12 March 2007

Predicting Morons

Ben Bova thinks more people should read science fiction because it's good at predicting things, and as an example of this he gives C.M. Kornbluth's 1951 story "The Marching Morons".

While I do think more people should read science fiction, it's not because of its predictive powers. Rather, SF at its best offers a kind of literature that is different from others, that presents a different way of thinking about language and life (yes, I've been reading a lot of Delany recently). Its "predictions" are less about the future than about the present, about how we live and why, about what it means to exist in an environment saturated with and determined by technology, about -- well, all sorts of things. But prediction's just about the least of it.

Kornbluth was a satirist, and his sort of satire goes back at least as far as Jonathan Swift, who also wrote about worlds where idiots of one sort or another had taken control of everything. (Isn't that the meta-text of most satire?)

Bova says, "The point that Kornbluth makes is simple, and scary: dumbbells have more children than geniuses."

Basically, Kornbluth is advocating eugenics. Here it is in his words, with one of the genius few explaining to a man from 1988 (who has been preserved in suspended animation by an experimental dental anasthetic) why things in the twenty-first century are as bad as they are:
...while you and your kind were being prudent and foresighted and not having children, the migrant workers, slum dwellers, and tenant farmers were shiftlessly and short-sightedly having children -- breeding, breeding. My God, how they bred! [...] Your intelligence was bred out. It is gone. Children that should have been born never were. The just-average, they'll-get-along majority took over the population. The average IQ now is forty-five.
Or we could look at Kornbluth's 1950 story "The Little Black Bag":
After twenty generations of shilly-shallying and "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," genus homo had bred himself into an impasse. Dogged biometricians had pointed out with irrefutable logic that mental subnormals were outbreeding mental normals and supernormals, and that the process was occurring on an exponential curve. Every fact that could be mustered in the argument proved the biometricians' case, and led inevitably to the conclusion that genus homo was going to wind up in a preposterous jam quite soon. If you think that had any effect on breeding practices, you do not know genus homo.
There is a Straussian strain to science fiction, a desire for rule by an enlightened elite (of which, of course, the proponents inevitably consider themselves members), and Kornbluth's "Marching Morons", as entertaining as its vision of a future of idiots can be, offers grotesque flattery to its readers, saying: You who read this story are not morons, of course. You would be with the elite. The story asks us to laugh at the "moron" characters, it puts us in a position of superiority to them, it lets us feel the euphoria of power over them. By the end, it gives us a choice: disagree with its premises, or agree with them and side with the genocidal desires of the story's final pages.

Interestingly, Kornbluth wasn't advocating a racially-based program of eugenics. He goes out of his way to show in "The Marching Morons" that idiocy and genius are not limited to one particular race. No, stupid people and brilliant people come from all over, in all shapes and colors. It's just about intelligence. And class. (How do we know someone is stupid? They're a migrant worker, slum-dweller, or tenant farmer.)

In his introduction to The Best of C.M. Kornbluth, Frederick Pohl says,
I have seen criticism directed against "The Marching Morons," including a quite recent article that points out it is bad genetics (the plot implies that the tendency of lower-class families to be larger than upper-class ones is selective breeding for dumbness). True. But I have also had grown men say to me, with tears in their eyes, that "The Marching Morons" was the best story of any kind they had ever read, and that it had changed their lives. What the story warns against is not the degradation of the human germ plasm, but the degradation of human life, by cheapening values and substituting what is meretricious for what is true.
Well, no, not really. The story does warn against "the degradation of the human germ plasm" -- what Pohl might have meant is that it doesn't only do that. And that could be a good argument. But any argument for the strengths of "The Marching Morons" -- and I think Kornbluth was a good writer for his time -- has got to take into account its advocacy of eugenics and, perhaps more importantly, how that advocacy has held an appeal for many science fiction fans over the decades. After all, "The Little Black Bag" was included in the the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and "The Marching Morons" in the second.

