Born with the Dead by Robert Silverberg (1979) – I was surprised, after reading the author’s introduction about how difficult it was to write these stories about death, that Mr. Silverberg is still alive today. Seriously, the pains and trepidation he’d experienced writing them made me think that he himself was close to death in the late seventies.
These three novellas, written in the early seventies, focus on the topic of death for various pulp science fiction magazines of the time. While they are not directly connected to each other, they do have a common theme – how people deal with the final curtain closing on a very personal level.
The first one, Born with the Dead, deals with a heart-broken husband whose wife has decided to be rekindled after her untimely and early death. Rekindling is the process of reanimating the flesh of the dead, but because of their odd transformation, the beautiful and deathless reanimates are isolated from the living. Breaking the social rules, the husband tracks her down time and again only to find she and her new friends seem incapable of love. Able to finally finish her thesis about Zanzibar, she and her ensemble travel there several times. The husband meets up with her and begs her to come back, even posing as a rekindled body in Cold Town to see her. Finally, he decides the only way he can be with her is to die, also. Of course, when he does, he becomes unloving, too, and sets out to find his own unfinished business without his former wife. Painting a sad and tragic tale, Mr. Silverberg at no point tries to explain the science, only the heartfelt longing of the husband for his wife. Till death do us part indeed.
The second one, Thomas the Proclaimer, is an interesting concept, but I found it a little predictable. Imagine an uncouth evangelist (I know it’s hard) who gets the entire world to pray for a sign from God that he exists. Then, imagine that God agrees and stops the world from spinning for 24 hours, freezing half the world in darkness. It’s an interesting idea and leads to “what do we do now?” stories. We get slices of life stories about people whose lives have been changed – preachers, housewives, businessmen – but none for the better. Now that everyone knows God is out there, they go amok. New religions spring up, some suicidal, the leader, Thomas, has no direct link to God. He just wants a bottle of wine and everyone to get along. Riots and mass suicides take place. Since God revealed his existence, the world has gone mad. In the end, a crowd of zealots descend on Thomas and get biblical on his ass.
The last story, Going, is probably the most timely and thought-provoking. A famous composer decides, at the young age of a hundred and thirty, that it is time for him to Go. He’s had a good life, his children are (very) grown, and he has grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. Also, his leaving will allow for another family to have the child they’ve always wanted. His decision made, he’s assigned a Guide and moved to a House of Leavetaking where he’ll spend his last few months being comfortable and tying up loose ends.
He reconnects with his family, gives eulogies for others at the House, and contemplates writing one last master symphony. Still healthy and lucid, he wonders if he is making the right decision. Is he, as his Guide insists, still a contributing member of society? Should he travel to places he’s never been? See friends he’s not seen in years? Through the miracles of modern technology, he will be self-sufficient for several more decades. Still, he has to admit that he’s bored. There really isn’t anything left for him to do. Mankind has cheated death. But it’s up to him to decide when to plan his own funeral and drink that final cup. Not an action/adventure story in any universe, but a nice piece of retrospection on what we would do if we could choose when to Go.