Cast of Wonders 113: The Malthus Alternative (Staff Pick 2013)
The Malthus Alternative
by Jamie Mason
“The gantry or the gallows.” Father chuckles. “When I think of all the money wasted on this –” (he gestures through the tinted windows of the limousine at the ruined space-port beyond) “– garbage it makes me sick – sick, I tell you! Colonize space? Mankind would have done better creating space on our own world, not blasting off in search of others!”
I hold my tongue – a necessary job skill when working for Father. My childhood dreams of a career in theater or publishing have given way to the reality of a senior management position with Global Confinement Solutions, Father’s flagship concern. GCS is a place where arguing with Father is accounted (like live theater or literature or space travel) a complete waste of time. And the team at GCS should know. Because time is our business.
“The collapse of the space industry resulted in a real-estate windfall.” I use the neutral tone appropriate to business meetings (– any time spent with Father is a business meeting). “The Cuernavaca site is perfect for the ICE project. The old rocket storage facility, for example, provides several thousand square meters ideal for –”
“I’ve read the specs.” Father flaps a hand. Gazing out the window at the fence-line, his voice softens in uncharacteristic wonder. “Just look at them out there …”
I glance past the ranks of armed soldiers toward the view beyond. “Human misery.” It is difficult to maintain the neutral tone. But I manage.
“God may have condemned space travel, but He sure sanctified the profit motive! The Congruence says so. And here’s another chance to make a buck.” Father taps the glass separating us from the driver. The limo plunges skyward on a rising hum. I glance down at the facility once dedicated to exploring new worlds and experience a twinge of wistfulness.
“Just imagine if the New Frontier had worked! Other worlds for people to colonize instead of crowding every square inch of the planet. Space travel –”
“Is a pipedream – a dream, I tell you! No, Michael. What we need now is not a new frontier, but a new distraction. The constant pushing outward of human consciousness is what’s gotten us into this mess. We need a return of Mankind’s attention to more mundane affairs.” His voice drops to a purr. “Garibaldi’s breakthrough will change everything.”
Father gazes down at the starving multitudes crowding the fence-line and chuckles.
“The gantry or the gallows,” he whispers. “Make room! Make room …”
I first read about Thomas Malthus in my early teens – a year or two before joining the Congruence. I remember discussing him on the bus-ride home with Jeremy the day that I first met you.
“Who said, ‘The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’?” Jeremy’s tone is crisp, confident. He is in the Cadet Corps, destined for a position as an officer with the Crusaders in one of their endless wars abroad.
“Malthus.” I gaze out the window, preoccupied. I have butterflies in my stomach – but not because of the Eighteenth Century economist we’re studying in History of Pre-Congruence America.
“What’s up, boyo?” Jeremy’s tone softens. “You haven’t been yourself today.”
“I – ah – have an appointment this afternoon …”
“Doctor?” For all his tough-guy swagger, Jeremy cannot stop a worried frown from creasing his features. We have been friends for a long time.
“No. Something important.”
You were never meant to enter my life for real. You were only meant to be a dream. But something happened. Some mechanism in my life, in the machinery of this room that punishes the guilty. We are only ever meant to inhabit our memories –to relive the past continually as opposed to moving ahead in linear time as others do. That is our punishment for various crimes, we who are condemned to the ICE Project. Enslavement to the Machine substitutes for hard time, delivering the sum total of an incarceration experience in virtual style. A metal cap to keep us walking around inside our own heads forever: chairs are cheaper than cells.
My crime was treason. The son of a wealthy family, I was expected to choose convenience over love. I accepted this. In much the same way that a carnivore accepts an endless diet of meat, I saw my days marching forward into a future as ordered as the rows of figures on an accountant’s spreadsheet.
The only escape I ever had from this – from the inevitability of my fate – came in the dojo …
“If you must,” sighs Mother. I am reliving the day she overcomes her distaste at the notion of my doing martial arts, of rolling and grappling across the mats with the sons and daughters of cops and miners and factory workers. She signs the check and leaves me to my own devices – a precious pair of hours in which to grab my gym bag and uniform and escape to a place beyond her ordered world of servants and manners and money.
That was where I first saw you. Where I see you every day …
You are calm. Your clay-colored skin is dark against the white of your gi (for we only wore white in those days). Bare feet spread shoulder width apart, you gaze at me skeptically, unafraid – a strange girl, so different from any I have known before. I am a newcomer to the dojo – you, an experienced student already wearing a colored belt. Your eyes glint with amusement as you watch me fumble through my clumsy break-falls and first few techniques. And I am struck by attraction – not to your body, but to the calm engine of your will that idles and purrs and vibrates so smoothly behind your calm, clay-colored eyes …
A pause. The Machine thrums and clicks. And I am thrown ahead, to another moment in my life.
” ‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.’ ” Mr. Heward glares down his nose at me. He adores his other pupils but treats me with a chilly disdain. I have done something to earn his eternal dislike and am learning that no amount of joking or striving or deference will ever change this fact.
“Who said that, Michael?”
I glance over at Jeremy. He seems amused at my confusion. Our relationship has changed ever since he, along with most of the other boys in class, joined the hockey team that Heward coaches. I cannot skate. Suddenly, I am alone on the outside.
“Malthus,” I say quietly.
There is a lengthy pause as Heward parses my tone for insolence. Finding none he nods and begins reading the next question in the exam we wrote last week – the one he handed back to us moments ago. A large red C-minus dominates the cover sheet of my copy.
I glance at Jeremy again.
“You are a loser, boyo,” he whispers. And grins.
“Art!” Father shouts. “Your job is to make money, not art. Art is a prole’s game. Your place is at the top – the top, I tell you – of the pinnacle of the pyramid, helping to organize the work of the lower orders. You must take your place. It has been prepared for you and no one else can fill it!”
So I was told. And raised. I struggled through the cruel initiations of the upper class – the ritual humiliations of the playing field, the endless semesters of mathematics and science. The labor was grueling (especially for me who, in retrospect, no doubt suffered from some sort of learning disability). But I put my head down. Shouldered through. And what sustained me was …
“Michael,” sensei calls. I stand. Walk to the mats.
You rise from the line of students to stand across from me. Your eyes sparkle and flash with confidence in your skill. For we have been training together almost a year now and under your supervision I have grown from a clumsy novice to a competent amateur. But my technique still lacks the grace, the fluid fire of your own. As we bow and advance to fight, I sense the certainty, the determination in your movements. I have longed to express my admiration for your capabilities but my first attempt to share this with you in words was met by your mocking gaze, by silence. So now we close and speak in the only language left to us …
It’s not your fault that you are the way you are, any more than it’s my fault I fell in love with you. Trapped here in this room that makes people experience their lives over and over again, powerless to change their mistakes, I have searched for a thread of meaning to make sense of this chaos and pain. That thread is you.
The heart beats. The breath rises and falls. Memories compile. And a life is born.
“Before the Congruence, all was darkness.” The padre glares down at us from the pulpit, causing a ripple of obedience through the crowd of fourteen- and fifteen year-old boys that might have been called ‘miraculous’ had not use of such terms been carefully regulated.
“Before President O’Dell was elected, only Unbelievers occupied the highest levels of power. They believed in secularism, not Congruence. They celebrated separateness, not Union. They worshipped Man … not God.”
I swallow and gaze down at the black lily I hold. All of us boys who are to be Fellowshipped that day hold them. The dark lily is symbolic of the Black Chalice – the Death Pact that binds Converts to the Congruence. Somewhere in the shadows of the Chapel behind me, Father looks on, beaming proudly from amongst a congregation of identical Chosen wearing their double-breasted suits.
“Men in those days celebrated all the dark demons of liberal fascism!” The padre hoists a hand high. “Drugs! Witchcraft! Pedophilia! Abortion!” On the last word, his hand curls into a tight fist. “Murder of the unborn. Canonized in law and celebrated as a sacrament by women who chose to bear children outside the institution of marriage! Women who sired litters of Unbelievers with multiple men, then turned to other women to satisfy their perverted lusts! It was like unto the days of Sodom, the days of Noe!”
Like unto the days of Malthus, I think. I imagine the primitive economist taking refuge in a garden shed from his various wives and litters of children to scribble his theories. I consider sharing this observation with Jeremy, but he is elsewhere now – standing with his hockey friends, his military friends. I am alone on the outside. Again.
The padre pauses meaningfully before continuing.
“And then there came the Dark Times as foretold in Revelations. The war against the Antichrist! I was a young man when Israeli jets swept over the border to bomb Tehran, igniting the Apocalypse War. I recall the disruption of the global food distribution network, the Great Hunger! The War seemed interminable before the first Saints arose to lead the fighting men of North America into the deserts. Over a million of them and a quarter-million tanks confronted the enemy at the Battle of Megiddo. They say at the height of the fighting a thousand died every half–hour. The cost was enormous! But soon after, our Crusaders rode into Jerusalem victorious. It was there among the ruins of the Dome of the Rock that Joshua received the sacrament of the Lily from the Dark Angel.”
