The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories

The Winnowing

Five years had passed since the steadily thickening wall of secrecy had been clamped down about the work of Dr. Aaron Rodman.

"For your own protection-" they had warned him.

"In the hands of the wrong people-" they had explained.

In the right hands, of course (his own, for instance, Dr. Rodman thought rather despairingly), the discovery was clearly the greatest boon to human health since Pasteur's working out of the germ theory, and the greatest key to the understanding of the mechanism of life, ever.

Yet after his talk at the New York Academy of Medicine soon after his fiftieth birthday, and on the first day of the Twenty-first Century (there had been a certain fitness to that), the silence had been imposed, and he could talk no more, except to certain officials. He certainly could not publish.

The government supported him, however. He had all the money he needed, and the computers were his to do with as he wished. His work advanced rapidly and government men came to him to be instructed, to be made to understand.

"Dr. Rodman," they would ask, "how can a virus be spread from cell to cell within an organism and yet not be infectious from one organism to the next?"

It wearied Rodman to have to say over and over that he did not have all the answers. It wearied him to have to use the term "virus." He said, "It's not a virus because it isn't a nucleic acid molecule. It is something else altogether -a lipoprotein."

It was better when his questioners were not themselves medical men. He could then try to explain in generalities instead of forever bogging down on the fine points. He would say, "Every living cell, and every small structure within the cell, is surrounded by a membrane. The workings of each cell depend on what molecules can pass through the membrane in either direction and at what rates. A slight change in the membrane will alter the nature of the flow enormously, and with that, the nature of the cell chemistry and the nature of its activity.

"All disease may rest on alterations in membrane activity. All mutations may be carried through by way of such alterations. Any technique that controls the membranes controls life. Hormones control the body by their effort on membranes and my lipoprotein is an artificial hormone rather than a virus. The LP incorporates itself into the membrane and in the process induces the manufacture of more molecules like itself-and that's the part I don't understand myself.

"But the fine structures of the membranes are not quite identical everywhere. They are, in fact, different in all living things-not quite the same -in any two organisms. An LP will affect no two individual organisms alike. What will open the cells of one organism to glucose and relieve the effects of diabetes, will close the cells of another organism to lysine and kill it."

That was what seemed to interest them most; that it was a poison.

"A selective poison," Rodman would say. "You couldn't tell, in advance, without the closest computer-aided studies of the membrane biochemistry of a particular individual, what a particular LP would do to him."

With time, the noose grew tighter about himself, inhibiting his freedom, yet leaving him comfortable-in a world in which freedom and comfort alike were vanishing everywhere, and the jaws of hell were opening before a despairing humanity.

It was 2005 and Earth's population was six billion. But for the famines it would have been seven billion. A billion human beings had starved in the past generation, and more would yet starve.

Peter Affare, chairman of the World Food Organization, came frequently to Rodman's laboratories for chess and conversation. It was he, he said, who had first grasped the significance of Rodman's talk at the Academy, and that had helped make him chairman. Rodman thought the significance was easy to grasp, but said nothing about that.

Affare was ten years younger than Rodman, and the red was darkening out of his hair. He smiled frequently although the subject of the conversation rarely gave cause for smiling, since any chairman of an organization dealing with world food was bound to talk about world famine.

Affare said, "If the food supply were evenly distributed among all the world's inhabitants, all would starve to death."

"If it were evenly distributed," said Rodman, "the example of justice in the world might lead at last to a sane world policy. As it is, there is world despair and fury over the selfish fortune of a few, and all behave irrationally in revenge."

"You do not volunteer to give up your own oversupply of food," said Affare.

"I am human and selfish, and my own action would mean little. I should not be asked to volunteer. I should be given no choice in the matter."

"You are a romantic," said Affare. "Do you fail to see that the Earth is a lifeboat? If the food store is divided equally among all, then all will die. If some are cast out of the lifeboat, the remainder will survive. The question is not whether some will die, for some must die; the question is whether some will live."

"Are you advocating triage-the sacrifice of some for the rest-officially?"

"We can't. The people in the lifeboat are armed. Several regions threaten openly to use nuclear weapons if more food is not forthcoming."

Rodman said sardonically, "You mean the answer to 'you die that I may live' is 'If I die, you die.'...An impasse."

"Not quite," said Affare. "There are places on Earth where the people cannot be saved. They have overweighted their land hopelessly with hordes of starving humanity. Suppose they are sent food, and suppose the food kills them so that the land requires no further shipments."

Rodman felt the first twinge of realization. "Kills them how?" he asked.

"The average structural properties of the cellular membranes of a particular population can be worked out. An LP, particularly designed to take advantage of those properties, could be incorporated into the food supply, which would then be fatal," said Affare.

"Unthinkable," said Rodman, astounded.

"Think again. There would be no pain. The membranes would slowly close off and the affected person would fall asleep and not wake up-an infinitely better death than that of starvation which is otherwise inevitable-or nuclear annihilation. Nor would it be for everyone, for any population varies in its membranal properties. At worst, seventy per cent will die. The winnowing out will be done precisely where overpopulation and hopelessness are worst and enough will be left to preserve each nation, each ethnic group, each culture."

