Review: 'Play Little Victims', by Kenneth Cook
This short but deadly satire is set in the U.S., but has never been published there. Does it cut too close to home?
In 2000 (this was written in 1978), God decides to wipe out all life on Earth by covering everything instantly with giant glaciers. (Actually, He intended to wipe out all life in 1000 A.D., but He forgot.) He misses one two-square-mile valley in the center of North America, inhabited by two field mice, Adamus and Evemus. Because God also scraps the laws of evolution, the mice immediately develop intelligence. Not knowing that God missed them by accident, they decide that they are God’s new chosen people; and since the small valley has a town with a radio and TV station, an automobile factory, and lots of back issues of newspapers, they assume that He wants them to model themselves upon humans.
In no time at all, because mice breed fast, there are enough of them for Adamus to appoint a Board to help him guide the common mice.
‘I mean,’ continued Adamus, ‘it is obvious to all that this wonderful world in which we live did not just happen by accident. There has to be a Divine Plan and we are part of that Plan. We have a destiny which we must fulfill.’
The mice all looked at each other and nodded wisely.
‘Well,’ said Adamus, ‘I have discovered what it’s all about. What happened was this: the source of all being is God, who made the Valley and everything else in the universe. To prepare the way for mousekind God sent a sort of vanguard of creatures He called Men, who might best be thought of as sort of supermice. These Men prepared the Valley for us and left us all these marvelous technological aids for our existence. They also left us a vast body of literature for our guidance. Our destiny in life is to fulfill the plan of God by making the Valley an extension of Heaven. To guide us in this task we have the Word of Man, so we just can’t go wrong.’ (p. 12)
Needless to say, the mice go wrong with almost every decision that Adamus makes. One mouse on the Board, Logimus, thinks for himself and has doubts about Adamus’ pronouncements about what God wants. But Adamus, backed by his Board of yes-mice, steamrollers right over him.
The ice sheets prevent the mice from leaving the Valley, so very quickly all the problems that come with a real population explosion in an enclosed area develop. Logimus worries that the mice should be encouraged to practice some breeding restraint, but Adamus pooh-poohs this. Did the Men practice any kind of sexual restraint? No, according to the lurid tabloid coverage in the left-behind newspapers, they did not!
So the mice continue to have lots of babies, and soon the Valley becomes overcrowded. Logimus urges birth control more strongly, but Adamus is sure that this is not the solution. The newspapers of Men have dwelled upon the health risks to smoking cigarettes, at the same time that they were filled with advertising for cigarettes. Obviously the approved way to lower the mouse population is to encourage all mice to smoke cigarettes! And so all the mice, including the babies, become heavy smokers.
Any drop in the population is miniscule compared to the rate at which new mice are being born. Besides, the natural lifespan of mice is too short for them to develop cancer or other smoking-caused diseases. Soon the mice are treading on each others’ toes. Now can the Board recommend that the mice practice sexual restraint? Logimus asks.
Adamus, the other members of the Board would have thought if they had been familiar with the simile, was looking like a cat who has just had a surfeit of cream. He wriggled impatiently on his seat, waiting for everybody to settle down. ‘Gentlemice!” he said at last. ‘I have the solution!’
The others looked at him intently and respectfully, although in their tiny hearts they doubted. They had heard too many solutions by this stage.
‘As you know’, said Adamus, ‘we have long been aware that Man made great use of the motor car during his days on earth, and we have in our deliberations often considered whether or not we should do the same.’
The others nodded patiently.
‘Always,’ said Adamus, who, to the worry of his colleagues, had developed a tendency to loquaciousness, ‘we came to the conclusion that our circumstances were different; that the distances in the Valley did not require the utilization of the motor car.’
‘True, true,’ mumbled the Board members politely.
‘Gentlemice,’ Adaus paused and looked each mouse steadily in the eye. This took him quite a while and Logimus had to stifle a yawn as he waited for the next word.
‘Gentlemice,’ said Adamus. ‘We were wrong!’
He gazed triumphantly at the bemused faces of the Board,
‘Wrong?’ said Logimus at last, politely.
‘Wrong!’ said Adamus heavily.
‘Why?’ said Logimus.
‘Because,’ said Adamus, ‘we completely misunderstood the purpose of the motor car for Man.’
‘But surely it was simply to carry people about?’ said Logimus.
‘Not at all,’ said Adamus, pleased that he was to confound Logimus for once. ‘The motor car was a means of population control.’
At this point he stood up and took hold of the New York Times, which had been reduced in size by a special process the mice had developed.
‘According to the New York Times, no lesser authority than the New York Times,’ said Adamus, ‘the motor car killed more people than war ever did.’
‘Did it really?’ said Logimus.
Adamus flourished the Times.
‘Many, many more.’ He said. ‘In every country of the world, from the time it was invented, the motor car killed thousands upon thousands of people each year. You see it was working all the time, night and day, week in and week out, year after year, ceaselessly running over people.’
‘Did they do it on purpose, do you think?’ asked Logimus who, as usual, was beginning to look puzzled.
‘Of course they did,’ said Adamus. ‘Do you think Man would have gone on with the motor car, killing finally millions upon millions of people, if he hadn’t been doing it on purpose?’ (pgs. 47-48)
And so motor cars are manufactured for each mouse, including the children, and they are encouraged to drive everywhere they want to go, even the shortest distances, at top speed, without anything approximating driving lessons. And the slaughter is indeed great, but it is hardly a drop in the bucket for the millions of mice who are giving birth constantly.
Wars killed people. Let’s have wars! Obviously God wants lots of warfare, the bloodier the better. But still the mice have babies and more babies.
Finally Adamus unveils his Master Plan. And although it is the climax of the novella and supposed to be a Big Surprise to the reader, it is so shockingly witty that virtually every reviewer could not resist quoting the two final lines.
I am made of sterner stuff. If you want to know how Play Little Victims ends, read the book. This first edition is expensive today, but there was a 1984 British paperback that is available used cheaply.
In 1979 Play Little Victims was a finalist for the Ditmar Award, “the Australian Hugo”, at the Australian National Science Fiction Convention in the Best (Original) Australian Fiction category. The illustrations, by the author’s daughter, are quite good. (The cover artist is Allan Hondow.)