“Blessed be the Dark Angel,” we intone obediently (– although I, from Middle-School habit, say ‘angle’ instead of ‘angel,’ prompting a hissed “quiet,boyo!” from Jeremy)
“President O’Dell was wounded in that war. He rose miraculously from his hospital bed to speak in tongues and found the group that would eventually control the government and, finally, the White House. Canada and Mexico were annexed and the Congruence was born – a fellowship into which you fortunate young men will now be joined.
“In preparation for the Final War.”
An excited whisper passes among the cadets. This was unexpected!
The padre is beaming. “Again the trumpet sounds. The brave sons of North America go forth, this time not to aid an ally but to wage war against the final abomination and render the world safe for human procreation. For I have been told by angels this morning and it shall be announced by the President himself on liNk tonight that the war to eliminate birth control from the planet has begun.”
I experienced your life only in the brief glimpses I caught of you in the dojo. For as I endured the kiln of patrician life, I continued to escape to the world we shared. We never spoke. I knew nothing about you. Once, standing in the rain after class waiting for my lift, I saw a battered vehicle pull up to the curb driven by a woman who resembled you. You slipped into the passenger seat, your gi folded and tucked under your arm, and I caught the woman’s voice rising in anger at you the instant before the door closed. You sat stone-faced as the car plunged into traffic. Another time a motorcycle came, driven by an older male who also bore a slight resemblance to you. Smiling, you climbed onboard and wrapped your arms around his waist. The two of you sped away as I watched. For an instant, I was jealous until deciding the young man was probably your older brother.
You become tired and drawn the further you progressed into womanhood. It never occurred to me to question the effect the Congruence’s new laws governing women might be having upon you. One by one the other girls stopped coming to the dojo but you endured. Grew tougher. Quieter. Better. In the line-up before and after class to bow in, you were always one space ahead of me – my sempai, senior student. As I said, we never spoke. A nod upon meeting. A glance between us during practice. The occasional fierce encounter – from which I drew lessons of will that sustained me in my other life. We belt tested once per year. Occasionally, I caught up with but never passed you. You were that good.
“Boyo, I’m a soldier. I fight the wars the politicians tell me to fight. I don’t ask questions.”
“But eliminating birth control will only make things worse! A child could tell you that …”
Jeremy tips his beer bottle to his lips, grinning. Our friendship has been newly resurrected since his return from boot camp. He still wears his military fatigues. “Malthus said population grows at a geometric ratio while food –”
“Grows in a linear fashion, I know. That’s the problem!”
“And war is the solution.” Jeremy spreads his hands to indicate the crowd of upper middle class kids swarming the house around us. It is Labor Day Weekend. This impromptu party at the home of a classmate whose parents are out of town has been hastily organized. “Our friends here are in competition for food resources with kids from different countries. We have to eliminate that competition and secure our way of life.”
“Maybe that’s what you should question!”
“Nut!” He scrubs my hair affectionately. “That’s your job. You’re the writer, boyo. Me? I’ll just drink my beer. And, if you’ll excuse me, cherchez les femmes.”
He slips down from the balcony rail and heads indoors, leaving me alone to brood.
Our friends here … Are these really my friends, these spoiled patrician children of the upper class? My experiences at the dojo have given me a different perspective. The kids I train with are from the lower classes. I see them growing thinner, scrawnier with lack of food. The war isn’t just against outsiders – it’s against our own people. Yet among the assembled guests, I alone am in a position to know this. As the party grows quieter and the lights dim and kids pair off for make-out sessions in the shadows, I fear for the future of our society. Finding my jacket, I move dejectedly through the darkened living room toward the door.
And that’s when I spot you.
Standing quietly in the shadows, you observe the entwined couples with a vaguely amused expression. How you ended up at a rich kids’ party is beyond me. But your recognition of me when you turn is instantaneous. Your eyes narrow but your smile widens slightly. As in the dojo, we exchange a wordless nod.
Gently, you move forward and take my wrist. Out of habit I resist your touch but you turn and speak to me with your eyes, inviting me to follow. For a moment I wonder if you intend to kiss me. We move through the shadowed house, past the writhing couples, headed for the stairs. Take them down to the basement and outside to the small backyard where we are alone.
At the edge of the lawn you kick off your sneakers, move out to the middle of the grass and wait, hands on your hips.
