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Literature / Strikebreaker

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This story was first published in Science Fiction Stories (January 1957 issue), by Isaac Asimov. The original title was "Male Strikebreaker", but Dr Asimov removed the gendered identifier when publishing the story for his collection.

Steven Lamorak, a sociologist from Earth, is visiting Elsevere, a planetoid only a few hundred miles in diameter. He is guided by Councillor Elvis Blei, representing Elsevere's government. Blei is quite proud when showing how efficient the world is, breaking normal conventions of space by creating multiple layers inside the rock, operating completely self-sufficiently, and establishing a niche for everyone who lives there.

It doesn't take long before Lamorak to realize that Elsevere is struggling with a social crisis; the family responsible for sanitation/waste-reclamation is objecting to their niche, and goes on strike. He attempts to negotiate on Elsevere's behalf, but it quickly fails. Ragusnik is willing to let the waste pile up, risking the entire City Planet to disease and death.

"Strikebreaker" was republished several times; 17 X Infinity (1963), Galassia (issue #77, May 1967), Nightfall and Other Stories (1969), Urania (issue #570, July 1971 & issue #1442, June 2002), Anthropology Through Science Fiction (1974), Best Science Fiction Of Isaac Asimov (1986), Robot Dreams Collection (1986), Isaac Asimov Presents: The Great Science Fiction Stories, Volume 19 (1957) (1989), Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume 1 (1990), and The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume Two (2000).

"Strikebreaker" contains examples of:

  • 2-D Space: The setting, Elsevere, is a planetoid only a few hundred miles in diameter. The total surface area is estimated to match three-quarters of New York state. However, they build levels into the rock, and they could easily make fifty-six million square miles of usable area, one that is equal to the total land area of Earth. Their visitor from Earth is amazed at this example of lateral thinking.
    Lamorak said, "Good Lord," and stared blankly for a moment. "Yes, of course you're right. Strange I never thought of it that way. But then, Elsevere is the only thoroughly exploited planetoid world in the Galaxy; the rest of us simply can't get away from thinking of two-dimensional surfaces, as you pointed out. Well, I'm more than ever glad that your Council has been so cooperative as to give me a free hand in this investigation of mine."
  • Almighty Janitor: Igor Ragusnik, who can bring an entire world to ruin just by refusing to do his job.
  • Artificial Gravity: Elsevere, a City Planet inside of a planetoid, uses pseudogravity engines to create Earth-normal weight as they build into the rock.
  • City Planet: This setting is a planetoid with over a hundred miles in diameter, recently colonized. Their fifty thousand population attempts to be fully self-sufficient, because there is no habitable planet in this system. The story is centered around a supply problem; the man responsible for recycling the waste decides to go on a strike.
  • The Dreaded Toilet Duty: The plot is centered around a person whose duty is to manipulate the controls of the human waste recycling machinery. He isn't actually in contact with the sewage, but the mere association is enough to make him an untouchable in the colony's Fantastic Caste System. The person is a member of a family which is raised from birth for that duty, and no local will perform that job for anything.
  • Fantastic Caste System: The people of Elsevere have a complex caste system, where each Elseverian has a social niche to fulfill. We only see three categories of people; Elsevarians, Outworlders, and Ragusniks. Mikhail Ragusnik was one of the founding members of Elsevere, and they handle the sanitation machines, which turn the world's waste into fertilizer and water. The current Ragusnik, Igor, tries to go on strike, but an Outworlder volunteers to learn the job, breaking the strike. Upon leaving the Ragusnik estate, the Outworlder learns they've been exiled; they're now a permanent member of the Ragusnik caste.
    "Each individual Elseverian fits into a comfortable niche. The appearance of a stranger without fixed caste is unsettling."
  • Handshake Refusal: Steven offers to break taboo by shaking hands with Igor, who proudly refuses.
  • He Who Must Not Be Named: Igor is not mentioned by name in the newspaper article on the crisis that Steven reads, only being referred to as "He".
  • Insane Troll Logic: The job of a Ragusnik is handled by servo-mechanisms, so there is no logic to the distaste the other inhabitants feel for Igor. Yet they are willing to die of disease rather than let his family be a part of their society.
  • Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: The Ragusnik family, who operate the sanitation machines for their entire planetoid, are treated as pariahs. Their job is obviously vital; when the head Ragusnik goes on strike, demanding to be accepted as a part of normal society, the society nearly collapses, until a visiting Outworlder decides to learn how to be a Ragusnik themselves.
  • Na´ve Newcomer: Steven Lamorak, a sociologist from Earth, is visiting Elsevere to learn about their customs and Fantastic Caste System because nowhere else in the galaxy are people put into niches from birth. Because he doesn't have the same cultural mores that they do, he finds it easy to volunteer to operate the sanitation machines of the entire City Planet when the family assigned to that work goes on strike.
  • The Needs of the Many: Steven is sympathetic to Igor's demands, but realising the rulers of the planet aren't willing to budge under any circumstances, acts as a strikebreaker to stop everyone on the planet dying of disease.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Steven just wants to break the impasse and save everyone from disaster, only to become Persona Non Grata for doing a Ragusnik's job. After Igor Ragusnik returns to work, Steven finds himself blocked off from the rest of the planet, and he's informed his luggage will be delivered to him by servo-mechanism and he's to leave Elsevere at once.
  • Protocol Peril: The story's setting is an airless planetoid, named Elsevere. The residents must dig into the rock and recycle everything, including human waste. A visitor from Earth volunteers to operate the machinery that recycles their waste when Ragusnik decides to go on strike. To the visitor's surprise, he finds himself exiled from the planetoid; he has joined the Ragusnik caste and is no longer welcome in normal society.
    Obviously, he had himself become a Ragusnik. He had handled the controls that in turn had handled the wastes; he was ostracized. He was a corpse-handler, a swineherd, an inside man at the skonk works.
  • Punny Name: The protagonist is from Earth, having travelled to Elsevere (elsewhere).
  • Shout-Out: When comparing different caste systems to the Fantastic Caste System of Elsevere, Lamorak recalls Al Capp's Li'l Abner, and their "inside man at the skonk works."
  • Strike Episode: The story's setting is an airless planetoid, named Elsevere. The residents must dig into the rock and recycle everything, including human waste. Naturally someone has to operate the machinery that recycles the waste and that job falls upon the Ragusnik family. Their family is stigmatized by everybody and made untouchable. The current Ragusnik tries to go on strike, to break the caste system that makes the rest of the world refuse to even talk with him.
  • Type Caste: Ragusnik reminds the sociologist Lamorak of the Untouchables in ancient India. This compares the story's Fantastic Caste System to the Dalit castes. Both the Dalit and the Ragusnik perform sanitation servies for their society.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Igor is understandably bitter about the strikebreaker's actions, even though Steven points out that his strike has caused others to become aware of his plight and attitudes will eventually change, so at least his children will benefit if not him.
  • Why We Need Garbagemen: A colony is in danger of being wiped out because the man in charge of processing human waste is on a strike.