After writing dozens and dozens of genre stories, it is perhaps inevitable that the publishing industry will market an author’s latest work alongside the other titles in their oeuvre, even if it holds nothing in common. Dying Inside, Robert Silverberg’s 1972 deeply psychological novel that contains only one loosely identifiable sci-fi trope, is one such book.
Dying Inside is the very personal and very intimate story of David Selig and his coming to terms with the loss of mind-reading capabilities. Born able to enter the minds of people and read their thoughts at will, middle age finds his powers diminishing, in fact threatening to fade forever. Having used his talents to acquire little of material value, Selig wastes his days “ghosting” terms papers for Columbia students, his spiritual life full of bitterness and self-disappointment. With knowing others’ true opinions of himself threatening to bear Selig down, the only thing stopping him from giving in completely is the uncertainty of what lies on the other side. But with his powers wilting further each day, Selig must soon decide what to do with his life.
Introspective to the point of nearing autobiography, it would seem Silverberg has invested a great deal of himself into the narrative. Likewise growing up in New York City, attending Columbia, and immersing himself in all things literature and art, there are more than one strong parallel to Selig’s life. The relationship troubles which play such a vital role in the story, however, can only be judged based on the text. Likewise, as mind reading is impossible, the analogy remains open to Silverberg’s personal life. (Some have posited the loss of creativity given that the author took a lengthy hiatus from writing not long after publishing the novel.)
As a result of his condition, Selig faces a host of pain interacting with those he is most familiar with, from sexual to familial,. His sister Judith is one of few people who know of his carefully guarded secret and resents him for it, no privacy between them, enmity instead. Encountering one other man, Nyquist, who is likewise a telepath, Selig finds himself constantly in awe, jealous of the man’s ability to morally distance himself when using the talent and live a normal life. The relationships he enters into with women meet no greater degree of success, the knowledge of what they truly think of him tearing at his soul.
Whether real or imagined, making all of Selig’s troubles worse is the pessimism with which he’s come to rely on when perceiving others’ opinion of himself. One of the students in particular for whom he writes a term paper clashes mightily with his idea of what degree of work they were capable of producing, and therefore insults the man, the reality of the situation not everything he’d believed. Given the emotional outcome, the realist underpinning of this idea certainly benefits the novel.
The book not a long, drawn out internal monologue, Silverberg varies the style of text considerably. The predominantly first person narrative is broken consistently with third person flashbacks, from the Selig’s point of view as well as an omniscient narrator, to cast more objective light on the scenes. Bits and pieces of the main character talking to himself in the third person are also mixed in. Like journal entries, this text contains, amongst other things, Selig’s attempts to distance himself from the pain and stress of his past, the result more justification than apology. And lastly, Silverberg also includes a few of the essays that Selig writes for the students. One regarding Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle stands out given its meta-textual relevance to the impenetrable walls of psychology Selig repeatedly encounters.
The book is not without its faults. Most easily recognizable is the unnecessary sexualization of women. Not as overt as The Second Trip, Silverberg nevertheless includes only one female character who is not spoken of in sexual terms. All of the women save Kitty are open and wanton sex objects to be used as needed—Selig’s sister even falling under fire, she being described as the most promiscuous person in the story. Given the unavoidable manner in which sex shapes human relationships, one expects a certain degree to be included in such a highly personal and psychological story. However, that Silverberg so often identifies a female character by the size of their bust and slenderness of their waist rather than mental or social qualities detracts from the maturity of the discussion.
Another aspect potentially problematic is a matter of perspective. Dying Inside a character study, there are two different ways in which to view the book. The first is speculation on what the life of a mind-reader may be like, the second being mind-reading as an allegory, possibly for the loss of the creative spirit, but also possibly for pre-conceived ideas we have of how others perceive us. Approaching the novel from the first, the result is one more entertainment oriented given humans cannot read minds, albeit interestingly explored by Silverberg. From the second, however, there is more to be gleaned from the text. Analogies between Selig’s behavior and the outside world possible, there are nevertheless other novels which better illustrate protection against false perceptions and improvement of self-esteem, diminished mind reading a strange plot device to exemplify loss.
In the end, Dying Inside is a character study of a mind-reader, that despite being well-written, will not please everyone. At its root, readers should expect an open, adult book that digs at the roots of psyche, its overtones dark and brooding. Whether thought experiment or allegory, the story will be interesting to some for its discussion on the fallibility of, and issues with, human self-perception and the internalized perception of others. Female characters, which take on such a large number of roles in the novel, will be a problem for others, their sexuality overt and immature. No matter the perspective, Dying Inside is a book that deserves to be shelved alongside literary realist works long before science fiction.