Silverbergian skyscrapers and the world inside them

“Here begins a happy day in 2381.”

Such is the opening claim of The World Inside (1971), Silverberg’s take on the dual problems of overpopulation and social engineering. Contrary to that opening line, not everything here is happy; this is the tale of a deeply flawed would-be utopia.

The novel takes place in a time when there are 75 billion people on Earth. The vast majority of them are housed in gigantic skyscrapers — called urban monads or “urbmons” for short — which are 3 kilometers in height (roughly eight or nine times as tall as the Empire State Building, built from futuristic super-materials). These urbmons exist in large groupings around the planet, each one holding something in excess of 800,000 people living in extremely crowded conditions. These buildings take up 10% of the world’s land area, the other 90% being needed for farming to provide enough food for those masses. Except for a small population of farmers, everyone else lives in these massive structures, most never stepping foot outside in their entire lifetimes. The urbmons contain all the necessities: power plants, factories, theaters, gyms, hospitals…. everything a person needs…. except, perhaps, for a few minor frivolities like “freedom” and “privacy.”

Obviously it would take quite a different mindset for people to live in those conditions and accept them as natural. Indeed, urbmon society has been engineered to be balanced and harmonious, and to reduce any possible frictions between its members, because with people being so crowded together, friction is a dangerous thing. So these people live in a “post-privacy” culture. Privacy doesn’t exist. There are almost no private possessions. No doors are locked. Anyone can enter anyone else’s home at any time. Nudity in front of strangers is no big deal. Anyone can have sex with anyone else they want to; it’s considered taboo to refuse someone. It’s all about reducing friction — gotta keep everyone happy, so they don’t go stir crazy living in their little boxes, right?

Another aspect of their society, and one that is almost shocking given the conditions they live in, is that not only do they not control their birth rate, but they positively rejoice in breeding and increasing their population. They consider it their “duty to god” to reproduce as much as possible. The more “littles” one has, the better his or her social standing. Most couples have at least four or five children, and even six or eight is quite normal. But although there is a religious aspect to this, it seems just as attributable to a kind of intellectual arrogance, a certain proud thumbing of the nose at a problem, denying that it even is a problem:

We could limit births, I suppose, but that would be sick, a cheap, anti-human way out. Instead we’ve met the challenge of overpopulation triumphantly, wouldn’t you say? And so we go on and on, multiplying joyously, our numbers increasing by three billion a year, and we find room for everyone, and food for everyone. Few die, and many are born, and the world fills up, and god is blessed, and life is rich and pleasant, and as you see we are all quite happy.

Early on in the novel I thought the entire concept was absurd. It seemed completely unrealistic that these two conflicting forces could exist together — extremely crowded living conditions AND the desire to have large families. But then I started thinking about the real world, and it didn’t seem so far-fetched. People really DO keep breeding and breeding with no thoughts about ever-increasing population density. And many people DO deny any overpopulation problem, or blithely put the burden of solving it on future generations. Cities DO keep growing and growing, even though the streets are so choked with traffic you can hardly move around. Is this future urbmon society so much more irrational than the present world? Perhaps not. And after all, the whole point of a novel like this is to take present conditions and push them to an extreme to facilitate examination, the way much good science fiction does.

The problem is, even though the speaker quoted above claims everyone is “quite happy,” it’s clearly not true. The characters keep saying how great their lives are, but they give the impression of people trying hard to convince themselves. It soon becomes clear that this supposedly frictionless society is actually full of frictions: sexual jealousies, class discontents, and difficulties in dealing with the crowded lifestyle. In some it is a general sense of unease. In others it culminates in a kind of nervous breakdown; these people are called “flippos” (they flip out, get it?), and they are sentenced to death so as not to bring disharmony on others. This reminds me of the “muckers” (those who run amok, ya know?) from Brunner’s 1968 overpopulation novel Stand on Zanzibar. In both novels, the stresses of an overcrowded world constantly batter at people and break them down, sending some over the edge into madness.

