“The World Inside” – Robert Silverberg

As many of you know, I’m an avid reader. Although my intake is predominately fantasy, I do read a healthy dose of crime, YA and other fiction.

In this case, it’s a work of Speculative Fiction – a collection of short stories by Silverberg published as “The World Inside”.

The question the work poses is “What if we encouraged overpopulation. What if we held breeding to be the best activity there is.”. It is with this premise that the world of the Urban Monad is born. The year is 2381. The world population is over 75 billion (up from todays population of 7 billion). To feed that many people vast amounts of food is needed, so vast amounts of land have been given over to farmland, with small communities maintaining the vast amount of agriculture. But where does everyone else go? Into arcology inspired “Urban Monads”, 1000 floor skyscrapers, housing over 800,000 people, that as a community are almost entirely self-sufficient – they recycle everything obsessively, they capture body heat, every area of space is used to its full potential. The only thing they need is food from the farms – in exchange they maintain the machinery that the small farming community uses.

Because of the limited space, each apartment is one small room. The beds inflate and deflate down into the floor to ensure effective utilisation of the space. There’s no internal partitions (there is a privacy screen for the toilet, but it’s never used). There’s certainly no separate kitchen.

In our situation you can imagine tensions forming easily between people, so the rules are strict to ensure that peace is maintained – to ensure that no-one goes “flippo”. Sex (between any persons) is the main way of releasing any tension – and because minimising conflict is essential, it is seen as impolite (or even sinful) to refuse when someone asks, although the refusal is always accepted. The people in the UrbMon live in a ‘city’ – a group of about 50 or so floors, based roughly on class – administrators live up the top, whilst labourers live in the bottom-most city. The city forms the basis of their social group – it is rare that they interact with people outside of their own city – each ‘city’ even has its own entertainment complex.

Naturally because of the belief that reproduction is the highest good (the most “blessworthy”) it is common for marriages to happen at 12-13, as soon as the person is able to reproduce. Small families are also seen as a sign of failure – in Prague (one of the cities) there is an average of 9.9 children per family. This is not seen as freaky or weird, but is seen as something to be praised and upheld as a model of the family. This combined with the sexual permissiveness hinted at earlier, has given rise the the culture of “nightwalking”, one where men will roam the corridors of their city, and will go into an apartment (locks are forbidden as creating tensions and untrustworthyness), to have sex with the female (or male) there. There is no obligation for the other partner to leave, although they will usually go nightwalking themselves. Interestingly there is a social expectation that women don’t nightwalk, a source of tension for one of the characters in a later story when his wife leaves the room to seek out sex, not even waiting until night. (The horror!)

Due to the lack of privacy, sex happens within full view of the children. Indeed, one of the opening parts of the book is a song sung by children upon waking in the morning

God bless, god bless, god bless!
God bless us every one!
God bless Daddo, god bless Mommo,
god bless you and me!
God bless us all, the short and tall,
Give us fer-til-i-tee!

This opens the first short story in the collection – which tells, from the viewpoint of the father in this family, of the arrival and tour of a “sociocomputator” from a colony on Venus, where the social structure resembles our own much more closely – private dwellings in their own plot of land. He is somewhat shocked at the lack of privacy, at the invitation to “share” his hosts wife. At the age at which children are married.

To elaborate on that last point, once children become fertile they move into group dorms until a unit is available for themselves. Naturally, given the large number of people space is rare – there is a constant expansion programme of new UrbMons being built. One of the stories involves the conflict within one of those couples randomly chosen to go an live in the new UrbMon. They are so used to staying within their city, they are terrified of leaving all they know (no-one ever leaves an UrbMon by choice). But this is countered with the possibility of rising in social status; in established UrbMons the highest status jobs are rarely available for anyone to take, with people being groomed for the roles. In a new UrbMon however, the social mobility is much much greater.

Another of the key stories for understanding their culture is the one where someone, defying all social convention, leaves the UrbMon to explore. As he steps outside he is struck by how big the UrbMons are. But what is really telling is hwo he views the small agricultural commune that he encounters as he explores. At first he expects to be able to communicate with them, but as language is an issue he starts to view them as savages – especially when it appears that they are going to kill a pregnant member (which, given his culture is possibly the worst crime one could commit). But the distrust is mutual – the villagers believe he is there to spy on them.

One particularly noteworthy exchange is that with the old woman, when he tries to convince her that procreation is the best thing, he can’t understand why they stay so small – even as she points out that if they grew and expanded their commune, there wouldn’t be enough food for the UrbMons.

The final scene I’m going to highlight in this review is from the same story – it shows from our point of view, his attempt to rape the female; whilst from his point of view he thought she was just playing a game – having never been told no to his sexual advances. It wasn’t an easy read, but it was very valuable for showing how our experiences and social influences inform our beliefs and our actions.

And with that thought, I’m going to leave the review here. Suffice it to say, I highly recommend the book as an excellent read that provokes some serious thought about cultural norms, as well as alternative models of sustainability.

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