"To deliberately kill billions-"

"We would not be killing. We would merely supply the opportunity for people to die. Which particular individuals would die would depend on the particular biochemistry of those individuals. It would be the finger of God."

"And when the world discovers what has been done?"

"That will be after our time," said Affare, "and by then, a flourishing world with limited population will thank us for our heroic action in choosing the death of some to avoid the death of all."

Dr. Rodman felt himself flushing, and found he had difficulty speaking. "The Earth," he said, "is a large and very complex lifeboat. We still do not know what can or can't be done with a proper distribution of resources and it is notorious that to this very day we have not really made an effort to distribute them. In many places on Earth, food is wasted daily, and it is that knowledge that drives hungry men mad."

"I agree with you," said Mare coolly, "but we cannot have the world as we want it to be. We must deal with it as it is."

"Then deal with me as I am" You will want me to supply the necessary LP molecules-and I will not do so. I will not lift a finger in that direction."

"Then," said Mare, "you will be a greater mass murderer than you are accusing me of being. And I think you will change your mind when you have thought it through."

He was visited nearly daily, by one official or another, all of them well fed. Rodman was becoming very sensitive to the way in which all those who discussed the need for killing the-hungry were themselves well fed.

The National Secretary of Agriculture said to him, insinuatingly, on one of these occasions, "Would you not favor killing a herd of cattle infected with hoof -and-mouth disease or with anthrax in order to avoid the spread of infection to healthy herds?"

"Human beings are not cattle," said Rodman, "and famine is not contagious."

"But it is," said the Secretary. "That is precisely the point. If we don't winnow the overcrowded masses of humanity, their famine will spread to as yet unaffected areas. You must not refuse to help us."

"How can you make me? Torture?"

"We wouldn't harm a hair on your body. Your skill in this matter is too precious to us. Food stamps can be withdrawn, however."

"Starvation would harm me," surely."

"Not you. But if we are prepared to kill several billion people for the sake of the human race, then surely we are ready for the much less difficult task of withdrawing food stamps from your daughter, her husband, and her baby."

Rodman was silent, and the Secretary said, "We'll give you time to think. We don't want to take action against your family, but we will if we have to. Take a week to think about it. Next Thursday the entire committee will be on hand. You will then be committed to our project and there must be no further delay."

Security was redoubled and Rodman was openly and completely a prisoner. A week later, all fifteen members of the World Food Council, together with the National Secretary of Agriculture and a few members of the National Legislature, arrived at his laboratory. They sat about the long table in the conference room of the lavish research building that had been built out of public funds.

For hours they talked and planned, incorporating those answers which Rodman gave to specific questions. No one asked Rodman if he would cooperate; there seemed no thought that he could do anything else.

Finally Rodman said, "Your project cannot, in any case, work. Shortly after a shipment of grain arrives in some particular region of the world, people will die by the hundreds of millions. Do you suppose those who survive will not make the connection and that you will not risk the desperate retaliation of nuclear bombs?"

Affare, who sat directly opposite Rodman, across the short axis of the table, said, "We are aware of that possibility. Do you think we have spent years determining a course of action and have not considered the possible reaction of those regions chosen for winnowing?"

"Do you expect them to be thankful?" asked Rodman bitterly.

"They will not know they are being singled out. Not all shipments of grain will be LP-infected. No one place will be concentrated on. We will see to it that locally grown grain supplies are infected here and there. In addition, not everyone will die and only a few will die at once. Some who eat much of the grain will not die at all, and some who eat only a small amount will die quickly-depending on their membranes. It will seem like a plague, like the Black Death returned."

Rodman said, "Have you thought of the effect of the Black Death returned? Have you thought of the panic?"

"It will do them good," growled the Secretary from one end of the table. "It might teach them a lesson."

"We will announce the discovery of an antitoxin," said Affare, shrugging. "There will be wholesale inoculations in regions we know will not be affected. Dr. Rodman, the world is desperately ill, and must have a desperate remedy. Mankind is on the brink of a horrible death, so please do not quarrel with the only course that can save it."

"That's the point. Is it the only course or are you just taking an easy way out that will not ask any sacrifices of you-merely of billions of others?"

Rodman broke off as a food trolley was brought in. He muttered, "I have arranged for some refreshments. May we have a few moments of truce while we eat?"

He reached for a sandwich and then, after a while, said between sips of coffee, "We eat well, at least, as we discuss the greatest mass murder in history."

Affare looked critically at his own half-eaten sandwich. "This is not eating well. Egg salad on white bread of indifferent freshness is not eating well, and I would change whatever coffee shop supplied this, if I were you." He sighed.

"Well, in a world of famine, one should not waste food," and he finished the sandwich.

Rodman watched the others and then reached for the last remaining sandwich on the tray. "I thought," he said, "that perhaps some of you might suffer a loss of appetite in view of the subject matter of discussion, but I see none of you did. Each one of you has eaten."

