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In my teenage years, I was a devout fan of science fiction. I subscribed to several science-fiction magazines, which I read from cover to cover, and belonged to a science-fiction book club. I don’t know how many science-fiction novels and stories I devoured during that time. Hundreds, at least, maybe thousands.
I wasn’t interested in the inane cosmic-cowboy stuff that reached its apotheosis in the Star Wars series. No, the stories that made me keep coming back for more were the ones that made me think, wonder, look at the world afresh, recognize connections across time and space, contemplate the nature of consciousness, and confront moral questions that I had never thought about before. In many ways, the best science-fiction writers seemed to me to have more to say about questions of real urgency and timeliness than did some of the far more respected “literary” writers of the day.
One story that affected me in the way I’ve described was Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” about a man who uses a time machine to travel back thousands of years, inadvertently kills a butterfly, and upon returning to his own time finds everything changed – subtly, darkly – as a result of that action. Other such stories were Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God.” And Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.” (Weirdly, despite the fact that I read hundreds of writers during those years, it wouldn’t be until much later that I would discover, and revere, the masterly Robert Heinlein.)
But there was no writer who awed me more than Philip K. Dick – and no story that had a more powerful impact on me than Dick’s “The Pre-Persons,” which I read upon its first appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in October 1974, the month I turned eighteen. The story takes place in a time in the near future when abortion is not only legal, but has been redefined in such a way that parents may “abort” their children up until age twelve. The opening image has stayed with me ever since: a boy who is out playing in the park sees the “abortion truck” heading for some home in his neighborhood and, fearing it is coming for him, sequesters himself in some bushes until he realizes, to his relief, that the “abortion” victim in question is someone other than himself.
The story, which appeared on the heels of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, had a powerful impact not just on me but on countless other readers. Implicitly. it was making a slippery-slope argument about abortion: if it’s acceptable to kill a fetus, why not a newborn? If not a newborn, why not a child of two, or four, or eight, or ten? Where to draw the line?
If I had ever taken lightly the concept of abortion, Dick’s story made certain that I never would do so again. Some readers of Dick’s story were enraged, including his fellow science-fiction writer Joanna Russ. As Dick later recounted, “The Pre-Persons” caused him to incur “the absolute hate of Joanna Russ who wrote me the nastiest letter I’ve ever received; at one point she said she usually offered to beat up people (she didn’t use the word ‘people’) who expressed opinions such as this.”
Just now, because I was writing this piece, I did some Googling and actually managed to find Dick’s story online. I was surprised how quickly I turned into an emotional basket case after I began re-reading it for the first time in decades. It is just that powerful. (I also discovered, to my surprise, that Dick’s story inspired the subplot of a 1998 episode of South Park in which Cartman’s mother looks into the possibility of having her son “aborted” in the fortieth trimester. I’m a big South Park fan, but I missed that one.)
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