The World Inside

Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside is a loosely connected group of short stories, written in the early 1970s and set in 2381. Nineteen-sixties’ concerns about over-population have been fully resolved. In the homogenous world of 2381, the planet comfortably supports a population of 75,000,000,000, and the citizens are keen to breed as prodigiously as possible. “One does one’s duty to god by reproducing.”

A little social and physical engineering has been necessary to bring about this utopia. People live in tiny apartments, in thousand story towers. Groups of floors form cities, and most people never leave their city. Personal possessions are almost non-existent, and only the dangerously insane seek privacy. There is work for all, thanks to a somewhat socialist approach to providing employment and sharing resources, and there are many options for entertainment, including recreational drugs. Sex is encouraged from an early age, and it is a social norm that no one ever rejects a sexual request from anyone. If your husband wakes up to find another man in the bed, most likely he’ll introduce himself and go back to sleep. “Jealousy sterilizes.” The majority of citizens are happy in their world, but the stories are about people who have varying degrees of doubt.

At its best, The World Inside raises questions about compromise and freedom. Unlike some other dystopian fiction,  no one is trying to expose or bring down the system. There’s nothing to expose. People don’t die at a specified age, and the food is not made from people. There is no secret group of leaders, no war, no disease, no hunger, and everyone keeps reminding themselves how good life is and how blessed they are. There is a rigid class structure, but the differences between rich and poor are trivial compared to our society. Although narrative sympathy is with the malcontents, it is sometimes hard to understand why they are unhappy.

There there’s the sex. Silverberg was a prolific writer, and his work included soft core porn novels. He can write a decent sex scene (so to speak), and the notion of unlimited availability is appealing, though perhaps more to men.  Given the high birthrate, women are going to be pregnant much of the time, and even when they’re not, they may not be in the mood, but refusing sex is a capital crime. In a nod to equality, woman are supposedly as free to seek out sex partners as men are, but generally women are portrayed as accepting whoever comes to their bed, while the men wander. Though procreation is praised, there is no requirement that sex be procreative: Same sex partners, multiple partners, and sibling incest are all acceptable. Again though, the author seems to lack the courage of his convictions to actually portray this beyond brief and titillating glimpses.

Women in this society are always home makers and care givers, operating the food synthesizers and dressing the children. Despite the apparent freedom of sexual arrangements, people have traditional marriages and families, and the husbands’ occupation determines where the family lives. It’s not clear whether Sliverberg was being sexist and traditional, or ironically noting that this future society is sexist and traditional, but I suspect the former. I was particularly disappointed in importance of male parentage. Procreation is praised, the idea of birth control is a shocking obscenity, and it is normal to have multiple partners. Despite this, a woman’s husband is considered to have fathered her children, and a man who fathers several children while young rises in status. Perhaps the folks in this society are willfully blind to the actual parentage, or perhaps, as subtly suggested a couple of times, there is some control of fertility to ensure only husbands impregnate their wives, but either approach seems a way to downplay the role and status of women.

The first chapter, originally published as a short story called “A Happy Day in 2381,” is an intriguing look at one possible future. The rest of the book is a deeper exploration into that future, but the additional information is often frustrating rather than enlightening, and at its worst The World Inside is misogynistic and adolescent. The book was recently reprinted, and there is talk of a possible HBO series. It would be interesting to see how it might be updated to reflect social changes in the past forty years.

Trivia note: Copyright on “A Happy Day in 2381” is held by Harry Harrison, author of the over-population dystopia Make Room! Make Room!, source for the film Soylent Green. I know which future I’d rather inhabit.

15 thoughts on “The World Inside

  1. I think this is a seriously difficult novel to appraise due to some of the 70s sexual politics. And, Silverberg is notorious for his poor female characters almost across the board (his best of the period was probably the political revolutionary in Hawksbill Station). However, as you point out, this is a dystopic society, it is not a positive world. It is not any endorsement of a future system. But yes, there are, let’s be titillating moments. Thoughts?

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    1. Interesting to know this is typical for Silverberg. In fairness, some of the characters are less than thrilled about the sexual standards of their society, but no one questions the traditional division of labour or traditional marriage. Now I’m trying to think of any Utopian novels with strong female characters or sexual equality. The Hunger Games comes to mind, but I probably need to do a lot more reading in this area.

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      1. The dystopias that come to mind are generally one Man versus the system, with a woman tagging along for at least part of the ride, even if she started the rebellion (This Perfect Day, 1984, Logan’s Run, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451). Just wondering if there are some where a woman is the hero.

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      2. Of course…. Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To… (1976) (maybe not exactly dystopic but definitely subverting some common SF tropes about creating new societies on alien worlds) + And Chaos Died (1970) — has a utopic streak as well.

        Suzy Mckee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974) shifts perspective from a male and female character. Probably best fits your bill.

        …and the famous The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Atwood…

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      3. And Kate Wilhelm’s Juniper Time (1979) — a near future world plagued by drought. The main character is a highly intelligent linguist who decides to head into the desert instead of move towards the cities which are cesspools (she’s raped in a “Newtown”). The male character seems ok for a while but ultimately is highly flawed and desires to use her for his own schemes.

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  2. Seems a bit like a typical male “wet dream”, really. Servile women, always having to accept sex, while managing the home so the men can feel free to ravish as they are so well-rested. This sort of thing reminds me of amateurish sci fi, written by men with no hope of meeting a woman, and wishing drearily they could just have them lying about. Ugh.

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      1. And, if you know something about the context, the 70s was a very popular era for “population explosion” narratives. Silverberg takes this type of theory to the extreme! And, creates a society which generates this extreme extrapolation. It is NOT a positive vision.

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      2. All the main characters are malcontents — men + women are dissatisfied with this future.

        Have you read Suzy McKee Charnas Walk to the End of the World (1974)? It’s a dystopic future where women are chattel — one of the most searing and powerful feminist SF novels I’ve read. Highly highly recommended. Also, Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To… (1976).

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      3. Vonda McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting (1975) has a young woman main character in a dystopic future.

        (I could come up with quite a lot more, let me know, I don’t want to spam your wall endlessly hahaha)

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