[Phil called the other day, and wanted to talk about the 1950’s. Frankly, I didn’t want to go there; we’ve revisited the possibility of thermonuclear war a couple of times, and those were scary trips down memory lane.  Why go back to that chamber of horrors and unearth even more crazy ideas or bizarre plans? But Phil was adamant. He said that, while some of our leaders might have been demented, not everybody was. The 1950’s were, in fact, a period of intellectual ferment; lots of folks objected to the lunacies of the day.

Who in the world was he talking about? Where were those paragons of independent thought? Well, possibly some of them were in our colleges and universities, but for most of that decade I was too young to go, so I didn’t know about them.  But nevertheless even I heard some of the dissident voices. They were hiding in our news-stands, right in plain sight, and a part of the popular culture.

Take, for instance, the folks who wrote science fiction[1]. No serious intellectual respected that literary genre in the 1950’s; tell a college admissions officer that you read it, and you might not get into his institution, regardless of grades. But nevertheless, many young people (along with a subculture of nonconformist adults) read science fiction (aka, sci-fi). Why? To escape, of course; to escape stifling conformity at home and the terrors of a new general war that, thankfully, never happened. Sci-fi offered alternative futures, something to think about other than regimentation and/or disaster, although realistically there was plenty of that as well in the literature.

Oh, G, you must be talking about comic books, and grainy black and white movies about giant, mutant spiders! They have their fans, but surely you can’t consider them a social force? Who really cares about simple-minded superheroes fighting even more ridiculous super villains over cardboard issues? And who was ever persuaded by the cheesy special effects in a 1950’s monster movie?

No, I’m not talking about those things and I’m not getting into a debate about it. Of course they had (and have) their fans, but they’re irrelevant here. I’m talking about actual novels and short stories, in actual books and magazines, with lots of words and few, if any, illustrations. I’m talking about literature that informs and persuades the old-fashioned way, with words.

And this brings me to Phil’s suggestion. He’s been looking at the sci-fi of that period, and has concluded that there’s more there than people today realize. In particular, he wants to discuss a magazine that’s no longer with us, and one of its authors, who had a wicked sense of humor. Take it away, Phil.]

Thanks, G. After that long-winded introduction, I wasn’t sure I would have enough time and space to make my points. But you’ve left me enough of both, I think. As you know, I was puttering around the other day in the Zoo stacks, and I ran across a stash of sci-fi magazines in a tin trunk. Said stash included, among other things, a large selection of Galaxy Science Fiction[2]. Out of curiosity, I read through some of the issues and found a lot to admire.

[We have lots more in storage, you know, including complete runs through the 1980’s of Astounding/Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.]

Yes, well, I didn’t know that. In any case in the 1950’s Galaxy was a sci-fi magazine devoted to psychology, sociology, satire and humor.[3] The editor, H.L. Gold[4], paid top rates for the time, and throughout that decade Galaxy was one of the three main contenders in its field.[5] I didn’t have time to do a general review of the content; if I had, that would have made a much, much longer blog; but I read enough to select one story as an example of the kind of thing Galaxy published. It’s Marching Morons[6] by Cyril M. Kornbluth.

Kornbluth[7] was an interesting character. He was born in 1923, served in WW II, got decorated, and went on to publish some influential sci-fi in the 1950’s. He died way too soon, in 1958.[8] A lot of his better novels, including The Space Merchants[9], were written with Fred Pohl, today a much more famous author.[10] But before that came Marching Morons, a true solo effort.

[Fine, let’s get on with it. What was the story about?]

Glad you asked. Its central character is John Barlow, a crooked real estate agent from 1988. (Remember, this is sci-fi; the story was published in 1951. So from the reader’s perspective in 1951, Barlow was a salesman of the future.) One day Barlow goes to the dentist; there’s an accident involving a dental drill and an anesthetic; and he’s dropped into a state of suspended animation. He’s not revived for several hundred years.

When he wakes up, he doesn’t really understand how things work in that future civilization. The society is pretty complex, but people in it seem, well, stupid. So how do these dummies manage to keep things running? Well, it turns out they don’t. There’s an underground elite that does all the heavy lifting; while everybody else is a moron, and basically useless.

[Phil, this sounds contemporary to me. Today’s Conservatives seem to have the same kind of complaint. They’re doing all the work, creating jobs, innovating and so forth, and the rest of us are just along for the ride, on the dole from the government. So far they haven’s said we are stupid, but that may be next.]

Don’t go off the deep end. This story is about the future, not today, and it’s fiction, not fact! Anyway, the human population of this future Earth is comprised of 3 million intelligent elites and 5 billion morons.  The “average” IQ in that future is 45. Civilization is maintained only because the elites do it; and that’s possible only because several generations earlier they had banded together to preserve the human race.

Unfortunately, by the time John Barlow enters the picture the job is becoming too big for even the elites. They need a new solution to their problem.

[I’m sorry, Phil, but this still sounds like today’s politics. Conservatives all seem convinced that they provide all that’s good in today’s society. Government and the rest of us just get in the way, and drain valuable resources from the job creators. Who, by the way, are mostly creating jobs overseas, not here.]

Marching Morons is fiction, not a political report! Getting back to the story, the elites concluded that the morons had to be managed a new way, or there would be a disaster from overpopulation. But there were too many to sterilize, and not enough elites to do it; and propaganda against large families didn’t work, because a moron’s natural instinct is to propagate.

