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Minor Sci-Fi Classic Explores Inner Frontiers

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

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.

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Jessa Crispin