The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred: An SF spin on the Trolley Problem

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The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan science fiction book reviewsThe Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan

Subterranean Press is one of my favorite publishers because they’re always putting out distinctive speculative fiction that’s beautifully packaged. I especially appreciate the many novellas they publish because I am often in the mood for shorter works these days and novellas give me the opportunity to read authors whose stories I might not otherwise have time for.

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred (2016) is Greg Egan’s recent science fiction novella about a woman named Anna who directs the spaceport on the asteroid Ceres. Ceres is being inundated with refugees from Vesta, an asteroid habitat that is in political upheaval. When Vesta demands that Ceres stop harboring its fleeing citizens, and then threatens to stop the practice with a violent act, Anna has to make some really difficult decisions.

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred wrestles with one of those moral dilemmas similar to the Trolley Problem. As you might guess from the title, Anna has a choice between saving the lives of 4000 people versus saving 800. At first glance, the solution may seem like a no-brainer, but there are assumptions and corollaries that make it more challenging than the math suggests. A purely utilitarian answer is hard to calculate and may not be the most moral approach anyway. Similarly, the solution to the political situation on Vesta — the problem that started the conflict — can also be approached from a utilitarian viewpoint, but doing so would almost certainly discount justice.

While the Trolley Problem and its cousins have been debated by philosophers for many decades, Egan modernizes the setting and reminds us that these sorts of dilemmas are at the heart of issues that we as humans are constantly (and should be constantly) dealing with. For example, when we consider whether and how to make up for race/class injustices done by previous generations, when we try to balance the need for surveillance versus the need for privacy, when we wonder whether to negotiate with terrorists, and as we develop new technologies (such as robots or self-driving cars) that may have to make quick life-and-death decisions. Egan warns us of other ethical issues that we, even (or perhaps especially) in democratic societies, should be thinking about, some which seem timely considering what’s been going on with the elections in the UK and US this year.

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred is a thoughtful story. I can’t say that it treads any new ground, but it shows us that these old ethical dilemmas will always be with us. More importantly, though I thought Egan’s characters raised interesting moral questions and discussed them eloquently, I found that in the end I didn’t care much about the characters themselves. Egan’s protagonists are smart, courageous, and good but they felt hemmed in by all of the philosophical dickering that was crammed into such a small space. Anna and her friends lacked the space they needed to unfold. I think this story would have worked better as a longer work.

Published November 30, 2016. Camille is desperate to escape her home on colonized asteroid Vesta, journeying through space in a small cocoon pod covertly and precariously attached to a cargo ship. Anna is a newly appointed port director on asteroid Ceres, intrigued by the causes that have led so-called riders like Camille to show up at her post in search of asylum. Conditions on Vesta are quickly deteriorating—for one group of people in particular. The original founders agreed to split profits equally, but the Sivadier syndicate contributed intellectual property rather than more valued tangible goods. Now the rest of the populace wants payback. As Camille travels closer to Ceres, it seems ever more likely that Vesta will demand the other asteroid stop harboring its fugitives. With “The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred,” acclaimed author Greg Egan offers up a stellar, novella-length example of hard science fiction, as human and involving as it is insightful and philosophical.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. In the Business Ethics course I once taught (apparently not an oxymoron), I used a similar example to the trolley problem.

    A terrorist has hidden a bomb in a school and locked the doors. In the hunt which follows, the police kill the terrorist, leaving his small daughter as the only person who knows where the bomb is. But since the police killed her father, she is unwilling to divulge its location. Hence, do you torture the small girl to get the information that will save the people in the school, or spare her the suffering and let it blow sky high? I always accompanied my story with a picture of the cutest little girl I could find to up the drama… :)

    If you throw in Kant’s categorical imperative, this situation gets even more interesting…

    Oh, and by the way, fully agree with your review: heavy on idea, light on good characters, backdrop, etc.

    • I bet that was an interesting class discussion. We also talk about these sorts of moral dilemmas in psychology since the way people answer them (or at least justify their answer) helps to indicate the level of their moral development. The most interesting part, I think, it that their particular answer (e.g. whether or not to torture the little girl) is less important (development-wise) than the reasoning that gets them to their decision.

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