The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred
by Greg Egan
Egan is one of my go-to authors for thought-provoking stories. He has a gift for bringing "what-if" questions to life, and his novella The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred is no exception. The story alternates between the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. Centuries ago, when Vesta was colonized, the Sivadier syndicate brought only intellectual property rather than material goods. Members of the New Dispensation Movement see an injustice that they seek to redress by leveraging an increased tax on the descendants of the Sivadiers. No matter how insane Vestan resident Camille finds it, the NDM is gaining popularity:
"If the majority believe that they're the victims of injustice, it doesn't matter what the adjudicators say."
The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred is one of those stories that I found thought-provoking in ways that I'm not sure the author intended. The core issue for the NDM is reparations: they want the Sivadiers to pay for what their ancestors did. In an era where the subject is very much in the public consciousness, Egan circumvents the real issues of reparation to create a strawman where the aggrieved are clearly out of line, a world away from the questions of systemic inequality broached today.
"A tiny group of vexatious litigants, powered by nothing but their own limitless sense of entitlement."
Intentionally or not, this emphasizes what I believe to be the true role of reparations: to repair, to give new generations equal footing, to ensure that the injustices of the past do not continue to reverberate into the future.
The Sivadier descendants on Vesta are left with a terrible choice: pay the extortionate tax and accept a lessening of dignity, or fight. And if they fight, what actions can they take that will not contribute to an existential threat that will make them want to wipe us out ? If neither terrorism nor capitulation will help, what options are left? As both sides become increasingly angry, how can anyone prevent the escalation?
On Ceres, Anna is facing her own moral dilemma, a truly diabolical instance of the Trolley Problem, and that's where the story truly shines. As she puts it:
"We have a special name, here, for a certain kind of failure to defer to the greater good-- for putting a personal sense of doing right above any objective measure of the outcome. It's called 'moral vanity.' On Ceres, it's about the worst thing you can be accused of."
It is in this philosophical forced choice that the story truly shines. While The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred took me less than an hour to read, the questions it provoked stayed with me far longer, and what higher praise can there be?
I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Subterranean Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and may not reflect the final phrasing.
~~Cross-posted on Goodreads.~~