The Project Gutenberg eBook of Firth's World

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Title: Firth's World

Author: Irving E. Cox

Release date: April 11, 2019 [eBook #59252]

Language: English

Credits: Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at




His world was Utopia inhabited only by
wealthy, brilliant, creative, ambitious people;
it was the ultimate in freedom, exempt from
taxes, social problems, petty responsibilities....

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, May 1955.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Let him go. It's quite safe to leave us. I want to talk to him.

Sit over there, Chris, where you can be comfortable.

A paradox, isn't it? You were taught we may never go back. Now I've authorized the building of the rocket. From your point of view you were justified in trying to destroy it. I'm violating the regulations; you weren't. But time changes the shape of the truth, Chris; it isn't static. No one had the insight, then, to grasp the insanity of John Firth's dream. People hated Firth or envied him; but no one called him mad.

John Firth was an industrialist; yet far more than that, too—politician, scientist, financier, even an artist of sorts. There was nothing he couldn't do; and few things he didn't do superbly well. That accounts for his philosophy. He never understood his own superiority. He honestly believed that all men could achieve what he had, if they set their minds to it.

"Lazy, incompetent fools!" he would say. "The world's full of them. And they've elected a government of fools, taxing me to support the others."

As billionaires go, John Firth was very young. Six months after World Government became an established reality, Earth ships began to explore the skies; and in less than a year Mars, Venus and the Earth had formed a planetary confederacy.

A new feeling came to men when the burden of war-fear was lifted from their minds. Men were free—free for the first time in centuries. Their full energies were channeled into invention, exploration, experiment. The Earth was like a frontier town: booming, uproarious, lusty, dynamic—but with a social conscience: poverty and deprivation for none and unlimited opportunity for all. For Man—that abstract symbol of mass humanity—it was the best of all possible worlds. Yet there were misfits; John Firth was one of them.

"We're coddling people," he said. "We're teaching them to live on charity, on government hand-outs—and I'm expected to pay for it all. Cut them loose; let them sink or swim for themselves. If some of them don't survive—well, they won't; that's all. We'd be a stronger people if we could rid ourselves of the leeches."

He was a man of the new age,—stubbornly holding to ideas from the old.

And then the Stranger came to see him. We don't know who the Stranger was or where he came from. A force of evil, perhaps—the symbol of Satan refurbished and streamlined to fit the concepts of the modern world.

"I've been reading your political pamphlets, Mr. Firth," the Stranger said. "You hold rather—rather fascinating views."

"Now that I'm suitably flattered," Firth answered, "may I ask what particular form of hand-out you want?"

"None. I've something for sale." The Stranger took a pamphlet out of his pocket. "But tell me this, first: do you honestly believe what you've written here?"

"Every word of it. If I could find my sort of world anywhere in the universe, I'd pull up stakes in a minute and—"

"You can create your own world, Mr. Firth."

"Do you suppose I haven't tried? In every election I back my candidates with all I have—prestige, propaganda, money. It does no good. The fools prefer to be governed by other fools, like themselves."

"I didn't mean here, Mr. Firth." The Stranger smiled as he lit a cigarette. "You see, my friend, I have a world for sale—a brand new world."

"One of the asteroids?" Firth laughed bitterly. "I could have done that years ago. They're too close to the commercial orbits. How long would it be before one of our ships found the place? Then I'd be right back in the system again—and a laughing stock as well."

"This is a planetoid beyond Pluto. It'll be generations before any of our ships—"

"A frozen world? No thanks!"

"Only on the surface. It's a hollow sphere, with a granite crust half a mile thick. Inside there's a suggestion of passageways and caverns, which may have been made artificially. Perhaps this was an outpost of a race which lived and died billions of years before our time."

"An archeological gold mine!"

"But Science pays so little, Mr. Firth. I'm interested in cash, not prestige."

"Why should I pay you anything? You've told me where it is and what it is. I can find it for myself."

The Stranger laughed. "I said beyond Pluto; that covers a lot of space, Mr. Firth." He paused for a moment. "My price is the stock in your Martian mines. Convert the rest of your holdings into any form of wealth that seems convenient and usable. In your case, Mr. Firth, you can take it with you—to your own world. Think of it! No taxes; no social problems; no unfortunate masses to prey on your conscience; no government but your own."

That was the beginning of the dream. The seed of the idea grew in John Firth's mind until it over-shadowed everything else. It became an obsession, driving him so that he had no peace.

During the course of a year Firth and the Stranger imported and installed the machinery to make the sphere livable: hydroponic tanks, air machines, gravitators, electric generators and an Atomic Power Core. In the crust of the planetoid they found enough fissionable material to keep Firth's world running for an eternity. They laid out the decorative landscaping, planned the living quarters, the laboratories, the amusement hall and the university.

It is interesting to speculate how much the Stranger contributed to the scheme; and it is an ironic speculation, for as soon as the larger idea took shape in Firth's mind, his only logical course was to murder the Stranger.

