Thursday, September 27, 2018

"The Jigsaw Man" (1967)

Larry Niven is most famous now for his Ringworld series of novels, the first of which came in 1970. In 1967, when Harlan Elllison approached him to contribute to Dangerous Visions, Niven was still a bit of a novice. "The Jigsaw Man" is based on the advances of organ transplants, taken to the point where they promise virtually eternal life for recipients wealthy enough to afford them. Then some corrupt individual in government somewhere, at some time, realizes that death-row prisoners would make ideal organ donors. "Organleggers" is the term Niven coins for people in the illicit business that develops. It is taken to absurd extremes. My skepticism is less about a society that would devolve to such a depraved state (after all, look at our president, along with the prospect of two sex criminals on the Supreme Court) and more about a writer who thinks certain specific things are plausible. I'm never going to argue against the perversities of people acting en masse in large groups. But Niven undermines the idea by imagining such an eccentric extreme, focusing narrowly on a ridiculous legal system loophole. In the end we see people getting the death penalty for things like multiple traffic infractions. I can go along with people reduced to using others this way—it's easy enough to live with ongoing intentional death, after all, thinking of the death penalty and continuous war. And the promise of eternal life for any victims who might be innocent ("let God sort them out") can help get you over the hump of genocide. But if you're down to misdemeanors as your rationale your society already has the kinds of problems that should be tearing it to shreds. Consider the Holocaust, and remember that German Nazis went to extraordinary lengths to hide what they were doing. The scale of atrocity in this story is arguably way beyond that, let alone Brett Kavanaugh. At the same time the story is absolutely silent on issues like race and class—presumably this is a future that has evolved beyond such things, though that would make these abuses of a death penalty that much more unlikely. It is thus missing a big piece of the most likely ways that something like systematic organ harvesting of humans would go down. (Somehow I was not surprised when I checked into Niven's biography to find he's a long-time conservative and was an adviser to Ronald Reagan on the "star wars" antimissile initiative.) I totally buy the idea of organ transplants developing a black market where all bets are off for what people actually do (see also the urban legend about waking up in a bathtub in Mexico with a huge wound in your side). As dangerous visions go, that's not bad. It's just hard to believe it would look anything like the death penalty for too many speeding tickets.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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