Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. cleverly converts Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” to 2BR02B, his version of the decision “to be or not to be.”
Vonnegut’s futuristic world, “to be or not to be,” is relevant to population control. Earth now has a fixed number of 40 million people. And each person gets to independently decide for himself or herself: do you wish “not to be?”
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.
The quality of life becomes redefined when humanity creates utopia and it is common for people to live to be 200 years old. Eternal life elicits questionable feelings about having the authority to interpret one’s existence based on personal insight and outlook. Unlimited dreams arise from the neverending ability to produce art, technology and science. This kind of creativity and ability stretches the potential of every citizen. On the other hand, the troublesome ingredients of greed, selfishness and deprivation will never be absent from man’s true nature.
Vonnegut opens for discussion what Viktor E. Frankl addressed in Man’s Search for Meaning. What does a person want out of his or her life? How do people determine self-worth? Ultimately, what keeps you alive?
If the answer comes back a complete blank, Vonnegut’s solution is for people to pick up the phone and dial 2BR02B. There they can choose many soothing ways out of life, such as “Weep-no-more,” or “Why Worry?” or “Kiss-me-quick” and make an appointment with the Federal Bureau of Termination (FBT) to end it all.
So, in 2BR02B the protagonist, Edward K. Wehling, sits in a hospital waiting room. At age 56, he is going to be a father for the first time. Ultrasound have revealed his wife is going to have triplets.
Here is Wehling’s dilemma:
The world’s population has a zero-net sum of 40 million people, which means for an extra child to be born, someone has to “check out” at FBT.
Enforcement of the FBT policy of one in-one out forced Wehling to think: Which one of his babies would live and which would have to be aborted?
Wehling didn’t want to choose. He wanted to keep all his children, which is the crux of the story.
In next month’s book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, the protagonist, Offred, is in an entirely different set of circumstances. Offred is a handmaid of the Republic of Gilead. She lives in a world of declining births. She is needed only for her reproductive abilities.
For me, there is strangeness in these stories about population control. Both suggest flaws in our civilization, specifically: why would people cede to the state some of the most fundamental rights of humankind?
Vonnegut and Atwood are masterful storytellers, delivering a chain of intriguing “what ifs,” and “thought-provoking dilemmas” in the storylines and plots that drive each story.