Published: 1972 by Ballantine
Genres: Science Fiction
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I began reading Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside for Vintage Sci-Fi Month. Clearly since it’s midway through February I’m running a bit behind, but such is life.
Dying Inside is the story of a telepath named David Selig. The story is set in our own world in the late 60s/early 70s, contemporary to when the novel was written. Selig’s telepathy alienated him from his peers and made him feel like an outsider. It’s been his burden, his curse, his downfall for his entire life. Now, as Selig ages, he finds that he is losing his “gift,” which has been so entwined with his feelings of identity that it brings on an existential crisis.
Selig is a hard character to relate to simply because he is so incredibly depressed. He’s crushed by feelings of guilt from spying on everyone around him (and before you think that telepathy might be cool, picture a 9-year-old kid knowing every gritty detail of what his parents are doing in the other room after they send him to bed at night), and he feels like he can’t have normal relationships with anybody. Rather than using his gift to try to become close to people or form meaningful relationships, he cuts himself off from the world, making a piteous living by writing term papers for college students. To me, the most telling part of the novel was when Selig tried (and failed) to write a paper for a black student. It became so clear at that moment that even though he’s a telepath and can read what other people are thinking, Selig can’t understand the human condition on a fundamental level. He’s so wrong about him that it’s just baffling.
As a contrast, Selig encounters another man who is also a telepath, but who seems like a pretty normal person. Nyquist works on Wall Street and uses his telepathy to make opportune trades. He’s great with women. He’s happy, optimistic, and well-adjusted, using his power to make his life better rather than feeling like a victim. Nyquist and Selig are polar opposites, but united by a common experience, and it seems obvious that it isn’t the power that’s reduced Selig to his current circumstance, but his fear of his own humanity.
Overall, a fascinating read, although not entirely pleasant. I think perhaps my favorite parts are the essays that Selig writes that are interspersed throughout his narration. They bring back memories (also not entirely pleasant) of my own college evenings spent analyzing Kafka’s themes of alienation and isolation. Entirely appropriate subject matter for Selig.