The book, 2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut is about a dystopian world, where society is extremely strict about population control. It was originally published in 1962.
Kurt Vonnegut was an American author renowned in the world of satirical fiction. His writings are a wild ride through his unique perspectives on wars, politics, and religion. This happens to be my second read, after Timequake, from the vault of Vonnegut. This book too is equally thought-provoking.
The story’s comedy has this dark vibe that really brings out the craziness of the society. Imagine a world where those in charge are the ones playing with the population stats—it’s a wild and irrational ride.
The Plot: Spoiler Alert!
The story takes place in this crazy utopia where there’s no prisons, slums, or diseases—it’s like a perfect world. The protagonist, Edward K. Wehling is about 56-year-old old in a place where 129 is the average age. Yep, the scientific era has conquered the aging as well. No one dies of “old age” in the book.
Novel opens in a hospital scene, where Wehling is waiting while a painter, a 200-year-old man, is painting “The Happy Garden of Life”. Then, Leora Duncan, from the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, (a government-sanctioned institution) struts in. Looking at the mural on the wall, she compares it to heaven.
The mural depicts men and women performing gardening activities in a super tidy garden. Like, everything’s all neat and proper. Maybe that’s why Duncan thinks she’s found heaven.
It is through her we come to know about the prevalent concept of swapping newborns for voluntary deaths. The society enforces a policy where for every new individual born, someone else must voluntarily choose to die, ensuring that the population remains constant at 40 million. Therefore, to control the population, someone has to die.
So with every birth, one person has to die, voluntarily. Of course, everybody follows the rule. This time, however, Wehling is upset because he is about to have triplets, which means, instead of one, there has to have three voluntary deaths.
Dr. Benjamin Hitz, the hospital’s Chief Obstetrician, then comes in and starts yapping about strict measures to maintain a stable population.
He is the representative of the society’s values. And so, accordingly, he supports and promotes the policy as a necessary means to prevent overpopulation and maintain a balance between births and deaths.
Eventually, Wehling who is desperate for a good life for his triplets, takes his gun out and shoots Dr. Hitz, Ms. Duncan and himself.
In the end, the painter’s thinking about all the messed-up stuff humans do, calls the hotline “2BR02B” to volunteer. And ultimately, he too makes way for the next generation.
The theme: Death’s become a DIY thing
The book explores life, death, and how society rolls as a consequence of extreme population control measures.
The name of this work is inspired from a famous soliloquy written by Shakespeare in the play Hamlet – “To be, or not to be? That is the question”.
Like Hamlet, our protagonist Welhing too is going through existential crisis. Both the characters are at the verge of taking either side – life’s misery or take the express route out through suicide. And ultimately he decides to kill all, including himself, only to make a peaceful way for his kids.
Death’s become a DIY thing at least in the book. And with this idea, the author has successfully blended the psychological and ethical side of things. Thus, dissecting what it’d really mean to live in a world like that.
Ultimately, Vonnegut tosses this question at us, is death the only fix for this population crisis. Or could be come up with some alternative?
Not only there is an establishment of the Federal Bureau of Termination, where volunteers can come and “die” while “making way” for the next gen. The author also surfaces the struggles of those bringing new lives into the world but can’t find volunteers to make room.
There is a whole different level of chaos building up in such a social milieu. I’m sure, had Vonnegut gave fruition to this idea, the current story would have morphed into a full-blown novel. Although, the version at hand in no less challenging to re-think our value of life.
2BR02B is very well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking piece that captures Vonnegut’s signature style and his mind-bending ideas. Definitely worth a read!
If you’re keen on checking out this story, good news – it’s out of copyright and up for grabs on Project Gutenberg. Seriously, give it a shot.