Master of Life and Death [Secure eReader]
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eBook by Robert Silverberg
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: From Robert Silverberg's contemporary afterword: "What I wanted to do in short was to produce a masterpiece. I don't mean that word 'masterpiece' in the pretentious sense, not a sublime work of genius but merely the piece of work which a craftsman presents by way of proving that the apprenticeship is over. That required an elaborate plot. My earliest books suffered from an inability to tie up loose ends...so I studied my elders, I analyzed the means by which the science fiction writers I admired wove the strands of their stories ... I studied and I imitated and finally in Master of Life and Death, I let loose with all my thunderbolts." In The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Anthony Boucher wrote that "Silverberg's success in maintaining complete clarity and narrative drive while 'manipulating unnumbered plots and complex concepts is a technical triumph" and Master of Life and Death, returning in this RosettaBooks edition, has the contemporaneity of Silverberg's best work. When his superior disappears, Roy Walton, the assistant director of population relocation, suddenly becomes the Master of Life and Death on an overcrowded Earth and must reapportion the population to avoid fear and panic. But this is only the first of Walton's challenges. He is confronted by menacing aliens with an ambiguous agenda which may include conquest. A renegade scientist has produced a new immortality serum which if distributed would only strain resources and deepen human misery. But how can such information be withheld and will Walton become the Master of Death alone if he suppresses that information? Manifold obstacles make efforts to solve one problem only contribute to increasing the others. Ultimately, however, Walton finds the ingenious solution which ties and resolves all of the difficulties.
eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2002
10 Reader Ratings:
The offices of the Bureau of Population Equalization, vulgarly known as Popeek, were located on the twentieth through twenty-ninth floors of the Cullen Building, a hundred-story monstrosity typical of twenty-second-century neo-Victorian at its overdecorated worst. Roy Walton, Popeek's assistant administrator, had to apologize to himself each morning as he entered the hideous place.
Since taking the job, he had managed to redecorate his own office on the twenty-eighth floor, immediately below Director FitzMaugham's -- but that had created only one minor oasis in the esthetically repugnant building. It couldn't be helped, though; Popeek was unpopular, though necessary; and like the public hangman of some centuries earlier, the Bureau did not rate attractive quarters.
So Walton had removed some of the iridescent chrome scalloping that trimmed the walls, replaced the sash windows with opaquers, and changed the massive ceiling fixture to more subtle electroluminescents. But the mark of the last century was stamped irrevocably on both building and office.
Which was as it should be, Walton had finally realized. It was the last century's foolishness that had made Popeek necessary, after all.
His desk was piled high with reports, and more kept arriving via pneumochute every minute. The job of assistant administrator was a thankless one, he thought; as much responsibility as Director FitzMaugham, and half the pay.
He lifted a report from one eyebrow-high stack, smoothed the crinkly paper carefully, and read it.
It was a despatch from Horrocks, the Popeek agent currently on duty in Patagonia. It was dated 4 June, 2232 six days before, and after a long and rambling prologue in the usual Horrocks manner it went on to say, Population density remains low here: 17.3 per square mile far below optimum. Looks like a prime candidate for equalization.
Walton agreed. He reached for his voicewrite and said sharply, "Memo from Assistant Administrator Walton, re equalization of..." He paused, picking a trouble-spot at random, "...central Belgium. Will the section chief in charge of this area please consider the advisability of transferring population excess to fertile areas in Patagonia? Recommendation: establishment of industries in latter region, to ease transition."
He shut his eyes, dug his thumbs into them until bright flares of light shot across his eyeballs, and refused to let himself be bothered by the multiple problems involved in dumping several hundred thousand Belgians into Patagonia. He forced himself to cling to one of Director FitzMaugham's oft-repeated maxims: If you want to stay sane, think of these people as pawns in a chess game -- not as human beings.
Walton sighed. This was the biggest chess problem in the history of humanity, and the way it looked now, all the solutions led to checkmate in a century or less. They could keep equalizing population only so long, shifting like loggers riding logs in a rushing river, before trouble came.
