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Beth Meacham, David Brin

The World Inside

The World Inside - Robert Silverberg If you don’t mind I will start by repeating the same intro I wrote for Silverberg’s [b: The Book of Skulls|219107|The Book of Skulls|Robert Silverberg|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388465099s/219107.jpg|1876966]. I just think it’s worth repeating and the chances of you having already read said review is reasonably small ;)

Robert Silverberg is possibly the most underrated science fiction writer of all time, considering that he has been writing sf since the 50s, won numerous Hugo, Nebula, and other major sf awards, and is a “Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master”. In spite of all this he never seems to be "in vogue" these days, most of today’s younger generation of sf readers have never read anything by him. I believe this is indicative of how criminally underrated he is, and the ongoing decline of civilization as we know it.

Having said that The World Inside is not his best book, and probably not a good place to start for first-time readers. The dominance of the sexual themes and the blunt references to private parts and intercourse are likely to offend and alienate many readers. It is still pretty great though.

“A hellish place in which people live hideously cramped and brutal lives, in which every civilized philosophy is turned on its head, in which uncontrolled breeding is nightmarishly encouraged to serve some incredible concept of a deity eternally demanding more worshipers, in which dissent is ruthlessly stifled and dissenters are peremptorily destroyed.”

That quote is a good description of an “urbmon” (short for urban monad), a three-kilometer-high apartment building with a thousand floors and more than 800,000 occupants. In the year 2381, global population has reached 75 billion people, but Earth has solved the overpopulation problem by expanding the population vertically instead of horizontally. Most people live in these urbmons in very cramped conditions, and they have also developed some very strange customs and sexual mores. All apartment doors are unlocked, by statute, and the men can wander into any apartment and sleep with any woman they want, privacy is not valued. All the women are married. Couples sleep on “sleep platforms” and husbands allow men to sleep with their wives and they can either make room on the sleeping platform or go wandering to other apartments to do the same; all for the sake of continuing the population expansion as rapidly as possible:

“There’s a cultural imperative telling us to breed and breed and, breed. That’s natural, after the agonies of the pre-urbmon days, when everybody went around wondering where we were going to put all the people.”

Malcontents are called “flippos”, people who commit “non-social acts”, perhaps violent ones, generally caused by accumulated frustrations and humiliation. Flippos are punished by being thrown down a chute, and their bodies turn into energy to power the building. Outside of the urbmons there are also “horizontal” societies, made up of farmers who live in communes. Their population is strictly controlled, and they also have some strange traditions of their own.

The problem with summarizing this book is that the description tends to make the book seem like some kind of sick sexual fantasy. The World Inside is not in the least pornographic or titillating. There are many mentions of people “topping”* and numerous matter-of-fact descriptions of private parts. The word penis is mentioned several times (if you are of a nervous disposition don’t look behind the spoiler tag!). The World Inside is about a dystopian society that thinks it is a utopia. The happy residents of the urbmons living stacked like bees in a beehive don’t know any other way of life. In this sense, the complacent populace seems like the one depicted in [b: Brave New World|5479|Brave New World / Brave New World Revisited|Aldous Huxley|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1331315450s/5479.jpg|39947767] with an element of [b: The Handmaid’s Tale|38447|The Handmaid's Tale|Margaret Atwood|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1294702760s/38447.jpg|1119185]. It is also mentioned that the human race may have been psychologically modified in some ways to be able to live happily like this. The fact that there is no crime or starvation in this society is another indication.

The World Inside is very much a new wave science fiction book, the sort of thing you find in Harlan Ellison’s legendary/infamous [b: Dangerous Visions|600349|Dangerous Visions|Harlan Ellison|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1176167292s/600349.jpg|2758790] anthology. Silverberg is very versatile and has written many types of sci-fi (and other genres). It is a weird social satire and thought experiment. It is very interesting throughout and is never dull, but it is also a difficult book to love, there are multiple protagonists and they are not developed enough to root for. The main attraction is the world building, to read about the amazing things that go on in this crazy society.

If you have never read Silverberg before I recommend [b: Dying Inside|968902|Dying Inside|Robert Silverberg|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1179887709s/968902.jpg|1660120], [b: Nightwings|449261|Nightwings|Robert Silverberg|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1387664938s/449261.jpg|3118873], or [b: Lord Valentine's Castle|252838|Lord Valentine's Castle (Lord Valentine, #1)|Robert Silverberg|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1389074849s/252838.jpg|245141], which I find to be more palatable, not to mention excellent. However, if you are in the market for a dystopian book about a vertical society with weird sexual mores I don’t think there is any alternative to this book.

* Having it off!

Weird quotes:

‘You press this button for the privacy shield. We excrete in this. Urine here, feces there. Everything is reprocessed, you understand. We’re a thrifty folk in the urbmons.’

‘We’re a post-privacy culture, naturally.

My good friend (and amazing book reviewer) Stuart rightly points out that The World Inside sounds sexist. I don't think Silverberg's intent here is to be sexist because the system he depicts here does not work and is doomed to fail, the end even hints at "the beginning of the end". However, I do think Silverberg should have cut down on the sexual mores and place more emphasis on the other implications of the vertical society.
(copied from my reply to Stuart's observation!)