The Fixed Period was Anthony Trollope’s foray into dystopian science fiction. Fans of the author will find this work radically different from his more famous novels in many ways. In my opinion, this is not up to the greatness of the author’s more traditional books or that of the early science fiction pioneers such as H.G. Wells. With that, I found the novel to be worthwhile exploration of philosophical issues and human nature.
First published in 1882, the story is set in what was the “future” year of 1980. Britannula is an ex – British colony that had gained independence and become a republic. At the country’s formation all of its citizens were young, recent emigrants. At that time there were no older citizens. A law was passed called the “Fixed Period”. Intended to save the society the cost of caring for an elderly population, as well as preventing aging citizens from descending into the supposed indignity of decrepitude, the legislation mandated that all citizens be euthanized upon reaching the age of 68.
One year prior to their end, the citizen would be sent to a bucolic campus called “The College” where the person would live out their last year in comfort and supposed honor. Thirty years after the passage of the law, the first effected citizen, Gabriel Crasweller, is nearing his 67th birthday.
John Neverbend is President of the Republic. Ten years short of his own retirement to The Collage, he is a staunch advocate of The Fixed Period. As his time to retire to The Collage nears, Crasweller as well as many others citizens begin to question the concept of the Fixed Period and there is talk of resistance. Neverbend becomes an adamant defender of the law.
Crasweller’s daughter Eva, as well as Neverbend’s own wife and his son Jack, are among those who choose oppose the law. A budding romance develops between Jack and Eva further complicating the situation.
Unfortunately, the usual intricate complexity of character so prominent in Trollope’s other works is absent for most of the characters in this novel. However, Neverbend is still a fascinating literary creation. He is no firebrand, but can be best described as a calm fanatic. He clings to the idea of The Fixed Period despite all arguments and opposition. At times he even finds that idea of the upcoming euthanizes emotionally wrenching, yet he adamantly stands by the law based upon supposed principle. He also continues to see himself as a noble revolutionary and continually compares himself to both Galileo and Columbus. Trollope skillfully shows us the immorality and absurdity of the law while painting a picture of a character who honestly believes in it. This is a fascinating character study.
Another reason to recommend this work is how well Trollope examines the way in which ideologies subvert language. If this book had been written after 1948 I would have commented that Trollope’s exploration of language was Orwellian. Yet this book was written years before Orwell’s invention of “Newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty - Four. At multiple points in the text, Neverbend shows his obsession with language and his attempt to control how the Fixed Period is talked about.
At one point he ruminates on those who are using the word “murder” in relation to the coming euthanizes,
" this the terrible word "murder" was brought into common use. I remember startling the House by forbidding any member to use a phrase so revolting to the majesty of the people. Murder! Did any one who attempted to deter us by the use of foul language, bethink himself that murder, to be murder, must be opposed to the law? This thing was to be done by the law. There can be no other murder. “
In the above quote, not only does Neverbend object to the accurate term “murder”, but he seeks to forbid its use.
Later he takes a similar tact with the word “slaughter”
“The word slaughter was in itself peculiarly objectionable”
Even in Great Britain, there is a “Minister of Benevolence” who seems to order warships from place to place. Once again, this smacks of Orwell’s “Ministry of Peace” from Nineteen - Eighty Four. In regards to this theme, Trollope seems very insightful and well ahead of his time.
In addition, the idea of society killing its members at a certain age, while derived from an earlier play called The Old Law by Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Philip Massinger, has been used in multiple subsequent science fiction stories, perhaps most famously in William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run. The issue of society struggling with high cost of care for the elderly, also seems prescient.
This book is obviously different from the usual Trollope fare. Though not an outstanding novel I found it to be a good one. It contains interesting ideas that are worth are exploring. Though not up to the usual high Trollope quality regarding characters, plot and writing it nevertheless is an insightful character study. It also delves into issues that are to this day relevant. Ultimately this is a thought provoking and worthwhile piece of speculative fiction.