Euthanize the Elderly: Trollope’s science fiction premise

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In the “science fiction in unexpected places” realm, I wanted to comment on something I came across today.

Anthony Trollope, by Samuel Laurence (died 188...

Anthony Trollope, d 1884

I think of science fiction as the fiction of “if”. We ask “what if…”, and then see where that premise takes us.  The earliest forms of this kind of writing are generally agreed to have emerged in the late 1800s. H.G. Well’s Time Machine, Jules Vernes voyages undersea and a journey to the moon – these are good examples of the ‘what if’ dynamic in action. These stories are easy to identify as science fiction also because they are extrapolations of what technology might do. However, ‘where might technology lead’  is not the only (or essential) core question of science fiction.  This genre also looks at consequences of social change.  Orwell’s 1984 stripped of Big Brother’s surveillance technology remains 1984 because of the structure of society, and of course, the question of where that would take us.

In the social experiment sense, then, I recently came across this book which, to my knowledge, is not generally counted among the early science fiction efforts, but certainly ought to be.  It is Anthony Trollope‘s The Fixed Period. It’s premise? That the elderly are euthanised as a matter of state policy when they turn 68.

That is a radical science fiction concept even today. The book was published as an anonymous serial in Blackwood’s in 1881, then as a book in 1882.  The setting is a fictional British colony near New Zealand which has adopted the policy of the “Fixed Period”, intended to save society and citizens from the suffering and expense of old age. At age 67 each person is ‘deposited’ into a beautiful “college” (necropolis), where they spend a care-free year before being euthanized at age 68.

Jack Coulehan at Literature Annotations says of this work,

“The Fixed Period presents the social dynamic of ageism fairly clearly. Young people, in the guise of relieving suffering and benefiting society, devise a system that discriminates against the elderly. It all makes perfect sense. However, when these young folks grow older, they suddenly become aware that age has benefits, too. In this case, they no longer appreciate the “honor” of being “deposited,” when their turn comes around. Likewise, family members also rebel against the “honor” to be bestowed upon their loved ones.

“The non-voluntary and ageist euthanasia described in The Fixed Period is so antithetical to today’s voluntary euthanasia movement that the book is probably not a useful contribution to that particular debate. Rather, the story fits more readily into the genre of dystopian literature, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Island, or George Orwell’s 1984. However, in this case the dystopia never actually materializes because the good old Brits (Higher Civilization) step in with their gunboat to quash it.”

Materialized dystopia or not, as a science fiction exploration of a social structure and its outworkings, it is a masterful piece of work.  The work is so out of character for Trollope [1]  (who is regarded as one of the masters of the 19th century English novel) that is is often out of print and rarely introduced to a broader audience.  Contemporary reviewers considered it “ghastly” or an “attempt at a joke,” though Trollope insisted “I mean every word of it” (ref Coulehan).    Today’s readers might be a more friendly audience for this work, for it seems very suited to the “what if”-ism of the  science fiction genre.

If you like 19th century literature, Victorian sensibilities, and an interesting social/thought experiment, The Fixed Period is worth taking a look at.

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1. This is a good site through which to become better acquainted with Trollope’s work in general: Anthony Trollope.  Also, this Literature Annotations link contains commentary specific to The Fixed Period.  The book is available free online at Project Gutenberg as ascii text, and at Google Books in full view pdf form.

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Comments

This is an interesting read, Deborah. It sounds like Trollope, whom I have not read before, was clearly ahead of his times. I’d love to look up this book and have a read.

There was also a play in the early 17th century, by William Rowley and Thomas something or other, don’t remember off the top of my head, about the mandatory offing of men over 80 and women over 60. Ageism AND sexism! WIN!

Hi, Lisa,

Try “The Warden” for a good example of classic Trollope. He was a great portrayer of parish life in Middlesex. As to The Fixed Period, he wrote it when he was 67 – just a year before he died, actually – and I really do wonder what he *really* intended with the story. I haven’t read it all yet myself, but am working through it as we speak. Interesting stuff.

Thanks for the mention of that play, I’ll hunt around for that. 17th and 18th c theater interests me.

-Teramis

Do you know how he died? I;m wondering if he took himself out at the age suggested in his novel.

Inquiring lizards want to know.

Four months and a bit before his 68th birthday – which would have been the euthanesia date in his book – he was in London at Garland's Hotel (where he lodged, near Pall Mall). He was laughing at a family reading of a story called Vice Versa, and suffered a stroke. He died shortly thereafter, on Dec 6 1882. So in fact he did come close to, as you say, "taking himself out" on the appointed date.
Life can be strange that way.

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