Where did you come up with the idea for this story?
The story came about because I was reading about the Trolley Problem, a philosophical thought experiment—basically, the Trolley Problem asks you whether you would pull a lever to save five people from a runaway trolley . . . if it meant guiding said trolley toward one person instead. So: would you, could you, be responsible for one person’s death if it meant saving five more? It’s since sparked a lot of debate as to its usefulness, but for the story, I wanted to explore the personalities this thought experiment brings out in people (Are you logic-driven? Emotional?), and the difference between what you think you might do in a crisis vs. what you might actually do, and what our answer to this problem reveals about our beliefs about humanity and morality. That all sounds very high-minded, but really, I don’t have answers to any of those questions—so I kept my approach playful.
This story feels almost like a parable—the two women are simply named Best and Least, the reported dialogue isn’t in quotation marks. How did you develop that tone? And how did you come up with their names?
I knew from the start that the story wouldn’t work as grounded SF. But I thought it would work as a futuristic fable—a story that someone is telling you from a far-off vantage point, rather than an accurate log of something that happened. So the names, the lack of dialogue markers, they are intended to foster that experience and to create moments of humor. As for the women’s names, they reflect the two different ways these women see people. “Best” sees people in terms of their behavior—who acts better, and who acts worse. “Least” sees people in terms of what they have—who has more, and who has less.
This story reminded me of the game Lifeboat, where the player must decide among a group of random people who lives and dies. However, in your story, you have Best following Least’s lead and saying that a random sample of people be chosen to be saved—or none. Why did you choose to go that route? Would you consider it a hopeful ending or a bleak one?
I consider it a hopeful ending—not for the women’s future, which is uncertain, or even for the continued existence of the human race, which in the story is grim, but for maintaining our humanity even in adversity. Least doesn’t argue that her approach will save lives. She argues that if we become callous to the people in the world who need help, or who have done wrong, or aren’t as physically capable, then we are not worth saving at all. And if Best didn’t come around to that idea, it would be a far bleaker ending to me, even if she saved fifty thousand lives in the process.
Given the state of the world, it feels we are rapidly approaching the dystopian environment that Best and Least are dealing with. Do you feel it’s possible for us to avoid that future or is it already too late?
I honestly don’t know. For all that I speculate about what might become of us in my writing, I don’t find it particularly useful to make a decision about where I think we’re headed. I think more about responsibility. It’s my responsibility, regardless of whether we can collectively avoid a grim fate or not, to try to do what’s right in the meantime.
What’s next for Veronica Roth?
My first book for adult readers, Chosen Ones, comes out April 7th! It’s about a group of people who saved the world when they were younger—and now it’s ten years later, they’re world-famous and haunted by that trauma, and they discover the job isn’t done. (Is it ever?) I love, love, love the “chosen one” trope, and it was fantastic to get to play with it, so I hope people have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.
Spread the word!