It's unfortunate that as experienced and intelligent a writer as Ben Bova would advocate SF for its predictive powers (Peter Nicholls wrote in the entry on "Prediction" in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: "The most widespread false belief about sf among the general public is that it is a literature of prediction. ... For every correct prediction a dozen were wrong, or correct only if facts are stretched a little...").

Instead, perhaps Bova should could have said that SF is a marvelous tool for satire. He still could have recommended "The Marching Morons", but perhaps he might have paired it with some other texts ... for instance, Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream and Kurt Vonnegut's Galapagos . The latter is all about the problems that humans' "big brains" have caused; the former is a science fiction novel by Adolf Hitler.

16 comments:

  1. Well said. SF's penchant for prediction may be one of its charms, but no one should mistake that for purpose or worth. Our futures are strictly reflective of us, and whether they are, in fact accurate really shouldn't concern any but the narrowest of readings.
    And the Platonic concept of an enlightened elite among whom all SF readers should surely rank is still evident in the work of many genre writers today. Usually a downtrodden protagonist, alone in a world of fools, is a good indicator of such elitism. In scence fiction I see such characters defined by their intelligence and skepticism. But in works with a more classically fantastic genealogy these enlightened ones can be spotted by their "nobility", usually equated with a compassionate, if realistic, humanism. Of course, skepticism and humanism, values that to me might seem to indicate a progressive political stance, can be interpreted widely enough that they seem to describe any of us. This is particularly true in the hands of a skilled writer. A prime example would be Ayn Rand, whose illiberal "humanism" I ate up with a spoon back in high school.
    In some ways maybe it's a shame that my politics have hardened. Kornbluth, for instance, is great fun, and I'd like to be able to read him without getting a bitter taste in the back of my mouth.

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  2. I've always thought the salient feature of "The Marching Morons" was its very lack of predictive power, but Ben Bova may be a proof by counterexample.

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  3. Glad you brought this up really, "The Marching Morons" arh yes, I actually think its the other way around, the larger underclass a society has the stronger and more efficient the society's economy is. The underclass would not survive the medium term of a hunter gatherer lifestyle, let alone for thousands of years in a desert, I know I live near some, they are already lost by the age of four, some of there fathers I meet at our school are 18-19 and our daughters is 5 in her first year at school, without a good economy this would not be possible. They talk rubbish. like bad lawyers and have no social skills except agression and victimhood.

    The more we can support of these morons the better we are, noble in fact.

    "The Marching Morons" has it backwards and predicts nothing.

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  4. To me much of the 'predictive' nature of sf is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People read sf (or watch it on tv) and get ideas, and then try to make those ideas into reality. There was an interesting documentary called something like "How Star Trek Changed the World" which makes a good case for how instrumental Star Trek was in giving a vision of a technological future that inspired inventors of everything from personal computers to cell phones.

    "Marching Maroons" (as Bugs Bunny would have it) is black humored enough that I am not convinced that it should be taken as an advocacy of eugenics. It does, however, raise a controversial topic and suggest an apparently logical solution. But logic does not always equal ethics. Unlike "A Modest Proposal," which wears its outrageousness on its sleeve, "Marching Marines" (as G Bush would have it) puts the reader in the much more uncomfortable position of trying to find a flaw in its logic.

    --E Schaller

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  5. That's an interesting point, Eric -- where to locate the satire. I've tried reading the story as a satire on the idea of a super-class, or read it somehow as undermining the idea of selective breeding for intelligence, but I just haven't yet been able to convince myself that I'm not performing some violence against the text that way. The characterizations of the "subnormals" are just too vicious, the presentation of the "supernormals" too reasonable. I suppose it's comparable to Book IV of Gulliver's Travels, where some people have read Swift as advocating the pure reason of the Houyhnhnms against the barbarism of the Yahoos, but there's such a dryness to that, such an off-putting nature to the Houyhnhnms as Swift presents them, that I think it's clear his purpose is more complex. What we don't have in "The Marching Morons" is a Gulliver-type character -- the woken man is just too unsympathetic.

    But I do like the idea of it being a more complex satire than I've read it as, because then while certainly part of the joke would be on people like me who see too much of a eugenicist position in the story for comfort, it's an even funnier joke on people like Bova who actually like that position.

