Technology: the progressives dream and the reactionary's nightmare. Advances in technology have been creating upheavals in society all the way back to the start of the Bronze age and further.

But things really shifted into high gear with the Industrial Revolution. Technology started industrializing the United States around 1790, changing it from an agricultural society into a manufacturing society.

Things seemed to settle down until some clown invented television and the inhabitants of sleepy little United States towns had their minds blown by the realization that people who lived in other places were (gasp) different! That was just awful! Well, actually it was just change, which was bad enough to these folk. They didn't even notice the real problem: technology was starting the transformation of the United States from a manufacturing society into a service society.

The reactionaries started freaking out with the exodus of good-paying jobs from rural areas into the cities. And they started foaming at the mouth when technology gave us the internet.

Understand that the angry reactionaries are not just hicks rubes living in the sticks. Many of them are very rich and sophisticated people who happen to be buggy-whip magnates and are upset that the basis of their wealth just evaporated.

The point is, if you the science fiction writer postulate lots of technological advances in your novels, you must at least pay lip service to the sad fact that it will make a sizable segment of your society very angry.

On the other tentacle, progressives will find things bewildering as well.

As of this writing (2017) a person in their 50s will find much about current life to be quite different from when they were young. Nowadays land-line telephones are increasingly rare while mobile cell phones are proliferating. Children do not understand technologies like printed encyclopedias and telephone directories. For us old geezers a "computer" is a box with a monitor and a keyboard, increasingly a computer is a smart phone. Jerry Pournelle predicted that in the far future people could use something like an internet to find answers to their questions, but failed to predict that people would be angry if the answer took longer than three seconds to appear (drat that Google is slow today). There are even jobs that did not exist a couple of decades ago (Search engine optimization expert?)


Funny thing about society in general and people in specific. Back in the 1750's this new thing called "Science" really started coming into its own. It was amazing the things it could discover, and so many of them with marvelously practical uses! It seemed like there was nothing science could not do. Science was going to bring us to a grand and glorious Utopian future. Even now there is some nostalgia for this view, the technical term is "Retro-Futurism".

This all turned to worms in the early 1900's. Suddenly science revealed its dark side. Science unleashed unspeakable horrors, there were things man was not meant to know, and one started to see more and more dystopias in science fiction literature.

Science didn't change, it can't. The change was in the attitude of society.

So what happened? Yes, I know most of you suddenly shouted "The invention of the atom bomb, you moron!". BZZZT! You're wrong, thank you for playing. It was already in full swing long before 1945. So what's the answer?

I believe that master science fiction author and science explainer Isaac Asimov has the answer. He wrote about it in a 1969 essay entitled The Sin of the Scientist (collected in The Stars In Their Courses). He was speculating on what a "scientific sin" would be. Turns out it would be an act that would blacken the very name of science itself.


For a long period after 1752, throughout the nineteenth century indeed, science was generally considered the hope of humanity. Oh, there were people who thought this particular scientific advance or that was wicked, and who objected to anesthetics, for instance, or to the theory of evolution, or, for that matter, to the Industrial Revolution—but science in the abstract remained good.

How different it is today! There is a strong and growing element among the population which not only finds scientists suspect, but is finding evil in science in the abstract.

It is the whole concept of science which (to many) seems to have made the world a horror. The advance of medicine has given us a dangerous population growth; the advance of technology has given us a growing pollution danger; a group of ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds physicists have given us the nuclear bomb; and so on and so on and so on.

But at exactly which point in time did the disillusionment with the "goodness" of science come? When did it start?

Could it have come at the time when some scientist or scientists demonstrated the evil in science beyond any doubt; showed mankind a vision of evil so intense that not only the scientist himself but all of science was darkened past the point where it could be washed clean again?

When was the sin of the scientist committed, then, and who was the scientist?

The easy answer is the nuclear bomb. It was to that which Oppenheimer referred in his remark on sin.

But I say no. The nuclear bomb is a terrible thing that has contributed immeasurably to the insecurity of mankind and to his growing distrust of science, but the nuclear bomb is by no means pure evil.

