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Five Science Fiction Stories About Involuntary Organ Donation


Five Science Fiction Stories About Involuntary Organ Donation

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Five Science Fiction Stories About Involuntary Organ Donation

Back in the 1960s, there was certainly a trend for writing about organ procurement...


Published on April 9, 2024

Photo by Nhia Moua [via Unsplash]

Photo of a human anatomy model seen from mid-chest up

Photo by Nhia Moua [via Unsplash]

I was intrigued to see a recent announcement that a pay-for-plasma clinic will soon open in Cambridge, Ontario. For too long Ontario’s poorer citizens have hoarded life-giving blood that would be better used by major pharmaceutical companies. Now these folk will be able to explore the fine line between financial stability and medicinal exsanguination.

Indeed, the various ethical hang-ups standing in the way of a free-flowing blood/plasma economy are part of a more general social issue, which is the unjust distribution of body parts. Why should some teenager enjoy perfect skin, a pain-free back, and functional joints when persons of my age could make much better use of these body parts? Yet such are the politically correct times in which we live that simply proposing, never mind implementing, mandatory organ1 donations is considered somehow controversial.

Science fiction can see past the squeamishness of short-term social fashions to the glorious world we might have if we were willing to apply technology in a socially responsible—which is to say, one that benefits the people in charge—manner. Consider these five classic tales.

“The Jigsaw Man” by Larry Niven (1967)

Advanced medical technology allows for large-scale organ transfer programs. Spiraling demand from the public for transplant organs is met by a responsive government; organs are harvested from prisoners who have run afoul of increasingly draconian laws.

Warren Lewis Knowles believes that the law under which he will be condemned and consigned to the organ banks is unjust. Legal reform is outside his resources but perhaps, if he does his utmost, Knowles can commit crimes worthy of dismemberment.

“The Jigsaw Man” is by no means the earliest organ bank story, but it is arguably one of the most famous, which is why I list it out of chronological order. Despite certain flaws in the premise2, “Jigsaw” came in in second to Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” in the 1968 Hugo Awards. In addition to its organ bank fame, the story stands out in a different way: the government in this setting efficiently provides citizens exactly what they want, which is a phenomenon not exactly common in real life or science fiction.

The Reefs of Space by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson (1964)

The Plan of Man provides all the people of Earth with useful roles appropriate to their abilities. In the case of mathematician Steve Ryeland, that role is to serve as a living organ bank, to be harvested piece by piece until he dies. Luckily for Ryeland, the Plan of Man’s Planner has a particularly grandiose scheme in which Ryeland will play a central role. Ryeland’s life expectancy is still dismal, but exploring the reefs of space will be far more interesting than waiting for that final, lethal organ donation.

Reefs features an intriguing deep space ecology in no way inhibited by plausible science. The use of political prisoners as involuntary organ donors is much more plausible.

“A Planet Named Shayol” by Cordwainer Smith (1961)

Shayol provides the worlds of the galaxy with a convenient oubliette for political prisoners. There they play a vital role as unwilling organ donors. Better yet, this world allows for the regeneration of excised organs. The galaxy need never worry that the supply of parts will run short; the condemned will live in endless pain.

The administrators of Shayol manage a very difficult trick by story’s end. They manage to discover an application of Shayol’s peculiarities that is so outrageous as to offend the relentlessly pragmatic Lords of the Instrumentality. Given what the Lords are willing to turn a blind eye to, finding an offense that prompts an immediate response as soon as the Lords learn of it is rather remarkable.

“Beyond the Weeds” by Peter Tate (1966)

The crown declines to directly increase organ supply. Her Majesty’s government prefers to leave such matters to private agents such as Anton Hejar. Unhappy relatives of Hejar’s victims think turnabout is fair play. Thus, Hejar is given the opportunity to play a new role in the supply chain.

It seems a little odd that it’s the British author in this list who went for the private enterprise solution to organ supply, whereas American author Niven foresaw a carceral solution.

Star Well by Alexei Panshin (1968)

Remittance man Anthony Villiers extends his stay in the deep space hotel Star Well rather than admit that he cannot pay his bill. His hosts, hoteliers Godwin and Shirabi, are unaware of Villiers’ reduced circumstances and guess at another explanation: Villiers could be a covert investigator aware of their “thumb-running,” the illicit organ smuggling from which Star Well derives its income. The thumb-runners resolve that Villiers must die. This is only the first of a series of terrible decisions by Godwin and Shirabi.

Isn’t “thumb-running” more pleasing to the ear than Niven’s “organlegging”? But for various reasons, Panshin’s Villiers books never won the prominence of Niven’s Known Space works, allowing organlegging to win out over thumb-running. SF authors, this is within your power to change!

These are but a few of the involuntary organ donation stories with which SF authors have delighted, entertained, and inspired audiences. (Oddly enough, such stories haven’t inspired any real-world legal reforms, that I know of.) If I happen to have overlooked your favorite works, feel free to mention them in comments below. icon-paragraph-end

  1. Ontario students wishing to graduate are required to put in forty hours of voluntary community service. Requiring them to voluntarily donate various organs would be a simple extension of this practice. ↩︎
  2. It doesn’t seem to occur to any of the citizens that having the death penalty for the most trivial of crimes could land them in the organ banks. An inability to do even the most rudimentary cost-benefit analysis is, of course, not limited to characters in SF stories. ↩︎

About the Author

James Davis Nicoll


In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, current CSFFA Hall of Fame nominee, five-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.
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