In the world of 2381, society has discovered a way to deal with overpopulation. Instead of sprawling out, society has sprawled up, creating giant 1000 storey megatowers (“monads”) that house 800,000-900,000 citizens. There are thousand of these towers. They can house endless billions and still leave most of the land free for agriculture to support the mouths of these billions. The towers themselves are rather self contained, largely recycling and creating what the denizens need to live with superefficient energy systems. Every tower is divided into “cities” of 20-40 stories or so. The cities are arranged in a caste like system, with the more lucrative (higher up) apartments going to those with “higher” jobs (monad - administrators and bureaucrats at the top, followed by white collar, and then blue collar jobs/castes).
Birth control is illegal, and everyone hopes for as many “littles” as possible. To encourage more breeding (and less frustration, since we’ve eliminated jealousy and strife) men go on “nightwalks” going into apartments and having sex with the women they find there. Refusal is not totally illegal, but society shames on it, and if you don’t play nice, they may decide to throw you down the chute.
Most of the current societal mores are gone. Universal sex (with anyone, of any sex) is not a problem and drug use is not prohibited or limited. Just fit in and do your part with society, staying in your tower (especially city) and don’t question society. There is no privacy, there is no faithfulness, and no reason to trust.
This book focuses on a few characters in Urbmon 116, going through the daily lives of some of the men living in the Shanghai area of the Urbmon. This book is almost like a series of short stories regarding each of these men and are closely linked to each other. We have an artist, a sociocomputator, an urbmon administrator (or future administrator), a technician, and an historian. They each delve into the part of themselves and/or the system that is imperfect.
I believe this book is just as interesting in 2012 as it might have been in 1971. In this utopian dystopia, the world is a very crowded and free, yet restricted place. In the 60s-70s there was quite a bit of overpopulation dystopia due to extreme Malthusian projections by a number of scientists and economists, which clearly heavily influence the book. Now in 2012, women’s health care and the right to access birth control has become a major issue. Here, birth control isn’t just illegal, it’s anathema. People are encouraged to have as many littles as possible and one main character is actually embarrassed by his wife’s "sterility" (they only had four children). People are maturing, getting married, and having families at earlier ages (11 and 12) and are determined to increase the population as fast as possible, because there is nothing worse than not giving as many babies the chance at life as possible. It’s a GOP/Tea Party wet dream with regards to women’s rights.
Women have no bodily autonomy at all. Sex is compulsory, they can’t say no to the men that “nightwalk” into their apartments (and you only see one instance where a woman may have nightwalked, and it is mentioned that women rarely go; while not precisely forbidden, it is an unusual, frowned upon behavior... how very patriarchal)
If you don’t like this life or question it? Well, it’s either reprogramming or into the chute you go.
Anthropological questions are raised as well - Are the denizens of the society conditioned to accept things as they are, or are they actually selectively breeding a population made to live in these high density structures? I like the way the question was brought up by one of the characters, a historian that was studying the sexual mores of the past, and also carried as a thread through the book. You see some of the conditioning in action (the fears of a citizen who thinks they may have been spotting behaving aberrantly), but you also know that those who act against expected norms are either sent to some serious reprogramming facilities or just put into the chute (which does remove the ability to continue to poison the genetic pool).
At first, I was extremely annoyed with the rampant Patriarchy until I got further into the novel to see what the author was doing with it.. Women seem to exist solely to create plot and have babies. All of the jobholders are male. Every man works, and with the exception of one woman, who is an artist, we are shown women do nothing in this society, except serve as sperm receptacles. The only reason we ever seem to talk to women is to further some dramatic plot ahead, they hold no job (other than breeder), they are rarely the sexual aggressors, they don’t nightwalk, they don’t hold any positions.
And then a character escapes to the world outside. The agricultural commune that farms the areas around the monads, where birth control is strictly practiced so that the commune does not produce more mouths than they can feed, and the women are free to actually hold positions and pursue careers. I wish the dichotomy of the two cultures could have been delved into more, but Silverberg does such a thorough job describing the world inside the towers, that it’s easy to imagine what the world outside is not.
I do think the the attitudes toward sex and the scenes with regard to sex date the book as being from the free-love acid-tripping hippy times. It’s just really dated when it comes to the sex, maybe it’s the language, I’m not sure, but it’s the only place where I feel the book is really dated.
I really loved that the book is a dystopia that’s taking on an issue. It’s done the awesome way it used to be done, with an author setting up a “utopia” that is very dysfunctional about something, to take whatever issue to its extreme end. Nowadays, dystopia seems to be “and the zombies/monsters are at us, rawr, and we made this totally dysfunctional society to live with/fight them”... I like the dysfunctional utopia calling out some social issue so much better.