To develop the nuclear bomb, physicists had to extend, vastly, their knowledge of nuclear physics generally. That has led to cheap radioisotopes that have contributed to research in science and industry in a hundred fruitful directions; to nuclear power stations that may be of tremendous use to mankind, and so on. Even the bombs themselves can be used for useful and constructive purposes (as motive power for spaceships, for one thing). And missiles, which might have hydrogen bombs attached, might have spaceships attached instead.

Besides, even if you argue that the development of the nuclear bomb was sin, I still reply that it wasn't the first sin. The mistrust of science itself antedates the nuclear bomb. That bomb intensified the mistrust but did not originate it.

I find a certain significance in the fact that the play R.U.R. by Karel Capek was first produced in 1921.

It brought the Frankenstein motif up to date. The original Frankenstein, published a century earlier, in 1818, was the last thrust of theological, rather than scientific, sin. In its Faustian plot, a scientist probed forbidden knowledge and offended God rather than man. The monster who in the end killed Frankenstein could easily be understood as the instrument of God's vengeance.

In R.U.R., however, the theological has vanished. Robots are created out of purely scientific motivation with no aura of "forbiddenness." They are tools intended to advance man's good the way the railroad and telegraph did; but they got out of hand and in the end the human race was destroyed.

Science could get out of hand!

The play was an international success (and gave the word "robot" to the world and to science fiction) so its thesis of science out of hand must have touched a responsive chord in mankind.

Why should men be so ready, in 1921, to think that science could get out of hand and do total evil to the human race, when only a few years before, science was still the "Mr. Clean" who would produce a Utopia if allowed to work?

What happened shortly before 1921? World War I happened shortly before 1921.

World War II was a greater and deadlier war than World War I; but World War I was incomparably more stupid in its details.

Men have made colossal misjudgments in a moment of error and may make more to come. Some day, someone will push the wrong button, perhaps, in a moment of panic or lack of understanding, and destroy the world; but never has constant, steady stupidity held sway for weeks, months and years as among the military leaders of World War I. For persistent stupidity, they will never be approached.

A million men and more died at Verdun. Sixty thousand British soldiers died in a single day on the Somme while generals thought they could build a bridge of mangled flesh across the trenches.

Everything about the carnage was horrible, but was there anything which managed to make itself felt above that sickening spectacle of mutual suicide? Was it the new explosives used in unprecedented quantities; the machine guns, the tanks? They were only minor developments of old devices. Was it the airplane, first used in battle, in this war? Not at all! The airplane was actually admired, for it was in itself beautiful, and it clearly had enormous peacetime potential.

No, no! If you want the supreme horror of the war, here it is:

On April 22, 1915, at Ypres, two greenish-yellow clouds of gas rolled toward the Allied line at a point held by Canadian divisions.

It was poison gas; chlorine. When the clouds covered the Allied line, that line caved in. The soldiers fled; they had to; and a five-mile opening appeared.

No gap like that had been seen anywhere before on the Western Front, but the Germans muffed their opportunity. For one thing, they hadn't really believed it would work (even though they had earlier experimented with gas in a smaller way against the Russians), and were caught flat-footed. For another, they hesitated to advance until the cloud had quite dissipated.

The Canadians were able to rally, and after the clouds drifted away, their line re-formed. By the time of the next gas attack, all were prepared and the gas mask was in use.

That was the horror of World War I, for before the war was over poison gases far more horrible than the relatively innocuous chlorine were put into use by both sides.

So grisly was the threat of poison gas, so insidious its onset, so helpless an unprepared group of victims and, what's more, so devastatingly atrocious did it seem to make war upon breathing—that common, constant need of all men —that after World War I gas warfare was outlawed.

In all of World War II, poison gas was not used no matter what the provocation, and in wars since, even the use of tear gas arouses violent opposition. Military men argue endlessly that poison gas is really humane; that it frequently incapacitates without killing or permanent harm; that it does not maim horribly the way shells and bullets do. People nevertheless will not brook interference with breathing. Shells and bullets might miss; one might hide from them. But how escape or avoid the creeping approach of gas?

