Booming laughter filled the room. A moment later it stopped, and Anthony Trollope collapsed on the floor suffering from a paralytic stroke. A month later he died. The book that made him laugh so violently was F. Anstey's Vice Versa, a work of comedy and speculative fiction about a small boy who swapped bodies with his father.
Trollope is best known for his Barsetshire novels and there is no finer or more subtle chronicler of English landed society during the 19th century. But he is less well known for The Fixed Period, the piece of speculative fiction he published in the very same year as Vice Versa—though as far as we know, no one has yet died laughing while reading it. Early speculative fiction is filled with astounding things. Jules Verne would predict air conditioning, automobiles, the internet and television, helicopters, submarines, and jukeboxes; H. G. Wells, inner city decline and suburban flight, sexual permissiveness and the E. E. C. On the other hand, Trollope struggled. The future he envisioned remains dominated by the British Empire and landed power. His forays into technology are woeful, provoking the occasional wry smile or a shake of the head.
The Fixed Period contains references to steam tricycles with electric lamps, steel climbing arms for mountaineers, and cricket dominated by catapults and steam-bowlers. The latter is even carefully described: "Then the steam-bowler was ridden into place by the attendant engineer and Jack began his work as . . . he carefully placed the ball and peeped down to get its bearing." Such a steam-bowler was an exhibit in the Great Exhibition of 1851. It hadn't been taken up by 1882, so it is hard to see why Trollope thought this machine would dominate cricket in 1982. It must, however, made some impression on him, if he remembered it thirty years later. Even so, Trollope did anticipate cricketers needing more adequate protection against faster balls: ". . . so completely enveloped was he in his India-rubber guards, and so wonderful was the machine upon his head by which his brain and features were to be protected."
These are far from the only examples of futuristic technology that appear in The Fixed Period. In Trollope's 1982, men wear weather-watches and communicate via "hair telephones" that have a broadcasting range of ten miles. Speeches are recorded by a "reporting-telephone apparatus," that transfers words from mouth to paper and conveys them to the world's printing presses within the hour.
In 1982 the violin is "nearly obsolete" and society has forsaken the "old fashioned' piano" in favour of Mausometons or "the more perfect Melpomenon."
Trollope was no prophet in terms of geopolitics, either. The Prime Minister in 1982 is Sir William Gladstone, great-grandson of the original. Victorian technology rules the waves in the form of "250 ton steam-swivellers"—Gun-boats on a massive scale that the government uses in a way Lord Palmerston would have recognised. Likewise, Trollope's vision of a future British army would be recognised by Jane Austen: ". . . a company of a celebrated English regiment with its attendant officers, who by their red coats and long swords will no doubt add to the cheerfulness of your social gatherings." In foreign affairs Trollope is more adventurous with mixed results. By 1982, Arizona, Idaho, and other American states to the west have formed a new Union; Britain and France fight for control of the seas against the united fleets of Russia and America; and in the 1940s great battles "ravished" India's north western frontier. Africa remains both "dark" and colonised, and there are references to "the cannibals of New Zealand."
What makes The Fixed Period a significant and underrated piece of speculative literature is not its vision of the future, but a central theme that resonates more and more strongly in our own aging societies. "The Fixed Period" refers to the age at which euthanasia becomes legally enforceable. On reaching the age of sixty-seven, the citizens of the colony Brittanula are expected to spend their remaining year incarcerated in luxury before their death and cremation the following year. Trollope's characters may be cardboard and his future risible, but the moral issues he raises and explores are both prescient and subtle. If science fiction is the last bastion of serious philosophical writing, Trollope, in this respect, was more prescient than most other writers.
The book's action takes place on a Pacific island called Britannula, a former colony of Britain's still-vibrant empire. Its president is Mr. Neverbend, an earnest ideologue obsessed with the perfection of the "Fixed Period" and his own future standing in history. The problem for Neverbend is that the very first person to reach the terminal age is his oldest and dearest friend, Mr. Crasweller—and Mr. Crasweller doesn't want to go. From this point on, President Neverbend is opposed by his wife and his son Jack, who has fallen in love with Eva, Mr. Crasweller's daughter. The pattern is recognisable, a staple of today's "soaps," and is used in one way or another in all of Trollope's works. Yet the way in which Trollope describes this conflict turns it into a beautiful study of neurotic smugness.
The Fixed Period's technological speculations may be more playful than seriously thought-out, but the central premise of the plot is more startling and profound. It explores the argument in favour of enforced euthanasia, including issues National Socialism put into practice, and issues that with greater gloss and spin might reemerge as populations age and tax burdens increase.