Firth could allow no outsider to know of the planetoid. To him it had become far more than a means of personal escape. It was to be an archive for the survival of John Firth's ideas, for the survival of civilization itself. John Firth believed that sincerely.

Firth's world—that magnificent dream which was like a holy crusade—was founded on murder, deception and greed. The reasoning of fanaticism engenders its own kind of ruthlessness. As soon as John Firth had disposed of the Stranger, he began to select his colonists. Men who by his definition, were not fools. He had to make his choice very carefully. If he misjudged his candidate and his proposition was rejected, Firth had given away his secret. Any man who refused him had to die. Murder was Firth's only guarantee of silence.

But he made few mistakes. John Firth was a good judge of men—his kind of men. All of them were wealthy, ambitious, brilliant. Nearly three hundred men and women were recruited.

They came here to escape; the record tells us that until we gag over the repetition. But to escape what? Taxes they resented unanimously, and restrictions on their freedom. They placed a value on the ownership of property that we can no longer understand. But, if you read the record closely, all that becomes superfluous. The thing they wanted to escape was responsibility. Responsibility to their fellow men.

Physically, Firth's world was a paradise. It still is. Yet the dissolution began before the last colonist had arrived. Here they had assembled their wealth—in terms of machines, comforts, books, art treasures, amusements, laboratory equipment. They were entirely free from the burden of taxation. But, somehow, their wealth lost its meaning.

They claimed they had not withdrawn from the world in order to hibernate and decay among their luxuries. They wanted freedom in order to create, to invent, to experiment as they pleased. And they had that in Firth's world: a maximum opportunity for the development of individual initiative. For a short time they turned out a wonderful assortment of new gadgets and new machines, but slowly their industry ground to a stop.

If they had faced the truth then—but they were far too human to admit the failure of the dream. Instead, they found a scapegoat. John Firth has left us a record of a conversation he had with Adam Boetz; it is typical of their thinking at the time.

Boetz, as you may know, was one of the outstanding physicists of his day; he had created and built Atomic Cores, Incorporated, until it was the largest power company in the Confederation.

John Firth met Boetz one morning on the golf course in the recreation cavern.

"Adam!" Firth cried, with his usual, boisterous good-humor. "I never thought I'd find you out here at this time of day."

"Why not?" The physicist shrugged. "I'm tired, Firth. I had to do my four hour shift in the light plant last night. Maybe I'll feel like working in the lab tomorrow—and maybe not. I'm scheduled for a shift in hydroponics then."

"The shifts are short, Adam, and—"

"Still too long for me. I'm not used to so much physical labor." The physicist's lips curled in a sneer. "So very democratic, isn't it, Firth? Back home I hired men to do that kind of work for me."

Firth clapped him heartily on the back. "But we have other compensations, Adam. Four hours out of twenty-four is a small price to pay for freedom."

"Twenty-eight hours a week. Remember the new labor law the Earth government put into effect before we left? It proscribed a maximum work week of twenty-five hours for every man. We came here to escape restrictions, but we've saddled ourselves with more hours of manual labor than the least skilled laborer has to do on Earth. Firth! I'm not a manual laborer; neither is anyone else you've brought here."

"Do you want to go back?"

"What answer can I make to that? We're executives, Firth; but here we're a brain without a body. We can formulate the orders, but we've neither arms nor legs to carry them out."

"In other words, you're saying we should import a labor force to do our basic work for us?"

"Why not?"

"They're the fools, Adam, the incompetents! On Earth they were the millstones around our necks—envying us, hating us, building a prison for us with their laws and their regulations."

"All very true, Adam, where the government is in their hands. But we could keep them under control."

After that John Firth heard the same complaint from the others, over and over. They said they could not take advantage of their freedom because of the chores they had to do to keep Firth's world functioning.

Firth called a meeting of the colonists. It was the closest approximation to a government they had; government itself was one of the things they wanted to escape. They unanimously agreed that a labor force had to be recruited, and they settled upon one hundred and fifty as the necessary number, half of them to be women. Working eight hours a day, such a force could perform the work of Firth's world, yet the colonists would outnumber them two-to-one and the labor force would not be large enough to constitute a threat.

"We'll insist that they marry, of course," Adam Boetz said, "and each couple will provide us with two children, so that we shall always have a stabilized labor supply."

"We're talking," one of the women whispered, "as if we were buying cattle!"

"We are."

"But how can you recruit men and women under these conditions? What inducement can you possibly offer them?"

Firth smiled. "When we find the people who meet our specifications, they'll come; don't worry. In the days of the sailing ships the technique was called shanghaiing."

"What specifications, Mr. Firth?"

"They must be young, strong, healthy, single—"

"And low-level morons," Adam Boetz cut in. "Imbeciles won't give us any trouble later on."

To his other crimes, John Firth then added kidnapping; the end justified the means. He was creating a world and that world would save civilization. I doubt that his conscience ever troubled him.

