The World Inside by Robert Silverberg
In the year 2381, the Earth contains 75 billion people. Despite the dire warnings of 20th century prophets, humans have not exhausted the Earth’s resources. There is plenty of food for everyone, but because 90% of the land must be covered in farms, most of the people live in Urban Monads — 1,000-story skyscrapers housing 800,000 people each. Citizens aren’t allowed out of their building, and many aspects of society are rigidly monitored. Everyone is married at age 12 and each couple is encouraged to have as many children as they can because fertility and children are blessings from god.
In such a close community, it’s dangerous for people to be protective of private property or possessive of their mate, so sharing is actively encouraged. Thus, everyone has sexual access to everyone else and men are expected to go “night walking” to find other partners while their wives stay home and make themselves accessible to any man who opens their door. There is no war, crime, privacy, jealousy, or sexual restrictions, and the citizens of the Urban Monads are happy. The few who express dissatisfaction are sent to “Moral Engineers” for reprogramming, or may be thrown “down the chute” where their bodies make fuel for the building.
The World Inside (1971) is the story of several people who become dissatisfied with their lives in Urban Monad 116. It’s a thoughtful look at what life on Earth might be like if our population ever reaches the level where we need to grow vertically instead of horizontally. I was fascinated by Silverberg’s Urban Monads where everything that’s necessary for life is in one building, and where blocks of floors represent different classes and cultures.
But what I liked best about The World Inside was the idea that, because dissidents are sent down the chute, possessiveness, rebellion, jealousy, and other forms of social strife have been selectively bred out of the human population. Perhaps it would be possible for future humans to be happy in an Urban Monad, but 21st century readers will be horrified by Silverberg’s setting. Being satisfied with that kind of life would require some major evolutionary changes in our genome and, by introducing us to the citizens of Urban Monad 116, Silverberg suggests that along with those nasty traits we might like to get rid of, go many beautiful human traits such as wanderlust, curiosity about the world and, perhaps, a hope for something better around the next bend.
Robert Silverberg’s major focus on free love and his inclusion of hallucinogenic drug trips, psychedelic music, and orgies isn’t surprising (I’ve seen all this before in his stories), but they do serve to remind you that you’re reading a story that was published more than 40 years ago. The excuse for the drugs, music, and orgies, I suppose, is that they induce a hive-mind mentality in the building, but they really seem like a self-indulgent way to induce sexual titillation. I didn’t find it at all titillating, though, especially since it was so vulgarly done (e.g., women are referred to as “slots” and the act is constantly called “topping”). And then there’s the incest, which I’ve also seen before in Silverberg stories. Ick.
But my main problem with The World Inside is that it doesn’t make sense. If this is a free love society, why does everyone have to be married? And why encourage childbearing at all? To me, this bizarre societal goal seemed like a jab at religious people who are against birth control. Silverberg has his characters constantly saying “god bless, god bless, god bless!” and other religious-sounding speech. And if they’re so disgusted by “primeval 20th century attitudes,” why are women still expected to be home preparing dinner, taking care of the kids, and nagging their husbands to be ambitious so the family can move up the social ladder? Why do men get to go night walking wherever they like while women have to stay home and be “topped” by whoever shows up at their door?
And why can’t the Monad citizens go out of the buildings? Their food, families, friends, jobs, and all social support systems are inside the buildings. There’s nothing to keep them outside, so why can’t they go out and get some fresh air? And what if there was fire, or poisonous gas, or some other emergency? They don’t even practice evacuation procedures. I was expecting some big creepy revelation about why people where encouraged to have babies and why they were kept from knowing what was outside, but this never came. I can’t help but think that Robert Silverberg just wanted to write a story about overpopulation, free love, and selective breeding, so he stuck them all together in the same book.
In the end, the plot didn’t hold together, but I still enjoyed the setting and many of the ideas in The World Inside, so I didn’t feel like it was a waste of my time. The World Inside was nominated for, but didn’t win, the Hugo Award in 1972. I listened to Audible Frontier’s version which is almost eight hours long and is read by Paul Boehmer, who did a great job with the narration. If you’re going to read The World Inside, I recommend the audiobook.
In Robert Silverberg‘s 1970 novel Tower of Glass, obsessed business magnate Simeon Krug builds a 1,500-meter-high structure to enable him to communicate with the stars, and since 1,500 meters is roughly equal to 4,500 feet, or more than three Empire State Buildings, the reader is suitably impressed. But the following year, in his novel The World Inside, Silverberg wrote of a group of buildings that make Krug’s structure look like a pip-squeak. This was just one of four major sci-fi novels released by Silverberg in 1971, the others being The Second Trip, Son of Man and A Time of Changes (all of which I have previously written of here on FanLit). The World Inside AND A Time of Changes were nominated for the Hugo award in 1972, ultimately “losing” to Larry Niven‘s Ringworld. (A Time of Changes DID go on to win a Nebula award.) This was Silverberg’s 45th sci-fi novel since his first, Revolt on Alpha C, in 1954; his 21st since his more mature and literate “second career” began in 1967.