I shake my head and follow suit. A moment later, we stand two meters apart from each other, barefoot.
You shrug and smile.
We bow to one another.
A moment later you are grasping me with your rough-nailed hands, levering me into position for a throw. I resist and we are off again, locked in combat. The closest either of us will ever come to love.
I moved from adolescence into young manhood, shaped by the forces of the other world I inhabited – the world my parents controlled. It was a place of winnowing. Stripped from me gradually were all notions of humanity and fairness. I was taught to adapt. Rather than be alarmed by the growing crowds of homeless in the streets, Father traded our Excalibur Presidential for a hovercar – a Lincoln limofoil. Now instead of riding through packed streets preceded by an armed escort, we floated high above the growing ranks of homeless until they became mathematical abstractions. The ordered rows of figures in the accountant’s ledger reinforced a world where some ruled and others served. This was ordained (apparently) by God, maintained by force and ensured by the existence of for-profit prisons like the ones owned and operated by Global Confinement Solutions.
My life ended senior year of high school. My destiny lay in university – far away from childhood, the clumsy first steps of adulthood, the foundry of will that was the dojo. And you.
Another memory …
I move across the mats to where you stand alone.
“Glenda.” It is the first time in a half decade I have spoken to you. “I’m leaving. Going to the mainland. To university.”
You gaze back at me. Watchful. But now, as in our matches, attentive for my next move. Ready to counter it.
“I wanted to thank you. You’ve taught me so much, you see. I want to tell you … I want you to know how much you’ve helped me. And I want to … be friends. And stay in touch.”
“I’m flattered,” you say coolly. “But I’m not interested that way.”
“No, Glenda … You don’t understand. I don’t want –”
Sensei calls out “seiza!” and you sprint for your place in line, leaving me alone.
I never got to tell you how your courage and determination inspired me. How having you as a mentor and opponent improved me. How the mocking light from your clay-colored eyes annoyed and shamed and moved me to be something better. You were the best friend I ever had. And I didn’t even know you.
The next day I pack up and move to the mainland.
During my undergraduate program at the new Polytechnic in Surrey, I learned about convenience and control. The curriculum was heavy on Congruence teachings. I learned how science and the ordered columns of statistics had subjected humanity to its present mess. As the ranks of Crusaders filled with young men eager to fight the war on birth control (dubbed “the War for Life”), I watched and wondered how the government expected a sharp rise in the human population to improve an already crowded situation. The public rationales were always grounded in scripture and revelation. Over and against this was the data-driven business curriculum my father insisted upon as a necessary precursor to a position with his company.
“Overpopulation. Overconsumption. Over-education.” Father smiles at me. I am remembering a discussion from Christmas break during my Freshman year. “An entire civilization grasping for the golden ring only a few were ever meant to have. Why? Because their eyes have been opened – opened, I say – by progress – by the absence of those things that always kept the lower orders in check. Poverty. Disease. Ignorance.”
My sophomore year coincided with a tipping point in the War for Life.
“Make room! Make room!” Father laughs, gazing down from the great window of the fortified penthouse tower in which we now live. “Barely enough space down there to breathe, let alone live anymore.”
“Father, you always spoke of our place at the top, of our responsibility to help organize the work of those lower down …”
“What about it?”
“How are we going to help them?” I gesture toward the multitudes crowding the streets below.
Father is silent for a time.
“We’ll think of something.”
And he did.
It is during my junior year at university. Father comes over to the mainland on business and stops by for lunch. Uncharacteristically chummy, he asks to spend the afternoon with me. I tell him I have a commitment to attend a lecture by a guest speaker, Dr. Antonio Garibaldi of the University of Turin. Father says it had been a while since he’s attended a lecture and so accompanies me across the quad to the auditorium at the edge of campus. An angry crowd of hunger-crazed homeless roils beyond the chain-link fence ringing campus. Sunlight glints off the helmets of the snipers guarding the roof as we step inside.
“At the University of Turin,” Garibaldi begins, “we are beneficiaries of a government grant to explore the field of psycho-cybernetics. This fascinating discipline is still in its infancy. Yet already we are making enormous strides in the human/computer interface. Consider …” Onscreen a slide appears of a man connected to a machine by a metal cap. “Already we have been able to stimulate thought and memory centers of the brain via precision impulses from a computer. In this subject for example, we were able to induce a memory loop which caused him to re-live his sixth birthday party in almost perfect detail.”
Father stops texting his secretary and looks up.
