Disassembly and consumption

in science fiction

What follows is a lengthy, edited quote from Larry Niven’s 1968 novel, A Gift from Earth, that I just finished reading:

The man they wheeled into the organ bank operating room was unconscious…he had been tried and condemned, but in law he was still alive. It was a legal point, nothing more.

The operating room was big and busy. Against one long wall were twenty small suspended-animation tanks mounted on wheels, for moving medical supplies to and from the room next door. Doctors and interns worked quietly and skillfully at a multitude of operating tables. There were cold baths: open tanks of fluid kept at a constant 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Beside the door was a twenty-gallon tank half full of a straw-colored fluid.

Two interns wheeled the convict into the operating room, and one immediately injected a full pint of the straw-colored fluid into his arm. They moved the table next to one of the cold baths. A woman moved over to help, carefully fastening a breathing mask over the man’s face. The interns tilted the table. The convict slid into the bath without a splash.

When they finished with this convict, the organ banks would be full. In law he was still alive. But his body temperature fell fast, and his heartbeat was slowing. Eventually it stopped. The patient’s temperature continued to fall. In two hours it was well below freezing, yet the straw-colored fluid in his veins kept any part of him from freezing.

In law he was still alive. Prisoners had been reprieved at this point and revived without medical ill effects, though they walked in terror for the rest of their days.

Now they lifted the convict onto an operating table. His skull was opened; an incision was made in his neck, cutting the spinal cord just below the brain stem. The brain was lifted out, carefully, for the membranes surrounding it must not be damaged. Though the doctors might deny it, there was a kind of reverence attached to the human brain, and to this moment. At this moment the convict became legally dead.

It does take a lot to chill me, but mister Niven’s depiction of a society that casually uses words and phrases such as “shut down” and “disassemble” to describe its treatment of human beings cut right through me. Here’s a funny observation: Nowhere in the two hundred and fifty page text does the author use the word “donate”.

Here is a person, a man, a human being, peaceably and clinically switched off and taken apart. I’m not going to dip into the blatant allegory about governments and corporations. I’m simply want to hold it up as a moment of shocking exposition that makes you reconsider your fellow being.

First Cycle Since…2008?

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