And what, after all, is the other side of poison gas? It has only one use; to harm, incapacitate and kill. It has no other use. When World War I was over and the Allies found themselves left with many tons of poison gas, to what peaceful use could those tons be converted? To none. The poison gas had to be buried at sea or disposed of clumsily in some other fashion. Was even theoretical knowledge gained? No!

Poison gas warfare was developed knowingly by a scientist with only destruction in mind. The only excuse for it was patriotism, and is that enough of an excuse?

There is a story that during the Crimean War of 1853-56, the British government asked Michael Faraday, the greatest living scientist of the day, two questions: 1) Was it possible to develop poison gas in quantities sufficient to use on the battlefield? And 2) would Faraday head a project to accomplish the task?

Faraday said "Yes" to the first and an emphatic "No" to the second. He did not consider patriotism excuse enough. During World War I, Ernest Rutherford of Great Britain refused to involve himself in war work, maintaining that his research was more important.

In the name of German patriotism, however, poison gas warfare was introduced in World War I, and it was the product of science. No one could miss that. Poison gas was invented by the clever chemists of the German Empire. And the gas poisoned not only thousands of men, but the very name of science. For the first time, millions became aware that science could be perverted to monstrous evil, and science has never been the same again.

Poison gas was the sin of the scientist.

And can we name the sinner?

Yes, we can. He was Fritz Haber, an earnest German patriot of the most narrow type, who considered nothing bad if it brought good (according to his lights) to the Fatherland. (Alas, this way of thinking is held by too many people of all nations and is not confined to Germany.)

Haber had developed the "Haber process" which produced ammonia out of the nitrogen of the air. The ammonia could be used to manufacture explosives. Without that process, Germany would have run out of ammunition by 1916, thanks to the British blockade. With that process, she ran out of food, men and morale, but never out of ammunition. This, however, will scarcely qualify as a scientific sin, since the Haber process can be used to prepare useful explosives and fertilizers.

During the war, however, Haber labored unceasingly to develop methods of producing poison gas in quantity and supervised that first chlorine attack.

His reward for his unspotted devotion to his nation was a most ironic one. In 1933, Hitler came to power and, as it happened, Haber was Jewish. He had to leave the country and died in sad exile within the year.

That he got out of Germany safely was in part due to the labors of Rutherford, who moved mountains to rescue as many German scientists as he could from the heavy hand of the Nazi psychopaths. Rutherford personally greeted those who reached England, shaking hands with them in the fraternal comradeship of science.

He would not, however, shake hands with Haber. That would, in his view, have been going too far, for Haber, by his work on poison gas, had put himself beyond Rutherford's pale.

I can only hope that Rutherford was not reacting out of offended national patriotism, but out of the horror of a scientist who recognized scientific sin when he saw it.

Even today, we can still recognize the difference. The men who developed the nuclear bombs and missile technology are not in disgrace. Some of them have suffered agonies of conscience but they know, and we all know, that their work can be turned to great good, if only all of us display wisdom enough. Even Edward Teller, in so far as his work may result in useful fusion power some day, may be forgiven by some his fatherhood of the H-bomb.

But what about the anonymous, hidden people, who in various nations work on nerve gas and on disease germs? To whom are they heroes?

To what constructive use can nerve gas in ton-lot quantities be put? To what constructive use can plague bacilli in endless rows of flasks be put?

The sin of the scientist is multiplied endlessly in these people and for their sake—to make matters theological once again—all mankind may yet be cursed.

From THE SIN OF THE SCIENTIST by Isaac Asimov (1969)

Like the Romantics before them, genre-sf writers have generally been on the side of Faust, convinced that the quest for knowledge was a sacred one, no matter how fondly a jealous God might prefer blind faith. Characters in bad Hollywood Monster Movies might be able to sign off with a resigned admission that "there are things Man was not meant to know", but nothing could be more alien to the ethos of genre sf.

Even in early pulp sf, technology was a means rather than an end, and, however much Campbell's writers were inclined to the celebration of the competence of the engineer, there remained a visionary element in their work which centralized the Conceptual Breakthrough as the peak experience of human existence. The hi-tech future of pulp sf was not the "Utopia of Comforts" so bitterly criticized by such sceptical writers as S Fowler Wright but rather a reaching-out for further horizons.