“The precision of recall utilizing this technology is formidable.” Garibaldi summons an image of a graph with arced data points rendered in contrasting colors. “In controlled experiments, we were able to compare accuracy between individuals recalling events from memory versus those hooked to the machine. As you can see, the contrast is significant. When their experience is enhanced by mood-altering drugs it is almost as if those who undergo the treatment actually re-live events. The applications of such technology in terms of repairing damaged or incomplete memories, or for helping the police in questioning witnesses is …”
Father is texting again. I glance over and read:
- GARIBALDI, UNIV. OF TURIN – CONSULTANT? CHECK FEE ASAP.
My final day as an employee of Global Confinement comes three years later. It is raining.
“Thomas Malthus was an Eighteenth Century economist who observed that the Earth’s capacity to furnish resources for a geometrically expanding population is limited.” Father addresses the Executive Committee of GCS from the head of the boardroom table. “With victory in sight in the Congruence’s War for Life, we confront the reality of an overburdened biosphere. The Earth was only ever meant to sustain a fraction of its current load. As the global population tops 12 billion, we face a legacy of perpetual starvation. The question becomes how to judiciously apportion diminishing resources to a geometrically-expanding human family. The answer … is ICE.
“Indefinite Confinement Experiment represents a union between our for-profit prison network and Dr. Garibaldi’s psycho-cybernetic technology. I have just returned from a meeting with President-for-Life O’Dell in Washington and he has authorized us to begin deployment of this solution among the general population. The starving masses you see in the streets will be moved to facilities where they can be held in stasis, connected to infinite memory loops that will hold them in a humane variant of suspended animation in which they can relive actual memories while consuming nutrient resources at a drastically-reduced rate. This will buy us time to consider the next step in dealing with the population problem …”
“You mean put them all in prison?” This from a senior board member.
“Warehouse the lot.” Father waves a hand.
“At least the golf courses will be freed up!”
A tide of laughter sweeps the table.
“Consuming nutrients at a vastly reduced rate?” asks another.
“Via intravenous means. Confined to chairs and drugged, they’ll take up less space Best thing for them, I tell you. Michael? Where are you –?”
Father waves me out the door.
Heedless of my safety, ashamed, I stalk the tight-packed streets – past trashcan fires and shattered doorways in which sleep the remnants of poor and middle-class families not fortunate enough to rank among the super-rich. Cast out from housing meant to keep them warm and safe, they form the great sprawling underclass of urban poor that jams the crumbling remains of once-great cities.
… and turning a corner … I see …
It is there. Still there. A miracle of memory and tradition, it stands. In a world where every square inch of space is fought over, where every notion of private property has been abandoned to the necessities of overpopulation, by what act of will it survives inviolate, door still intact, windows un-smashed. I cannot fathom. And lit within, a small circle of students clad in traditional uniforms sits listening as their sensei speaks to them gently. Explaining some fine point of wisdom earned by hard experience and will. The black belt around her slender waist, the weight of tradition borne gracefully on slender shoulders. And, when she turns, the mocking light in her clay-colored eyes mellowed, with age, to gentle humor …
Across the distance of years we gaze at one another. You smile at me ever so slightly. Incline your head in just the shallowest bow. Reminding me. Of the hard-won lessons we taught each another in a former time – of respect earned, of learning one’s place, of fighting with honor to bring the best inside one’s self alive.
All this in a glance. Then you turn back to your students.
Broken inside, I return home.
It is a simple matter to learn the Plan. And even simpler to expose it.
The purchase of the sprawling warehouse space, the mass production of Machines, the plot to quietly return military units home from overseas to accomplish the mass round-ups and incarcerations – all these are connected by a data trail that it is child’s play for an educated mind on the inside track to uncover. I spend a week hacking mainframes, downloading video and text files, reconstructing the moves made by GCS to enslave us all. I gather and synthesize it into one single, great message and, at midnight – when the censor-bots are asleep – spawn it across a billion networks with a keystroke. The Revolution has begun.
They come for me at dawn.
One final memory.
We are fifteen. Kneeling across from one another, we await sensei’s order. At his barked command, we surge forward and collide in a tangle of arms and legs, hands scrambling for purchase as we wrestle for advantage. Relying on my boy’s strength, I get on top. But it only lasts for a second. Using your girl’s agility and superior skill, you flip me off, lever me down, apply a choke. Frightened, I feel my will begin to fade. That’s when our eyes meet and you speak the only words to me you ever volunteered of your own free will.
“Keep fighting,” you whisper.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.