The book follows the lives of several characters and how they deal (successfully or not) with those stresses. It’s a good commentary on human excesses, the folly of utopia-building, and the futility of trying to drastically change human nature. Aside from the overpopulation topic, another target is social stratification: how, even in supposedly egalitarian societies, class distinctions are almost impossible to truly eliminate. Silverberg addresses this with an elegant spatial symbolism: the blue-collar grunts live at the bottom of the urbmon, while the administrators live at the luxurious top, and the middle class is in the middle, and everyone strives to rise higher and higher in the tower during their lifetimes. It’s quite literally climbing the ladder of success, making it to the top, walking all over your inferiors… you get the point.

I like this novel for its social commentary and examination of human nature. Silverberg is usually good for that. The only criticism I have is the over-emphasis on sex. Not that I’m the prudish sort by any means, but this book is full of sex and incest and orgies and masturbation and so on; and Silverberg’s approach is less than tasteful. Now it’s possible I’m being too harsh; with sex being used as a social lubricant, it certainly has a role to play in this novel. Maybe Silverberg wants us to see it as a commonplace banality, which is what this future society has made it into. Perhaps that’s why nearly every female character in the book is introduced along with a description of her breasts, women are referred to as “slots,” etc. — because people are seen as meat (but funny how that only applies to one gender). Even so, his depiction of sex usually comes across as crude and vulgar, and not just in this novel. Rather surprising, actually. Among his non-SF work, Silverberg once wrote soft porn novels, so you’d think he’d have more skill in that area. Anyway, others may disagree, but to me this was one flaw in an otherwise fine novel.

4 responses to “Silverbergian skyscrapers and the world inside them

  1. Any explanation offered for why they aren’t moving off-world?

    (I need to remember to drop by here more often! šŸ˜‰ )

  2. Bill the sci-fi guy

    No, Silverberg didn’t tackle the question of off-world colonies, which you’d think would be feasible a couple centuries from now. He also didn’t address the possibility of advanced food production technology that would use less land, or underwater cities, or anything else of that nature.

    I’ve noticed Silverberg isn’t really the detailed world-building type some other authors are. Instead of tackling all these variables at once and tying them all together, he focuses on one area, sketching out just enough of a world to support whatever social commentary he wants to offer.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Pingback: Through the wormhole (links, 8/20/09) « FROM A SCI-FI STANDPOINT

  4. Luis Carlos Zardo

    Great review of a promising, but not great movie.

    I, particularly liked the chapter where one of the urbmons resident is captured by the farmers, learn about overpopulation fears and return, just to be sentenced to death as a flippo.

    The problem with this book is that the science is completely and utterly wrong, to start with, with so high fertility rates, the population would not increase in a linear way, like is described in the book, and, itĀ“s the explanation of WHY this society works.

    With such fertility rate, later pregnancies and almost no diseases (none is even mentioned in the book), this society would more than double in a ten or twenty years, so, the 75 billion would become 150, then 300 and, easily the 90% land available for farming would not be enough, the whole society would fail and be consummed by itself.

    Its no surprise, however that the urbmon resident really believes that kind of growth can be sustained, but its completely nonsense tha the farmer girl does not even MENTION it when prsenting their arguments about overpopulation which are also based on linear growth.

    And, unless I missed something, thereĀ“s no execution of elders like loganĀ“s run or even an euthnasya clinic like in Soylent Green.

    Have this book been written with a more “thermodinamically accurate” background in mind it would be really much better, I would love to read about this society reaching its limits and recurring to cannibalism.

    Also, about the farmers, since they controled their population and were in evident decline (which makes little sense, because is in countryside where one would need more offsprings to help work the land, butĀ“s ok…), would probably not be really worried in increase its production since they would need less and less stuff produced by the urbmons, also, they would soon have the power ovr the urbmons in its hands

    overall, an enjoyable but stupid book

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