro-life dogma and complete sexual freedom, and show what kind of extreme cultural system (extreme religion you could say) might result. Taking the conservative pro-life stance on procreation (big religious underpinnings so that’s why there is still marriage I think) and combining that with very liberal sexual attitudes. I agree it’s a bizarre combination but it seems his point is that it is extremes of belief that trap us. Sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for the fab review!

  • Audrey
    April 29, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Great review and very interesting read. Loved Brave New World, so I want to check this out. You might also enjoy a new book that just came out in March called, “The Ovary Wars,” which takes you into a world where women’s ovaries are being destroyed and the government needs to find out what the cause is – if its terrorism, a virus, or even a cult. The book is thought provoking and has some good plot twists. You should check it out!

  • Diana Peterfreund
    April 29, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I’m with Leah. I haven’t read this book, but just from the excerpt it seems as if the origin point of this world is saying “what if everyone here is like the Duggar family?” The whole “be fruitful and multiply” thing taken to a science fictional extreme. It’s a tenet of MANY religions. It sounds very plausible to me. The idea of childbearing as the highest virtue, to the detriment of anything else in the world (wild animals, for example) — why not?

  • Thea
    April 29, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Hi folks, thanks for the comments.

    Kenda – It’s not so much the sex (and there’s a lot of it) that didn’t work for me. Rather, it was this simple, completely counterintuitive, illogical premise. I mean, I *get* that’s Silverberg’s point, essentially. But there’s nothing this society is getting out of this mass reproduction – what was the genesis of this society in the first place? Silverberg mentions that there was a food shortage after humans had overcrowded the planet and the only ones that survived were the ones that walled themselves in buildings to keep out the food bandits.

    My question then, is if food was in such short supply, why would a society that values MORE mouths take root? Shouldn’t it be the opposite?

    It just didn’t compute, in my opinion.

    KB – Well, hopefully we’ll keep the zombies at bay. As for the second nightmare scenario…

    Gerd D. – I agree with you. I actually liked Soylent Green better than the book, though both were enjoyable. As for Mr. Silverberg, this is a good book, but I’d probably start with a different novel of his too!

    Leah (and Diana) – While I think that’s an intriguing point you put forward, you’re drawing this on a small excerpt. “Religion” isn’t really a part of this society, at least not in the traditional sense – the “god bless” (note the lower case ‘g’ – that’s intentional, and discussed in the book) is more of an instinctual response as opposed to any real dogma. Their “religion” (if you can call it that) is to have children. I’m hesitant to say that this is some sort of prolife or religious critique because that’s not the impression I had when reading the book. The desire to procreate isn’t out of some urge to please a higher deity; it’s more like a cultural imperative. Does that make sense? Gaah. Let me use an example – the old American dream of the 2.5 kids, picket fence. The imperative to have children in Silverberg’s society is more like that.

    Not to mention, this book was written in the 1960s, so it is a different sort of mind frame there too, and I’m a little hesitant to put too modern an interpretation of the novel.

    All that said, I think your contemporary interpretation (at least, of this initial passage) is interesting, and I’d really like to see what you think if you get a chance to read the whole book.

    Diana – Maybe it does sound plausible from this passage. But from my own personal interpretation from reading the full book, there are too many inconsistencies for this to fly. Like I said to KMont above – given the origin story for the Urbmons and the drastic shortage of food, it just struck me as an unlikely and illogical system of living.

  • Leah
    April 29, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Diana – Thanks for the support! Are you going to read it? For myself, I am intrigued.

    Thea – You’re right of course. I must read the whole book. But how interesting that just one section got me thinking. I’ve requested it at the library.

    Have you read Unwind by Neal Shusterman? I don’t read YA but this was recommended to me by a good friend’s 13 year old son. I was surprised that I enjoyed it. I thought it was well done if a bit lacking in scientific detail. There were a couple of scenes that were very powerful and actually mad me cry (very unusual for me).

  • danielle
    April 29, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    I feel like every time you say something has little-to-no point, I end up loving it. Case in point: The Magicians.

    I think I will check this out.

  • Thea
    April 29, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Leah – I’m definitely interested to see if you still interpret the book the same way after reading it all! I’m betting once you take a look at the book in its entirety, it might change 🙂 And hey, if you don’t want to wait for the library, the entire book is free online right now!

    No pressure.

    And yes, I’ve read and loved Unwind (though it had its own strengths and weaknesses). That last scene, the “unwinding” scene…whoo boy. Talk about heavy.

    Danielle – Well, actually, that would be Ana. I didn’t review The Magicians…because I couldn’t finish that awful mess. 😆 Something about reading male ennui makes me want to gouge my eyes out. Angst isn’t my thing.

    That said, I’m really interested to see what you think of The World Inside. Like I said, I didn’t hate it and I recognize its value. I just don’t LOVE it. *shrugs*

  • Luis Carlos Zardo
    October 16, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Just found this book review and, it convinced me to read the book, my two cents:

    The whole promiscuity and incst thing along with lots and lots of children were somewhat gross to me, and, sincerely, such a society would not work at all…


    Chapter six, when Michael leaves the urbmon is by a far margin the best part of this book, when he explains his society we can understand, somewhat what was the autor´s point:

    Even now, in the brink of a environmental collapse, people fail to understand that our numbers are the main cause of our problems, even ecologists does not think this way, instead, they prefer the easy way out and blame our habits.

    In the book, society crumbled and, in the michael words, found a way to leve with a very small footprint, this way, they could really fill the world with billions, thanks to a much more advanced technology that we currently possess, of course…

    and, thanks to completely destroying our environment, in the book there are the ever multiplying urbmons and there´s the farms outside.

    The farmers keeps their civilization stable, if they decide to multiply just like the urbmons do the entire world would fall apart immediatelly.

    Artha, the farmer girl also pointed out something intersting:

    sooner or later, EVEN the urbmons would not be enough to accomodate the entire population, actuallly, living space the planet have plenty, it´s farming space that would be the bottleneck of this civilization, something the author seens unaware of.

    Michael refuted it, naturally…JUST LIKE PEOPLE DOES NOWADAYS, when you tell them about overpopulation…

    I know, creating a society based entirely on irrestrict procreation is stupid, even more on the aftermath of a major catastrophe caused exactly by overpopulation…

    …but the human race IS that stupid, sadly

  • Luis Carlos Zardo
    October 16, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Another point the author did not consider correctly (or even close to it) is the whole mathematics of the world population.

    Considering that having six kids is not uncommon and, in this future worlds there are no wars, and, in a controled environment, very few diseases to cause deaths and very few accidents, the population the author claim the world could support would be reached in a few decades rather than centuries.

    Currently we have an average of three children per woman and, our population, if unchecked is supposed to double in 75 years, which would, probably crush our environment beyond repair.

    but in the book when talking about the new urbmon, the author claim that its pioneers of 250.000 people would fill it in 12 to 13 years, it means, more than TRIPLING its population in a decade!

    assuming its not a common situation, since all the new residents would be young people, even so I can consider that this future population would at least DOUBLE in twenty or so years, at least it happens to countries that have this number of children per woman nowadays.

    so, the population of 75 billion people would be 150 billion in 20 years, 300 billion in 40 years and so on…

    far more than the 3 additional billion per year, which would only be possible if the growth was linear, which it isn´t.

    How could the ever shrinking population of farmers cope to the necessary increse in production? Or, why should them, since they would not need to do that?

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