As his protagonist Mr. Neverbend explains: "The Fixed Period consists altogether of the abolition of the miseries, weaknesses, and . . . imbecility of old age by the prearranging ceasing to live of those who would otherwise become old." Here, Mr. Neverbend anticipates Adolf Jost whose book, The Right to Death, was published in 1895. Jost argued that for the sake of society, the state must take responsibility for the civilized death of the infirm. In Mr. Neverbend's words: "Statistics tell us that the sufficient sustenance of an old man is more costly than the feeding of a young one . . . [and] that the unprofitable young and the no less profitable old form a third of the population . . . How are a people to thrive when so weighted?"
Trollope suggests Mr. Neverbend is the thin end of a wedge. His blind idealism is focused purely on the old, but the logic has wider application, realized in Hitler's Third Reich, the eugenics policies of which Jost's work underscored. Nazi propaganda such as: "This person suffering from hereditary defects costs the community 60,000 Reichmarks during his lifetime. Fellow German, that is your money, too" is essentially Neverbend's vision but put into practice. Nazi propaganda films portrayed people with disabilities as "useless eaters," a needless burden on the state. Between 1939 and 1940, the Nazi government had murdered one hundred forty thousand adults with physical and mental disabilities; by 1945 over 100,000 children with disabilities had been similarly dealt with.
Like the Nazis, and like all top down apologists from early Fabians onwards, Mr. Neverbend is ultra-sensitive to language: "Many arguments were used against us . . . and in talking of this, the terrible word 'murder' was brought into common use. I remember startling the House by forbidding any member to use any term so revolting to the majesty of the people. Murder! Did anyone who attempted to deter us by the use of foul language bethink himself that murder to be murder, must be opposed to the law? This thing was to be done by the law."
And like well-meaning totalitarians from Robespierre to Lenin, Mr. Neverbend believes that human nature can and should be moulded to fit a preconceived idea. "In fact, there was not a word to be said against us except that which referred to the feelings of the young and old. Feelings are changeable . . . and though naturally governed only by instinct, would be taught at last to comply with reason. A son will not like, you say, to lead his father into the College [the luxurious dwelling where the "old" are to live in their final year]. But ought he not like to do so, and if so, will not reason teach him to like what he ought?"
Throughout, Trollope's hero shows an almost lunatic capacity for self-delusion. "I can conceive with rapture the pride, the honour and affection with which, when the Fixed Period has come, I could have led my own father into the College, there to enjoy for twelve months that preparation for euthanasia which no cares for this world would be allowed to disturb . . . I have a son of my own, and I have carefully educated him to look forward to the day in which he shall deposit me there as the proudest of his life."
He also captures the inherent madness of those who took Social Darwinism to its logical extent: "We were the very cream as it were that had been skimmed from the milk pail of the people of a wider colony, themselves gifted with more than ordinary intelligence. We were the elite of the selected population of New Zealand. I think I may say that no race so well informed ever before set itself down to form a new nation."
Already gifted by what he sees as their clear racial superiority, the citizens of Britannula were to preserve their advantage by a cold, rational decision. The Spartans left weak babies on Mount Taygetus to die. Mr. Neverbend expounds a similar hardness when it comes to the old. Though babies have been tattooed at birth so as to show their age and identify the date of their eventual departure from this world, nobody had yet entered the College. That honour is to fall upon Mr. Crasweller, Neverbend's oldest and dearest friend. It is through this relationship and that between the two men's families that the issues of enforced euthanasia are most deeply explored. Before falling in love with Neverbend's son, Eva Crasweller is engaged to a selfish young man called Grundle. It is he who broaches the issue as to who would acquire Mr. Crasweller's property in the year leading up to his death. Neverbend reassures him that he will inherit, but Grundle wants to be certain. He approaches the President again, this time with the fear that Crasweller might put his property in trust, abscond to Australa, and live off its income. Again Neverbend reassures him: "In that case, I presume the property would be confiscated by law, and would go to his natural heir. Now if this natural heir be then your wife it will be just the same as the property were yours."
Trollope was an acute observer of social mores, and subtly explored greed and social ambition throughout his work. In this interchange he gave his Victorian readers insight into the tensions and pressures relatives might exert when money and inheritance were a natural part of enforced euthanasia. Still, in terms of speculative fiction, the analysis is flawed.
Trollope fails to fly far from Victorian attitudes to women. Despite the Married Women's Property Act of 1870, and its extension in 1882, Trollope suggests that women a hundred years later would still be subject to the wills of their husbands. But, as with Trollope's lack of interest in future technology, this oversight doesn't invalidate the power of the book. Trollope's strength is his understanding of human nature and of how politics work.