Space Flight became and remained the central myth of sf because it was the ultimate window of opportunity, through which the entire Universe could be viewed – and, ultimately, known. In genre sf, the ultimate aim of technological progress is, in the words of Mack Reynolds, "total understanding of the cosmos". This is clearly reflected in the increasing interest which post-World War Two sf has taken in the traditional questions of religion and in the evolution of science-fictional ideas of the Superman.

From The Encylopedia of Science Fiction entry TECHNOLOGY

THE FIRST GALACTIC exploratory and colonization flight came as a direct outgrowth of a peculiar sociological-political situation on the planet Terra. As a result of a series of wars between nationalistic divisions atomic power was discovered. Afraid of the demon they had so loosed the nations then engaged in so-called "cold wars" during which all countries raced to outbuild each other in the stock piling of new and more drastic weapons and the mobilization of manpower into the ancient "armies."

Scientific training became valued only for the aid it could render in helping to arm and fit a nation for war. For some time scientists and techneers of all classes were kept in a form of peonage by "security" regulations. But a unification of scientists fostered in a secret underground movement resulted in the formation of "Free Scientist" teams, groups of experts and specialists who sold their services to both private industry and governments as research workers. Since they gave no attention to the racial, political, or religious antecedents of their members, they became truly international and planet-, instead of nation-, minded—a situation both hated and feared by their employers.

Under the stimulus of Free Scientist encouragement man achieved interplanetary flight. Terra was the third in a series of nine planets revolving about the sun, Sol I. It possessed one satellite, Luna.

Exploration ships made landings on Luna, and the two neighboring planets, Mars and Venus. None of these worlds were suitable for human colonization without vast expenditure, and they offered little or no return for such effort. Consequently, after the first flurry of interest, space flight died down, and there were few visitors to the other worlds, except for the purpose of research.

Three "space stations" had been constructed to serve Terra as artificial satellites. These were used for refueling interplanetary ships and astronomical and meteorological observation. One of these provided the weapon the nationalists had been searching for in their war against the "Free Scientists."

The station was invaded and occupied by a party of unidentified armed men (later studies suggest that these men were mercenaries in the pay of nationalist forces). And this group, either by ignorant chance or with deliberate purpose, turned certain installations in the station into weapons for an attack upon Terra. There are indications that they themselves had no idea of the power they unleashed, and that it was at once beyond their control.

As a result the major portion of the thickly populated sections of the planet were completely devastated and no one was ever able to reckon the loss of life.

Among those who were the sole survivors of an entire family group was Arturo Renzi. Renzi, a man of unusual magnetic personality, was a believer in narrow and fanatical nationalist doctrines. Because of his personal loss he began to preach the evil of science (with propaganda that the Free Scientists themselves had turned the station against the earth that had apparently been carefully prepared even before the act) and the necessity for man to return to the simple life on the soil to save himself and Terra.

To a people already in psychic shock from the enormity of the disaster, Renzi appeared the great leader they needed and his party came into power around the world. But, fanatic and narrow as he was, his voiced policies were still too liberal for some of his supporters.

Renzi's assassination, an act committed by a man arbitrarily identified as an outlawed Free Scientist, touched off the terrible purge which lasted three days. At the end of which time the few scientists and techneers still alive had been driven into hiding, to be hunted down one by one through the following years as chance or man betrayed them.

Saxon Bort, a lieutenant of Renzi's, assumed command of the leader's forces and organized the tight dictatorship of the Company of Pax.

Learning, unless one was a privileged "Peaceman," became suspect Society was formed into three classes, the nobility as represented by the Peacemen of various grades, the peasantry on the land, and the work-slaves—descendants of suspected scientists or techneers.

With the stranglehold of Pax firmly established on Terra, old prejudices against different racial and religious origins again developed. All research, invention, and study was proscribed and the planet was fast slipping into an age of total darkness and retreat. Yet it was at this moment in her history that the first galactic flight was made.


