As I mentioned in April’s blog post, “Addicted to a Good Book,” our normal practice at bedtime is to read a story together. Currently, my wife and I are enjoying the Robert Silverberg story “Born with the Dead” in his collection Phases of the Moon: Six Decades of Masterpieces by the SFWA Grand Master. He wrote this story in the early 1970s, a period of great transition for our country. American had pulled out of Vietnam, yet our culture was being rocked by continual changes in clothing and hairstyles, recreational drug use, and sexual experimentation. In his own life, Silverberg had moved from New York to California, his marriage was crumbling, and he was considering abandoning his writing career. While he could produce high quality prose, his output had significantly fallen. It seemed as though his creative juices were little more than traces of liquid at the bottom of a formerly full glass.
But he was not finished as a writer of fiction. He wrote his novella “Born with the Dead” during this period. The story went on to win the Nebula award, the Locus award, and garnered second-place votes for the Hugo award. Regardless of what was happening to American culture, and regardless of what he was personally going through, the story demonstrated one unarguable fact: Robert Silverberg still had the ability to communicate essential truths about human nature through his fiction.
One of the all-time greats
The story concerns Jorge Klein’s obsession with his dead wife Sybille. Although her funeral took place years ago, she still lives. Well, sort of. It seems that someone, somehow, has invented a process whereby the dead are rekindled. These reenergized deads are not the zombies of ancient lore. Nor do they resemble the ones so popular now in movies and novels. Unlike the zombies recently depicted on the “Castle” episode “Undead Again,” their bodies do not decay, and their minds remain active. Their judgments are sound, their memories whole. Yet death has changed them. Everyone recognizes this: even Jorge accepts this fact. At least he does intellectually.
Both sides voluntarily segregate themselves from the other. The "deads" live in their own communities, called Cold Towns, and call the living “warms.” Interaction between the deads and warms is rare, and unsettling for both sides. Hence Jorge has not seen Sybille since her rekindling. Although he recognizes that she is no longer the person he knew, still he yearns to see her again. To talk with her. To share even a brief moment of real communication.
Jorge and Sybille were academics, and now that Sybille has died, she is free from the ordinary constraints of the living. She moves from Cold Town to Cold Town with her new friends, and travels the globe to research aspects of her former vocation that still interest her. Jorge pursues her as best he can, but he is weighed down by the necessities of his job and finances. When he locates her in a specific Cold Town community, the deads refuse to admit him. When he tracks her down on one of her research trips, she refuses to see him, and slips away before he can force the issue. Finally, through his contacts, he gains access to a drug that can mimic the appearance of the deads. He falsifies his records to show that he has died and been rekindled. He gains access to the Cold Town she currently inhabits. The next morning, a meeting is arranged. She spends the entire time telling him a story supposedly discovered during her researches. Then she tells him she is going away.
“May I accompany you?” he asks.
“Don’t you have your own research to resume, Jorge?” she responds, and leaves before he can answer.
Jorge is well off financially. He is still young. He is highly regarded in his field. There are, no doubt, many women who would find him appealing. It has been years since Sybille has died and been rekindled. He recognizes that she has undergone profound change, yet cannot let her go and get on with his life.
What goals are important to you? And are you really making progress toward them, or merely obsessing over getting something that you can never have?
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Watch the Castle episode “Undead Again”