"As did you," said Mare impatiently. "You are still eating."

"Yes, I am," said Rodman, chewing slowly. "And I apologize for the lack of freshness in the bread. I made the sandwiches myself last night and they are fifteen hours old."

"You made them yourself?" said Mare.

"I had to, since I could in no other way be certain of introducing the proper LP."

"What are you talking about?"

"Gentlemen, you tell me it is necessary to kill some to save others. Perhaps you are right. You have convinced me. But in order to know exactly what it is we are doing we should perhaps experience it ourselves. I have engaged in a little triage on my own, and the sandwiches we have all just eaten are an experiment in that direction."

Some of the officials were rising to their feet. "We're poisoned?" gasped the Secretary.

Rodman said, "Not very effectively. Unfortunately, I don't know your biochemistries thoroughly, so I can't guarantee the seventy per cent death rate you would like."

They were staring at him in frozen horror, and Dr. Rodman's eyelids drooped. "Still, it's likely that two or three of you will die within the next week or so, and you need only wait to see who it will be. There's no cure or antidote, but don't worry. It's a quite painless death, and it will be the finger of God, as one of you told me. It's a good lesson, as another of you said. For those of you who survive, there may be new views on triage."

Affare said, "This is a bluff. You've eaten the sandwiches yourself."

Rodman said, "I know. I matched the LP to my own biochemistry, so I will go fast. " His eyes closed. "You'll have to carryon without me-those of you who survive."


The next story has rather a sad history, though I myself emerged unscathed. Here's how it goes.

In January 1975, Naomi Gordon, a very charming woman from Philadelphia, visited me and explained what I thought was a delightful idea for an anthology. It was to be entitled The Bicentennial Man; It was to contain ten stories by top authors, with each one built about that phrase; and it was to be published in connection with the Bicentennial. The well known science fiction enthusiast Forrest J. Ackerman was to do the editing. Naomi also had rather grandiose notions of preparing a very limited, very expensive edition.

I pointed out it would be difficult to write science fiction if the stories were to be centered on the Bicentennial, but Naomi said that the stories could be anything at all provided they could be seen to have arisen out of the phrase "The Bicentennial Man."

I was intrigued and agreed to do it. I was handed half the advance at once. The deadline was April 1, 1975, and by March 14 I was finished. I was a little rueful about the story at first, for the agreement had called for a 7,500-word story and I had been unable to stop it before it had reached 15,000 -the longest story I had written below the level of a novel in seventeen years. I write an apologetic covering letter, assuring Naomi that there would be no extra charge and she wrote back to say the extra wordage would be fine. Pretty soon, the remaining half of the advance arrived..

But then everything went wrong. Naomi was beset by family and medical problems; some writers who it had been hoped would participate, couldn't; others who promised stories didn't deliver them; those who did deliver them did not turn out entirely satisfactory products.

Of course, I didn't know anything about this. It never even occurred to me that anything might go wrong. Actually, my only large interest is in writing. Selling is a minor interest, and what happens afterward is of almost no interest.

There was, however, Judy-Lynn del Rey and her enormous awareness of everything that goes on in science fiction. She knew that I had written a story for this anthology.

"How is it," she asked dangerously, "that you wrote a story for that anthology, yet when I ask you for one you're always too busy?"*

"Well, " I said apologetically, for Judy-Lynn is a frightening creature when she is moved, "the idea of the anthology interested me."

"How about my suggestions about a robot that has to choose between buying its own liberty and improving its -body? I thought you said that was interesting."

At that point, I must have turned approximately as white as talcum powder. A long time before, she had mentioned such things and I had forgotten. I said, "Oh, my goodness, I included something of the sort in the story."

"Again?" she shrieked. "Again you're using my ideas for other people? Let me see that story. Let me see it!"

So I brought her a carbon copy the next day and the day after that she called me. She said, "I tried hard not to like the story, but I didn't manage. I want it. Get the story back."

"I can't do that," I said. "I sold it to Naomi and it's hers. I'll write you a different story."

"1'11 bet you anything you like," said Judy-Lynn, "that that anthology isn't going to go through. Why don't you call and ask?'.

I called Naomi and, of course, it wasn't going through. She agreed to send me back the manuscript and grant me permission to sell the story elsewhere, and I sent back the advance she had given me. (After all, she had lost considerable money on the venture, and I didn't want any of that loss to represent a profit to me.)

The story was then transferred to Judy-Lynn, who used it in her anthology of originals entitled Stellar Science Fiction #2, which appeared in February 1976. And I like the story so much myself that I not only am including it here, but am using its title for the book as a whole.

(Incidentally, after this book was put together, Judy-Lynn suggested I change my manuscript to make it jibe with the version in Stellar. Apparently, she had introduced numerous minor changes that improved it, she said. Well, I am not Harlan Ellison, so I don't mind, but I think that in my own collection, I'll let the story stand as I wrote it. Judy-Lynn will be annoyed, but she can't do worse than kill me.) *This was during the Passover Seder, over which Lester del Rey presides every year with enormous effectiveness, since he is the best cook in science fiction.

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