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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 555 Response

Cold Comfort

with Gary Inbinder

In LaVerne Zocco’s “Dolores Metcalf, Comforter”:

Making the aged and infirm illegal has been a common theme in science fiction especially since Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky (1950). Can you cite earlier works that use the same premise?

Way back in 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol took a swipe at Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, cf. Rationale of Punishment and Rewards (1825) and Robert Malthus’ An Essay on the Principles of Population (1798).

Remember Scrooge’s gripe that he was exempt from charity because his taxes supported prisons and workhouses? As for Tiny Tim, if the poor kid was likely to die he ought to do it quickly and decrease the surplus population.

Remember also the Spirit of Christmas Present’s warning about the two children: ignorance and want. Neglect them, and they might come back and bite you in the form of Revolution (see Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, 1859).

Dickens explored these themes in his later novels, and in doing so he adumbrated a radical reaction (Marxism and Anarchism) to Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, which became popular in Britain and America in the Gilded Age, in the 1870’s and later.

I have explored similar themes, especially government programs to balance budgets by decreasing the surplus population, in my first Bewildering Stories submission, “Exterminator” and revisited the subject from slightly different angles in “Nemo and Kafka in Peredia” and “Nemo and Kafka Balance the Books.”

Thank you, Gary; very informative! Challenge 555 might have limited the question to science fiction. But it doesn’t; we need to see the topic in a historical perspective, and you’ve provided some important examples.

I find the reference to Social Darwinism particularly apt. As everyone knows, it owes Charles Darwin nothing besides an abject apology for besmirching his good name. Dickens’ Scrooge shows how Social Darwinism rationalizes smug social-class superiority and at worst can lead to fascistic persecution.

Is LaVerne Zocco’s “Dolores Metcalf, Comforter” set in a near-future societey resembling Nazism? Not quite: the Nazis systematically killed you for who you were; the government in Dolores’ world does something similar for what you are. The criterion is not ethnicity, sexual orientation or politics; it’s relative infirmity.

The story focuses on Dolores and the plight of the dying; politics is implied only incidentally. In Asimov’s early novel, the politics is explained as brutal Utilitiarianism, but we don’t know how Dolores’ society came to be doing the same thing.

“Dolores Metcalf, Comforter” is only indirectly a cautionary tale about contemporary politics. However, it does put a human face on the consequences of politicians who tell citizens “We can’t afford you.” From there it is a short step to “We don’t need you” and “We don’t want you.” And those steps are taken in the boots that Dolores hears.

Copyright © 2014 by Gary Inbinder
and Bewildering Stories

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