When I was a boy, I used to read 2000AD magazine. It was a bloody great magazine for a kid to read; amazing artwork, really well-written imaginative stories. In the 21 April 1979 issue (prog 109), there's a very good 'Tharg's Future Shock'. If you don't know, Tharg was the green alien who supposedly edited 2000AD and his 'Future Shocks' were usually cautionary tales of a science-fiction kind. Between that and Fantasy Island, the lesson 'be careful what you wish for' was pretty ingrained before I was 12.
I've thought about this a lot in the last four years while I've been Head of Department at my university.
We're in the future. The Earth is depleted and humans are driven to find new planets on which to live. Some pioneers have colonised Tarka III for thirty years when the Planetary Assessment Group come to inspect their progress. It's not looking good. The planet is parched, still suffering from the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war between its previous occupiers. The air is thin, though the colonists have been drilling in an attempt to liberate the vast oxygen pockets under the ground, with mixed success. The colonists' leader, Reed Benson, is optimistic for the future but the Assessors see the colony as uneconomical and are minded to close it down.
Benson is angry and despairing about the future of the colony he has worked so hard to support. When his archeologist daughter shows him the underground cavern they have discovered, he welcomes the chance to take his mind of the colony's impending death sentence. Exploring on his own, he accidentally uncovers a secret room, filled with technology from an earlier Tarkaan civilisation. Communicating with him telepathically, a recorded message explains that their people have destroyed themselves, but before they died, they determined that their planet would only be inherited by people who truly love the planet.
By entering the chamber, they explain, Benson has triggered the countdown to a thermonuclear explosion that will destroy the planet. However, if he sacrifices himself, by stepping onto a dais in the chamber, the bomb will be stopped, and indeed the oxygen pockets will be liberated, throwing clean air into the atmosphere and making the planet fully habitable. He has a choice: let the planet die or sacrifice himself so that the colony can prosper. He hesitates for a moment: can he bear never to see his family again? He steps onto the dais and is immediately wracked with pain.
The Assessment Group are about to declare the colony uneconomical and close it down when the news comes through that oxygen is pumping out from vents in the earth. The planet will be habitable within weeks. The best news is that this new atmosphere will not cost a penny.
But where is Benson? someone asks. He's nowhere to be seen. But of course, they remark. Over a panel that shows Benson grimacing and writhing in his death throes, one of them cynically observes, 'Benson couldn't care less about the cost of anything'.