In the subsequent post of the Soylent Green reviews, I’m going to talk about the design of the viewing room and the interface there. But first I need to talk about the design of something outside the viewing room. When Thorn enters the building and tells the staff there to take him to Sol, who is there to commit suicide, they pass a label on the wall reading “beneficiaries only.” This post is about the heavy worldbuilding provided by the choice of that one word, “beneficiaries.”
Here let me repeat my mantra that suicide is not an easy topic. Anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.
It’s totally weird to call the people witnessing the suicide “beneficiaries,” right? Like their defining characteristic is that they get something out of the death? That’s crass. Shouldn’t they be called “loved ones” or something more sensitive?
To answer that question, we need to talk about Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, seen here in a still from the movie.
In 1798, this clergyman anonymously published a book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, Chapter 11 of which describes what has come to be known as a Malthusian Crisis. This happens when a given population, which tends to grow exponentially, surpasses its ability to feed itself, which tends to grow linearly. The result is a period of strife, starvation, and warfare where the population numbers “correct themselves” back down to what can be sustained.
It would be irresponsible of me to invoke Malthus without pointing out that many people have taken this argument to dark and unethical conclusions—specifically almost always some sort of top-down population control with anti-poor, racist, or genocidal undertones. Sometimes overtones. Compare freely the English Poor Laws as they were curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilizations, China’s former one-child policy, and a lot of knee-jerk conservatism today. “iF We hElP ThE PoOr, It oNlY EnCoUrAgEs tHeM To hAvE MoRe cHiLdReN AnD ThErEbY ExAcErBaTe pOvErTy!” You may recognize echoes of this oversimplification from some recent indie sci-fi.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t make mention of the number of times Malthus has been been debunked. Scientific American did it. Forbes did it. These guys did it. Lots of people have done it. In short, we are not herds of helpless animals subject to brutal laws of nature. We think. We can invent industries and institutions and technologies that help us reduce waste, feed more, and more fairly distribute resources. We can raise people out of poverty with democracy, access to birth control, education, supply-chain citizenship, the empowerment of women, and even increasing vegetarian choices in diet. Had Malthus been able to predict Norman Borlaug and The Green Revolution, he would have quietly tossed his manuscript into the fire.
Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is because Soylent Green seems to be conceived as a Malthusian Crisis writ large. Given its timing I wouldn’t be surprised if writer Stanley R Greenberg had read himself some Paul Ehrlich, felt a panicked inspiration, and then grabbed his typewriter. The movie cites other factors, like climate change, that lead to its crisis; and illustrates contributing factors, like inequality, that exacerbate it. But with the titular green being food and the set decoration being mostly sweating extras lying about, the movie is a neon sign built to point at questions of feeding an overpopulated planet.
Which takes us back to that label outside the viewing room.
One of the Malthusian levers to address the problem is systemically reducing the population. Speedy, public suicide services would be one of the tools by which a society could do that. And though this society does not go as far as Children of Men did (which placed ads for the suicide kits called Quietus throughout British cityscapes), characters in Soylent Green do speak about the “death benefit” several times in the movie. This points to survivors getting some payout when citizens suicide. Want to kill yourself? The government will pay your loved ones!
So though it might be seen as a poor, crass choice to refer to loved ones who are witnessing a suicide as “beneficiaries,” this framing within the diegesis helps encourage the act, by subtly implying though its choice of language that the loved ones are not there to witness an act of selfish escape as much as an act of kindness, both for their loved ones and the world.
Even the font of this wall sign—which looks like the least sci-fi typeface of all time: Clarendon—does not speak of sci-fi-ness, but of friendliness, early advertising, and 19th century broadsides. It nefariously adds a veneer of friendliness to what amounts to a murderous propaganda.
Naming is a narrative design choice, and the right name can do a lot of worldbuilding in a very small space, even if it’s misguided and driven by the popular panic of its times.