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Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
In his bestselling 1968 book The Population Bomb, biologist Paul
Ehrlich warned of imminent social unrest and mass starvations due
to the out-of-control birth rate. On the opening page of his book,
Ehrlich declared: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the
1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of
any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing
can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate."

I will leave it to others to debate the scientific merits of Ehrlich’s view,
which he has defended and others have mocked. But the impact on
science fiction of population panic can't be doubted. At the same time
The Population Bomb was released,
John Brunner issued his 'population bomb'
Stand on Zanzibar, one of the most
creative science fiction works of the era,
and Kurt Vonnegut published his short story
"Welcome to the Monkey House." Even
earlier, a host of high-profile authors had
dealt with the same subject, including
Anthony Burgess, (
The Wanting Seed),
J.G. Ballard ("The Concentration City,"
"Billennium"), Isaac Asimov (
The Caves
of Steel
), Brian Aldiss (Earthworks) and
Robert Heinlein (
Tunnel in the Sky). Even
after fertility rates declines, this plot line
never really disappeared. But I date the end
of the golden age of population bomb stories
to the release of the film
Soylent Green (based on Harry Harrison's
Make Room! Make Room!), a movie whose title gained considerable
traction as a punchline for rude jokes and quips in school cafeterias and
other settings where institutional food is dished out for the weary and wary.

Leave it to Robert Silverberg to find a new twist on this (by then) old plot line
for his 1971 book
The World Inside. He credits editor H.L. Gold, the pulp
fiction mastermind behind
Galaxy Science Fiction, who suggested that
"turning some familiar science fiction concept upside down" often results
in interesting stories. With this impetus, Silverberg concocted the unexpected
idea of a future society that not only tolerates over-population, but
actually encourages it.  

The World Inside, the earth’s population has grown to a staggering 75
billion individuals. Authorities have adapted to this situation by housing people
in massive skyscrapers, each a thousand stories high and containing close
to a million residents per building. The intense concentration of the citizens
in these 'urban monads' (or urbmons) frees up most of the land for farming
—so food is plentiful, and the population can continue to rise. When an
urbmon reaches capacity, a new one is built to take the overflow.   

Within these high density residences, a peculiar worldview has taken root,
a combination of religious zealotry and libertine sexuality. The religious
aspect manifests itself in a divine mandate to "be fruitful and multiply."
Couples get married in their early teens, and are encouraged to have
as many children as possible. Contraception is viewed as the most
heinous sin, an evil so great that even mentioning it violates a widespread
taboo. On the other hand, sex outside of marriage is encouraged. The
stability of the tightly-packed residences requires that frustration and
anxiety must be minimized, and according to the prevailing opinion, this
is achieved by hooking up with a wide assortment of casual sex partners.

But this freedom to stray from the marital bed is not granted equally to the
sexes. Husbands are allowed to wander from woman to woman during the
late night hours—a practice known colloquially as "nightwalking"—and can
enter any stranger’s living quarters, by design or at random, and crawl into
bed with any of the occupants.  Woman are expected to welcome stray
visitors, and Silverberg's narrative depicts them as, for the most part,
receptive and accommodating. Woman are discouraged from "nightwalking"
and even men are expected to restrict their wandering to nearby neighbors
in the urbmon.  

The levels of the building correlate with the status of the residents. The ruling
class live at the top of the 1000-story structure, in a series of floors known
as Louisville. Artists reside far below, in an area called San Francisco. Still
lower down, in Reykjavik, we find the maintenance workers, and higher up
in Shanghai are the academics. Virtually no one leaves the building, and
many spend most of their lives within the span of a few floors.

According to the accepted worldview, residents of the urbmon enjoy a
blessed life, in which all their needs are met, and peace and goodwill reign.  
But the reality, as depicted by Silverberg, is very different.  Like the
residents of Sherwood Anderson's
Winesburg, Ohio, the citizens of
Urbmon 116, where
The World Inside transpires, are beset with
hidden eccentricities and secret yearnings. Jason Quevedo, a historian
who studies the dysfunctional psychological attitudes of the 20th century,
gradually realizes that he and his wife suffer from many of them, most
notably acute jealousy. Siegmund Kluver, an up-and-coming bureaucrat in
the urbmon, finds himself in the midst of a mid-life crisis—at the ripe age
of fifteen! Michael Statler, a computer worker who keeps the buildings
systems running smoothly, suffers from such marked claustrophobia that
he decides to escape from Urbmon 116, even if it means he might never
be allowed to return.

Silverberg stitched this novel together from a group of short stories, and
although he maintains a consistent cast of characters from chapter to
chapter, the main protagonist changes periodically. But the shifts in tone
are even more dramatic. During a lengthy interlude in the middle of the
book, Silverberg presents a detailed account of an ecstatic 24th century
rock concert. Here his writing is rhapsodic and poetic, at times bordering
on stream-of-consciousness.  Elsewhere, Silverberg offers up bits and
pieces of satire and social commentary, aiming his barbs at hypocritical
politicians, religious authorities and 'feel good' psychological counselors.
Sometimes he settles for conventional pulp fiction sci-fi, enumerating the
dazzling inventions of the future, from new psychedelic drugs to advanced
information technology that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Internet
of tday. When one of his characters mulls over the best way of accessing
data, he might easily be referring to a Google search engine query: "He
can draw from that vast deposit any information that he requires,"
Silverberg writes, "and it will come instantaneously. The trick lies in
knowing what to ask for."

These shifts and divergences make it very difficult to pigeonhole
Silverberg.  Reading through his work from this period, he never quite
makes the leap into the avant-garde camp of Aldiss, Delany, Ballard and
Disch. Nor does he mount a full-scale attempt to match the satire of
Vonnegut, the literary aspirations of Bradbury, or the surrealism of
Dick. Yet each of these elements appears, sometimes fleetingly, in his
best work, and my inevitable conclusion is that, had he so chosen,
Silverberg could have risen to the challenge of pursuing any of these
paths with virtuosity and aplomb.  Perhaps he spent little time thinking
over such trade-offs—when he discusses his writing, in interviews and
introductions, Silverberg emphasizes the amazing speed with which he
wrote his best-known works. To his credit, he tended to operate at fairly
high level even when preparing stories at warp speed for eager editors
and loyal readers.

But I still can't help wondering what this author might have done if he had
slowed down his pace during the late 1960s or early 1970s, and aimed
his sights a little higher—at writing a big, ambitious novel akin to
Stranger in a
Strange Land or Dune or Dhalgren.  Silverberg possessed all the necessary
skills: a lyrical prose style, a vivid imagination, an acute eye for both the
comic and the tragic. We see hints of all these in
The World Inside, but
—much like the citizens in his skyscrapers—they are too often cramped
and constrained, and forced into a much smaller space than they deserve.  

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 16, 2014
To purchase, click on image
The World Inside
by Robert Silverberg

Essay by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
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

Links to related sites
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Great Books Guide
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
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The Millions
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The Misread City
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SF Signal
True Science Fiction
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