Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg is the painfully intimate portrait of David Selig, a man who has been blessed (or cursed, as he might say) with the gift of telepathy. He has learned to live with the ability, but now finds that his amazing power is slowly disappearing, leaving him ordinary again. Throughout the novel, Selig is literate, insightful and self-deprecating as he mercilessly dissects his own life. I found him less than likable, but completely fascinating. He leads an almost meaningless life, has no friendships and hardly any real relationships, and despite being worldly and erudite, he is also depressingly small-minded.
Getting such an intimate view into Selig’s mind is at times a painful experience: despite his pettiness, sexism and occasional racism, you can’t help but feel for him. The bitter irony of Dying Inside is that this man, who is able to read people’s thoughts, is so completely self-centered and small-minded that he is incapable of having a meaningful relationship with anyone.
Dying Inside is beautifully written, using a series of flashbacks to tell Selig’s story as he thinks back on his life.Robert Silverberg’s prose is gorgeous, perfectly reflecting his character’s thoughts and full of often inwardly directed irony. After reading this book, you will feel like you know David Selig. You might not like him very much, but he will be real to you.
Dying Inside is an excellent novel, recommended both to science fiction fans and to people who usually don’t read the genre. This is one of those books you’re almost guaranteed to end up thinking about for a long time after turning the final page.
Although author Robert Silverberg had come out with no fewer than 21 major science-fiction novels between the years 1967 and ’71, by 1972, his formerly unstoppable output was beginning to slow down. He released only two novels in ’72, The Book of Skulls, in which four young men seek the secret of immortality in the desert Southwest, and one of his most renowned, Dying Inside. After this latter work, there would be no full-length works until 1975’s The Stochastic Man and 1976’s Shadrach in the Furnace, which work put an end to Silverberg’s famous “second phase” … till he came roaring back four years later with the commencement of his Majipoor cycle. The novel in question, Dying Inside, finds Silverberg very much at the peak of his considerable powers; the book was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards for 1972, ultimately “losing” to Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go and Isaac Asimov‘s The Gods Themselves, respectively, in what was obviously a very tough voting year.
The novel is largely told in the first person, and thus the reader gets to learn all about a 41-year-old New Yorker named David Selig. When we first meet him, Selig is at a major crossroads in his life. A telepath from birth, able to read the minds of others, his powers and abilities are now beginning to dwindle and fade. Earning a bare subsistence living by ghostwriting term papers for Columbia University students, he must now face a life devoid of mental eavesdropping; one in which he is the same (gasp!) as everyone else. As Selig ruminates over his past, we begin to see how his “gift” has affected not only his family life (he was an only child, but has an adopted sister), but his few friendships, relationships with women and day-to-day existence. And as his wonderful abilities approach the vanishing point, Selig’s existence seems to grow increasingly bleak…
Dying Inside has often been referred to as an autobiography in disguise for Robert Silverberg, and it is not difficult to see why. Both the author and Selig were born in Brooklyn in 1935, both are Jewish, both graduated from Columbia in 1956, and both are voracious readers and intellectually oriented. To stretch a point, Selig had two great loves in his life (Kitty and Toni, who we learn much about), and Silverberg would go on to marry twice. And of course, at the time of this novel’s writing, Silverberg purportedly was beginning to feel a diminution in his own great abilities, although no reader would ever suspect it, based on what’s presented here. Simply stated, this is a brilliant book, and one might have to go all the way back to Alfred Bester‘s masterful The Demolished Man (1953) to find a more thorough and convincing novel regarding telepathy. Silverberg (no surprise) has thought his subject through thoroughly, and thus, we get to learn what it is like to enter the mind of a bee, a fish and a hen. In one surreal scene that might have made Philip K. Dick nod with approbation, Selig enters the mind of his girlfriend, who is tripping on LSD, and with disastrous results. In another, Selig and his telepathic friend share thoughts as they enter the minds of the women they are having sex with, for a kind of mental four-way! (As was the case with many of his other great works of this “second phase,” Silverberg does not shy away from either sex scenes or sex talk in this novel.)
And Silverberg gives us a remarkably well-rounded portrait of Selig, too; the reader really comes to know and understand him, despite the fact that he is not all that likable a person. In one sequence, Selig gives us a tour of his apartment, in which we get to see many of his books, learn of his favorite authors and poets (the man is intimidatingly well-read, just like Silverberg), and examine his old letters to girlfriends and to famous news makers. It is a highly effective way of allowing us into the mind of this mind reader, as is the device of letting us read some of his brilliantly (ghost)written term papers. As for some of Selig’s literary favorites and offhand references, better have your Interwebs handy to look up such names as Traherne, Crashaw, William Cartwright, Mallarme, and Samuel Miller Hageman … not to mention such men of science as Josiah Willard Gibbs and Norbert Wiener!
Selig can’t help being bitter, patronizing, haughty and something of a human parasite, and his intellect truly is off-putting — perhaps that is why British critic David Pringle has said that the book is “not designed to be popular fare” … although he does admit that it is “very powerful” — but somehow, the reader likes Selig, anyway. He can often be very funny — I love it when he tells his sister Judith, at one point, “I’m of two minds” — and even becomes quite touching, as he resigns himself to his ultimate fate. Indeed, the book’s final scene, which finds Selig watching a snowfall from his sister’s living room window and contemplating a quite unknowable future, is moving in the extreme. Interestingly, Selig does not use his power as his telepath friend Nyquist does — to make oodles of money on the Stock Market. Despite the ghostwriting, he is basically a decent man, a very sad and ironically lonely one, just trying to eke by and survive. It might have been interesting had Silverberg written a sequel, to allow us to see how Selig (hey, it just occurred to me that even their names are somewhat similar!) is getting along as a “normal person.” Sadly, the author doesn’t seem inclined to do so. Thus, Dying Inside stands alone, a rewarding novel, and one which no reader should easily forget…
As Sandy has covered extensively in his excellent review, Dying Inside is likely the most powerful SF tale of a telepath losing his powers that has been written, and is required reading for anyone wanting a taste of the best of New-Wave SF from the 1970s. It is also extremely personal and autobiographical, seeing that Silverberg’s prodigious output of the late 1960s was drying up.
Regardless of how far we should read into protagonist David Selig’s brilliant, lonely, frustrated, and troubled psyche, it is undeniable that Silverberg has presented one of the most unflinchingly honest portrayals of someone losing their creative powers. I also really enjoyed the detailed depiction of the social and academic scene of New York in the 1950-70s, which of course must overlap with Silverberg’s real life to some extent. It’s amazing how much sex and mind-altering drugs people did during that period – can anyone acknowledge if this is really what it was like? Or does nobody want to own up to it? Either way, the materialistic and superficial 1980s must be been a massive buzz-kill, though quite a few turned into Wall Street stockbrokers apparently.