Minor Sci-Fi Classic Explores Inner Frontiers

Cover
Dying Inside
By Robert Silverberg
Paperback, 304 pages
Orb Books
List price: $15.95
Sci-fi author Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is the author of over 160 books of science fiction and nonfiction. His first story, Gorgon Planet, was published in 1954. hide caption

itoggle caption

In the simplistic world of comic books, possessing a power like invisibility, mind reading or the ability to fly offers two paths: become a criminal mastermind or spend your life fighting crime. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons pointed out the obvious with their Watchmen comic book: Anyone eager to dress up in spandex and take down evildoers probably has a bevy of personality disorders. But what about an ordinary person not interested in playing dress-up — what would his life be like? In Dying Inside, Hugo and Nebula awards-winning author Robert Silverberg presents a man with the power to read minds. The results are unexpected.

David Selig has used his telepathy to plumb people's souls, an exercise that can make him feel at one with the universe. But he mostly just uses it to suss out which woman in the bar might be willing to go home with him. As he reaches middle age, his power is waning and he has to find a way to connect to others without invading minds.

Silverberg examines the darker side of being born with such a gift. Instead of bringing Selig wealth or an insight into the people around him, it isolates him. In high school, he knows exactly what the pretty girls think of him, and it's not flattering. He hears all of the shameful secrets and prejudices everyone tries to hide. The result is that he becomes a racist, sexist and lonely man drowning in self-pity. And yet, he's not a bad narrator — self aware and bitterly funny. These qualities help you to forgive him his dafter moments.

Dying Inside is an intimate, nuanced portrait of a very unpleasant yet somehow sympathetic character. Originally published in 1972, the only thing that ages this novel, other than the women's purple satin jumpsuits, is the total absence of political correctness. Everyone's darkest, hate-filled thoughts are on display. In the '70s, this alienated social vision may have seemed out of place in the company of such towering science fiction talents as Heinlein and Asimov. Now that the genre has become a little more personal and complex, Dying Inside is likely to find a home next to new lights such as Chabon and Lethem.

Excerpt: 'Dying Inside'

Dying Inside
By Robert Silverberg
Paperback, 304 pages
Orb Books
List price: $15.95
Cover

There was always the danger of being found out. He knew he had to be on his guard. This was an era of witchhunters, when anyone who departed from community norms was ferreted out and burned at the stake. Spies were everywhere, probing for young Selig's secret, fishing for the awful truth about him. Even Miss Mueller, his biology teacher. She was a pudgy little poodle of a woman, about 40, with a glum face and dark arcs under her eyes; like a cryptodyke of some sort she wore her hair cut brutally short, the back of her neck always showing the stubble of a recent shave, and came to class every day in a gray laboratory smock. Miss Mueller was very deep into the realm of extrasensory and occult phenomena. Of course they didn't use phrases like "very deep into" in 1949, when David Selig was in her class, but let the anachronism stand: she was ahead of her time, a hippie born too soon. She really grooved behind the irrational, the unknown. She knew her way around the high-school bio curriculum in her sleep, which was more or less the way she taught it. What turned her on, really, were things like telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, astrology, the whole parapsychological bag. The most slender provocation was enough to nudge her away from the day's assignment, the study of metabolism or the circulatory system or whatever, and onto one of her hobby horses. She was the first on her block to own the I Ching. She had done time inside orgone boxes. She believed that the Great Pyramid of Gizeh held divine revelations for mankind. She had sought deeper truths by way of Zen, General Semantics, the Bates eyesight exercises, and the readings of Edgar Cayce. (How easily I can extend her quest past the year of my own exposure to her! She must have gone on to dianetics, Velikovsky, Bridey Murphy, and Timothy Leary, and ended up, in her old age, as a lady guru in some Los Angeles eyrie, heavy into psilocybin and peyote. Poor silly gullible pitiful old bitch.)

Naturally she kept up with the research into extrasensory perception that J. B. Rhine was doing down at Duke University. It terrified David whenever she spoke of this. He constantly feared that she was going to give way to the temptation to run some Rhine experiments in class, and would thereby flush him out of hiding. He had read Rhine himself, of course, The Reach of the Mind and New Frontiers of the Mind, had even peered into the opacities of The Journal of Parapsychology, hoping to find something that would explain him to himself, but there was nothing there except statistics and foggy conjecture. Okay, Rhine was no threat to him so long as he went on piddling around in North Carolina. But muddled Miss Mueller might just strip him naked and deliver him to the pyre.

