June 1, 2014

Slice of PIE: Assisted Suicide in Speculative Fiction


This is a difficult subject to discuss as it evokes uncomfortable thoughts in me...

So I’ll start with Star Trek.

One of the most memorable episodes in The Next Generation also starred a favorite actor of mine, David Ogden Stiers (Charles Emerson Winchester The Third of M*A*S*H fame). In “Half A Life”, he played the scientist Dr. Timicin. In the episode, Deanna Troi’s mother, Lwaxana, falls in love with him – and is stunned when she discovers “…that, approaching the age of 60, Timicin is, upon returning to his planet, to undergo the ‘Resolution’, ritual suicide.” The story progresses and in the BEST of Star Trek, calmly, clearly, and evenly presents both side of the argument: “Each ends up finding the other's point of view cruel: Lwaxana because she sees it as arbitrary murder in an uncertain universe when death can come both well before and well after the designated age, Timicin because she is denying people control of their fate and the opportunity to end life with dignity.”

The movie “Soylent Green” mentions assisted suicide when the main character, Roth discovers what Soylent Green is made out of… “Roth seeks assisted suicide at a government clinic called ‘Home’.” (The aged friend Solomon ‘Sol’ Roth (played by Edward G. Robinson) of the main character, New York City Police Department detective Frank Thorn (played by Charlton Heston))

Alexander Zaitchik, in Salon.com did an article on 7/29/13 on this very subject and reviewed several old speculative pieces toward the end of the article – though nothing new or even close to “mainstream” science fiction (GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (1726); BRAVE NEW WORLD (1931); MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! (1966)/”Soylent Green” (1973); THE CHILDREN OF MEN (1992); William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s movie “Logan’s Run.” (1976). The article was actually more interested in trumpeting the cause of Anthropogenic Global Warming than in assisted suicide…

At any rate, you can see that the subject doesn’t appear to be currently engaging the speculative fiction community. I bring it up here because it surfaced for an instant in discussions at DIVERSICON 2013, where I and a friend spent two days. My primary interest was hearing author Jack McDevitt whose work I fell in love with several years ago after reading ANCIENT SHORES (1996). The conclusion of the discussion was somewhat prescriptive: if intelligence is short-lived, then ritual and assisted suicide should be unacceptable. If life is long, it should be acceptable. If life has reached extreme length, it should be encouraged.

The catching point seems to be the definition of “long”. In his 1981 ANALOG short story, “Petals of Rose”, three civilizations meet to solve the problem of instantaneous communication. The work is sponsored by the Lazarines, alien beings whose life expectancy is millennial; Humans whose life expectancy is roughly 200 years; and the Rosans, whose entire life is lived in two Human weeks. While the issue of assisted suicide never comes up – unless you credit a Human-Lazarine war that Humans will lose as suicide – though it easily begs the question.

My own personal thoughts are complex and while Zaitchik implies that anyone who votes conservative right must disagree with his correct liberal left viewpoint, as a conservative rightist, I have nowhere near the assurance he seems to think I should have. My brother-in-law suffered for years from AIDS (hemophiliac, lived 30 years past the diagnosis and helped science realize that survival from full-blown, University of Minnesota diagnosed AIDS was possible and not the certain death penalty it once was); my wife as well as several friends and in-laws have suffered from cancer, some of them terribly at the end. I am completely unsure about what it means for me personally nor what I think the government should do, or allow…

In an article in Britain’s Spiked! Online magazine, author Kevin Yuill, points out, “...how many of the 70 per cent who support a change in the law would exercise the ‘right’ to die, if it were legal? In the US states of Oregon and Washington, where assisted suicide is legal, less than two per cent of those who qualify for it go through with it. Not even the most prominent campaigners for a right to die choose to exercise it, opting instead to hang on to what little life is left. This explains the wide disparity of opinions on legalisation between the general public, who are generally supportive, and those who have some experience of death – like those in the hospice movement, doctors and other medical professionals – of whom a majority are against a change in the law.”

Maybe it’s something that NEEDS to be explored in science fiction. Maybe I could be one of the people to do it...

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