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  6. I don't read much SF these days, but I read almost nothing else as an adolescent. And I have to say I think it's precisely that emotional level that stories like Kornbluth's and Rand's are designed to appeal to. As an undersocialized, autodidactic youth, often subject to bullying or simple alienation from the surrounding culture, the ressentiment-appeal of stories about the eventual victory of the besieged intelligent few over the moronic many was nigh-intoxicating. As I grew older, more politically conscious, and--probably not coincidentally--more socially adept, I began to recognize this subgenre for what it was: the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the socially weak. Which is not to say such fantasies don't continue to have appeal or applicability--the period from 2001 to 2005 in which marching morons seemed to have total, resistless control of our government arguably led us to nominate a Kornbluth hero as the Democratic presidential candidate, with somewhat predictable results.

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  7. Yes, and one of the most annoying features of the SF world is that it provides a haven for people who never outgrow that outlook.

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  8. As an instructor at a university that's been targeted by David Horowitz, I'm more concerned about the predictive power of Kornbluth's "Theory of Rocketry."

    The "Morons" does indeed survive thanks to its appeal to the Rand/Heinlein demographic. But taken as a whole, Kornbluth gives me the impression of having been an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, in a constant state of despair at humanity's having failed to live up to its potential, casting about for a place to lodge the blame. In his novels, sometimes he's able to develop a more palatable social analysis.

    Hey, what about Tenn's "Null-P"? Is that one prophetic?

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  9. I read Bova's article. It seemed pretty superficial, since it didn't try to compare eras/societies or actually make a case for change. Seems to me that people like Bova who think they are smarter than others have always felt like the "others" were taking over society. What's so prophetic about that?

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  10. >>There is a Straussian strain to science fiction, a desire for rule by an enlightened elite

    I'm not sure that is always true, perhaps not even often. I'll grant that it can look that way. But it seems to me that a more general (and laudable) theme of much sf has been the notion of the bootstrap, of becoming enlightened and joining the elite ("elite," in this sense, simply meaning rational, informed, clever, curious, forward-looking, responsibility-taking). It's not the exclusionary idea like we usually think of when we think of an "elite," and therefore, I would argue, much less worthy a target of scorn and condemnation.

    As for the prediction angle, sf has two advantages: 1) It often TRIES to envision the future--you can't succeed at something you don't attempt; and 2) it is predicated on thinking outside the box, on trying to see the big picture and take into account diverse variables. This gives it a leg up on blinkered theorists of the known, who march only on assumption and tradition.

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  11. I don't think "bootstrap" is one-tenth as common as "born special." You're going to have to cite references on that one.

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  12. I agree. I can think of many more wunderkind stories. Tom Disch has also called all SF (including fantasy) fiction for juveniles. And the healthy skeptic's work ethic, which may have been more evident in older Campbell era SF, sure didn't appeal to me as a kid. I wanted a legitimation of my difference. Thus "Ender's Game" is the bestselling SF book in my bookstore.

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  13. Matt, forgive me if this is a repeat comment, but my words don't seem to be "taking" -- check the trackback for my commentary about "The Marching Morons" if you are so inclined.

    BB

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  14. Thanks, Brian, and sorry about the comment system here (bleccch). Here's a link to Brian's response.

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  15. This is a story I enjoyed when I first read it as a child, but came to despise once I re-read later and could see its political message.

    The big lie (or to be kind, mistake) in the story is that unintelligent people have more children. The truth is that uneducated women have more children, which is something that's been demonstrated very dramatically in many countries over the world; there are even established correlations between a woman's number of years of school and number of children.

    Don't forget, too, that the novel that "The Marching Morons" was grafted into (I forget the title) includes another wonderful episode on a planet where -- horrors! -- women have the dominant role in society. Kornbluth satirizes just how silly and awful it would be to have dames running everything...

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  16. Thank you, Matt! I had a hard time writing in the little box, too. What can I say, except that I am poorly equipped to use the tools offered me? Better that I clutter up my own space with screed anyhow.

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