Dying Inside

By Robert Silverberg

Essay by Ted Gioia

In the final month of a turbulent decade, Robert Silverberg came up
with the title for his novel
Dying Inside. “I found myself wondering,” he
recalls, “whether the phrase ‘dying inside,’
taken literally, might generate some useful
fictional idea.” This odd method was a proven
opening gambit for our author. In the past,
the prolific Silverberg—for a stretch in his
early twenties, he generated a million words
per year—often found that titles came before
the story, and paved the way for a plot.

The whole genre was struggling with plots at
the time. Much had changed during the 1960s,
but science fiction books had hardly budged—
most of them still were caught up in the pulp
fiction formulas that had been around since
before World War II. In this instance, Silverberg decided that his best
way of creating a vivid fictional future was by tapping into the raw
energy of the present moment. The result was one of this author’s
finest novels—a book that might have developed a cult following at
the time if it had been packaged and marketed with a little more

Ballantine’s paperback edition featured a
slimy monster on the
cover—an illustration that would puzzle anyone who read the book,
and dissuade many from buying it in the first place. Hidden inside the
binding was a story that defied most conventions of the genre. How
many other sci-fi books of the period serve up LSD trips gone bad,
student protests, racial tensions, muggings, the sexual revolution and
Richard Nixon? Silverberg aimed to enhance the verisimilitude of his
story by latching on to these contemporary elements. At the same
time, he wanted to build his story without relying on (in his words)
“science fiction’s customary gaudy trimmings.”

Silverberg completed this novel in nine weeks, which was a slow pace
for him during his younger years. He claims that he typically wrote a
novel in three or four weeks at the time, and his 1967 book
was actually finished in ten days (and was nominated for both a Hugo
and a Nebula).
Dying Inside marked a turning point for Silverberg,
and the pace of work that seemed slow to the novelist at the time set
the tone for his future projects. “Never again, after writing
,” he admits, “did I write a full-length novel in as little as nine
weeks. But it was an abnormal skill in the first place.”

Strangely enough—or perhaps not—the protagonist of
Dying Inside,
David Selig, is also on the brink of losing an abnormal power. Selig is
a telepath. He can read minds, sometimes grasping just a few words
at forefront of an acquaintance’s consciousness, at other moments
probing deep into their souls. He finds the experience exhilarating, yet
this skill has ironically crippled his social interactions, setting him
apart from the rest of humanity.

In mid-life, Selig starts to lose his special talent. At first, the process is
so slow that he hardly notices it. But in time, the decline becomes
unmistakable. His mind-reading is often blocked, and brief periods of
recovery cannot hide the overall trend. Silverberg draws out the
implications in a series of memorable interludes, and we see how
Selig’s plight impacts his friendships, his family ties, his romantic
interests, his livelihood and day-to-day experiences. Much of the
allure of this story stems from the author’s penetrating grasp of what
such superhuman power really does to its beneficiary, and how its
loss might impact the lifelong mind-reader.

The result is a novel that is more psychologically charged than your
typical sci-fi story. You might think that the subject of telepathy itself
would inspire this richness of inner detail, but the history of the genre
shows that this is far from the case. Even an often-praised novel such
as Alfred Bester’s
The Demolished Man (1953)—usually cited as the
preeminent fictional account of mind-reading—comes across as
hollow and contrived by comparison to
Dying Inside. Silverberg, in
sharp contrast to Bester (who developed his skills writing radio and
TV scripts), is aiming for a more consciously literary effect.

Sometimes he tries too hard. The frequent literary allusions in this
book—Beckett, Eliot, Yeats, Aeschylus, etc.—don’t always work. At
one point, the book devotes six pages to an exegesis of the novels of
Kafka, and though our author tries valiantly to connect this to the
overall story, both on the level of plot and symbolism, the effect
comes across as forced. Even so, Silverberg is mostly on the mark,
and his willingness to take chances in a genre that often settles for
flashy and obvious effects, sets this book apart.

This is most apparent in the equivocal response of Selig to his loss of
telepathic powers. Silverberg’s hero has mixed feelings, and the
prospect of “dying inside” is not without its promise of rebirth into
something purer and better. Issues of aging and decline, maturity and
grace—rarely dealt with in any popular fiction, and with a few
exceptions (such as
Flowers for Algernon) almost completely
neglected in sci-fi—are the key themes at work here.  They are
handled so deftly and vividly that one inevitably wonders about the
connections between David Selig the character and Robert Silverberg
the author.

Silverberg has played down the autobiographical angle. Yet when he
submitted the manuscript to Betty Ballantine, she expressed her
concern—based on her sense that the protagonist of the story was a
stand-in for the writer. "While I admire the book," she wrote, "I am also
worried about you." Certainly readers today will find it hard not to link
this story with at least some elements of the author's own personal

Dying Inside did not recieve much acclaim at the time of its
first release, it has build an audience the hard way—slowly and over
a period of years.  Its gradual recognition as a classic is well
deserved.  Working in a genre that suffers from the curse of
perpetual adolescence, our author shows that senescence can also
be the basis for a gripping story. This was heavy stuff for sci-fi back in
the day.  It still is now.
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Barefoot in the Head

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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I, Robot

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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