Born with the Dead by Silverberg, Robert, 1974

Born with the Dead by Silverberg, Robert

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For a big part of his career it seemed to me like Robert Silverberg was not very interested in writing conclusions to his stories, and in some cases would even abandon any kind of plot too. In their places though he became quite adept at character and emotional development, and as a result of that long phase of his career, he has one of the best abilities with interpersonal stories. Born with the Dead is a Nebula Award winning novella that is about how people react to death. Three out of five stars.

As I hinted above plot is not the most important element here. In Born with the Dead Jorge Klein has recently lost his wife, Sybille, but Sybille has undergone a procedure called "rekindling" where she was awakened after her natural death by a new medical procedure. After being rekindled she lived in a "Cold Town" with others of her kind, but in the years after the deads started to emerge slowly to the world of the "warms," where they travelled as tourists or continued on with their life's work. Sybille was doing post doc work on cultures in Zanzibar when she passed. She and a group of four other "deads" went on a world tour that ended in Zanzibar where Sybille intended to finish her research and publish. However Jorge was convinced that he was still in love with Sybille, and broke strong taboo by trying to reconnect with her after she was rekindled. Jorge's best friend, a Parsee named Jijibhoi was also a post doc anthropologist who spent his time trying to pierce the tight culture of the deads. Jijibhoi helped Jorge in his numerous efforts to get an audience with Sybille, even though he thought Jorge's compulsions were unhealthy and ill-conceived. Despite the other dead's attempts to block, Jorge did meet with Sybille a few times before he tracked her to Zanzibar, where the other deads grew tired of his complete misunderstanding of their culture and killed him, then sent him for his own rekindling.

Silverberg gave us two separate stories here. The first is above, but at the same time he flashed around in time for some first person observation of death and funerary rights, and in doing that he spent a lot of time talking around the fears inherent in death. Here is a conversation between Jijibhoi and Jorge about what their studies:

"I was wondering," said Klein slowly, "if it doesn't make things hard for you, spending all your time among deads, studying them, mastering their ways, devoting your whole career to them, when you wife evidently despises the Cold Towns and everything that goes on in them. If the theme of your work repels her you must not be able to share it with her."

"Oh," Jijibhoi said, tension visibly going from him, "if it comes to that, I have even less liking for the entire rekindling phenomenon than she."

"You do?" This was a side of Jijibhoi that Klein had never suspected. "It repels you? Then why did you choose to make such an intensive study of it?"

Jijibhoi looked genuinely amazed. "What? Are you saying one must have personal allegiance to the subject of one's field of scholarship?" He laughed. "You are of Jewish birth, I think, and yet your doctoral thesis was concerned, was it not, with the early phases of the Third Reich?"

Klein winced. "Touché!"

Silverberg does not stop with this banter. Before going on to Zanzibar Sybille and her group of deads visit an Indian burial mount in Ohio where Sybille learns that the dead can almost travel through time to experience certain aspects of the deaths of those buried there, including funeral rites, and maybe more. Then they go on to a safari in East Africa to a park that was stocked with extinct animals that had been brought back to life again. The only animals that they were allowed to kill were those that have been brought back, and they bagged as many as they could carry. The dead themselves were zombies, and though they didn't moan or lurch, they were colorless and lived Spartan "lives," with no need for ostentation or emotion. But the dead had their own psychological hurdles here as well. None of them seemed to be able to put their fingers on it, but their outlook was obviously colored with some feeling about their own death. It might not be fear, but there was still the need to try to dominate it and overcome it, even though technology already has done that for them. Sybille, thinking to herself as she hunts a do-do bird:

Through this vast part she wanders in a dream. She sees ground sloths, great auks, quaggas, moas, heath hens, Javan rhinos, giant armadillos, and many other rarities. The place is an abode of ghosts. The ingenuities of the genetic craftsmen are limitless; someday, perhaps, the preserve will offer trilobites, tyrannosaurs, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, baluchitheria, even - why not? - packs of australopithecines, tribes of Neanderthals. For the amusement of the deads, whose games tend to be somber. Sybille wonders whether it can really be considered killing, this slaughter of laboratory-spawned novelties. Are these animals real or artificial? Living things, or cleverly animated constructs? Real, she decides. Living. They eat, they metabolize, they reproduce. They must seem real to themselves, and so they are real, realer, maybe, than dead human beings who walk again in their own cast-off bodies.

"Shotgun," Sybille says to the closest porter.

The major part of the book was dedicated to the chase and even though Jorge manages to make contact a few times, he never really got what he wanted. Sybille and the other deads told him time and time again that he would never understand them at all, but Jorge never stopped trying to get through to Sybille. Without realizing it, what Jorge really wanted was to understand what death was all about. Jorge probably thought that he could understand his wife, and thus understand death, if only he could spend some time with her. So he convinced himself that he was still desperately in love with her as an excuse to break taboo and corner Sybille. Though Silverberg in his infinite genius did give some wonderfully slippery red herrings here. Towards the end of the story Jorge confronted Sybille, who told him a story about an ancient king of Zanzibar who was fooled by a would-be conqueror. Jorge was unable later to confirm any of the elements of the story, which Sybille told him was poorly documented in the published literature, and that she would fix the account of the deception when she published her own work. Jorge however was unable to confirm any part of the story; only that the people in it lived, though as scribes and not royalty. With the dead's ability to vision quest/time travel and their strange attitudes towards death, I wondered if they were planning some coup on the human race in the past. Silverberg has worked with that motif twice before, but he did not develop it here at all, save for the hint of it that I see.

As an exploration of the psychology and pathology of a main character, this book is emotionally fulfilling, but is not as well done as Behold the Man, by Michael Moorcock. The atmosphere of this book is fantastic, even though the way that the deads resolve their problem and bridge the understanding gap between them and Jorge is pretty depressing. They kill him to make him see, and doing that is more like a rape than a passage. Silverberg did a very tight dance around the character's motivations, and expertly left it to the reader's own imagination to fill in the gaps. I can easily see why this one is an award winner, though not best-in-class.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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