It’s said that when beginning a book a reader will allow one major contrivance that will get the story in motion. Well, today’s story by Frederik Pohl (who sadly died last week) has a big contrivance in its setting, from which all of the worldbuilding and plot flows. While I feel this contrivance is a bit difficult to swallow, the world it results in is riddled with absurd perversity.
It starts off with a classic fictional wedding, that of one between two socioeconomic classes. But Morey and Cherry love each other and their parents have assented, so they move into Morey’s many-roomed mansion and spend their copious free time shopping for jewellery and devouring enormous steak meals. But after a while Cherry grows visibly unhappy, and when she backs out of attending the opera for the second week in a row Morey snaps.
“Dammit,” he flared, “this is your home. You don’t live with your father any more in that five-room cottage; you don’t spend your evenings hoeing the garden or playing cards for matchsticks. You live here, with me, your husband! You knew what you were getting into. We talked all this out long before we were married-“
The words stopped, because words were useless. Cherry was crying again, but not silently. Through her tears, she wailed: “Darling, I’ve tried. You don’t know how I’ve tried! I’ve worn all those silly clothes and I’ve played all those silly games and I’ve gone out with you as much as I possibly could and-I’ve eaten all that terrible food until I’m actually getting fa-fa-fat. I thought I could stand it. But I just can’t go on like this; I’m not used to it. I-I love you, Morey, but I’m going crazy, living like this. I can’t help it, Morey – I’m tired of being poor!”
No, that’s not a typo. You see, in the future people have perfected new ways of mining and harvesting, and robots have taken over manufacturing, and as a result the whole world is floating in an abundance of goods. Now here’s the contrivance. The rate at which these surplus products are produced is not reduced, and the idea of destroying or wasting goods is literally unspeakable. Instead everybody is issued with ration coupons, but they don’t determine the maximum amount you can have. They determine the minimum.
And with this, the world turns topsy-turvy. You force yourself to eat large meals at every sitting to get through your ration for the month; and if you don’t achieve your quota, you run the risk of being dropped down a social level and being forced to consume even more. The rich are those with the fewest ration coupons, who are allowed to work five or even six days. The poor are only allowed one day of employment, the remaining week being devoted to non-stop consuming. You’d better wear out your requisite number of suits and shoes and tennis rackets and golf clubs every month. You need large multiroom houses to store all the commodities, all the flatscreen TVs, but if you’re poor you don’t have time to watch the TV because you’re achieving so little wear and tear on your belongings when you do so.
Meanwhile the rich, like Cherry is used to, can live in small houses and consume only what they want. In this world the way a wealthy man hits the town is to go to all the bars without his ration coupons and gallantly use up other people’s. So when Cherry proves reluctant at mending her thrifty ways, Morey takes it upon himself to consume for two.
As I said, once you buy into this world the strange ramifications of this setup unfold throughout the story. A skeevy man will illicitly offer to trade counterfeit ration coupons: six of yours for one of his. A poor man like Morey isn’t allowed to see just one psychiatrist, he has to see eleven of them all at once, all with highly different methodologies. When Morey goes to a cheap bar, it’s described like this:
Uncle Piggotty’s was a third-rate dive disguised to look, in parts of it at least, like one of the exclusive upper-class country clubs. The bar, for instance, was treated to resemble the clean lines of nailed wood; but underneath the surface treatment, Morey could detect the intricate laminations of plyplastic. What at first glance appeared to be burlap hangings were in actuality elaborately textured synthetics.
For me, the world is so fun to explore that the plot is almost unimportant. Yet there is one, as Morey gets further and further behind on his ration expenditures, until one day he hits upon a scheme that might just solve his problems forever.
The Midas Plague by Frederik Pohl
Availability: print, audio
Word count: 20,000
First published: Galaxy, April 1954
Where to find it: Midas World, collection, 1984, Tor
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two B, edited by Ben Bova, Tor, 2008
The Mammoth Book of Vintage Science Fiction: Short Novels of the 1950s, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg & Charles G. Waugh, 1990, Carroll & Graf
BBC Radio 4 produced a radio adaptation in 1991