In the book, which takes place in the year 2381, Earth’s population has reached the staggering figure of 75 billion! The bulk of mankind resides in three-kilometer-high (3,000 meters is almost 9,000 feet … twice the height of Krug’s tower!), 1,000-story buildings called “urbmons” (short for “urban monads”), each urbmon being but a single unit in a “constellation” of 50 or so, and each containing around 800,000+ people! Urbmon residents spend their entire lives inside their building and never leave it (hence the book’s title), their food needs being taken care of by the farming communes nearby. The World Inside introduces us to several dozen residents of Urbmon 116 in the Chipitts constellation, which the reader quickly deduces lies in the 400-mile stretch between CHIcago and PITTSburgh. We meet a “sociocomputator” in Chapter 1 who introduces a visitor from Venus — as well as the reader — to the wonders of the urbmon (this first chapter was initially a short story entitled “A Happy Day in 2381”); a young couple that worries about being evicted from 116 and placed into the brand-new Urbmon 158, due to their bad luck of being childless; a young musician from the city of San Francisco (Urbmon 116 is divided into 25 “cities” of 40 floors each); a historian who is obsessed with looking at tapes of the way those savages lived during the 20th century; a young go-getter who will seemingly, someday, attain to the uppermost city of Louisville, home of the urbmon’s administrators; and a computer maintenance man who, in perhaps the novel’s most exciting segment, goes “flippo,” escapes from the building, and explores the outside world…
Although many of Silverberg’s works after 1967 featured a hearty leavening of sex, The World Inside is absolutely replete with sexual situations, and for good reason. One of the hallmarks of urbmon society happens to be “nightwalking,” during which any male can open the door of any apartment and engage in coitus with any adult occupant, no questions asked, be it male or female; even incest is okeydokey in this society … anything to reduce societal friction! So while this is a novel of social, extrapolative science fiction, The World Inside also turns out to be a bit of a sexual fantasy, as well. I mean, imagine having sex with anyone you desired! (It seems that the book’s title just might have another, more lascivious meaning!) This unlimited sexual access almost makes urbmon life seem like a very desirable thing. And Silverberg, in some typically uberintelligent passages, has his characters discuss the pros and cons of 24th century existence, and the arguments for the vertical, indoor lifestyle almost start to make sense. But ultimately, after no less than three major characters go flippo (one is brainwashed back to “normalcy,” one is put to death, another commits suicide), in addition to several others, the reader is left with little doubt on which side the author stands. Though some of the novel’s characters defend the urbmon lifestyle, the reader knows better.
The book, then, is ultimately a very sad one, almost hauntingly so, and its opening and closing sentences regarding another “happy day” become tinged with bitter irony. We come to care for all the major characters in this book, and Silverberg really allows us inside their heads. How wonderful it is when their paths cross in the humongous building during the course of the novel, a novel that, despite its comparative brevity, succeeds in making many significant points. Reveling in his new freedoms as a writer, Silverberg also rails against both the sexual puritanism of the 20th century and its silly ban on certain words in literature; our historian acquaintance in the novel cannot even believe such taboos ever existed! And neither, it seems, can Silverberg (a writer who penned his own fair share of sex novels in the early to mid-’60s)!
The bottom line, then, is that The World Inside is still another superb piece of work from this sci-fi great. It is supremely well written, involving, unputdownable, with a remarkable amount of detail and invention on every page (just get a load of that 24th century concert given by our musician friend’s “cosmos group”!). Silverberg’s book here is nearly perfect, aside from a very occasional gaffe (such as when he tells us that when our young go-getter was with Louisville’s upper echelon, he was “a cherub among the archangels”; since cherubim are much higher in the celestial hierarchy than archangels, shouldn’t that be the other way around?). And if I may cough up one more quibble, it would be the dearth of any older characters in this novel; just about everyone we encounter seems to be under 25, and it might have been interesting to see how 24th century urbmon life affects the more senior folk. Still, this remains another stunning accomplishment in Silverberg’s 1967 – ’76 streak. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try to open the door of the hot blonde’s apartment on the third floor of my building, slide into her bed, and see if she’ll have sex with me. What could possibly go wrong?
Oh, gosh, everything I disliked about the 1970s in one book!
Sounds like an interesting concept ruined by trying to cram ideas not really appropriate to it.
I came up with an idea for a short story involving people living in a tall building where the higher classes lived at teh top and the lower classes lived at the bottom. Thought it was quite an original idea, but I guess not!
I think the problem is that it was written in the early 70s and Silverberg was reflecting the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll culture. I’ve seen it in enough of his work to think he was highly influenced by it, or maybe just enamored of it. Michael Swanwick’s writing is similar, and both men won a lot of prestigious awards back then, so it worked for them.
It’s interesting how we have different takes on this book, Sandy. I also loved the setting and the idea. I particularly liked his suggestion that humans had evolved to fit this habitat.
However, I hated that the men could open any door and that the women had to stay home and be “topped” by whatever man came through the door. That doesn’t seem fair. The slang sex terms were offensive, too. I felt like it was male sexual fantasy wish fulfillment… which is probably why I didn’t like it as much as you did. :)
Sorry, Kat, I just can’t quite understand what you’re saying here…. :P
You’re adorable, Sandy.