Book Review: The World Inside, Robert Silverberg (1971)

5/5 (Near Perfect, a Masterpiece)

1972 Hugo Nomination for Best Novel, withdrawn (I suspect because Silverberg had another novel in the running that year, A Time of Changes)

Science fiction from the late 60s and early 70s dealing with overpopulation has always fascinated me (for example, John Brunner’s masterpiece Stand on Zanzibar, 1969).  Robert Silverberg’s brilliant The World Inside is no exception.  His horrifically dark vision is emotionally uncompromising, beautiful, visceral, sensual, and although the end is ultimately predictable (the last fifth or so) the work remains one of my all-time favorites.

Silverberg’s earlier novel, Thorns (1967) started with a bang (a profusion of bizarre images, creepy individuals with unusual agendas, two tortured protagonists with horrific pasts…) and fizzled out completely at the half-way point.  The World Inside starts with a similar whirlwind of fantastic images but does not let up, our characters frenetically lurching through claustrophobic hallways, copulating bodies, hordes of littles, littles gurgling in care slots, littles tugging on clothes, pregnant women, pipes and tanks, grimy lower-levels, drug induced visions, bodies…

Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

God bless, god bless, god bless!

God bless us every one!

God bless Daddo, god bless Mommo, god bless you and me!

God bless us all, the short the tall,

Give us fer-til-i-tee!

The year is 2381 and  Earth’s population is 75 billion people.  Living in horizontal cities and towns is now completely untenable.  Instead, mankind crowds into massive vertical structures, Urban Monads, containing close to 800,000 people in 800 or so floors.  Each Urban Monad is divided into 25 autonomous “cities” (named after Earth’s old cities which no longer exist).  The higher the level of the building the farther removed are the inhabitants from labor related fields (a vague class structure).

Most of society’s ills have been eliminated (famine, war, crime) — most of Earth’s habitable land has been reduced to farming in order to support the Urban Monads arrayed in vast “constellations” across the landscape…

Mankind is governed by the belief that human reproduction is the highest possible good.  In this post-privacy society social mores have changed drastically.  Although people still get married, everyone indulges in nightwalking (finding partners at night).  It is socially faux pas to refuse the advances of anyone (male, female, old, young, etc).  People mature at a younger age, have sexual experiences at a younger age, and get married in their early teens all in order to facilitate the production of children.

Those that refuse to abide by the social norms and go “flippo” are tossed down the chute — along with human wastes, etc– and are recycled for the good of the community…

The “plot” follows the lives of a interconnected group of people and their daily lives.  Jason Quevedo, a historian, studies the twentieth century and realizes that he’s a throwback to a previous age…  Michael Statler desires above all else to wander the fields outside the claustrophobic confines  of the Urban Monad 116… Siegmund Kluver, at the tender age of 15, is plagued by a relentless ambition (supposedly removed from society) an then, doubt and fear…  Aurea Holston, unable to conceive children, refuses to leave her friends when she’s assigned to another newly constructed Urban Monad…

Final Thoughts

There isn’t so much a plot as a delightfully entwined/interrelated series of tableaus that progress to the inevitable conclusion.  This technique, employed by less adept authors, often feels like a way of filling up one’s page quota — not here.  In this claustrophobic society this is the perfect way to convey the world. And what a fantastically depicted world it is — we’re immersed completely.

Be warned,  sex (and various sexual taboos) proliferate the scenes.

Social science fiction at its best.

A dark gem.  I’m still reveling in its beauty.

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: The World Inside, Robert Silverberg (1971)

  1. It’s an old favorite of mine, too. I had the Science Fiction Book Club version, if my memory serves…

    If only more of our society had read and thought about some of those 70s, overpopulation-themed, speculative fiction works…

    Glad you’ve brought it up again.

  2. I’ve been a Silverberg fan since his early days. This is one of his best. If you like novels about people packed in like sardines, you might like J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise” from 1973.

  3. That human reproduction is seen as good seems counter-intuitive in an over-populated world; the ultimate ambition. Does Silverberg attempt to explain it, or is that just the set-up?

  4. Well, the inhabitants of the Silverberg’s future Earth don’t know that the planet is overpopulated — only us the reader…. The ultimate goal is to produce children and thus the world has been formatted to produce — hence the crowded urban monads — and massive farms that surround them. The world has been engineered for this sort of growth — and it’s not yet at the point where the world can no longer tolerate it.

    • It is actually the exact same argument that we have nowadays, in the present. Those who say that we shouldn’t be growing the world population numbers argue that “the others” have their mindset formated by a society engineered in the assumption that stability is only achieved with growth.

      Regarding how plausible this story is, the “75 billion people in 2381” is the most implausible thesis (the “scientific accepted projections” stipulate a range that, on its max value, says that in 2381 we’ll have 44 billion, and we’ll only reach 75b in 2690), but the way Silverberg explains it actually makes it plausible: the technological/society changes that made people have more time led them to look to themselves and a new “religious” current arises that says that we should grow. An adoption of a religion of that kind is plausible, and also plausible that it would have an huge effect in the growth curve.

      • I agree — but, I guess at the core I could care less how “plausible” it is… I don’t pretend that sci-fi authors are social scientists. They are inventing interesting worlds to make interesting reading experiences….

  5. I remember reading The World Inside, remember some aspects of it, and at the time was so invigorated by the images created – especially at the end – I was inspired to title an instrumental rock piece I wrote ‘Butterflies Over Urban Monad 116’ as I imagined the huge structures towering across the land eventually falling to the ravages of time and butterflies passing over their rubbled remains.

    I don’t see a review for A Time of Changes. Did you give up on it? It is one of my all time favourites. The personal story resonated with me greatly, and I gained so much from the story.

  6. I read this book in Oregon City, OR about 12 years ago..I was 18, and went to jail for doing something very stupid. I have since spent 4 years in the military, and now work as a surveyor… So for the most part I’ve forgotten all about my time at Clackamas County Jail, except this story… It turned me onto Robert Silverberg, and lead to me even attempting to write an e-mail message to him, asking if he’d ever considered making the world inside into a film. To my delightful surprise I got a response, from Robert Silverberg himself, saying that unfortunately the world inside was a bit too risqué for theaters, but another one of his stories was receiving a film adaptation, I just can’t remember what it was.

  7. Recently read this on the strength of your review. This was a great read – I loved the way that Silverberg conceived the world and the technique of having multiple interlinking narratives kept things moving along nicely. I’m surprised that Hollywood didn’t try and make a toned down version of this in the 70’s when they were cranking out so many dystopias.

  8. Although this is stated nowhere in the book itself, each chapter of The World Inside was first published as a short story under its own title. That’s how I first encountered three of them. The first chapter, “A Happy Day in 2381,” was in the Harry Harrison-edited all-original anthology Nova 1; “In the Beginning” (about the couple who have to move to a new building) was in another all-original anthology, Science Against Man; and “The Throwbacks” (about the couple who decided they preferred 20th-century ways) first appeared in Galaxy magazine.

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