  • Astra: First Colony
  • Free Scientists
  • Renzi, Arturo
  • Terra: Space Flight
From THE STARS ARE OURS! by Andre Norton (1954)

Technological Disruption

A milder but more tech-hostile form of this comes from powerful people whose basis of power is threatened with technological disruption. If you are an ultra-rich oil baron for whom petroleum is the basis of all your wealth and power, you are going to fight the solar power industry like you were a cornered wolverine. Just try to find a CEOs of telephone-directories, newspaper, encyclopedia, and magazine publishers who has anything nice to say about the advent of the internet. All of those publishers are rapidly going bankrupt.

Not to mention the MPAA and the RIAA who have been doing their darndest to stuff the Genie back into the bottle by outlawing the internet.

Such powerful people want the status quo ante, thank you very much. Not for deep-seated psychological reasons, it is just about the money. They will use every tool at their disposal. Everything from buying all the rights to the tech and supressing it, to forcing their bribed politicians to pass laws outlawing the disruptive technology, to sending a stealth team of elite assasins to kill the researchers developing the technology and burn all the research notes. Remember all those urban legends about the guy who invented an automobile that would run on water, and how they mysteriously vanished never to be seen again.

On the other hand there are powerful people wannnabes who hope to seize power by exploiting a new disruptive technology. They are more or less at war with the status quo group. Examples include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Let alone any corporation who have made their profits skyrocket by utilizing this new thing called "the internet."

Science fiction writers sometimes use this as a plot idea. Indeed, the oil industry's fight against solar power was predicted in Robert Heinlein's short story "Let There Be Light" (1940). On a cynical note, Heinlein made a time-line to place all his stories and characters on. In the story the two protagonists Douglas and Martin prevail over the Power Syndicate. On the time-line I noticed that Douglas and Martin died on the same day. I suspect that they were assasinated in revenge by the Power Syndicate.


By the standards of all earlier ages, it was Utopia. Ignorance, disease, poverty and fear had virtually ceased to exist. The memory of war was fading into the past as a nightmare vanishes with the dawn; soon it would lie outside the experience of all living men.

With the energies of mankind directed into constructive channels, the face of the world had been remade. It was, almost literally, a new world. The cities that had been good enough for earlier generations had been rebuilt-or deserted and left as museum specimens when they had ceased to serve any useful purpose. Many cities had already been abandoned in this manner, for the whole pattern of industry and commerce had changed completely. Production had become largely automatic; the robot factories poured forth consumer goods in such unending streams that all the ordinary necessities of life were virtually free. Men worked for the sake of the luxuries they desired; or they did not work at all.

It was One World. The old names of the old countries were still used, but they were no more than convenient postal divisions. There was no one on earth who could not speak English, who could not read, who was not within range of a television set, who could not visit the other side of the planet within twenty-four hours..

Crime had practically vanished. It had become both unnecessary and impossible. When no one lacks anything, there is no point in stealing. Moreover, all potential criminals knew that there could be no escape from the surveillance of the Overlords. In the early days of their rule, they had intervened so effectively on behalf of law and order that the lesson had never been forgotten.

Crimes of passion, though not quite extinct, were almost unheard of. Now that so many of its psychological problems had been removed, humanity was far saner and less irrational. And what earlier ages would have called vice was now no more than eccentricity—or, at the worst, bad manners.

One of the most noticeable changes had been a slowing-down of the mad tempo that had so characterized the twentieth century. Life was more leisurely than it had been for generations. It therefore had less zest for the few, but more tranquillity for the many. Western man had relearned—what the rest of the world had never forgotten—that there was nothing sinful in leisure as long as it did not degenerate into mere sloth.

Whatever problems the future might bring, time did not yet hang heavy on humanity's hands. Education was now much more thorough and much more protracted. Few people left college before twenty—and that was merely the first stage, since they normally returned again at twenty-five for at least three more years, after travel and experience had broadened their minds. Even then, they would probably take refresher courses at intervals for the remainder of their lives in the subjects that particularly interested them.

