The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred

March 23, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, )

hundredThe Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred by Greg Egan


If you’re not familiar with the Trolley Dilemma, it goes like this:

You’re on a train that’s traveling toward a group of five rail workers. You have time to force the trolley onto another line, where only one worker is standing, so you can either do nothing and kill five people, or make a choice and actively kill one person. It’s an ethical dilemma that presents choice as the factor in guilt.

The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred is a short book that sets the Trolley Dilemma in space. Anna is a newly-appointed director on an asteroid, tasked with collecting refugees from another colonized asteroid, as they begin floating in on derelict cocoon ships. She’s ultimately faced with the challenge of saving either the four thousand refugees, or the eight hundred other refugees on a ferry that is supposed to dock on the other asteroid. Cue the conclusion.

The journey to that decision is an interesting one, which parallels a lot of the trouble the US is having with its current political arena. The incident that spurs the refugees into action involves politics, racism, and classism, so it’s a lot to think about in terms of our own lives, even before the dilemma presents itself. The conclusion, though, feels banal against the conditions that started the action, and it seems to shift the emotional turmoil from the refugees to Anna, who has to make that choice. It seemed like Egan gave short shrift to the people escaping their oppression, even though the bulk of the story was about their struggle.

Egan is a decent writer. His characters weren’t lively, but they were distinct, and he captured their conflicts well. This novella just doesn’t seem like the best place to start with the author. It gave me reason to track down another book of his to see if his longer works would be more satisfying, but this one just didn’t quite zing me the way I hoped it would.

Started: December 29, 2017
Finished: December 30, 2017

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