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2 B R 0 2 B by Kurt Vonnegut

Nick DiChario envisions a not-so-rosy future courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut.

“Everything was perfectly swell.

There were no prisons, no slums, no insane asylums, no cripples, no poverty, no wars.

All diseases were conquered. So was old age.”

So begins ‘2 B R 0 2 B’, a clever short story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, the author of far more famous works such as Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, and many others. The story first appeared in the January 1962 issue of the pulp sci-fi magazine Worlds of If.

Its modest utopian beginnings quickly open up to an underlying dystopia: the only way to maintain the perfect balance on this seemingly perfect far-future Earth is to limit the population to precisely forty million souls. But old age has been beaten. To maintain eternal happiness, should birth control fail, one must acquiesce to either infanticide or suicide – choose your pleasure. Those few adults who decide they want to die are encouraged to call the Federal Bureau of Termination’s hotline at 2 B R 0 2 B (pronounced 2 B or naught 2 B) and make an appointment for euthanasia, thus opening the door for the birth of a new human. No one is forced into death, unless you count social pressure, although there is plenty of that in a society where the most admired man on the planet is Dr Hitz, “responsible for setting up the very first gas chamber in Chicago.”

The plot of ‘2 B R 0 2 B’ concerns a man named Wehling whose wife is pregnant with triplets. No newborn is allowed to survive unless the parents find a volunteer to die, and Wehling’s grandfather is the only person who has stepped up. So the unhappy couple is faced with the deaths of their grandfather and two children just to ensure the survival of one of their offspring. Quite a pickle. Without spoiling the finale, I will say that the story has a brilliant, appropriately Shakespearean climax, wherein Vonnegut invites readers to reflect on life and death, happiness and despair, human values, over-population, and the sacrifices people might one day need to make for the sake of society.

Today, with the world’s population twice what it was in the 1960s and closing in on seven billion, a utopia of any kind seems unlikely. Demands on our diminished resources are expected to double in the next two decades. Even politicians have begun to talk about how climate change and the shortages of food and water will soon become international security issues. What are we willing to sacrifice to solve these problems? Conversely, what will sovereignties do to protect their natural resources or secure what they need? How will our leaders rationalize the decisions they make? How will we? These challenging ethical questions will move out of the theoretical into the very real world in the too near future. At the end of Vonnegut’s story we are left wondering if the greatest gift we can offer our descendants is to just plain die.

‘2 B R 0 2 B’ is reminiscent in style and tone of another well-known work concerning population control, Jonathan Swift’s 1729 satirical essay ‘A Modest Proposal’, mocking the English apathy and condescension towards the Irish during a famine. In his famously chiding manner, Swift recommends infanticide and cannibalism to the Irish people to help them curb their over-population. Vonnegut’s story also harkens forward to Harry Harrison’s dystopian novel Make Room! Make Room! (1966), which director Richard Fleisher would later turn into the film Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston. Harrison’s story does not share Vonnegut’s dark humor, but they both examine what might happen if we allow our population to run amok. Harrison finds his solution in euthanasia and cannibalism.

There is no shortage in science fiction of utopian aspirations gone bad: George Orwell’s 1984; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (brought to film as Blade Runner). These are but a scant few of the more popular examples, and I recommend them all. I would be remiss if I failed to mention a not-so-famous d ystopian film, Harrison Bergeron, based on a Vonnegut short story of the same name, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1961 and republished in Vonnegut’s brilliant collection Welcome to the Monkey House.

‘2 B R 0 2 B’ is not among Vonnegut’s most ingenious works. It is a short story, after all – limited in scope and scratching the surface of the serious issues it introduces. Nevertheless, it is a quirky, absurdist tale with a harsh bite, written by a major author of the 20th century. The story remains unknown to most readers, in part, I suspect, because Vonnegut didn’t mind if his science fiction stayed hidden. He spent most of his professional life as a novelist denying he was a science fiction writer. He felt that the road to literary respectability was through mainstream channels, and that no-one would take him seriously if he embraced sci fi. But Vonnegut’s twisted worldview is on full display in ‘2 B R 0 2 B’, and this story seems even more relevant today than in the 1960s, when a population of seven billion people and an average life expectancy of eighty years seemed incomprehensible.

© Nick DiChario 2008

Nick DiChario has been nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. His novels are A Small and Remarkable Life (2006) and Valley of Day-Glo (2008) both published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside.

• Utopian/dystopian aficionados, and anyone else, can find ‘2 B R 0 2 B’ on the Gutenberg Project’s website at gutenberg.org/etext/21279.

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