Robert Silverberg's The World Inside

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Author: Merritt Abrash
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,847 words

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[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Abrash analyzes Silverberg's achievement in The World Inside within the context of utopian literature and thought, but ultimately characterizes the novel as dystopian fiction.]

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The World Inside (1971) is an engrossing novel. The extraordinary setting is compelling throughout. Characters are vividly drawn and sharply individualized, facing problems familiar enough to arouse sympathy yet fascinating in their twenty-fourth-century context. Cleverly interrelated plot elements sustain dramatic interest from beginning to end. For sheer readability, The World Inside ranks among the best utopian novels, even though rather less than a masterpiece is necessary to join that particular company.

At the same time, it is a description in detail of a futuristic society which clearly belongs somewhere in the utopian/dystopian spectrum. Characters in the book talk about the society's utopian qualities, and in the course of the narrative the author provides numerous commentaries of his own. Through ingenious devices, such as the research into the past by a member who happens to be a trained historian, the nature of society in A.D. 2381 is observed through a variety of perspectives and temperaments. Concern with the basic utopian dilemma of the individual's relationship to society is always present behind plot developments.

Furthermore, this close integration of idea with story is achieved within an unambiguously science-fictional context. Several of the works surveyed in this volume [No Place Else] can be classified as science fiction, but The World Inside is the only one that first appeared in a science fiction magazine (Galaxy) in the hallowed serial form, and Robert Silverberg has described it (along with his Tower of Glass) as "closer to pure science fiction, the exhaustive investigation of an extrapolative idea, than anything else I have written."1 As an exploration of an arguably utopian society, written by one of the best known names in the science fiction field and directed in the first instance toward precisely that audience, The World Inside has exceptional significance for students of utopian literature and thought.

The failure of science fiction novels to break into the ranks of widely studied utopian visions is interesting. Of course Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed have gained extensive recognition, but considering the natural proclivity of science fiction writers to deal with exotic civilizations at various removes of time and space, it is clear that connoisseurs of utopia dismiss the overwhelming proportion of science fiction output. This deserves some explanation, the better to understand how Silverberg avoids falling victim to it.

The bedrock of science fiction, as of mysteries, westerns and other genres, is action rather than reflection. The story is the sine qua non, not to be interfered with or slowed down by ideas. Serious utopian literature, however, reverses the relationship: ideas are what count, and the story is meant to lend point to the ideas and not to distract from them. "The distinction," explained I. F. Clarke in a related context, "is that in Brave New World...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100038654