Friday, September 27, 2013

Forgotten Books: Master of Life and Death -- Robert Silverberg

Sorry, folks, no Patricia Highsmith here today.  One reason is that I just can't leave a book in the store.  The other day I was in a thrift shop and saw the Avon reprint of Robert Silverberg's Master of Life and Death, which I read first as half of an Ace Double 'way back in the '50s.  I probably thought it was pretty cool then.  Now, it seems I've changed, and the book is a bit worrisome.  

Roy Walton is the title character, since within a few pages of the novel's opening he's become the head of Population Equalization (or Popeek) and is charged with being sure that Earth's population is equally distributed, a process that involved euthanizing children who might be disease carriers or otherwise bad for the gene pool and distributing people from heavily populated areas to places where there's more room.  He seems to have unlimited power to execute people (give them the Happy Sleep) or imprison them, and eventually he adopts the motto that "the end justifies the means," something he repeats a number of times.  The means include some pretty rough things.  Let's just say that being his brother doesn't exclude you from punishment if you stand in his way.

Things happen fast in this short novel: bang, bang, bang.  Some of the plot threads seem to go nowhere, but most of them are resolved in the end, at least a couple of them by space aliens ex machina.  Walton is ruthless, but then he claims that he has to be.  After all, the end justifies the means.

Here's something interesting.  The world of the novel is hugely overpopulated, so much so that things are falling apart and that Popeek is the only salvation.  Silverberg uses a specific figure: Seven billion.  Just out of curiosity, I looked at the current world population figure.  You can see it here.  Notice the figure?  We're well past the seven billion and climbing.


George said...

I read MASTER OF LIFE AND DEATH in the ACE Double edition as a kid. Loved it then, but I'd probably have the same reaction you had if I reread it today.

Kelly Robinson said...

It's amazing how much one's perception of a book can change with time. A little maturity goes a long way.