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Anti-Intellectualism in SF

Entry updated 13 August 2022. Tagged: Theme.

Anti-intellectualism takes two forms in sf: a persistent if minor theme appears in stories in which the intellect is distrusted; more common are stories about future Dystopias in which society at large distrusts the intellect although the authors, themselves intellectuals, do not.

In stories of the first sort, Intelligence is usually seen to be sterile if unmodified by intuition, feeling or compassion – a familiar theme in literature generally. That Hideous Strength (1945) by C S Lewis attacks a government-backed scientific organization for its thoughtlessness and smugness about the consequences for humanity of scientific development; one of the villains, a vulgar journalist, is clearly modelled on H G Wells. The symbol of the sterile intellect is a disembodied head, cold and evil, mounted on a bracket and preserved by life-support apparatus (see Brain in a Box). In Genre SF, too, brains in bottles – or at least in dome-shaped heads attached to merely vestigial bodies – have been among the commonest Clichés, especially in the 1930s. The archetype here is "Alas, All Thinking!" (June 1935 Astounding) by Harry Bates, in which the Evolution of mankind is shown to culminate in just such a figure, rendered in a memorable image; the horrified protagonist, an intelligent man from the present, resolves to start spending less time on intellectual activities.

The theme of intelligence as insufficient on its own frequently takes the form of mankind learning to adapt harmoniously to an Eden-like world (see Life on Other Worlds) to which individuals somehow come to belong organically and transcendentally, a process that bypasses the intellect and proves impossible to humans whose minds outweigh their hearts. Such an evolution occurs towards the end of Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide (mid-December 1990-January 1991 Asimov's; 1991) and is central to J G Ballard's The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962). Significantly, in both books – as in many others – the union with the non-intellectual world is envisaged as a return to water: back to the bloodstream, so to speak. Kurt Vonnegut's Satirical take on this theme is Galápagos (1985), whose purported Utopia is set in a Far Future when post-Devolution humans have lost their big brains and crafty hands, and lead short happy lives in the sea with small brains and flippers.

Anti-intellectual sf stories were given some impetus by the bombing of Hiroshima: a distrust of Scientists and of the potentially awesome results of irresponsibly wielded scientific knowledge became quite widespread. These moral issues were often quite responsibly examined in sf stories, but sf Cinema tended to take a more simplistic line. The mid-1950s saw a procession of Monster Movies in which very often the monsters were the products of scientific irresponsibility; commonly a religiose voice, impressively baritone, would intone on the sound-track: "There are some things Man was not meant to know."

A new twist on the anti-intellectual theme became quite common in the pessimistic 1980s: the uselessness of the intellect in the face of cosmic indifference and boundless Entropy. It has even been suggested, in both sf and science fact, that intelligence may one day prove to have been a non-viable mutation, a mere comma in the long, mindless sentence of our universe. Bruce Sterling's "Swarm" (April 1982 F&SF) has a clever superhuman outmanoeuvred by an alien Hive Mind which has intelligence genetically available as an option for special circumstances, but most of the time repudiates it as being an antisurvival trait. The theme is seldom spelled out as clearly as this, but it appears – by implication, as a subtext – in all sorts of surprising places, as in Douglas Adams's Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, which are generally thought of as being funny but in which any intellectual activity at all is seen as hubris – to be instantly, in Brian W Aldiss's phrase, "clobbered by nemesis". Indeed, the evanescence of the life of the mind has long been a wistful theme of Aldiss's own, all the way from The Long Afternoon of Earth (February-December 1961 F&SF; fixup 1962; rev vt Hothouse 1962) to his Helliconia series of the 1980s. It is an implied theme, too, of Richard Grant's Rumours of Spring (1987). Books like this are not anti-intellectual as such; they merely suggest that, in the evolutionary race, it is an error to bet too heavily on the brain. Peter Watts's bracingly gloomy Blindsight (2006) goes further to argue that even our normal state of consciousness is an evolutionary dead end, presenting the counterexample of hyperintelligent and hyperefficient Aliens whose thought processes are unhampered by the needless luxury of self-awareness.

