Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Born with the Dead" by Robert Silverberg

Maybe ten years ago I first read "Born with the Dead;" I accessed the 1974 hardcover collection bearing the same title as the story through inter-library loan at the university where I was working.  I remember being disappointed or underwhelmed by the award-winning novella; today I read it again, this time in the 2012 collection The Best of Robert Silverberg: Stories of Six Decades.

This edition includes a good intro in which Silverberg talks about the circumstances in his life when he wrote "Born with the Dead," and how the story came about and how it was received.  I always enjoy the writing Silverberg has done about his life and career, and he has done a lot of such writing in the collections published since the turn of the century.

"Born with the Dead" first appeared in the April 1974 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a special issue devoted to Silverberg.  It depicts the near future, the 1990s, when scientists are able to recreate extinct creatures like the dodo, passenger pigeon, and giant ground sloth, and "rekindle" people who have died.  The rekindled dead people abandon all connection with the people they knew during their lives and congregate in enclosed "Cold Towns" that the living (known as "the warm") are forbidden to enter.  The story, about 65 pages in this edition, follows Jorge Klein, an Argentine-born American college professor whose wife, Sybille, a fellow academic, has died and been rekindled.  As a couple they were inseparable, sharing the same interests and spending all their time together, and Klein is unable to deal with their separation, the idea that Sybille no longer wants to see him.  Detective-style he figures out which Cold Town she is in, and then Richard-Burton-style he tries to sneak in to see her, disguised as a dead person.  (Silverberg invites the reader to make the Burton connection, mentioning Burton early in the story during a sequence in Zanzibar.)  Klein is defeated, even humiliated, repeatedly; his former wife wants nothing to do with him, she and her new friends are irritated and annoyed by him.  The resolution of Klein and Sybille's problem comes with Klein's own death and rekindling; now that he is able to once again be a part of Sybille's existence, he finds he has no interest in doing so and they part ways, their love more dead than they are. 

Silverberg exposes the reader of "Born with the Dead" to some of his vast store of reading and learning.  The story has nine little chapters, and each has a sizable epigraph; two are from T. S. Eliot, one is from Thomas Pynchon, another is from Joan Didion.  (My favorite consists of excerpts from a beginner's guide to Swahili, which reads like a kind of window onto a society very human but very different from the society I have always inhabited: "Quarreling brings trouble.  These days the lions roar a great deal.  Joy follows grief.  It is not good to beat children much.")  Sybille and her new dead friends travel around the world, exploring Indian burial grounds in Ohio, going on an African safari (hunting the aforementioned recreated extinct animals on a preserve), and visiting Zanzibar.  Klein has a friend who is a Parsee (am I supposed to spell it "Parsi" nowadays?)  So Silverberg has a chance to describe to us at length Native American and Zaroastrian burial rites and extinct mammals and birds.  All this stuff is interesting, but, in the same way I wondered about the technical information on construction equipment in Theodore Sturgeon's "Killdozer," I have to wonder how much of Silverberg's paleontology and anthropology actually serves his story here.

The rekindled dead in the story aren't that much different from living people; they eat and use the toilet, they drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, they perspire.  Silverberg includes numerous details that suggest that the differences between the living and the revived dead are no greater than the differences between the world's various ethnic and religious groups.  For example, Klein's Parsee friend never tells Klein his wife's name, even though the three eat dinner and have long conversations together, and a black African official comments that white people's skin looks artificial to him and that he has trouble discerning the gender of European names.

When Klein seeks advice from a renegade dead person on how to infiltrate the Cold Town where Sybille is residing (the one near Salt Lake City), the dead man warns, "'Ten minutes inside the Cold Town, they'll have your number.'"  Klein asks, "'They'll have my what?'" and the dead man responds "'Jesus, don't you even speak English?  Jorge, that's a foreign name...Where are you from?'"  As a Jew, an Hispanic and an immigrant, Klein in some ways is a member of an alien community living within the United States, just as the dead are.  Klein, who has lived in the United States over 30 years, is still identified by some as a "foreigner," a parallel to the way, earlier in the story, a child points at the living dead Sybille and, seeing her staring eyes, asks his father what is wrong with her, why does she look so weird?

As much as "Born With the Dead" is about speculations of a future in which science has conquered death, and a tragedy about the death of the love that two people once shared, I think it is about what today we call "diversity" and "multiculturalism."  About how difficult it can be for people from different cultures to understand each other, how in multicultural countries like the United States one finds ghettos and enclaves and neighborhoods and even entire towns (like Mormon Salt Lake City) with distinctive cultures or subcultures that may or may not be embraced by the wider culture, and may or may not welcome outsiders.  In keeping with the tragic nature of the story, Silverberg focuses on the alienation and conflicts that result from contact between cultures instead of the virtues to be found within different communities or the benefits of interaction between cultures.

"Born with the Dead" is quite good, a multi-faceted story that I recommend.  I think I was probably underwhelmed by it when I first read it in the 2000s because I was hoping it would be a utopia about how awesome it would be, or a horror story about how dreadful it would be, if the dead were commonly revived and walking among us.  There is some of that, but it is subtle.  This time around I appreciated the cultural stuff more, though I do think some of it could have been trimmed, maybe to make room for more tragic love story stuff.


  1. I need to read this. One of the few famous SIlverberg works from the late 60s/70s period of his writing I've yet to read.

  2. I also read that book, really it is extraordinary science fiction.