“Discover a Latent Moses” (Galaxy, April, 1970.)
Although I’ve read this story in Coney’s fix-up novel Winter’s Children, I haven’t read it as a stand-alone, so I’ll comment on the story when I’ve tracked down the issue of Galaxy, April, 1970.
Michael Coney’s seventh published story is a wonderful indictment of conservative politics. It’s narrated by a minor civil servant called Archer who works for the local government as a Valuation Officer. We’re in near future Britain and the Darwinist party is in power. Under this regime, every citizen has a Social Value Credit Rating, calculated according to their profession and earnings. Their Value dictates the level of assistance they can hope to receive from the state, when it comes to healthcare or – in the case of Ruth Villiers – when they suffer an accident.
Seventeen year-old Ruth has fallen down an old mineshaft which has collapsed, burying her alive under tons of rubble. Archer is sent in to assess the level of help she can afford, and he decides that an excavator and crew can be brought in to dig her out. However, when the digger hits a seam of granite, the cost of cutting through the seam escalates beyond the girl’s Credit Rating. Archer, a purblind proponent of the system until now, begins to have second thoughts – suffers, in the parlance of the time, Undue Sympathy – and even considers hiring, illegally and to his eventual cost as he might lose his job, a more expensive excavator to cut through the granite. But before Archer weakens fully, his boss comes to the site and suggest a cheaper alternative: a slim bore hole will be drilled, allowing air, food and water to reach the stricken girl. This she can afford, until her Credit Rating runs out in a few months…
She is saved, in the end, by an unforeseen event – a deus ex machina, it might be said, but one that fits beautifully into the remit of the story.
Archer – at one point almost convinced of the inhumanity of the system – has his narrow-minded politics vindicated: “Surely, now, nobody can criticise the system. […] Not even me.”
“The True Worth of Ruth Villiers” is Michael Coney’s best tale to date, a nicely crafted, well characterised story of social injustice and the inability of some to acknowledge iniquity. It prefigured the rise of Thatcher by almost ten years.