By an odd coincidence, I’ve just finished reading two stories, one after the other, which both ask the above question.
The first was Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual, from the collection of the same name, about a man who is given an “opportunity” to earn a living by using his supernatural talents to off people remotely “for the good of mankind.” Until he happens to spot a small piece in a newspaper about one of his “victims,” he thinks very little about who he is offing, doesn’t really even think of them as people, just numbers, to whom he sends a special email or letter, shortly after which they (in his words) “eat a dirt sandwich,” by some means that he neither needs nor wants to know the specifics of. After seeing the newspaper article, however, he starts to become somewhat troubled by the fact that these recipients of his deadly communiqués are not necessarily the “bad people” he has been led to believe they are.
The Everything’s Eventual collection is one I had partially read some months ago, then resumed, the titular tale being the first one I read upon its resumption.
The second story is one I happened to come across in the Oct 2008 edition of the sci-fi magazine, Interzone. I don’t think I have ever previously read this mag, but I saw it at a stall at the Kidderminster street market which sells new-but-not-latest editions of periodicals for only £1 a pop… I liked the picture on the cover (which happens to relate to the story I am about to give a précis of), so decided to give it a bash. Said story, entitled Greenland, by Chris Beckett, an Interzone favourite, is about an immigrant called Juan, who is desperately attempting to scrape some sort of a living, in a vastly overpopulated and Global Warming-ified Oxford, England, who is also offered an “opportunity” – of a somewhat different nature to that of the supernaturally endowed protagonist of the King tale (who went by the name of “Dinky,” by the way). Juan is given the chance to volunteer for a scientific project, whereby he would earn 3000 Euros and visas for him and his family to emigrate to Greenland – a far more green and pleasant land than England in this Global Warming-ified future – just for agreeing to have his body scanned for replication. There is a 1 in 300 chance he will not survive the scanning, and his perfectly identical copy will only survive a matter of weeks, during which, at an orbital space station, it will suffer the continual indignity and torture of being experimented on – but if he can live with both these risks/outcomes, he and his family’s life henceforth will be greatly improved. Naturally, Juan takes up the opportunity. And he survives. And he and his family (it is presumed/suggested) live happily ever after (although his copy endures a short, painful and thoroughly miserable existence).
Both of these stories are about what we will do, what we will accept, if we believe, however misguided such beliefs may be, that our actions are for the greater good (in Dinky’s case, particularly, and that of Dr Brennan, in Greenland – who performs the experiments on Juan – who, to quote the intro to said tale, “cares about humanity, but can’t relate to individual people at all except in a seriously nasty way.”). And both of these stories are about what we will do if we can’t see who we are doing it to. For Dinky, after causing over 200 people to bite the big one (admittedly under some degree of hypnotic and drug-induced influence), it only starts to become a problem for him, and he only comes to the stark and disturbing realisation that he is a mass murderer, once he sees the face of one of his victims. He compares himself to the pilot of a B-52 bomber, who sees only buildings and other landmarks in his bomb-sight – who, one could say, is able to see what he is doing as some kind of computer game (if such things existed during WW2) – but once said bomber becomes aware that he is killing potentially hundreds of people on each bombing run, once he imagines (or perhaps even sees) individuals screaming and dying in writhing, eviscerating agony… how can he continue to do what he does? And then there’s Dr Brennan, who I’ve mentioned, but also there’s Juan’s ability to remain blissfully unaware of the agonies his copy endures, on account of the fact that he will never have to witness such, which enables him and his wife and their young child to sail (literally) off into the sunset of a new and beautiful life.
These stories are stories… but they are also metaphors (aren’t all creative constructs?). They ask challenging questions about the nature of humanity – about human nature – about what it is to be human. To what lengths can we go, what boundaries can we push and break through, if we believe we are working for the greater good? Conversely, though, how, as humans – as naked apes who share virtually identical genes with such – can we surpass our natural instincts to care – I mean truly, deeply care – about more than just those whom we are closest to, those with whom we share the highest proportion of genes, in order to equip ourselves with the emotional fuel required to effectively tackle today’s global humanitarian and environmental challenges? How can we care enough about our fellow man/woman, beyond our immediate kin, beyond even our race, beyond our species, to save/change the world?