Review: Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg

In my coverage of the stories Robert Silverberg published from 1963-1975 it’s no more time for me to post a review of Born with the Dead than it was to reprint the review of The World Inside but I’m going to anyway. This is revised from a post I made on an SF discussion board on December 19, 2012 to remove irrelevant antipathy to Silverberg’s introduction to the collection (Isaac Asimov’s “cheerful self-appreciation” entertains me but Silverberg’s bitter self-appreciation didn’t) and in an attempt to at least slightly improve it generally, but the substance is unchanged.

Born with the Dead is subtitled/blurbed “Three Novellas About Here and Hereafter.” The stories all hail from 1970-74 but, other than things like the topicality of population pressures and futures set in what is now the past, they don’t feel especially dated. While not hard SF, one of the stories even contains something close to e-books and print-on-demand while another has a HUD/GPS of sorts.

The title story is well-regarded by many, including the author, whose introduction describes how he packed into it his “deepest thoughts about love, marriage, boredom, obsession” and complains about how it lost an award. However, I prefer the winner, George R. R. Martin’s “A Song for Lya,” which deals with many of the same topics in a much more dramatic and convincing fashion. That’s not to say “Born with the Dead” is a bad story–far from it. It’s about a husband who can’t let go of his “rekindled” wife after her death while she wanders about with her new undead friends without care for her previous connections. This central idea is good and passages in the story are splendid but I think it could have worked better as an evocative “prose-poem” sort of short story because it didn’t consistently grip me over its span as a novella. While it’s obviously about love, marriage, obsession, and boredom, and boredom is effectively conveyed, the rest is not as effective over the course of the story and I don’t think or feel all that differently or profoundly about those topics after reading it. Further, the “deads” aren’t detailed in any plausible way—making them purely literary—and the way the society of “warms” interacts with this phenomenon is also implausible, to say the least. This is fantasy in science fiction’s clothing.

Despite being less renowned, the other two stories in the collection worked much better for me. “Thomas the Proclaimer” is similarly a fantasy story told in science fictional terms in that a ruffian/rogue-turned-prophet instigates a moment of world prayer in 1999 (story written in 1971) which causes the world to stop moving for about 24 hours. From that fantastic starting point, a realistic story (except in the magnitude of its satire) of millennial and historical delirium takes off. The “march to the sea” (when the calculating Plato/Saul/Judas character allied to Thomas tries for a second miracle) is an unforgettable depiction of sheer mass madness. But there are also many subtler satirical touches of, for instance, the multiplying sects and interpretations.

Going” is one of four story ideas given by Isaac Asimov to Silverberg and three other writers for an anthology. It starts out almost feeling like an Asimov story with much dialogue but becomes more Silverbergian as it deals with a society in 2095 where medical advances have made possible prolonged, vigorous lives which almost always reach the 13th to 19th decades. Given this, a social structure has come about where people are voluntarily euthanized whenever they feel like to make way for new lives. The focus is on the spontaneous decision of a famous composer to Go. He heads off to a House of Leavetaking where he tries to tie up his life’s loose ends and prepare himself to die. This raises all kinds of thought-provoking ideas. One is on the nature of societal “use” where the government encourages the less useful members of society to Go sooner and the more, later. There’s a somewhat appalling elitism (present in Asimov’s original idea), where “useful” seems to mean “creative” and “not useful” seems to mean anything else, including physical labor, raising children well, and being nice. Then there’s the subjective idea of how it would be to live/die in such a way (would you give up a semi-immortal life? when? why?), along with the objective idea of what sort of government and citizenry would have things this way and how they would afford it.