Born With the Dead gathers together three of Robert Silverberg’s mid-career science fiction novellas into one remarkably fine collection. With a length greater than a short story or novelette but shorter than a full-length novel, these three tales clock in at around 55 to 70 pages each, and all display the intelligence, word craft and abundance of detail common to all of Silverberg’s work in the late ’60s to mid-’70s. Although subtitled “Three Novellas About the Spirit of Man” on its original 1974 release, the collection features a trio of tales that, strive as I might, I cannot find a common denominator among. Two of the stories concern how mankind deals with the subject of death, while the third has man’s relation to religion and God as its central theme. OK, I HAVE thought of some commonalities among all three: They are all wonderful exemplars of modern-day science fiction, all compulsively readable, all memorable and all moving.
The collection kicks off with the title story, “Born With the Dead.” This tale takes place in the futuristic world of, uh, 1993, by which time mankind has discovered a way to reanimate the recently deceased by a process known as “rekindling.” These “Deads” live separately in their own communes (Cold Towns), apart from the “Warms,” and have their own customs and society. We meet Jorge Klein, a teacher who had lost his wife, Sybille, some years before, and who is now engaged in the taboo practice of stalking his rekindled ex around the globe, with the hope of a possible reuniting. The bulk of the tale takes place in exotic Zanzibar (Silverberg had visited East Africa before penning his great novel Downward to the Earth in 1970), although the story’s two best scenes transpire elsewhere. In the first, Sybille and a group of fellow “Colds” go on a safari in a Tanzanian preserve stocked with genetically reconstructed extinct life forms, such as the dodo, aurochs, even a megatherium; in the second, Jorge disguises himself as one of the rekindled dead to infiltrate a Cold Town in the wilds of southeast Utah! This truly is a remarkable piece of fiction, and well deserving of the Nebula Award that it won for best novella of that year. I have only two quibbles with this tale. First, the Arab state of Oman is on the Gulf of Oman, not the Persian Gulf, as Silverberg writes; and second, a Google Image search will reveal that Zanzibar’s Beit al-Ajaib, the House of Wonders, has no “vast cupola,” as the author describes it. Still, as I say, a masterful piece of work.
Next up in the collection is the 1972 novella “Thomas the Proclaimer.” In this unique story, the God of the Bible has finally chosen to reveal Himself to modern-day mankind. He effects a bona fide miracle, stopping the Earth from rotating and moving along its orbit for a full 24 hours… and with no concomitant calamities! But this great revelation only leads to misery for humanity, as the organized religions become suspicious of God’s motives and new religions begin to spring up; one even declares God to be the Devil himself! In the midst of this turmoil we encounter Thomas Davidson of Reno, a former thief and current born-again prophet, whose pleas for sanity go largely unheeded. We see the madness unfold from the viewpoints of a good half dozen characters, in this very clever tale. If I am reading Silverberg correctly, his message is a disheartening one; namely, that even if God exists and one day appeared, it would ultimately do mankind not a lot of good at all. Clearly not a huge fan of organized religions, the author gives us a scene in which a more science-minded group of believers decides to bury all articles of the various world faiths; better have an unabridged dictionary on hand to look up such words as “epitrachelion,” “omophorion,” “dikerotrikera” and “epigonation”! Interestingly, this novella also features a band of millennial doomsayers called the Apocalyptists, the same band that was spotlighted in Silverberg’s 1968 novel The Masks of Time!
Finally, the collection gives us the 1971 Silverberg piece simply entitled “Going.” In this extremely moving tale, my favorite of the bunch, it is the year 2095. Through medical advancements, the lifespan of the average human has been greatly extended, and most people live to be at least 150. Deemed a civic duty to “Go” (i.e., die) at the proper time to make way for incoming newborns, each individual must conscientiously choose the proper time for himself or herself to Go. Very much unlike the society in the author’s masterful novel of 1971, The World Inside, this human society deems it a great honor to help keep the world’s population down. Whereas the ’71 novel had depicted a nightmarish world of appalling overpopulation, the future world of “Going” seems almost like a paradise, and the Going routine that its central character — 136-year-old composer Henry Staunt — under, uh, Goes seems as civilized as can be. Indeed, one might almost believe that this is Silverberg’s idealized vision of a way to deal with the aged as they approach the end of life. Staunt decides to Go at a House of Leavetaking in the Arizona desert; a U-shaped residence somewhat similar to the U-shaped hospital that mutilated astronaut Minner Burris recuperates in, also in the desert Southwest, in the 1967 Silverberg novel Thorns. Over the course of the novella, we are given all the facts of Staunt’s long life, get to know his family, learn about his tastes, and see him adjust to his decision to Go, vacillating all the while. Ultimately, the story is somewhat sad, of course, but also life affirming; a wonderfully warm and emotional piece of futuristic sci-fi, filled with imaginative touches. As it brings the curtain down on many of its geriatric characters, it also brings down the curtain on this wonderful collection of finely written tales. Truly, three shorter pieces from one of science fiction’s best.