“Two of Six” (novella) by Tomohito Moriyama
English Publication History: Two of Six: A Captain’s Dilemma (2018)
Original: Japanese (６分の２), 2018
Translated by J. D. Wisgo, 2018
Receipt: Free from the translator
Synopsis: Captain Eiji Kurashiki knows that luck brought the six humans together, but only analytic and moralistic mulling will decide the outcome: Which two of the six will survive? Prior to confronting his options of life and death, Captain Eiji’s spaceliner Matchlock had experienced an unidentified malfunction; though still gliding through space toward Earth, the Captain knows that it’s deathly quite is ominous to even his passengers, each of whom won a sweepstakes for a return-trip back to Earth. As with random choice, their backgrounds vary with only their Japanese nationality and/or ethnicity being the same. Beside the Captain considering his options stands the humanoid Elise, whose opinions and options stem from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. With nearly twelve hours remaining until oxygen depletion on the ship, Captain Eiji announces his idea for saving two souls with the escape capsule: Using a lottery that excludes himself, only two of the five passengers will be chosen to live. After hearing the distressing news, two of the five passengers, all of whom locked in their respective cabins, signal to speak with the Captain who weighs even more opinion. What seemed to be a straight-forward lottery selection soon blossoms into a complex ordeal of both selfishness and selflessness. With Captain Eiji’s human notions and Elise’s three laws and budding self-awareness, a satisfactory conclusion for all must be reached.
Analysis: Through and through, Captain Eiji is a leader. Rather than tackling the moralistic conundrum objectively, he understands that whatever solution is finalized, it will ultimately affect people; thus, people should be at the forefront of this decision-making rather than facts or figures like age, marital status, or history. The overarching importance to his decision-making is one of fairness in which he himself must be excluded (“The captain goes down with the ship”). As you could expect from a random sampling of people, their reactions were just as diverse: selflessness, calm understanding, inner conflict, hostility, etc.
When given a one-on-one platform to express opinion, two of the five show restraint with a remarkable, civilized tact that highlights the considerate, personal side of humanity. When airing grievances publicly, however, the calming tide of sympathy and understanding can turn ugly with accusations. Captain Eiji only allowed this public conference call because he felt that he couldn’t restrict the rights of his passengers, even in this uncertain time; the result was not what he wanted. Rather than giving a platform for hotheadedness, the Captain should have continued his personal approach until all opinions had been gathered, only then updating and convening to steer the course for a comprehensive agreement on who survives.
The spanner in the works of this human trial of morality is Elise. Her (to give her a pronoun) understanding of human morality isn’t based on emotion, sympathy, or self-determination, but one based on the same three laws above:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
As a result, Elise is conflicted. If she agrees to any course of action on who lives and who dies, she’s thereby breaking the first law. Captain Elise puts himself under undue pressure by including the views of Elise, but it certainly does add a great dimension to the story.
Review: I can appreciate a story crafted like this. Many readers would air, “Why does the ship have only one escape capsule?” or “What was the nature of the accident?”, but these trifling technical details would detract from the core of the story: people in a moral conundrum. Just as Captain Eiji nearly fully exhausts all paths to a solution, it’s obvious that the story garnered the love and attention of not only the author, but also the translator, who did a superb job of presenting the story in a readable manner that tickled the mind and the spirit.
2 thoughts on “Two of Six – Tomohito Moriyama”
Pingback: Out This Month: September – Speculative Fiction in Translation
Pingback: Speculative Fiction in Translation #9: Co-Hosts and Anthologies