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Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Theme.


Intelligence is necessarily one of the issues discussed in the entries on Aliens, Anti-Intellectualism in SF, Cybernetics, Mutants and Superman. Machine intelligence is discussed under Computers and Robots; for amplification of human intelligence via computer enhancement or interfacing, see Cyborgs and Singularity. This entry is restricted to stories in which the emphasis is on the actual workings of intelligence in living beings.

Much sf refers to intelligence, but a surprisingly small amount gives a good idea of what the workings of a superior or different intelligence would feel like or even look like. In many stories of abnormally intelligent supermen or mutants we have to take the intelligence on trust. Such intelligences were favourites with A E van Vogt, but their workings are often less than transparent to the reader, as is the case with the hero of his The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970), whose blinding leaps of non-Aristotelian logic are frequently incomprehensible and on the face of it rather silly.

The first sf story of any significance about intelligence was probably The Curse of Intellect (1895) by Frank Challice Constable, in which an ape is given human intelligence (see Apes as Human; Uplift); the first of real importance was The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917) by J D Beresford, in which the focus of interest is on the feelings of a superintelligent child growing up in a world of what seem to him subnormals. A colder and harsher reworking of the same theme was twice undertaken by Olaf Stapledon, in Odd John (1935), about an abnormally intelligent human whose spiritual powers are also highly developed, and in Sirius (1944), about an intelligent Dog. In some ways the latter work is the more successful, perhaps because of the problem in stories of this kind of finding a form of language appropriate to describing an experience which by its very nature cannot be fully comprehended by either the reader – or indeed the writer.

One way around the problem of increasing intelligence is to begin with an animal, a dullard or even a moron, so that the higher intelligence is not hopelessly out of reach of our own. Thus a dull labourer acquires something approaching genius as a result of a head injury in "Slave of the Pit" (August 1921 Everybody's Magazine) by Bertram Atkey; the change almost destroys his marriage through intellectual incompatibility, but is reversed by a second blow to the head. This strategy has been adopted in several Genre-SF stories, of which the two best known are Brain Wave (1954) by Poul Anderson and "Flowers for Algernon" (April 1959 F&SF) by Daniel Keyes, later much expanded as Flowers for Algernon (1966). The latter, filmed as Charly (1968), is a moving story, told largely through his own diaries, of intelligence artificially induced in a moron. Sadly, the process is only temporary; while hero and reader are given a glimpse, surprisingly convincing, of what genius must feel like, the gates of the golden city are soon barred, and the story ends with an itching discomfort in the subnormal mind of the hero and an almost intolerable feeling of loss in the reader's.

Superintelligence is often pictured as going along with what seems to ordinary humans a cold indifference and a casual amorality. Perhaps this demonstrates a sour-grapes syndrome. We do not like the thought of being relegated to a minor place in the evolutionary scheme; and, as Evolution is traditionally carried out by a "Nature red in tooth and claw", we half expect that a race of geniuses would treat us cruelly. A prototype of this kind of story is John Taine's Seeds of Life (Fall 1931 Amazing; 1951), in which an accident with radiation transforms a surly laboratory technician into a cruel, glowing supermind in the body of an Adonis; the sense we are given of the workings of his mind is vivid enough to transcend the Pulp crankiness of the story's ideas of evolution. Here, too, the growth of intelligence is reversible.

Many adults are ready enough to see even normal children as essentially Alien creatures, and a flourishing subgenre has been the story of the superchild (see Children in SF), often turning on his or her relationship with parents or guardians. Henry Kuttner reverted to this theme several times, as in "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" (February 1943 Astounding, as Lewis Padgett), in which teaching Machines from the future have frightening effects on children, and "When the Bough Breaks" (November 1944 Astounding, again as Padgett), in which a peculiarly nauseating superbaby gives his parents a hard time. "Star, Bright" (July 1952 Galaxy) by Mark Clifton is a typically Pulp version of the intelligence theme in which the manifestations of high intelligence in children – where the real interest of the story might have lain – rapidly develop into what are in effect magical powers. The two most thoughtful and mature novels in this subgenre are probably Children of the Atom (stories November 1948-March 1950 Astounding; fixup 1953) by Wilmar H Shiras, which incorporates the classic story "In Hiding" (November 1948 Astounding), in which an extremely intelligent boy attempts, in self-protection, to behave just like any other child, but is discovered, and The Fourth "R" (1959; vt The Brain Machine) by George O Smith, in which the intelligence of a five-year-old has been trained artificially by a machine which reinforces learning mechanisms in the brain. Both books deal sensitively with the contrast between intellectual maturity and emotional immaturity, and are surprisingly plausible in their scenarios of ways in which superintelligence might show itself in action. In later sf, the hero of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; much exp 1985) is a greatly gifted child whose intelligence manifests itself chiefly in the skills of leadership and the strategy and tactics of war; related books beginning with Shadow of the Hegemon (2000) reveals that Ender's second-in-command Bean has been further intellectually enhanced by illicit Genetic Engineering whose side effects will cause him to die young.