There was another matter to be attended to now. He picked up the voicewrite again. "Memo from the assistant administrator, re establishment of new policy on reports from local agents: hire a staff of three clever girls to make a précis of each report, eliminating irrelevant data."
It was a basic step, one that should have been taken long ago. Now, with three feet of reports stacked on his desk, it was mandatory. One of the troubles with Popeek was its newness; it had been established so suddenly that most of its procedures were still in the formative stage.
He took another report from the heap. This one was the data sheet of the Zurich Euthanasia Center, and he gave it a cursory scanning. During the past week, eleven substandard children and twenty-three substandard adults had been sent on to Happysleep.
That was the grimmest form of population equalization. Walton initialed the report, earmarked it for files, and dumped it in the pneumochute.
The annunciator chimed.
"I'm busy," Walton said immediately.
"There's a Mr. Prior to see you," the annunciator's calm voice said. "He insists it's an emergency."
"Tell Mr. Prior I can't see anyone for at least three hours." Walton stared gloomily at the growing pile of paper on his desk. "Tell him he can have ten minutes with me at -- oh, say, 1300."
Walton heard an angry male voice muttering something in the outer office, and then the annunciator said, "He insists he must see you immediately in reference to a Happysleep commitment."
"Commitments are irrevocable," Walton said heavily. The last thing in the world he wanted was to see a man whose child or parent had just been committed. "Tell Mr. Prior I can't see him at all."
Walton found his fingers trembling; he clamped them tight to the edge of his desk to steady himself. It was all right sitting up here in this ugly building and initialing commitment papers, but actually to see one of those people and try to convince him of the need--
The door burst open.
A tall, dark-haired man in an open jacket came rushing through and paused dramatically just over the threshold. Immediately behind him came three unsmiling men in the gray silk-sheen uniforms of security. They carried drawn needlers.
"Are you Administrator Walton?" the big man asked, in an astonishingly deep, rich voice. "I have to see you. I'm Lyle Prior."
The three security men caught up and swarmed all over Prior. One of them turned apologetically to Walton. "We're terribly sorry about this, sir. He just broke away and ran. We can't understand how he got in here, but he did."
"Ah -- yes. So I noticed," Walton remarked drily. "See if he's planning to assassinate anybody, will you?"
"Administrator Walton!" Prior protested. "I'm a man of peace! How can you accuse me of--"
One of the security men hit him. Walton stiffened and resisted the urge to reprimand the man. He was only doing his job, after all.
"Search him," Walton said.
They gave Prior an efficient going-over. "He's clean, Mr. Walton. Should we take him to security, or downstairs to health?"
"Neither. Leave him here with me."
"Are you sure you--"
"Get out of here," Walton snapped. As the three security men slinked away, he added, "And figure out some more efficient system for protecting me. Some day an assassin is going to sneak through here and get me. Not that I give a damn about myself, you understand; it's simply that I'm indispensable. There isn't another lunatic in the world who'd take this job. Now get out!"
They wasted no time in leaving. Walton waited until the door closed and jammed down hard on the lockstud. His tirade, he knew, was wholly unjustified; if he had remembered to lock his door as regulations prescribed, Prior would never have broken in. But he couldn't admit that to the guards.
"Take a seat, Mr. Prior."
"I have to thank you for granting me this audience," Prior said, without a hint of sarcasm in his booming voice. "I realize you're a terribly busy man."
"I am." Another three inches of paper had deposited itself on Walton's desk since Prior had entered. "You're very lucky to have hit the psychological moment for your entrance. At any other time I'd have had you brigged for a month, but just now I'm in need of a little diversion. Besides, I very much admire your work, Mr. Prior."
"Thank you." Again that humility, startling in so big and commanding a man. "I hadn't expected to find -- I mean that you--"
"That a bureaucrat should admire poetry? Is that what you're groping for?"
Prior reddened. "Yes," he admitted.
