Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dying Inside / by Robert Silverberg

Even among the more super-prolific writers of Science Fiction, a genre in which it's not uncommon to see authors tally over a hundred titles, Robert Silverberg is one who's work has reached some exceptionally lofty heights. Since the 1950's, where even as a student at Columbia (Class of '56) he published a handful of short fiction, he's been repeatedly nominated for Hugos and Nebulas, winning on several occasions, and consistently catching the eye of readers both in and out of the SF genre. A lifelong New Yorker, he moved to San Francisco in the early Seventies amid a pending divorce to his first wife. Ironically the period was one of his most fruitful--Dying Inside, among others, was individually conceived and penned in mere weeks. Upon its original publication the book, about a middle-aged telepathic who's steadily losing his powers, was released to less favorable acclaim. Since then, however, it's been realized by the critics and the reading public for the masterpiece that it is. Locus magazine labeled it "one of the best science fiction novels of all time," and more than a few of Silverberg's literary peers have celebrated it as a trailblazing work of literature.

"It was like that all the time, in those years: an endless trip, a gaudy voyage. But powers decay. Time leaches the colors from the best of visions. The world becomes grayer. Entropy beats us down. Everything fades. Everything Goes. Everything dies."

David Selig can read minds. Born with the extraordinary gift of telepathy, he's lived a life enhanced by his superhuman ability to probe the conscious thoughts of those around him. But it's a talent, a psychological marvel to be sure, hidden from all but three people and not quite blessing people may perceive it as. Put simply, having ESP hasn't helped make David any better. While he can manipulate circumstances and reactions, he still can't get a leg up in society. He's still a loser. Always a bit of a social misfit, a bitter outcast with not a lot of looks or charm or even ambition to capitalize on his unusual talent and parlay his prospects into a dream job or beautiful wife, David's life of knowing what people are thinking--often more of a deterrent from engaging it in the first place because it just reaffirms his negative worldview and dismal self-concept--has devolved into a frustrated, distancing, thoroughly miserable existence. That he's a capable individual is well-evidenced; he obtained a degree from Columbia and several mid-level office positions before flaking out on the 9-5 scene. Now at 41, he writes papers for Columbia undergraduates who willingly pay a modest sum for his services.

David thinks his life would be better if he had more meaningful relationships. He's had fewer friends than most, his condition thwarting more intimate acquaintances and removing him from a lot of social situations. There have been two or three girlfriends and some one-nighters, but relationships, especially with women, have a tendency to become toxic, inevitably leaving a trail of enmity and bad blood despite his best intentions. His family relations aren't so great either. His mom and dad, still around although David doesn't go to see them much, essentially gave up on him during adolescence when he didn't pan out to what they wanted. Even his sister Judith, who his parents adopted at the advice of a child psychologist when David was 8 and one of the three people who knows of his abilities, hates him outright for his sixth sense. But there's another, bigger problem currently. At present, with his 42nd birthday looming, David senses something's wrong, not just with his life but with his gift. His telepathy, which even with all its dismal side-effects has been his life's only real joy, still a mystifyingly wondrous tool capable of offering amusement, diversion, education and even ecstasy all at once, is dwindling. His clairvoyant ability to know others inside-out, to probe the consciousness of casual acquaintances, and even see the souls of strangers bared before him in removed and admittedly voyeuristic though not malicious fashion, is growing dimmer to the point where it very soon may be extinguished altogether.

Initial reaction from Silverberg's publisher on his newest creation back in 1972 was one of offhanded surprise. His editor, knowing him personally, felt that Dying Inside was a rough autobiographical sketch morphed into science fiction. The author denies this although similarities between him and Selig--they're both Jewish, both New Yorkers, both Columbia grads, both writers, etc.--are telling. That the novel is a gem, a true ace of spades richly drafting universal themes of knowledge, communication and essence of existence onto the printed page, is a fact that cannot be overemphasized. It's brilliant. And while not exactly a straightforward narrative, the delivery shifting from first-person to third and back in random fashion, the book excels at giving the story a good balance of background and plot development. It's funny too. Like Kurt Vonnegut, the Silverberg's acrid style, satiric slant and glib interpretations of his protagonist reads fast and cynical though not without admonishing critically important, and often subtly revealed, truths about our world and the human condition. Parallels can of course be drawn to other fictional characters, and perhaps even a few scattershot theories on the actual or similar conditions, but none are as elucidating as Silverberg's conception. There is nothing un-grounded or superhero about David Selig. He's not a vampire, changeling, witch or mutant. He's just a guy, a balding middle-aged flunkie with the capacity, and to some degree the control, to monitor the spectacular phenomenon of the mind at work in his fellow man. It's an ability he's never been without and he doesn't know what he'll do if he loses it. (SF SILVERBERG)

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