Dying Inside is one of science fiction’s great genre classics, although hopefully the edition currently in handsome reprinting will hip the mainstream to the fact that it’s also a great American novel. The story of an aging telepath gradually losing his power, it was written by Robert Silverberg during his creative peak in the early 1970s (a time where he was, in his words, “accustomed to working miracles”). It moved from idea to finished novel in less than nine weeks. After Dying Inside, Silverberg never wrote a book as quickly again, and I like to think that a little bit of his power died with the novel, which is as neat an allegory about the creative process as I’ve ever read.
There is a great thematic elegance to Dying Inside. The novel’s protagonist, David Selig, was born with a gift, the ability to read minds clearly, to get both the surface chatter of New York’s collective unconscious and the profound depths of an individual soul. His gift is acute. From his childhood onward, he can read the mind of a bee flying through a meadow a few miles away, and he can experience the pleasure or suffering of any other person he chooses. Unsurprisingly, his faith in the veracity and emotional warmth of humanity as a whole verges on the nonexistent, and hence he is a recluse, too sensitive for functional relationships. At the same time, he takes great, rapturous, voyeuristic ecstasy in his ability to delve deeply into the souls of others, in probing their deepest secrets and anticipating — nay, exploiting — their vulnerability. The guilt he feels about this is palpable, as is his crushing emotional isolation. After all, who can sympathize with a telepath? Who is comfortable enough with the dark corners of their mind to allow a psychic into their lives?
There are those who see a lot of Silverberg in Selig, who is also a writer, a Columbia grad, a Manhattanite, and a man in the midst of losing his golden touch. But there is of course the crucial difference — Silverberg cannot read minds, and Selig can. Not that it particularly matters, as the telepathy serves primarily as an artistic conceit, what the great structuralist sci-fi critic Robert Scholes calls the “radical discontinuity” between a novel’s events and life as we know it. In some sci-fi, the radical discontinuity consists of wild and far-reaching premises, of spacefaring and alien encounters, many of which have a profoundly romantic effect on the reader, who is beguiled by fabulism, speculation, and a larger cosmic worldview. In Dying Inside, the discontinuity is minimal, not far beyond the scope of possibility, and functions rather as a fleshed-out thought experiment — a “what if?” Because of the relatively worldly premise, the questions brought to bear are philosophical, political, and social as opposed to cosmic, mythical, or particularly (oh, that dirty word!) “escapist.” The death of Selig’s peculiar gift evokes sympathy, even pity, because of the universality of loss — his telepathy could just as easily be replaced by a creative gift, a long-running lucky streak, or an impressive golf game.
We can all relate to Selig when he laments, “Powers decay. Time leaches the colors from the best of visions. The world becomes grayer. Entropy beats us down. Everything fades. Everything goes. Everything dies.” Dying Inside is a poem to the moment in life when we realize that the best years may be behind us, that we have unknowingly passed the point from which everything is, perhaps, downhill. Selig’s telepathic wane comes as a surprise, just as old age creeps up on us, and he finds himself warring against an entropic chaos of uncertainty — just as we all initially buck against the reality of death. Selig doesn’t have the comfort of communal experience, however, and that is the real tragedy of his position.
Human beings aren’t normally isolated systems; we work together to create a kind of anti-entropic equilibrium, taking in and sharing information, building intellectual monuments against the passing of time. But what of Selig, an isolated man? One able only to peer, one-way, into the rest of humanity’s attempts to curtail degradation by the crafting of meaningful relationships, by communication and control? Alone, the forces of entropy might destroy him. Cut off from the rest of us, he might die inside. Don’t we all fear that?
As a piece of literature, Dying Inside offers us vicarious triumph against these fears. By giving them a radically discontinuous form — Selig’s telepathy — it sublimates them, allowing us to see the breadth and the complexity of loss, as well as shocking us into recognizing the value of interpersonal communication. It ends with a tender solace. As his powers ebb and eventually disappear, Selig is born again into the world. Yes, he wakes up into a new silence, but he also realizes that his guilt, anxiety, and isolation will fade along with his power. The cacophony of New York’s private thoughts disappear. The unwanted knowledge of women’s opinions of him vanish. The slips in and out of the innermost dread of strangers melt away. He thinks, suddenly, “Living, we fret. Dying, we live…Until I die again, hello, hello, hello, hello.”