A short story by Orson Scott Card, originally published in the
December, 1978 issue of Omni magazine. The story is based on the
role that propaganda and enforced conformity play in a society
ruled by a totalitarian government. Such governments place almost
as much value on a dissident's recanting his defiance of their rule
as on capturing or punishing em. In this story, the
government not only requires the criminal to repudiate his behavior,
but to honestly believe that he was wrong, so that the people will
see and believe also.
Mr. Card says of noncompliance:
- Coercion can win compliance from fearful people. But it cannot win
- Quoting from Robert Bolt's play about Thomas More,
A Man For All Seasons:
I do none harm, I think none harm, and if this be not enough
to keep a man alive, then in faith I long not to live.
- Quoting from the movie Gandhi:
They can even kill me. What will they have then? My dead body.
Not my obedience.
The story takes place in a future United States that has been
conquered by the Soviet Union, though allowed to remain much as
it had been. Jerry, the protagonist, has been arrested in connection with
the murder of a high Soviet official, and charged with treason.
Guilt is axiomatic, of course, since he was arrested.
As the story opens, the prosecutor is in Jerry's cell, and telling
him no theatrics will be permitted at the televised trial, and again
urges him to plead guilty rather than no contest.
Jerry is determined to defy them and make a patriotic speech. The
judge asks him to enter a plea; he steels himself, facing into the
camera with the red light on it, and makes a call to the populace to
remember what the United States used to be. After a while, he is amazed
that they haven't stopped him, and winds down, realizing that, despite
all the threats they had made about misbehaving on national television,
of course he was not being broadcast live.
The prosecutor looked up in surprise when the judge cleared his
throat. "Oh, I beg your pardon," he said. "The speeches usually go
on much longer."
part of the trial having flopped, under the
umbrella of official caution, they then proceed to the sentencing phase,
where the gimmick
of the story is first revealed in the unusual words
of the judge.
The court sentences Gerald Nathan Crove to be put to death by every
available method until such time as he convincingly apologizes for his
action to the American people.
The prosecutor from his trial has been assigned to his rehabilitation
case, and meets Jerry in the execution chamber the next day. Jerry had
hoped to be stoic, but seeing the noose and realizing that death would
be by asphyxiation, he panics and promises the prosecutor he'll do
anything. The prosecutor says that the first death is mandatory, so he
might as well be heroic. The noose is placed around his neck, and the
recording helmet on his head. All of his memories, right up until death,
are being recorded, and will be dumped into the first of several clones
after he is dead. As he is
clutching for breath,
Jerry tells himself
that he won't actually die: as soon as he does, he will wake up in another
room. But his limbic system is not convinced. The struggle goes on and
on, until it seems that his agony cannot go on any more, but it does.
And he wakes up in the other room, the prosecutor standing over him,
and drinks in huge gulps of air as he finds that he can breathe again.
As they would after each death, they make him view his dead body and
recover it from however it ended up. He had thought that perhaps, having
died once, he would be able to bear it again, but he was now more afraid
of death than he had been before.
After the cleanup chore is done, he is allowed to rest a bit, and then
prepared to make his statement. The camera is activated and he's on.
He pours forth every kind of apology he can to America: he was wrong,
he is sorry, he's received more lenience than he deserved. After an
hour of this, the prosecutor informs him that the audience was totally
unconvinced of his sincerity. Jerry protests that he was speaking from
the heart. But it is not sufficient that he apologize;
the people must believe that he has genuinely had a change of heart and
is a stout supporter of the regime.
Therefore, Jerry is brought to the room where the large vat of boiling
oil awaits him. Again he dies, again he apologizes, again the audience
Between deaths, the prosecutor and Jerry have a few minutes to talk
about the situation. Initially the prosecutor was cheerfully confident
that Jerry would see the light. After the eighth time, he had lost that
demeanor and seemed to be pleading with Jerry to come around. He says
he's not enjoying it; he says Jerry is costing the taxpayers an immense
amount of money. Jerry says they can relieve that burden just by killing
him once and for all, without resurrection. The prosecutor is aghast at
the suggestion: That would be capital punishment. We're a humane
government. We never kill anybody permanently.
The cycle continued, and eventually Jerry started becoming used to dying.
It was still terrible each time, but his animal self had learned that it
could survive it. And eventually, he decided to once again make the
speech that, deep down, way, way, way down, he really believed. He
told them the United States had been subjugated by an evil empire, and
castigated them for accepting slavery after having been the pinnacle of
a free society. And the prosecutor entered the room, white as a ghost,
telling Jerry that this time the audience had believed, that 97 formerly good
citizens were now disloyal subjects, and that the prosecutor would lose
The government was not willing to put up with him anymore. The final
solution was to put him on a spaceship, where he would sleep away the
centuries en route to a primitive world, where he could live the rest
of his life without endangering their society. As the somec was taking
hold, and his brain was being recorded for restoration upon his arrival,
Jerry thought to himself, Yes, they are getting rid of us for the time
being, but someday we, or our descendants, will play the part of the
barbarians to the Russians' Rome and sweep away their safe lives.