Brace yourself. Try to imagine a world in which the violin has become “nearly obsolete.” I know, right?! You’ve nearly fallen to your knees, begging for mercy, asking yourself why. Why, great creator, did humanity ever get to this point?
I am a big fan of the violin. I am learning to play it at almost 40 years old because I feel that it is the most beautiful instrument on the planet. Yet, when Trollope kicks off his futuristic dystopia novella The Fixed Period (British, 1882) with this absolutely chilling vision, it signals that although Trollope is one of the most skilled Victorian Realist writers, the man had next to no imagination.
After reading this haunting premonition about what could befall the human race (violion-less? All?), I read The Fixed Period with eye to technology. What would Trollope marshal in to replace the violin? How far could technology extend itself? And scavenge as I may, I was very hard-pressed to find tech here — but I did find some.
Firstly, though, this novella is rather unexceptional in its plot. I might go so far as to call it below-average. It revolves around 16-year old Eva Crasweller, whose father is about to be the first “Periodist” executed at sixty-seven and a half years old. Everyone pines after Eva: even the stiff-jawed, glory-obsessed narrator and leader of Brittanula, John Neverbend, who is himself close to his “Fixed Period” of sanctioned euthanasia, and his handsome son, Jack.
Eva is “merely a child,” but unlike the “unprofitable children” too young to turn a profit, she has value. She is beautiful, for one. That currency hasn’t changed in the future. And she is set on stopping the country from murdering her father. Neverbend fears her, not because her “opinion” could “oppose the progress of civilization,” but because “her feelings will.” She is educated, and “when I say educated, I mean prejudiced.”
Eva’s father is Neverbend’s best friend, but the leader upholds the laws of the country for glory. He simply wants to be like “Columbus and Galileo.” He notes that “I shall be spoken of as the first who endeavored to save grey hairs from being brought with sorrow to the grave.” Anyone who doesn’t follow is “so vain, so greedy, so selfish, and so unpatriotic.”
Like many utopian visions, Neverbend’s ideals center on freedom from the fear of death. This is, perhaps, a central desire in most — if not all — utopian (and hence, dystopian) ideas. He notes that,
I had known from the beginning that the fear of death was a human weakness. To obliterate that fear from the human heart, and to build up a perfect manhood that should be liberated from so vile a thraldom, had been one of the chief objects of my scheme.
The “Fixed Period” euthanizes the elderly and puts an end to a “useless and painful life” in a “world for which he is not fitted.” Moreover, it comes with some perks:
the sum actually saved would amount to 1,000,000 a year. It would keep us out of debt, make for us our railways, render all our rivers navigable, construct our bridges, and leave us shortly the richest people on God’s earth!
Perhaps a novel with this plot could be interesting. There are moments at which Trollope seems to clutch the heart of dystopian fiction in his fist, such as when he writes that “it is not necessary that a man should be happy.” However, he doesn’t seem to know what do with dystopian fantasy.
Or to have an imagination.
In a world in which the elderly are sent off to an institution to die, I expected to see a lot of technology here to help ease them into a state of forgetfulness and easy domination. Or something.
Near the end of the work, there is a peek of what we would consider technology today. A Captain Battleax comes from Britain to put an end to the “Fixed Period” and colonize Brittanula. In this scene, the second lieutenant
put a minute whistle up to his mouth, and I could see for the first time, that there hung from his the thinnest possible metal wire — a thread of silk […] which had been dropped from the whistle […] and which now communicated with the vessel. I had, of course, heard of this hair telephone, but I had never before seen it used in such perfection. I was assured afterward that one of the ship’s officers could go ten miles inland and still hold communication with his captain.
Whoa. I mean, yes, just look at that description of the “perfect” usage of this “hair telephone!”
This is, according to my own close-reading, the sole description of any technology in Trollope’s futuristic dystopia; this is what, perhaps, has risen up to replace violins everywhere.
Brittanula will fall, though, “because a young boy had fallen in love with a pretty girl,” in true Trollope form.