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 that The Population Bomb was released, John Brunner issued his 'population bomb' novel 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 novel 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.
In 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.