In written sf, however, we more commonly find the opposite tack taken: that the life of the intellect is strong and precious, but needs constantly to be guarded from philistines and rednecks; that the prejudices of an ill-informed population against scientists and intellectuals might in the short term result in acts of violence against thinking people and, in the long term, lead to the stifling of all progress. One of the commonest themes in sf is the static society (see Conceptual Breakthrough; Dystopias; Politics; Utopias). Wells, who was attacked by Lewis for a narrow and unfeeling "humanism", feared this, and he did indeed believe that the world would be better off if governed by a technocracy of trained, literate and numerate experts rather than by a hereditary ruling class or by demagogues elected through manipulation of an uninformed democracy. These ideas are expressed in A Modern Utopia (1905) and many of Wells's later works, but he had already given them dramatic expression in The Food of the Gods, and How It Came to Earth (1904), in which the anti-intellectual stupidity and fear of the general population are contrasted bitterly with the splendour of the new race of giants unencumbered by medieval prejudice. On the other hand, in The Time Machine (1895; rev 1895) Wells had rather implied, in giving the beauty to the Eloi and the brains to the Morlocks, that neither part of the equation was much good on its own. Many years later Fred Hoyle was to take up the theme of A Modern Utopia, notably in The Black Cloud (1957) and Ossian's Ride (1959), where he argues for an intellectual elite of scientists and technologists and proposes that traditionally arts-educated intellectuals are in reality anti-intellectual in that, being innumerate, they distrust and misunderstand science.

Satire against anti-intellectualism came to prominence in sf with the generation of the 1950s, especially among those writers associated with Galaxy Science Fiction, prominently C M Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl and Robert Sheckley. H Beam Piper wrote a satirical plea for thought in "Day of the Moron" (September 1951 Astounding), but better known is Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" (April 1951 Galaxy), in which a small coterie of future intellectuals secretly manipulates the vast anti-intellectual, moronic majority. Damon Knight and James Blish were two other writers who satirically defended "eggheads" (a newly fashionable word) against philistine attack. Fritz Leiber's The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962) presents an appalling if amusing anti-intellectual future in which only Robots are in the habit of constructive thought. The 1950s were the era of McCarthyism: it was a common fear of US writers and artists that to be viewed as a smart aleck might be a preliminary to being attacked as a homosexual and thence, by a curious progression, as a communist – that is, to be an intellectual implied that one was suspicious and unreliable. It is therefore not surprising that satires of the type noted above should be so densely clustered during this period.

Anti-intellectualism is commonly presented in connection with two of sf's main themes. One is that of the Superman who, through mutation (see Mutants) or for some other reason, develops unusually high intelligence. Two such books are Mutant (stories February 1945-September 1953 Astounding as by Lewis Padgett; fixup 1953) by Henry Kuttner and Children of the Atom (stories November 1948-March 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953) by Wilmar H Shiras; in both, superior intelligence incurs the anger of normals, and even persecution by them. The second relevant theme concerns stories set after the Holocaust (see Post-Holocaust). In these the survivors, often living in a state of tribalism or medieval feudalism, are – in a very popular variant of the story – deeply suspicious of intellectuals, fearing that the renewal of technology will lead to another disaster. Three good novels of just such a kind are The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett, A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup dated 1960 but 1959) by Walter M Miller Jr, and Re-Birth (1955; rev vt The Chrysalids 1955) by John Wyndham.

Surprisingly few full-length works have taken anti-intellectualism as their overriding central theme. One such is The Burning (1972) by James E Gunn, in which violent anti-intellectualism leads to the destruction of scientists; the return of science is via witchcraft, a theme that owes something to Robert A Heinlein's Sixth Column (January-March 1941 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951) and Leiber's Gather, Darkness! (May-July 1943 Astounding; 1950). Ursula K Le Guin's early sf story, "The Masters" (February 1963 Fantastic), deals movingly with a similar theme in a story of a world dominated by Religion in which independent thought is a heresy punishable by burning at the stake. But the classic novel of the intellect at bay is of course Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (February 1951 Galaxy as "The Fireman"; exp 1953), set in a not-too-distant future where reading books is a crime. [PN/DRL]

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