Two other relevant stories from the 1950s are C M Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" (April 1951 Galaxy), a vividly unpleasant story of a future which has become polarized between morons and geniuses, the former in much greater numbers because the middle classes know more about contraception (an interesting not-very-hidden assumption here), and The Black Cloud (1957) by Fred Hoyle, in which a cloud-intelligence in space indirectly kills scientists who try to take on board its entire knowledge of the universe, their human intellects being too fully programmed and inflexible to cope with the new data (see Basilisks). Something similar happens to the people in the film Forbidden Planet (1956) who subject themselves to the intelligence-raising machinery of the Krell.

A number of stories have hinged on the Colonization of Other Worlds under an imagined future law (one of many variations of what has became known as the Prime Directive) which states that the worlds of intelligent beings must be either left alone or at least treated with great care. Thus the measurement of alien intelligence becomes a question of Politics. H Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy (1962) is of this kind, as are Joseph Green's Conscience Interplanetary (1965-1971 var mags; fixup 1972) – though Green does not really develop the potential of the theme – and James P Hogan's Code of the Lifemaker (1983), with the Machine intelligence of a Robot civilization in danger of being exploited for spare parts. Perhaps the most interesting novel about surveying the nature of alien life and intelligence is Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962).

Other variations on the intelligence theme include: Olof Johannesson's Sagan om den stora datamaskinin (1966; trans as The Big Computer: A Vision 1968; vt The Tale of the Great Computer: A Vision 1968; vt The End of Man? 1969), which is actually a history of intelligence, written in the future, seeing human intelligence as an evolutionary step towards machine intelligence; "The Planners" (in Orbit 3, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight) by Kate Wilhelm, about the acceleration of the genetic transmission of intelligence in apes; and "Eurema's Dam" (in New Dimensions II, anth 1972, ed Robert Silverberg) by R A Lafferty, about a genius whom the author disingenuously describes as stupid. This last story is one of a long line of genre-sf yarns about idiots savants who construct various marvellous machines and theories without having the least idea about what they are doing; other examples include Lion Miller's "The Available Data on the Worp Reaction" (September 1953 F&SF) and Rick Raphael's "A Filbert Is a Nut" (November 1959 Astounding). Clifford D Simak's Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963) suggests a radical Alien countermeasure against World War Three in the form of imposed stupidity, lowering intelligence to the point where humanity would be unable to operate its more complex Weapons. A major work on the evolution of intelligence is Thomas M Disch's Camp Concentration (July-October 1967 New Worlds; 1968), a highly structured novel which describes, through a series of recurrent images and thematic leitmotifs, an experiment in artificially induced raising of intelligence among deserters and conscientious objectors in a prose whose increasing richness and difficulty reflect the ever-increasing intelligence of the narrator.

Gordon R Dickson's The R-Master (1973; rev vt The Last Master 1983) features an intelligence-boosting Drug for which the protagonist volunteers; being more determined than any past recipient, he contrives to transform the world's governance. The replicating synthetic "VC" (Viral Coefficient) of John Brunner's The Stone that Never Came Down (1973) effectively amplifies intelligence by improving the organization of human memory and reducing our ability to ignore unwelcome issues: this too transforms the world, with impending World War Three narrowly averted. Oscar Rossiter's Tetrasomy 2 (1974) is a black comedy about a young doctor in whom a sudden acceleration of intelligence is catalysed by a vegetable-like superbeing; the doctor's inability to use his improved mind with any social sang froid poses a problem not generally considered in this type of story. A later treatment of drug-created genius is The Dark Fields (2001) by Alan Glynn, filmed as Limitless (2011).

The question of intelligence testing comes up in many Utopias and Dystopias, and is analysed interestingly in "Intelligence Testing in Utopia" by Carolyn H Rhodes in Extrapolation, December 1971. Among the works she discusses in which this theme is central are The Messiah of the Cylinder (June-September 1917 Everybody's Magazine; 1917; vt The Apostle of the Cylinder 1918) by Victor Rousseau, Player Piano (1952; vt Utopia 14) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by Michael Young, The Child Buyer (1960) by John Hersey and World Out of Mind (1953) by J T McIntosh.