This extension of human apprenticeship so far past the beginning of physical maturity had given rise to many social changes. Some of these had been necessary for generations, but earlier periods had refused to face the challenge—or had pretended that it did not exist. In particular, the pattern of sexual mores—insofar as there had ever been a single pattern—had altered radically. It had been virtually shattered by two inventions, which were, ironically enough, of purely human origin and owed nothing to the Overlords.

The first was a completely reliable oral contraceptive; the second was an equally infallible method—as certain as fingerprinting, and based on a very detailed analysis of the blood—of identifying the father of any child. The effect of these two inventions upon human society could only be described as devastating, and they had swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration.

(ed note: the above was written in 1953. A reasonably reliable oral contraceptive became available in 1960, and highly accurate DNA paternity tests became available in the 1980s. Sadly for Clarke's future history, as of 2016 in the US the Puritans are still with us.)

Another great change was the extreme mobility of the new society. Thanks to the perfection of air transport, everyone was free to go anywhere at a moment's notice. There was more room in the skies than there had ever been on the roads, and the, twenty-first century had repeated, on a larger scale, the great American achievement of putting a nation on wheels.

It had given wings to the world.

Though not literally. The ordinary private flyer or aircar had no wings at all, or indeed any visible control surfaces.

Even the clumsy rotor blades of the old helicopters had been banished. Yet man had not discovered anti-gravity; only the Overlords possessed that ultimate secret. His aircars were propelled by forces which the Wright brothers would have understood. Jet reaction, used both directly and in the more subtle form of boundary layer control, drove his flyers forward and held them in the air. As no laws or edicts of the Overlords could have done, the ubiquitous little aircars had washed away the last barriers between the different tribes of mankind.

From CHILDHOOD'S END by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

(ed note: this is from a satirical fantasy novel, but still demonstrates how technology changes society. The same concept can be adapted to science fiction.

The race of dwarfs do lots of mining. This means dealing with the dangerously explosive gas called firedamp. A profession arose to deal with firedamp, called "knockermen". And knockermen became leaders. Until...)

     'Thank you for that, corporal. Tell me . . . those robes some of the dwarfs were wearing. I know they wear them on the surface so they're not polluted by the nasty sunlight, but why wear them down there?'
     'It's traditional, sir. Er, they were worn by the . . . well, it's what you'd call the knockermen, sir.'
     'What did they do?'
     'Well, you know about firedamp? It's a gas you get in mines sometimes. It explodes.'
     Vimes saw the images in his mind as Cheery explained . . .

     The miners would clear the area, if they were lucky. And the knockerman would go in wearing layer after layer of chain-mail and leather, carrying his sack of wicker globes stuffed with rags and oil. And his long pole. And his slingshot.
     Down in the mines, all alone, he'd hear the knockers. Agi Hammerthief and all the other things that made noises, deep under the earth.
     There could be no light, because light would mean sudden, roaring death. The knockerman would feel his way through the utter dark, far below the surface.
     There was a type of cricket that lived in the mines. It chirruped loudly in the presence of firedamp. The knockerman would have one in a box, tied to his hat.
     When it sang, a knockerman who was either very confident or extremely suicidal would step back, light the torch on the end of his pole and thrust it ahead of him. The more careful knockerman would step back rather more, and slingshot a ball of burning rags into the unseen death. Either way, he'd trust in his thick leather clothes to protect him from the worst of the blast.
     It was an honorable trade but, at least to start with, it didn't run in families. They didn't have families. Who'd marry a knockerman? They were dead dwarfs walking. But sometimes a young dwarf would ask to become one; his family would be proud, wave him goodbye, and then speak of him as if he was dead, because that made it easier.
     Sometimes, though, knockermen came back. And the ones that survived went on to survive again, because surviving is a matter of practice. And sometimes they would talk a little of what they heard, all alone in the deep mines ... the tap-tapping of dead dwarfs trying to get back into the world, the distant laughter of Agi Hammerthief, the heartbeat of the turtle that carried the world.
     Knockermen became kings.

     Vimes, listening with his mouth open, wondered why the hell it was that dwarfs believed that they had no religion and no priests. Being a dwarf was a religion. People went into the dark for the good of the clan, and heard things, and were changed, and came back to tell...