Inevitable, the progression toward disaster. The topic for the week, suddenly, was the human brain, its functions and capabilities. See, this is the cerebrum, this is the cerebellum, this is the medulla oblongata. A child's garden of synapses. Fat-cheeked Norman Heimlich, gunning for a 99, knowing precisely which button to push, put up his hand: "Miss Mueller, do you think it'll ever be possible for people really to read minds, I mean not by tricks or anything but actual mental telepathy?" Oh, the joy of Miss Mueller! Her lumpy face glowing. This was her cue to launch into an animated discussion of ESP, parapsychology, inexplicable phenomena, supernormal modes of communication and perception, the Rhine researches, et cetera, et cetera, a torrent of metaphysical irrelevance. David wanted to hide under his desk. The word "telepathy" made him wince. He already suspected that half the class realized what he was. Now a flash of wild paranoia. Are they looking at me, are they staring and pointing and tapping their heads and nodding? Certainly these were irrational fears. He had surveyed every mind in the class again and again, desperately trying to amuse himself during the arid stretches of boredom, and he knew that his secret was safe. His classmates, plodding young Brooklynites all, would never cotton to the veiled presence of a superman in their midst. They thought he was strange, yes, but had no notion of how strange. Would Miss Mueller now blow his cover, though? She was talking about conducting parapsychology experiments in class to demonstrate the potential reach of the human brain. Oh where can I hide?

No escape. She had her cards with her the next day. "These are known as Zener cards," she explained solemnly, holding them up, fanning them out like Wild Bill Hickok about to deal himself a straight flush. David had never actually seen a set of the cards before, yet they were as familiar to him as the deck his parents used in their interminable canasta games. "They were devised about twenty-five years ago at Duke University by Dr. Karl E. Zener and Dr. J. B. Rhine. Another name for them is 'ESP cards.' Who can tell me what 'ESP' means?"

Norman Heimlich's stubby hand waving in the air. "Extrasensory perception, Miss Mueller!"

"Very good, Norman." Absentmindedly she began to shuffle the cards. Her eyes, normally inexpressive, gleamed with a Las Vegas intensity. She said, "The deck consists of 25 cards, divided into five 'suits' or symbols. There are five cards marked with a star, five with a circle, five with a square, five with a pattern of wavy lines, and five with a cross or plus sign. Otherwise they look just like ordinary playing cards." She handed the pack to Barbara Stein, another of her favorites, and told her to copy the five symbols on the blackboard. "The idea is for the subject being examined to look at each card in turn, face down, and try to name the symbol on the other side. The test can be run in many different ways. Sometimes the examiner looks briefly at each card first; that gives the subject a chance to pick the right answer out of the examiner's mind, if he can. Sometimes neither the subject nor the examiner sees the card in advance. Sometimes the subject is allowed to touch the card before he makes his guess. Sometimes he may be blindfolded, and other times he may be permitted to stare at the back of each card. No matter how it's done, though, the basic aim is always the same: for the subject to determine, using extrasensory powers, the design on a card that he can't see. Estelle, suppose the subject has no extrasensory powers at all, but is simply operating on pure guesswork. How many right guesses could we expect him to make, out of the 25 cards?"

Estelle, caught by surprise, reddened and blurted, "Uh-twelve and a half?"

A sour smirk from Miss Mueller, who turned to the brighter, happier twin. "Beverly?"

"Five, Miss Mueller?"

"Correct. You always have one chance out of five of guessing the right suit, so five right calls out of 25 is what luck alone ought to bring. Of course, the results are never that neat. On one run through the deck you might have four correct hits, and then next time six, and then five, and then maybe seven, and then perhaps only three-but the average, over a long series of trials, ought to be about five. That is, if pure chance is the only factor operating. Actually, in the Rhine experiments some groups of subjects have averaged 6 1/2 or 7 hits out of 25 over many tests. Rhine believes that this above-average performance can only be explained as ESP. And certain subjects have done much better. There was a man once who called nine straight cards right, two days in a row. Then a few days later he hit 15 straight cards, 21 out of 25. The odds against that are fantastic. How many of you think it could have been nothing but luck?"

Copyright © 1972 by Agberg Ltd.

Books Featured In This Story

Dying Inside

by Robert Silverberg

Paperback, 302 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Dying Inside
Author
Robert Silverberg

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.