Two sf novelists whose work consistently speculates on the nature of intelligence and the various directions in which it may evolve are Frank Herbert and Ian Watson, both heavily committed to the possibility of some form of transcendent intelligence. In Herbert's work the theme is seen most clearly in the Dune series and in The Dosadi Experiment (1977), though it appears in almost all his novels. As with van Vogt, however, it is not always clear exactly how his "other" intelligences operate. With Herbert, much depends on enigmatic hints and clues, as if he knew more than he is telling; this is reflected in his plots, which combine abstruse metaphysical speculation with conspiratorial, cloak-and-dagger manipulations in a sometimes confusing way. Nonetheless, Herbert has at times evoked the difference of evolved intelligences with great feeling. Where Herbert hints, Watson analyses and chips patiently away at his recurrent theme, approaching it from a slightly different angle in each of his novels of the 1970s and in some later ones. Unlike those sf writers who seem to fear the thought of a transcendent intelligence, Watson desires it, while recognizing how such an evolution may be quite alien to our present selves. Bringing to bear an impressive arsenal of analytic tools taken from Anthropology, Cybernetics, Linguistics, Psychology, semiotics and neurology, he is ready to tackle ambitious projects; in particular he has attempted, with partial success but sometimes drily, to evoke the feeling of a supermind whose processes are more lateral, analogizing and synthesizing than sequential in the traditional mode of human logic. Examples can be found in The Embedding (1973), The Martian Inca (1977) and Alien Embassy (1977). Similarly, Damien Broderick's The Judas Mandala (1982; rev 1990) is notable for the intellectual arabesques produced by its evolved intelligences, hovering just this side of comprehensibility.

In the 1980s the intelligence theme became less important in Genre SF, though Stephen King's The Tommyknockers (1987) has a lively if pulp-style treatment of a popular notion in sf – that contact with Aliens or their artefacts may cause a rapid evolution of our intelligence – most famously evoked in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In King's novel the artefact is an ancient spacecraft dug up in Maine. Robert Silverberg's At Winter's End (1988) features a Far-Future primitive tribe whose apparently human intelligence is the result of an experiment in primate evolution. In The Divide (1990) by Robert Charles Wilson a man whose superintelligence was created by a hormonal experiment during his childhood attempts to cope with his alienation by splitting his mind; this creates two wholly different personalities, one apparently average. But generally the emphasis of late twentieth-century sf shifted away from intelligence examined in isolation towards the nature of consciousness and the workings of the mind in general. This is one of the recurrent themes in Greg Bear's work. His Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; exp 1985) has a transformation of humanity brought about by intelligent microorganisms, and Queen of Angels (1990) envisages a society in which most people are "therapied" by molecule-scale machines made possible by developments in Nanotechnology; the same book features direct exploration/mapping of the mind and its subroutines, consciousness alteration through vodoun ("voodoo"), and the growth to self-consciousness of an AI.

The idea of biological engineering of the mind appears also in Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden (1989), in which almost the whole of humanity is educated by the direct importation of tailored DNA into the brain through viral infection. Ironically the heroine, who is immune to viruses, is very intelligent, and the book makes an important distinction between knowledge and intelligence, emphasizing how the conventional "grammars" of thought create a conformism antipathetic to true creativity. In this case (and often, no doubt, in the real world) education can muffle intelligence.

Ted Chiang ingeniously revisits the theme of human superintelligence in "Understand" (August 1991 Asimov's), whose conflict between the amoral protagonist and a similarly gifted rival ascends to dizzying levels of abstract cognition. Vernor Vinge's "Fast Times at Fairmont High" (in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, coll 2001) exhilaratingly imagines the use of bleeding-edge Technology and biotechnology for gifted children's science projects (see Education in SF) in a Near-Future Californian school where intelligence-enhancing Drugs are furtively employed. Much recent sf dealing with the possibility of amplified intelligence operates in the light of Vinge's proposed technological Singularity (which see). In Cinema, the protagonists of Limitless (2011) and Lucy (2014) undergo intelligence enhancement via Drugs; Lucy eventually departs from Earth into Transcendence.

The perhaps anthropocentric assumption that intelligence goes hand in hand with self-awareness and a sense of personal Identity has occasionally been challenged. Barrington J Bayley's The Rod of Light (1985) features a vastly intelligent Robot which recognizes its lack of self-awareness and attempts to remedy this possible defect by somehow extracting this quality from human victims. Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006) presents troubling Aliens who cognitively outperform humanity by a huge margin, precisely because they lack the computationally wasteful baggage of personal consciousness. [PN/DRL]

see also: Arrested Development; Posthuman.

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