Monday, 23 December 2013

Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg Dying Inside (1972)

Apparently the novel Dying Inside is one of his very best, I wrote whilst reviewing Silverberg's Sunrise on Mercury collection back in July 2009, and despite slightly less than amazing fare here, the good bits are strong enough to suggest it's probably worth a look.

So here I am, having at last encountered a copy in a book store; and actually yes, it is pretty damn good, and quite literary in a way that's fairly rare for a science-fiction novel. Set in 1970s New York, Dying Inside has all the gritty, smelly texture of an autobiography but for the detail of its protagonist, David Selig, being a telepath and thus able to read the contents of other peoples' minds. However, rather than being a superman in the traditional sense, he is a neurotic, slightly pitiful individual now crippled by the horrifying realisation that his telepathy is fading, leaving him in some sense alone in what would be a void but for his own thoughts. The novel is roughly a metaphor for the ageing process, or at least certain aspects of the ageing process experienced once youth becomes only the memory of a different state of being - almost a mid-life crisis book. That said, as a metaphor, it's a little confused. All of David's knowledge and experience, his own unique advantage, has served only to wear him down, to grind him into a bitter, slightly paranoid figure contrasting sharply with the few other telepaths he encounters, all of whom seem to have done very well with their respective gifts. In several passages this process is defined as entropic:

Now comes a dark equinox out of its proper moment. The bleached moon glimmers like a wretched old skull. The leaves shrivel and fall. The fires die down. The dove, weary, flutters to earth. Darkness spreads. Everything blows away. The purple blood falters in the narrowing veins; the chill impinges on the straining heart; the soul dwindles; even the feet become untrustworthy. Words fail. Our guides admit they are lost. That which has been solid grows transparent. Things pass away. Colours fade. This is a gray time, and I fear it will be grayer still, one of these days.

The potential contradiction here is that whilst David succumbs to entropy as he sees it, the degradation and reduction of information to noise, his life as a mind-reader has been shaped by an unreasonable surfeit of information none of which has really done him any good. So whilst our man perceives a breakdown of the systems of his life as essentially entropic, it's actually more like an overload:

How they all hated me for my cleverness! What they interpreted as my cleverness, that is. My sly knack of always guessing what was going to happen. Well, that wouldn't be a problem now. They'd all love me. Loving me, they'd beat me to a pulp.

This is possibly why there were points at which Dying Inside struck me as a variant on Sartre's Nausea, and also points at which I wondered if the telepathic element was really essential to the story. The only significant difference between Silverberg's Selig and Sartre's Roquentin is, I would argue, that while the former experiences anxiety over the individual details from which his life is formed, the angst of the latter is inspired more by the life itself, if that makes any sense whatsoever. The distinction is subtle, and perhaps not easily made given that Dying Inside lacks the focus of Nausea, although the two novels do seem to have something in common, not least thematic depth.

The only real problem with Dying Inside would appear to be the character of Yahya Lumumba, a young black student who enlists Selig's services in the completion of an end of term paper. The depiction of this character seems astonishingly racist - references to hypothetical watermelon consumption being the least of its crimes. The inference is that Selig himself harbours racist views, but it's difficult to tell how much of it is Selig and how much is Silverberg, particularly with the narrative switching from third to first person and back again every few pages; and it seems additionally dubious that Selig's telepathy reveals Lumumba's innermost thoughts as stereotypical blaxploitation jive talk about white honkey crackers, unless the point here is that Selig's telepathy reveals nothing of use, as already suggested. In this respect the passages with Lumumba are difficult to evaluate, and whilst they may not exactly spoil the novel, in the absence of any better idea regarding the author's intention, they certainly jar, although maybe that is the point.

Dying Inside falls short of perfect, but it's not difficult to see how it has earned its reputation as a classic of the genre.

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