This very Vonnegut vision of the future was quite interesting and disturbing. Originally published in “Worlds of If” magazine in 1962, it predates Vonnegut’s most popular book, and the only other work of his that I have read, Slaughterhouse-Five, by about five years. After reading it twice, I think it is a short story well deserving of the fine press treatment. And Sharp Teeth Press has done an admirable job of giving it just that.
This is a vision of a future population control institutionalized to keep the population constant after medical breakthroughs eliminated aging. The story begins:
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.
Death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers.
Well that does sound swell, right? But there’s a catch. Now if you wanted to have a child, or I suppose if you accidently got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, you had to find someone willing to die so that the child could take that persons’ place. Otherwise the child would be terminated. And this was all bureaucratically provided for by the swell sounding Ethical Suicide Studios, part of the Federal Bureau of Termination. People being people, of course, there were much more colorful names for the facilities. Vonnegut describes it as
an institution whose fanciful sobriquets included: “Automat”, “Birdland”, “Cannery”, “Catbox”, “De-louser”, “Easy-go”, “Good-by, Mother”, “Happy Hooligan”, “Kiss-me-quick”, “Lucky Pierre”, “Sheepdip”, “Waring Blender”, “Weep no-more” and “Why Worry?”.
If you don’t like my kisses, honey,
Here’s what I will do:
I’ll go see a girl in purple,
Kiss this sad world toodle-oo
If you don’t want my lovin’
Why should I take up all this space?
I’ll get off this old planet,
Let some sweet baby have my place.
It kind of reminds me of another dumb solution imposed on a society in a Star Trek episode. In that scenario, two planets had replaced war with a computer simulation because it was “too messy”. So the simulation would come up with the number of people killed in each virtual battle, come up with a list of names, and you would be required to show up and be terminated. But just because these visions of the future sound dumb, doesn’t mean that they couldn’t happen. Well intentioned laws and solutions sometimes have unintended and ridiculous consequences.
The woman had a lot of facial hair—an unmistakable mustache, in fact. A curious thing about gas-chamber hostesses was that, no matter how lovely and feminine they were when recruited, they all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.
I also liked the irony of the scene where the painter is talking to the orderly, a title that suggests order:
“The world could do with a good deal more mess, if you ask me,” he [the painter] said.
The orderly laughed and moved on.
I’ll leave you to enjoy the details of the story on your own without spoiling it here.
The Sharp Teeth press has created a very attractive edition for this story that I think Vonnegut would be happy with. I’m not sure what the paper is but it is quite nice to the touch and nicely textured. The website simply describes it as “fine German paper”. The illustrations by Jesse Balmer follow the story very well. I especially love the full-page spread illustration of the painter and his painting. Balmer has really captured a fitting imagining of the painting as described by Vonnegut. The illustrations are printed in magenta and provide a eye-catching contrast to the neon green endpapers and the black text. The book is hand-bound with a rendition of a badge for the U.S. Department of Termination stamped into the vinyl-like cover. A paper wrapper band around the book with a short description is another elegant touch in the design of the edition.
This is the third title I’ve reviewed for The Whole Book Experience and I’m looking forward to more from Sharp Teeth. I hope they keep up the good work and the quirky selection of titles.
AVAILABILITY: Printed in an edition of 80. Copies still available directly from the press.
NOTE: The Whole Book Experience would like to thank David Johnston and the Sharp Teeth Press for the generosity that made this review possible.