Grinning, Walton said, "I have to do something when I go home at night. I don't really read Popeek reports twenty-four hours a day. No more than twenty; that's my rule. I thought your last book was quite remarkable."
"The critics didn't," Prior said diffidently.
"Critics! What do they know?" Walton demanded. "They swing in cycles. Ten years ago it was form and technique, and you got the Melling Prize. Now it's message, political content that counts. That's not poetry, Mr. Prior -- and there are still a few of us who recognize what poetry is. Take Yeats, for instance--"
Walton was ready to launch into a discussion of every poet from Prior back to Surrey and Wyatt; anything to keep from the job at hand, anything to keep his mind from Popeek. But Prior interrupted him.
"My son Philip... he's two weeks old now..."
Walton understood. "No, Prior. Please don't ask." Walton's skin felt cold; his hands, tightly clenched, were clammy.
"He was committed to Happysleep this morning -- potentially tubercular. The boy's perfectly sound, Mr. Walton. Couldn't you--"
Walton rose. "No," he said, half-commanding, half-pleading. "Don't ask me to do it. I can't make any exceptions, not even for you. You're an intelligent man; you understand our program."
"I voted for Popeek. I know all about Weeding the Garden and the Euthanasia Plan. But I hadn't expected--"
"You thought euthanasia was a fine thing for other people. So did everyone else," Walton said. "That's how the act was passed." Tenderly he said, "I can't do it. I can't spare your son. Our doctors give a baby every chance to live."
"I was tubercular. They cured me. What if they had practiced euthanasia a generation ago? Where would my poems be now?"
It was an unanswerable question: Walton tried to ignore it. "Tuberculosis is an extremely rare disease, Mr. Prior. We can wipe it out completely if we strike at those with TB-susceptible genetic traits."
"Meaning you'll kill any children I have?" Prior asked.
"Those who inherit your condition," Walton said gently. "Go home, Mr. Prior. Bum me in effigy. Write a poem about me. But don't ask me to do the impossible. I can't catch any falling stars for you."
Prior rose. He was immense, a hulking tragic figure staring broodingly at Walton. For the first time since the poet's abrupt entry, Walton feared violence. His fingers groped for the needle gun he kept in his upper left desk drawer.
But Prior had no violence in him. "I'll leave you," he said somberly. "I'm sorry, sir. Deeply sorry. For both of us."
Walton pressed the doorlock to let him out, then locked it again and slipped heavily into his chair. Three more reports slid out of the chute and landed on his desk. He stared at them as if they were three basilisks.
In the six weeks of Popeek's existence, three thousand babies had been ticketed for Happysleep, and three thousand sets of degenerate genes had been wiped from the race. Ten thousand subnormal males had been sterilized. Eight thousand dying oldsters had reached their graves ahead of time.
It was a tough-minded program. But why transmit palsy to unborn generations? Why let an adult idiot litter the world with subnormal progeny? Why force a man hopelessly cancerous to linger on in pain, consuming precious food?
Unpleasant? Sure. But the world had voted for it. Until Lang and his team succeeded in terraforming Venus, or until the faster-than-light outfit opened the stars to mankind, something had to be done about Earth's overpopulation. There were seven billion now and the figure was still growing.
Prior's words haunted him. I was tubercular.... where would my poems be now?
The big humble man was one of the great poets. Keats had been tubercular too.
What good are poets? he asked himself savagely.
The reply came swiftly: What good is anything, then? Keats, Shakespeare, Eliot, Yeats, Donne, Pound, Matthews... and Prior. How much duller life would be without them, Walton thought, picturing his bookshelf -- his one bookshelf, in his crowded little cubicle of a one-room home.
Sweat poured down his back as he groped toward his decision.
The step he was considering would disqualify him from his job if he admitted it, though he wouldn't do that. Under the Equalization Law, it would be a criminal act.
But just one baby wouldn't matter. Just one.
With nervous fingers he switched on the annunciator and said, "If there are any calls for me, take the message. I'll be out of my office for the next half-hour."
Copyright © 1957 by Robert Silverberg