There is a significant amount of words and books published regarding Eduard Said’s idea of Otherness. One such perspective is that the grass is always greener on the other side, e.g. the American Dream as perceived by arrivees to Ellis Island, or the common Polish perception that Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece are fun loving, sun-drenched countries where everyday is a glass of wine and relaxing on the beach. Said using the Orient has his prime example, one sub-set of the idea is that Easterners are culturally better prepared for death. With strong mythic overtones, it’s precisely this area that Robert Silverberg explores in his 1974 novella Born with the Dead.
The world taking on different shades and hues when the technology to rekindle the dead comes available, Jorge Klein wants nothing more than to see his ‘dead’ wife Sybille one last time after having been taken from the living in an unfortunate accident. Tracking her and her dead friends’ reanimated bodies to the island of Zanzibar, he confronts the largest of them, Zacharius, begging to have one last glimpse, one last chat, one last moment with Sybille, her death too much to bear. Denied the moment, Klein abandons his life as a professor and devotes his time to gaining it, tracking the woman and her friends the lengths of the Earth. He achieves the moment, but not in a way he expected.
Those looking for a hard science take on bringing the dead back to life will have to look elsewhere. Save a couple of sentences, Silverberg never delves into the science or methodology of reviving the dead. He also never descends into the (potential) depravities zombie-ville. Save a few minor physical differences, the ‘deads’ are precisely like the ‘warm’, the story’s substance to be located elsewhere.
With the living dead a concept taken for granted, Silverberg explores Klein’s reaction to the possibility. As he travels the world, following in Sybille’s footsteps or meeting with scholar friends of hers, he also learns how other people and cultures treat death. Though a Romeo and Juliet element naturally creeps in to such a storyline, I can’t help but think that in fact an element of Greek myth underpins the story. I say this because the ending feels a little forced. Abrupt, I didn’t feel that was the point the text seemed to be leading up to, but there it is, take it or leave it. Not up to speed on my classics I, unfortunately, cannot go further with the idea.
Silverberg’s skills as a craftsman, as seems always, are on deceptively smooth display in Born with the Dead. Lacksidaisical, morose, uninvolved—the atmosphere feels exactly as you’d expect for a story about the lifeless. For a more existential (read: dynamic) take on the living dead, see Ian McDonald’s Necroville (aka Terminal Cafe). For more meditation on the meaning of life and death, see George R.R. Martin’s A Song for Lya and Michael Bishop’s A Samurai in the Willows.