2 B R 0 2 B
By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Published by Librivox
Read by Phil Chenevert
Pennsylvania 6-5000! Yes, the name of the story is actually a phone number and in the story is pronounced “Two Bee or Naught Two Bee.” It’s the number of the Assisted Suicide Hotline for the Federal Bureau of Termination.
Anyway this is just another delightful tale by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Yes, I am being sarcastic). Similar to his better known story “Welcome to the Monkey House,” it is set in a world where not only is assisted suicide legal but encouraged. When he wrote this back in the early sixties, it might have seemed like the liberalization of America would continue to its ultimate conclusion, but like most people his future vision was not perfect nor did he really have 20-20 hindsight. None of us do. We look back and see what we expect to see. I think the English history satire, 1066 and All That, said it best, “History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember.” In this case, what so many failed to foresee was that liberality and conservatism, in whatever form they take, both swing like a pendulum. Both liberal and conservative minded people should take care as to just how hard they work toward their goals of what they think is a perfect society, because the further you push it in the direction you want, the further it is eventually going to swing back, although almost never in the manner you might expect. I could go on for a whole book on the subject, but I’m so far off on a tangent at the moment I need a safety line to bring me back to the book review.
This is not one of Vonnegut’s better stories. It doesn’t really tell us a story, just paints a brief verbal picture of a society I doubt many would want to live in. This future has stabilized the total population of the USA at a mere forty million (and, I guess either the rest of the world has joined in – I seem to remember a brief statement as to the total world population, but cannot recall what it was – otherwise I cannot imagine such a situation in which the US would not then be attacked by an enemy with an overwhelmingly greater population) and has done so because the cure for aging has been found so nobody dies of old age and no one can be born without someone else volunteering to die in their place.
So we find ourselves in a maternity waiting room where a man is waiting for the impending birth of triplets. The doctor and a representative of the Federal Bureau of Termination (believing he has only one volunteer for the three) explain that the one surviving baby will “live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet.” However, the man does not want to send his grandfather and two of his children to death, so as an option he pulls out a gun, shoots the doctor, the bureaucrat and himself, thereby making room for all three children. Which I guess is a happy ending of sorts.
Meanwhile a painter nearby, who we are told is about two hundred years old, witnesses the scene and decides it’s his time to go as well. He is unable to shoot himself with the same gun, though so he calls 2BR02B and makes an appointment for himself and gets a cheery thank you from the receptionist.
There are a lot of problems with the story, not the least of which is that the scene as depicted cannot be an uncommon one. I can easily see a parent committing suicide to make room for his or her kid and if there are twins or, as in this story, triplets, murder-suicides would be an obvious resort. Since this has been going on for some two hundred years in the story, it cannot be a new situation. It seems to me that the moment an obstetrician detects a multiple birth, security would be ramped up on the family until everything was settled.
Anyway murder should be the end of the story, the voluntary suicide of the old painter (who has been working on a mural about the heroic doctors and nurses who conquered death) is just gratuitous leaving me very dissatisfied with the story.
Phil Chenevert reads this story in his usual off-handed manner which, I think, fits the nature of the tale perfectly. There are times his reading manner annoys me, but this was definitely not one of those times. For some reason (must be the Vonnegut name – it cannot be the literary merits of the story), this story has been recorded many times by Librivox readers, so I suppose I should listen to some of them sometime, but Mister Chenevert’s reading sets a very high bar for any other narrator.
It’s a so-so story, but an excellent reading.