Thinking about the history of science fiction, the name Anthony Trollope doesn’t readily spring to mind. He is best known for his Victorian dramas, satirising political and social issues of the time. Hang on? Isn’t that what the best science fiction does? The Fixed Period on the face of it fulfils Trollope’s core brief; a social and political satire. What it also does, however, is introduce a key element that has followed in much science fiction and hadn’t been previously written about.
Originally published in the long-running political Blackwood’s Magazine over six instalments beginning in 1881, The Fixed Period was first bound together in a book form in 1882. Some have noted that Trollope himself was 67 in 1882; a pivotal age within the story. The edition I read was the 1993 OUP World’s Classics edition edited by David Skilton. I did not read the editor’s introduction, notes on the text nor the explanatory notes, and therefore experienced the story as a novice to all of Trollope’s oeuvre.
The Fixed Period is the story of the politics of the fictional island of the Republic of Britannula, set in 1980. The island is somewhere near to New Zealand, and is independent from Great Britain. The narrator is the President of the island, and author of the legal policy of euthanasia which is about to be brought into play as the first residents reach the end of the Fixed Period and are to be ‘deposited’ in the ‘college’.
Crasweller, a merchant-farmer and landowner, is Britannula’s oldest citizen. He is also best friend with President Neverbend, who is importantly, 10 years his junior. Together, and with others in government, they built the new republic and its laws. One of these laws that the young men brought forth was called The Fixed Period, where at age 67, citizens are ‘deposited’ to a ‘college’ in the town of Necropolis. They are allowed to live a final year of probation within the college before their life is ended and they are cremated, aged 68. Now, however, it is almost Crasweller’s time. He is to be the first, and Neverbend is to be triumphant. As President, he is to author a new and higher civilisation that engenders wealth, comfort, fortitude and progress. He compares himself to Columbus and Galileo. Crasweller is a healthy old man and doesn’t want to die. More, his daughter, Eva, is determined that the law shouldn’t stand. Other elder citizens are beginning to rebel against their own impending deposition. In light of this, Neverbend’s son and wife turn against him. As a man of ego and honour, Neverbend won’t be swayed and the fateful day arrives when Crasweller is brought before the people of Britannula. A British warship turns up at this moment and events are halted as Neverbend is essentially arrested and hauled back in England, with Britannula to be governed with protectorate status.
Trollope plays with language in both subtle and unsubtle ways, introducing wit to the proceedings. Many of the characters are named after their traits or origins. As well as Neverbend, some English cricketers are called Kennington Oval and Lords Longstop.
There are science fictional elements within the story, to give the 1980 setting credibility, such as how the sport has cricket has evolved (to include machinery), and some technological improvements, such as communication devices (hair telephone, water telegrams), transport (steam tricycles) and weapons (swivel guns). None of these technologies are explained by Trollope. However, the life style and surroundings are familiar enough to the Victorian reader as not to seem too far-fetched. Despite this being set in Trollope’s far future, women’s issues have not progressed at all and wives are expected to be subservient maid to their husbands. They have no role outside the servitude of marriage and in Britannula, sex outside marriage is not the done thing.
The key, however, is the Fixed Period itself; a euphemism if ever there was one. Since 1882, science fiction has been littered with the idea of a fixed age when citizens must die. It is a way; an intellectual argument if you will, to argue that dystopia to our eyes is really a utopia and that society will benefit. Certainly, Trollope’s President Neverbend believes it is the only intellectual solution to an aging population. I wonder how he would have felt in 2014’s world. According to the UK National Statistics office, ‘by 2037 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to be 2.5 times larger than in 2012, reaching 3.6 million and accounting for 5 per cent of the total population. Maybe Trollope had a point! Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) – where people die at 60 – and the 1976 film Logan’s Run (death at 30) are perhaps the most famous examples of the evolution of the Fixed Period. In the former, Huxley dispenses with euphemism with his Hospitals of the Dying, but in the slick Logan’s Run (based on the 1967 novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson) citizens are simply put to sleep. I don’t think Trollope is expressing ageism, although I imagine he was fearful of his own age and place in society.
The satirical side of the novel is an attack on British Empiricism. Neverbend argues that it is the brute and superior forces of the former homeland that defeat his intellectual progressiveness. Indeed, while the island’s murder was voted for and approved by a republican assembly, Great Britain is still a monarchy that wages war (and it contains a direct dig at technology brought on by war: “the greatest inventions of the day should always take the shape of engines of destruction”) and engages in capital punishment. It is not clear which side Trollope comes down on as the arguments both for and against euthanasia are pretty much even, although I liked the idea of using Shakespeare’s words against the motherland. Quite subversive.
Many of the utopias as dystopias of the 1800s and before are genuinely dull and un-engaging. Many also suffer from being of their time. This story travels that path well and still resonates today with warnings of over-population, war-based technological invention and Imperialism. The Fixed Period is neither of its time, nor dull and un-engaging, mostly due to the skill in the writing and the interest generated by the characters and their moral and emotional dilemmas. This is something earlier satirists such as Swift and More failed at; there was no reader engagement. So while Neverbend is an intellectual egotist, you can see his point of view. You can also see the pain it causes him with his friend and his family. Characters you can sympathise with are vital in a good read, whether you agree with the politics/satire or not.
The Fixed Period is a science fiction novel. Who knew? It is set in Trollope’s future, has advanced technology which at the end drives the plot and has a philosophical heart which warns society and also produces direct descendents.