The World Inside: Could humans be happy living this way?

audiobook review Robert Silverberg The World Insideaudiobook review Robert Silverberg The World InsideThe World Inside by Robert Silverberg

In the year 2381, the Earth contains 75 billion people. Despite the dire warnings of 20th century prophets, humans have not exhausted the Earth’s resources. There is plenty of food for everyone, but because 90% of the land must be covered in farms, most of the people live in Urban Monads — 1,000-story skyscrapers housing 800,000 people each. Citizens aren’t allowed out of their building, and many aspects of society are rigidly monitored. Everyone is married at age 12 and each couple is encouraged to have as many children as they can because fertility and children are blessings from god.

In such a close community, it’s dangerous for people to be protective of private property or possessive of their mate, so sharing is actively encouraged. Thus, everyone has sexual access to everyone else and men are expected to go “night walking” to find other partners while their wives stay home and make themselves accessible to any man who opens their door. There is no war, crime, privacy, jealousy, or sexual restrictions, and the citizens of the Urban Monads are happy. The few who express dissatisfaction are sent to “Moral Engineers” for reprogramming, or may be thrown “down the chute” where their bodies make fuel for the building.

The World Inside (1971) is the story of several people who become dissatisfied with their lives in Urban Monad 116. It’s a thoughtful look at what life on Earth might be like if our population ever reaches the level where we need to grow vertically instead of horizontally. I was fascinated by Silverberg’s Urban Monads where everything that’s necessary for life is in one building, and where blocks of floors represent different classes and cultures.

But what I liked best about The World Inside was the idea that, because dissidents are sent down the chute, possessiveness, rebellion, jealousy, and other forms of social strife have been selectively bred out of the human population. Perhaps it would be possible for future humans to be happy in an Urban Monad, but 21st century readers will be horrified by Silverberg’s setting. Being satisfied with that kind of life would require some major evolutionary changes in our genome and, by introducing us to the citizens of Urban Monad 116, Silverberg suggests that along with those nasty traits we might like to get rid of, go many beautiful human traits such as wanderlust, curiosity about the world and, perhaps, a hope for something better around the next bend.

Robert Silverberg’s major focus on free love and his inclusion of hallucinogenic drug trips, psychedelic music, and orgies isn’t surprising (I’ve seen all this before in his stories), but they do serve to remind you that you’re reading a story that was published more than 40 years ago. The excuse for the drugs, music, and orgies, I suppose, is that they induce a hive-mind mentality in the building, but they really seem like a self-indulgent way to induce sexual titillation. I didn’t find it at all titillating, though, especially since it was so vulgarly done (e.g., women are referred to as “slots” and the act is constantly called “topping”). And then there’s the incest, which I’ve also seen before in Silverberg stories. Ick.

But my main problem with The World Inside is that it doesn’t make sense. If this is a free love society, why does everyone have to be married? And why encourage childbearing at all? To me, this bizarre societal goal seemed like a jab at religious people who are against birth control. Silverberg has his characters constantly saying “god bless, god bless, god bless!” and other religious-sounding speech. And if they’re so disgusted by “primeval 20th century attitudes,” why are women still expected to be home preparing dinner, taking care of the kids, and nagging their husbands to be ambitious so the family can move up the social ladder? Why do men get to go night walking wherever they like while women have to stay home and be “topped” by whoever shows up at their door?

And why can’t the Monad citizens go out of the buildings? Their food, families, friends, jobs, and all social support systems are inside the buildings. There’s nothing to keep them outside, so why can’t they go out and get some fresh air? And what if there was fire, or poisonous gas, or some other emergency? They don’t even practice evacuation procedures. I was expecting some big creepy revelation about why people where encouraged to have babies and why they were kept from knowing what was outside, but this never came. I can’t help but think that Robert Silverberg just wanted to write a story about overpopulation, free love, and selective breeding, so he stuck them all together in the same book.

In the end, the plot didn’t hold together, but I still enjoyed the setting and many of the ideas in The World Inside, so I didn’t feel like it was a waste of my time. The World Inside was nominated for, but didn’t win, the Hugo Award in 1972. I listened to Audible Frontier’s version which is almost eight hours long and is read by Paul Boehmer, who did a great job with the narration. If you’re going to read The World Inside, I recommend the audiobook.

The World Inside — (1971) Publisher: Welcome to Urban Monad 116. Reaching nearly two miles into the sky, the 1,000 stories of this building are home to over 800,000 people living in peace and harmony. In the year 2381 with a world population of over 75 billion souls, the massive Urbmon system is humanity’s salvation. Life in Urbmon 116 is highly regulated, life is cherished, and the culture of procreation is seen as the highest pinnacle of god’s plan. Conflict is abhorred, and any who disturb the peace face harsh punishment — even being sent “down the chute” to be recycled as fertilizer. Jason Quevedo, a historian, searches records of the 20th century hoping to find the root of his discontent with the perfection of Urbmon life. Siegmund Kluver, a young and ambitious administrator, strives to reach the top levels of the Urbmon’s government and discovers the civilization’s dark truths. Michael Statler, a computer engineer, harbors a forbidden desire. He dreams of leaving the building — of walking in the open air and visiting the far-off sea. This is a dream he must keep secret. If anyone were to find out, he’d face the worst punishment imaginable. The World Inside is a fascinating exploration of society and what makes us human, told by a master of speculative fiction. The World Inside is a 1971 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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3 comments

  1. Oh, gosh, everything I disliked about the 1970s in one book!

  2. Kieran /

    Sounds like an interesting concept ruined by trying to cram ideas not really appropriate to it.

    I came up with an idea for a short story involving people living in a tall building where the higher classes lived at teh top and the lower classes lived at the bottom. Thought it was quite an original idea, but I guess not!

  3. I think the problem is that it was written in the early 70s and Silverberg was reflecting the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll culture. I’ve seen it in enough of his work to think he was highly influenced by it, or maybe just enamored of it. Michael Swanwick’s writing is similar, and both men won a lot of prestigious awards back then, so it worked for them.

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