Within two years the second group of colonists was established in Firth's world. Apparently they made an easy adjustment to their new environment. We have no record of complaints or protests. They were docile, obedient people. They took orders well; they liked to be told what to do; they needed very little supervision.

The first colonists were entirely free, then, of any sort of work-responsibility. For a while they went back to work in their laboratories or in the university—inventing, exploring, accumulating their store of knowledge. In imperceptible stages, however, their interest lagged, their production came to a halt again. This time they had no excuse, no scapegoat.

We can assume that some of them faced the truth squarely and honestly, yet they had chosen Firth's world and there was no way to turn back. We find only one actual hint of their despondency, in a diary page written by an unknown woman.

Karl stayed home again to-day. He has nearly finished the design for his machine, but he has no more enthusiasm to complete it. I know how he feels; I can't go on with my painting, either. We have no purpose, no goal to achieve. We sit isolated in space, counting over the wealth of our talent and ability; but we can make no use of it. I wish I knew how many of the others think as I do, but I'm afraid to ask.

The key to understanding them, is that last sentence. Perhaps they all felt her disillusionment, but they had to pretend. Firth's world couldn't be at fault. If they were dissatisfied, it was because of a failure within themselves. At all costs, the flaw had to be hidden from their neighbors.

Their first labor trouble was a welcome interlude in the creeping boredom. The docile labor battalion suddenly discovered they were being overworked. Just what they could have done in Firth's world with shorter hours, no one knows. They staged a spotty, amateurish strike; speakers made reference to the labor laws applicable on the Earth and demanded better pay. To what end, it's hard for us to say. If the first colonists had turned over all their wealth, the workers would have had no more use for it.

John Firth was unusually alarmed by the threatened strike. He reacted with excessive violence and the other colonists followed his lead. Three of the leaders of the uprising were executed; others were brutally whipped. The Outlaw Pit was built then. Thereafter, at the first hint of any dissatisfaction, workers were condemned to it.

The violence taught the workers resentment. Silently, sullenly they passed on their hatred to their children. The aristocracy created the revolution, and nurtured it; for it would have made no real difference if they had surrendered entirely to the strikers' demands.

The children of the first colonists made no pretense of using Firth's world to advance knowledge, invention or art. They were hedonists, bred to luxury, supported by slaves.

The slaves, for their part, felt no emotion but hatred. From their parents they learned that the aristocracy had violated the labor law. The children knew nothing about the law or the distant Earth where it applied, but it was held in deep and sacred reverence.

The laboratories and the university stood empty; only the recreation cavern held any interest for the new aristocracy. A change took place among the slaves too. Their parents had been hand-picked morons. But neither brilliant achievement nor the moronic mind is hereditary. Most of the workers' children had an average intelligence; one or two would have been classified as geniuses. To their hatred the second generation joined intelligence, and Firth's world was ready to blow apart.

They struck the light plant first. Sudden and unexpected violence surged through the dark, stone-walled corridors.

John Firth led a band of men against the enemy. But his attack failed and the workers seized the Atomic Power Core—the heart of our world. If they shut down the reactors, they would stifle not only our lights, but the gravitators and the air machines as well; they would kill us all.

The workers knew that. They were willing to risk suicide. Every bargaining counter was on their side. It was John Firth who surrendered.

Firth's world died then. In the bitter depths of the Pit, John Firth remembered what Adam Boetz had said to him so many years before,

"We've become a brain without a body. We can formulate the orders, but we've neither arms nor legs to carry them out.

Suddenly John Firth understood the fallacy of his fanaticism. A society was like a living body, an integrated organism of many members. No one could function without the others. No man—no group of men—could create an isolate world. The social equation seemed as clear to Firth as the simplest sum in arithmetic. Each man was a part of a functioning social unit which included them all. Each man's talent, whether it was the plodding docility of a moron or the brilliance of genius, belonged to all men.

In the meantime, the workers found that they could not run Firth's world alone, either. They gloried in forbidden luxuries until they were satiated. Shortly they became as indolent as the aristocracy had been; and the food supply was nearly exhausted.

The treaty they made was direct and to the point: the two groups agreed to live in equality, sharing the burden of the labor and the accumulated wealth of knowledge. The treaty was made when you were a child; we have perfected the technique of co-operation within one generation. We're ready, now, to go back to Earth.

You'll be with us? Fine, Chris!

No. Please, no apologies. I understand why you intended to destroy our ship; others have attempted it, too. No harm was done. You're free,—entirely free ...

... The Organizer waited until he was alone in the office. Then, with trembling, aging hands, he took the log book out of the safe and slowly made another entry:

Chris was the last, I think. He accepted the lie, just as most of the others have. When they return to Earth, they will be sound men with whole minds. For them Firth's world will always stand as a symbol of man's highest achievement in co-operation. May this sham, in some small way, expiate the crime and the folly of my arrogant delusion.

John Firth's head dropped on his arm and his shoulders shook; but the sobs were sobs of relief. Chris was saved; Chris would go back. That mattered very much—for Chris was his grandson.