[Pardon me, but I think the Chinese proved it’s possible to enforce a ‘one child’ policy in a large country. We may not like how they did it, but the facts are that they pretty much succeeded. How about that?]

Good grief! I’m only telling you what’s in the story. I’m not saying the analysis is correct. Anyway, the elites ask Barlow how he would handle the problem. He comes from a more primitive time; perhaps there are tools and techniques he knows about, that the elites might have missed.

Well, Barlow had an idea. He was an expert in “vicious self-interest,” exactly what the elites needed.[11]Also, being a realtor, he knew quite a bit about selling underwater real estate in Florida and places like that. He also had seen movies about lemmings, and how they massed from time to time to rush off cliffs and drown in the ocean. And finally, he knew something about WW II, and the propaganda techniques the Nazis used. So he had a plan.

He said he would help, if the elites made him World Dictator. Ultimately they agreed, and he outlined his strategy. We’ll tell the morons, he said, that Venus, the planet, has been opened for settlement. It’s not, of course, because it’s uninhabitable; it’s way too close to the sun. But we’ll tell them that it’s a land of milk and honey, with blanket trees, ham bushes and soap roots. All their needs will be met, and life will be easy. Tell them that, and people will line up to go. Countries will compete to get their share of the valuable real estate.

We’ll gear up to provide the space ships to transport people to Venus, but they don’t have to be very good. The ships have to take off, but they don’t have to land, because, of course, Venus is uninhabitable. Once we start exporting people, we can send fake postcards to their relatives, describing a wonderful, easy life on Venus. There’s historical precedent for that kind of disinformation. And when it’s all over, and the morons are safely disposed of, you, the elite, and I will rule what’s left.

And that’s what they did; but there was one thing the elites hadn’t told John Barlow. You see, they decided early on that they didn’t want him around after his plan worked. So one day, after it was all over, they put Barlow on his own special flight to Venus from which, of course, he did not return.

[What kind of a story was that?! And you tell it after my big buildup about how sci-fi was good escape literature for people trapped in the 1950’s. This one is a horror story. It seems like something Herman Kahn might have written, you know, while ‘thinking about the unthinkable!’ Fraud and mass murder! Good heavens!]

Look, G, people should know that not all science fiction back then was happy fiction. But nevertheless it was valuable. There’s nothing like good biting satire to put things in perspective once the idiots start talking. And as you know, we have plenty of them today, especially in politics. We need more satire, not less.

[Fine, I understand that it’s just a satire, not a recommendation. But you get to answer the mail this time. Hopefully you can calm down everybody who’s offended. I couldn’t, I’m sure.]

[1] This is as good a place as any to introduce you to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, a very good but somewhat opinionated reference. See Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1993) (hereafter cited as SF Encyclopedia at __).

[2] See SF Encyclopedia at Galaxy Science Fiction, p. 462-464.

[3] See SF Encyclopedia at Galaxy Science Fiction, p. 463.

[4] See SF Encyclopedia at Gold, H(orace) L(eonard), p. 505, 506. H.L. Gold liked to lead off each issue of Galaxy with an editorial mostly designed to generate controversy. Do you want an example? Try this one from the June, 1953 issue, at page 3: “Science Fiction shares a wonderful privilege with news analysts – both can solve the problems of the world without leaving the desk. The difference, of course, is that we label our opinions as ‘guesses,’ while analysts claim omniscience.” Does that sound modern, or what?

[5] See note 3. The other contenders were, of course, Astounding Science Fiction (now Analog) (see SF Encyclopedia at Astounding Science Fiction, p. 62 – 65) and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (see SF Encyclopedia at Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, p. 763 – 765.)

[6] The story was published by Galaxy in 1951, in April, just 7 months after the magazine’s inception. You can find it, and all of Kornbluth’s solo works, in a book issued by the New England Science Fiction Association, at http://www.nesfa.org/press/Books/Kornbluth.htm If you want to read Marching Morons online, you can get a copy of it at http://www.scribd.com/doc/23657356/The-Marching-Morons

[7] See SF Encyclopedia at Kornbluth, C(yril) M., p. 677-678.

[8] Wikipedia says it was a heart attack. See the Wikipedia article on Kornbluth, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyril_Kornbluth . Wikipedia also says he had bad teeth, so bad that he would often cover his mouth when speaking. If so, perhaps his heart attack was related to bad dental hygiene. See, e.g., WebMD, Doheny, Healthy Teeth, Healthy Heart? (Reviewed September 25, 2009) at http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/features/healthy-teeth-healthy-heart?page=2 Or perhaps not. This is only speculation on my part.

[9] That book is discussed briefly in the SF Encyclopedia, in the article on Kornbluth. See note 6. It also was published first in Galaxy under the title Gravy Planet. It appeared as installments in the June, July and August issues of 1952. Galaxy published lots of novels in this way. For example, it ran Asimov’s first robot novel, The Caves of Steel, in the October, November and December issues of 1953. We have both of these series on file here at the Zoo.

[10] See SF Encyclopedia at Frederick Pohl, p. 942-944.

[11] Or, to quote the story, “This creature from the past [Barlow] with his lemming legends and his improved building lots would be a fountain of precious vicious self-interest.”