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.