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Miller, Walter M. – “Crucifixus Etiam” (1953)

06/18/2013

For a brief moment, I thought this was going to be the best story yet (and even with the disappointing ending, it was close). Our protagonist Manue Nanti is a Peruvian laborer on Mars in the year 2134 AD, making good money but searching desperately for some sort of meaning to be found in the work he’s doing. This is presumably why Miller went with a non-US/European character, in order to emphasize his closeness to a folk culture (this is the first time he’s traveled more than 100 miles from his birthplace) and hand-crafting artisans and so on. This is in contrast to the Taylorist nightmare of Mars:

He had been on Mars only a month, and it hurt. Each time he swung the heavy pick into the red-brown sod, his face winced with pain. The plastic aerator valves, surgically stitched in his chest, pulled and twisted and seemed to tear with each lurch of his body. The mechanical oxygenator served as a lung, sucking blood through an artificially grafted network of veins and plastic tubing, frothing it with air from a chemical generator, and returning it to his circulatory system. Breathing was unnecessary, except to provide wind for talking, but Manue breathed in desperate gulps of 4.0 psi Martian air; for he had seen the wasted, atrophied chests of the men who had served four or five years, and he knew that when they returned to Earth-if ever-they would still need the auxiliary oxygenator equipment.

This conceit that breathing is unnecessary is used to mark the physical degradation of this work, with older workers constantly wheezing, barely able get out two or three words at a time; as a mark of stratification, as the engineers and administrators have self-regulating external oxygenators; and as a way to literalize or give physicality to Nanti’s struggle to keep from sinking into complacency: “It was so comfortable not to breath. His chest stopped hurting because of the stillness of his rib-case. He felt refreshed and alive. Peaceful sleep.” Along those same lines, we’re told that the planet’s low gravity induces nightmares of falling among newcomers, who are therefore housed separately from the other so that their screams won’t disturb those who have acclimated.

Desperate to find some sort of meaning for the work he is doing, Manue goes to one of the “troffies” (for atrophy, the older workers who have given up any hope of returning to Earth), who explains it to him as a problem of overproduction and underconsumption:

“So, it’s either cut production or find an outlet. Mars is an outlet for surplus energies, manpower, money. Mars Project keeps money turning over, keeps everything turning over. Economist told me that. Said if the Project folded, surplus would pile up-big depression on Earth.”

Manue reflects on this and decides he isn’t convinced. Things come to a head when the workers are told that the well they are working on is one out of 300, which, when activated, will produce a breathable atmosphere in 800 years. The workers are displeased:

Just a few minutes, men. Then you’ll feel the Earth-tremor, and the explosion, and the wind. You can be proud of that wind, men. It’s new air for Mars, and you made it.”

“But we can’t breathe it!” hissed a troffie.

Kinley was silent for a long time, as if listening to the distance. “What man ever made his own salvation?” he murmured.

A rebellion begins to brew, but is quickly put down when Manue punches out the ringleader. Kinley tells Manue “some sow, others reap,” and he takes it to heart and adopts Mars as his new planet.

Miller, of course, was a devout Catholic, and so I should have expected this sort of turn, but nonetheless, it would be hard to intentionally formulate a more convincing case of false consciousness. It bears mentioning also that the story makes explicit the fact that this set-up is contributing to the immiseration of the lower classes (Worst of all: whose ends was he serving? The contractors were getting rich-on government contractors. Some of the engineers and foremen were getting rich – by various forms of embezzlement of government funds. But what were the people back on Earth getting for their money? Nothing.), which makes the final turn that much more disappointing. Even with that fact, though, this is a rare story that looks at the social consequences of the science-fictional conceit going on (and without resorting to creepy vending machines), and good for Miller for that.

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