The Fixed Period subtly explores how easily a good man slips into totalitarian thinking. Neverbend is narrow, egotistical, self-delusional, and smug; he is also well-meaning, and in love with an idea.
Friends of Crasweller argue that the man is still active and contributes far more than Grundle does: "Crasweller is a deal fitter for his work than for living idle in the College till you shall put an end to him."
But these words make Neverbend very angry: "According to this man's feelings the whole system was to be made to suit itself to the peculiarities of one individual constitution. A man who so spoke could have known nothing of the general beauty of the 'Fixed Period.'" Here, Trollope captures the certainty of the totalitarian spirit which by its nature is anti-individual and more often than not against common sense.
And, as always, Neverbend objects to the phrase "put an end to him." He believes it is necessary to maintain the dignity of the ceremony so as to make it appear as unlike an execution as possible. You can almost feel Neverbend's shudder, his need for euphemism: ". . . adding honour and glory to the last moments in this world of those dear friends whose happy lot it will be to be withdrawn from the world's troubles amidst the love and veneration of their fellow subjects."
It's not difficult to imagine these words spoken by government ministers in a not-too-distant future, nor the words of the dogged objector: "'He has got ten years of work in him,' said my friend, 'and yet you intend to make away with him without the slightest compunction."
Beside himself, Mr. Neverbend answers: "Make away with him! What an expression to use . . ."
But it is in Neverbend's musings that a darker thread emerges, and we see how easy it is to follow consequence to consequence and arrive where one didn't intend: "Could it be that Crasweller, my own confidential friend, the man to whom I had trusted the very secrets of my soul on this important matter . . . could it be that he should be anxious to fly from his country and her laws, just as the time had arrived when those laws might operate on him for the benefit of that country? I could not think that he was so vain, so greedy, so selfish, and so unpatriotic! But this was not all. Should he attempt to fly, could we prevent his flying? And if he did fly, what step should we take next?
". . . If one or two wealthy members of our community were thus to escape, it would be almost impossible to carry out the Law with reference to those who had no such means. The implications are clear."
What grieves Neverbend most is the thought that Crasweller desires to escape: "that he should be willing to throw over the whole system to preserve the poor remnants of his life." In Neverbend's world, the system is more important than any individual—even his friend. Crasweller becomes desperate, argues his birth date is inaccurate and pleads for another year. "'One year,' he exclaimed. 'I ask only for one year. I do think that as the first victim I have the right to expect that one year should be granted me.' He, too, refers to his forthcoming death as an execution, which shocks Mr. Neverbend. "A victim; and execution! What language in which to speak of the great system!" Again we see his sensitivity to language, the politician or ideologue's avoidance of calling a spade a spade should it endanger a cherished project. He laments the fact that his nearest and dearest judge him so harshly and dreams of a future world where his name will be revered and placed alongside men like: "Columbus and Galileo and Newton and Harvey and Wilberforce and Cobden, and that great Banting who has preserved us all so completely from the horrors of obesity." For Mr. Neverbend, the "Fixed Period" becomes more important than family as both wife and son turn against him. Mrs. Neverbend doesn't mince words when she and her husband discuss what would happen when the 'old' man is led through Gladstonopolis to his final resting place: "'You can't do it and there's an end of it,' said Mrs. Neverbend. 'You and all your laws . . . You don't see it but the feeling in the city is becoming very strong. The people won't have it . . .'"
Again she uses the word "murder," and again Mr. Neverbend shies away from the term: "Of all the terms in the language there was none so offensive to me as that odious word when used in reference to the ceremony which I intended to be so gracious and alluring. 'Sarah,' said I, turning upon her in my anger, 'that is a very improper word.' 'English is English, Mr. President,' she said."
But English to Mr. Neverbend means something different. Mr. Crasweller will spend his final year in luxury where: ". . . every comfort will be provided for him so that he may depart from this world without a pang when in the course of years he shall have lived beyond the period at which he can work and be useful." Here, the purpose of language is to hide reality, though the final phrase reveals the cold utilitarian view that taints all 'top down' planners.
The College itself is called Necropolis, though Neverbend predictably finds the name unpleasant. "The name had always been distasteful to me as I never wished to join it with the feeling of death . . . My idea was to . . . call the place Aditus. But men said it was unmeaning, and declared that Britannulists should never be ashamed to own the truth."
Hiding reality is an important function of government, and names without meaning (like the newspeak of Orwell's 1984 or much of the political jargon of our own world) are crucial to the process. Trollope anticipates what now take for granted. He also anticipates the "mother knows best" arrogance of the manipulative state. "Some of the chambers [in Necropolis] were very handsome and were made so . . . with a view of alluring the first comers. In preparing wisdom for babes, it is necessary to wrap up its precepts in candied sweets."
