Friday, June 26, 2009

Hal Clement's "A Question of Guilt" (novelette, medical research): Dark underbelly of healing profession

Quote from the short story titled A Question of Guilt by Hal ClementThis is noteworthy among Clement's stories for 2 reasons:

  1. It has the darkest ending among all his stories I've read so far. Should be among the darkest by anyone.
  2. It's set in the past - during the time of Roman empire - rather than future. Of course, that doesn't come in the way of it being Clement's hallmark hard sf.

Story summary.

Having lost 3 of his sons to a genetic disorder that made their blood very slow to coagulate (meaning lot of blood loss on minor cuts), Marc of Bistrita is desperate to do whatever it takes to fix the problem that is also affecting his fourth & sole 5 year old surviving son Kyros.

He has tried everywhere & no healer in Roman empire seems to have an idea. During his own efforts to discover a cure, Marc will end up kidnapping & killing a little child from neighboring village.

By the end of the story, his son & wife Judith would be dead. And he would be determined to continue with research, with the support of his slave/maid Elitha - no matter how many more children need to be kidnapped & killed as guinea pigs!!

A curious gadget.

Main idea Marc pursues during the story is a gadget for blood transfusion. Both he & his wife are willing to donate as much blood as necessary to save the bleeding child, but how to transfer this blood?

He cooks up a funnel. Here is how he makes it:
  1. Boil the head of a viper. Then carefully extract a fang. Nature has made its end small enough to enter a human vein!
  2. It's larger end will be connected to the hollow of the stem of a chicken's wing. (I didn't know the stems of birds' wings were hollow!)
  3. A cup of gold will be attacked to the top of the stem. Gold itself is easily available in the form of local currency (gold coins), & is easy enough to melt at home! He will use a clay vessel to shape it.
  4. Joints of cup & feather, & feather & fang - are sealed with some sort of readily available sticky material.
Idea is to make a cut in the arm of donor, pour the blood in the cup with fang end connected to child's vein!

Contraption won't work because both parents have normal blood & it quickly coagulates in the hollow of the fang.

His own son will die when his wife tried donating the blood to bleeding child. Faced with coagulation problem in fang, she simply inserts feather into child's vein - bleeding the child even more. Guilt will make her kill herself.

Fact sheet.

First published: Gerald W Page (Ed)'s "The Year's Best Horror Stories: Series IV" (1976). DAW Books.
Rating: A.
Related: Stories of Hal Clement.