As the Last I May Know

Dated Dec 4, 2021; last modified on Sat, 04 Dec 2021

As the Last I May Know. Shi Lian Huang. www.tor.com . Accessed Dec 4, 2021.

won the “Best Short Story” Hugo Award in 2020.

Memorable Points

Background: Sere missiles can wipe out a city completely. Nyma’s nation has been the only recipient of a seres strike. They’ve since acquired their own seres stockpile. They’re engaged in war with an state that lacks seres weapons.

The power imbalance makes interesting. With mutually assured destruction (MAD), there is a deterrent (at least from a game theory perspective). With a power imbalance, Nyma’s country could eliminate their enemy without being assured of being annihilated themselves. The guardrail is not MAD, but morality?

[The Order] Codes for launching the seres weapons are embedded in a capsule in child’s chest. To retrieve the capsule, the president must kill the carrier using a dagger. The child carrier will accompany the president everywhere.

Similar concept explored in HBO’s “The Leftovers” where the nuclear launch key is inside the heart of his twin brother, who is out to assassinate him.

Actually, the idea has been around for a while, and it’s attributed to Roger Fisher :

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”

While protesters argued that 10-year-olds are too young to agree to the Order’s stipulations, they were not certain on dismantling the stockpile of sere missiles.

President Hans: The Order is forcing a dilemma, which enemies do not have to resolve.

They say not to think about the whole city, that’s too big. You have to look at the small things. Like that woman in the green coat. Just - gone. The couple holding hands over by the pigeons. They’re gone, too.

Seems like there should be some threshold beyond which one no longer feels as much empathetic.

Nyma (under the persuasion of Tej, senior Order member) publishing her sometimes dark poems personified the protests from abstract “carrier children”, to “Nyma, the Poet in the Tower”.

President Hans also grew fond of Nyma, and couldn’t bring himself to retrieve the codes murder Nyma even after 74 days of in-border warfare.

[Having seen the casualties in the stress, Tej offers to reset Nyma’s codes, hand the codes to President Hans, and escape with her.] Nyma wondered if this was what it felt like to stop being a child. “It’s not about right and wrong,” she said to him. “It’s about making it hard.”

Building empathy around a situation may make one re-evaluate “rational” calculations, e.g. Hans sparing Nyma, and Tej plotting to break the Order.

That’s something to keep in mind when evaluating contentious topics. Are there people who have more empathy towards those affected by the proposal? How do they feel about it? How can one gain empathy without a lived experience?

Style

The words tumbled out of Tej like they wanted to barb into the child’s heart and keep her here.

The carrier had to be always physically nearby in case she was, Peace forbid, needed.

Used to seeing “God forbid”, but this fits the story better. Reminder to not use tired phrases.

References

  1. 2020 Hugo Awards. www.thehugoawards.org . Accessed Dec 4, 2021.
  2. The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother). en.wikipedia.org . Accessed Dec 4, 2021.
  3. Preventing nuclear war. Roger Fisher. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 37, No. 3. doi.org . en.wikipedia.org . 1981.