Neverbend, however, is in two minds about eating these "sweets" himself. In an earlier passage he exclaims: ". . . how proud should I have been of my country and its wisdom, had I been led along as a first hero, to anticipate the euthanasia prepared for me." Self-delusion, apparently, is sweet but short lived. Next Trollope shows us an acute understanding of the politician's overriding sense of self-preservation: "Ought not I to have arranged matters that I myself should have been the first; to have postponed the use of the College till such time as I might myself be deposited? This had occurred to me often throughout the whole agitation; but then it occurred also that none might perhaps follow me, when under such circumstances I should have departed." Clearly, an untrustworthy "people" need their leaders around to guide them.
Trollope then skillfully dissects the "political disconnect" between rulers and ruled. When told that Eva Crasweller will oppose him, the President responds: "Eva is a mere child. Do you suppose that her opinion will be allowed to interrupt the laws of the whole community, and the progress of civilisation?" But the problem is that Neverbend is not speaking for the whole community.
"Oh yes, the Law is a very beautiful thing; but what's the good of laws if they cannot be carried out?" says Eva.
Neverbend is touched but unmoved, and his response crosses that thin line between Victorian sentimentality and National Socialism. In this passage, the woman is both noble and at the same time a child, lacking the vision and foresight of those who would protect her. Man understands the hard and the brutal, while a woman's instinct is more tender. Tears come to Mr. Neverbend's eyes as smugness slips into self-pity:
"And yet it was not because I was angry with the child. I became more and more attached to her the more loudly she spoke on behalf of her father. Her very indignation endeared her to me and made me feel how excellent she was, how noble a wife she would be for my son. But was I to give way after all? Having brought the matter to such a pitch, was I to give up everything to the prayers of a girl? I was well aware even then that my theories were true. The old and effete should go, in order that strong and workmanlike might rise in their places and do the work of the world with the wealth of the world at their command . . . the time might perhaps come, when I too should have been taken away, and when her father should long since have been at rest, that softer thoughts would come across her mind . . . Then I wiped my eyes, and went forth to make arrangements for the morrow.
"The old and effete should go and society should conspire to make them go. The good of the commonwealth—and his own—requires that beyond a certain age he shall not be allowed to exist. He does not work, and he cannot enjoy living. He wastes more than his share of the necessities of life, and becomes on aggregate an intolerable burden."
It is interesting that Trollope always refers to 'he' as though women were in some way exempt from the "Fixed Period." Throughout the book there is no suggestion of women victims, or even the mention of that possibility—an example, perhaps, of Trollope staying in line with his own and his readers' sensibilities.
". . . The ladies in compliance with that softness of heart which is their characteristic are on one side, and the men by whom the world has to be managed are on the other. No doubt in process of time the ladies will follow—"
"'Their masters,' said Mrs. Neverbend. 'No doubt we shall do so when it is only ourselves that we have to sacrifice; but never when the question concerns our husbands, our fathers, and our sons . . ." Another example, perhaps, of Trollope not thinking very deeply about how society might change and with it the role of women.
The book ends with the arrival of a British gunboat with its "steam-power swiveller" and a few sturdy red coats. Britannula loses its independence and the "Fixed Period" is rescinded, much to the relief of Mr. Crasweller, who on the instant appears ten years younger.
Mr. Neverbend, though, is shocked. ". . . It was but yesterday that I had seen him so cowed as to be hardly able to speak a word. And all this change had occurred simply because he was to be allowed to die out in the open world instead of enjoying the honour of having been the first to depart in conformity with the new theory." Again, we see Trollope juxtaposing human feeling to cold theory.
The new governor, Fernando Brown, sums up the issue: "Though I trust I may be able to meet death like a brave man when it comes, still I should wish that it might come by God's hand and not by the wisdom of man.'" Neverbend, with his capacity for self-delusion believes that Brown doesn't fully understand the argument and that a few well-chosen words might change his mind. They don't, and Neverbend is exiled to London. Interestingly, his wife doesn't come with him, though one suspects Neverbend is barely aware of that, so wrapped up is he in his dream of converting Britain and empire to the Fixed Period.
Secularists may quarrel with Fernando Brown, who closes the novel by saying "it is fitting for us that we should leave these things in the hands of the Almighty. It is fitting for us at any rate until we have been brought by Him to a state of god-like knowledge infinitely superior to that which we now possess." But it is harder to argue against Trollope's prophetic insights or his warning about the world's ever-present Mr. Neverbends.