I don’t find dystopian settings scary. They are quite straightforward with all that’s wrong in the world so you can’t ignore or avoid the problems that it faces. What I truly find terrifying are utopian settings, the places where the problems hide underneath the surface and taint, slowly but certainly all those who walk upon it. They all convey the same message: that our messiness is an inherent part of what makes us human and taking that away never bodes well.
Kurt Vonnegut’s 2 B R 0 2 B is set in an utopian future where we have found the cure for aging and solved what’s never been more pressing a problem: overpopulation. The resulting world is elegant. The Happy Garden of Life. And yet there is profound sorrow in the hearts of some of its inhabitants, born because of this elegance. Because of the clinical efficiency of it.
The problem is that we assume that every problem has a solution. This deterministic view is reassuring but as an existentialist myself I try to steer clear of this assumption. It’s this belief of every problem coming with a solution that makes us chase elegant and elaborate solutions that fail to take into account the concerns of all the stakeholders. To fight against odds is something we as a species take great pride in but to what end must this be pursued?
Here is the efficient solution: population control enforced by policy, necessitating the sacrifice of a life for each new life born. This slowly saps at the very vitality of the population and gives us the hurting father. A father who has to pick which one of his 3 newly born children will survive and also take his grandfather to the “Ethical Suicide Studios” to make room for this child.
The doctor in charge acts sanctimonious, taking pride in the solution even when faced with someone who is clearly suffering because of this very solution. He sees only the benefits, blinding himself to anything else results from it that isn’t as elegant as the solution itself. It is this inability to empathise that results in the father killing the doctor and an admirer, a woman in love with the plan but oblivious to its consequences. He ends this by also killing himself, effectively making room for all three of his children.
This solution of his was a lot more human by being a lot more messy. As an observer notes, the other solutions that could curb population such as plagues, famines and wars, are grimmer and messier but this solution has a different sort of darkness to it. Unable to accept the world as it is, its artifice in proclaiming the problem solved by ignoring the problems created, he checks in with the Ethical Suicide Studios himself and the story comes to an end.
Is the end pessimistic? Is there no hope for humanity? Well, four people did die but three more were just born. Humanity does always find a way though it tends to be messy.