     And then, fifty years ago, a dwarf tinkering in Ankh-Morpork had found that if you put a simple fine mesh over your lantern flame it'd burn blue in the presence of the gas but wouldn't explode. It was a discovery of immense value to the good of dwarfkind and, as so often happens with such discoveries, almost immediately led to a war.
     'And afterwards there were two kinds of dwarf,' said Cheery sadly. 'There's the Copperheads, who all use the lamp and the patent gas exploder, and the Schmaltzbergers, who stick to the old ways. Of course we're all dwarfs,' she said, 'but relations are rather . . . strained.'
     'I bet they are.'
     'Oh, no, all dwarfs recognize the need for the Low King, it's just that . . .'
     ' . . they don't quite see why knockermen are still so powerful?'
     'It's all very sad,' said Cheery.

From THE FIFTH ELEPHANT by Terry Pratchett (1999)

#1. Eli Whitney Accidentally Causes The Civil War

The American South, the 1790s. The plantation slavery model was in trouble. The old crops of rice, tobacco, and indigo weren't profitable any more. Neither was cotton, due to the labor-intensive process of jerking the seeds out. It took days of combing bush to remove all the sticky seed and get everyone to stop laughing at all the euphemisms.

Cue Eli Whitney and his cotton gin. A relatively quick and easy spur-of-the-moment invention, the gin was capable of whipping out 55 pounds of cotton in a single day. In comparison, teasing out the seeds by hand might get you a whole pound for a day's work. Hooray! The plantations were saved!

Yeah, about that ...

Before the cotton gin came around, slavery had been on the way out. Slaves were expensive to maintain, and poor production was making it exceedingly pointless to keep them. Thanks to the gin, cotton became super profitable, and the cotton economy exploded. There was one catch: While the gin super effectively processed cotton by separating it from its seeds, it did precisely jack s**t to pick it. So by making processing profitable and much more efficient, it massively raised the need for pickers. That is, slaves.

So the number of slaves in the South quintupled between 1800 and 1850, and by 1860, the region was an agricultural powerhouse, its wealth based on King Cotton and slave labor. As for Eli Whitney, he was a scholar and an inventor who never owned slaves himself, so the whole "slavery explosion" part of the equation possibly hadn't even occurred to him. And even if that didn't come as a shock to him, what happened afterwards most certainly did.

When abolitionists up North began to suggest that maybe the South shouldn't be making bank on the bloody backs of human beings, it threatened the livelihoods of every rich man down there. Said rich men weren't taking that from a bunch of Yankees, so next came talk of secession, and you know what happened next. 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War, all tracing back to Eli's humble cotton engine. Which, by the way, he never made much money from, because his device was easily copied and patent law sucked.

Luckily for him, Eli had gained a solid reputation as an innovator, and was eventually consoled with a massive government order. Of guns.

Technological Unemployment

Technological Unemployment is when a machine steals your job.

The classic example is back in the 1800s when all the artisan weavers angrily became Luddites because power looms stole their jobs and gave jobs to low-skilled cheap laborers.

(But the term "sabotage" did not come from Luddites tossing their wooden clog sabots into the the machinery. That is not supported by the etymology. I don't care what Lt. Valeris said in Star Trek VI. It is a common story, though.)

Anyway the economists will assure you that history proves there is nothing to worry about. Yes there will be some short-term pain as all the buggy-whip making jobs vanish, but in the long-term the march of technology will create more new jobs than were originally lost. Believing otherwise means you are an economic ignoramus making the mistake of falling for the Luddite Fallacy.

But around 2013 more and more economists became alarmed that this time it was different.

Up until now, machines were taking away jobs by replacing human strength. Now they were taking away jobs by replacing human intellect. Yuval Harari said “Humans only have two basic abilities — physical and cognitive. When machines replaced us in physical abilities, we moved on to jobs that require cognitive abilities. ... If AI becomes better than us in that, there is no third field humans can move to.”

It started slow. Personal computers with word-processing software drastically reduced the number of secretarial jobs. Income tax preparation software drastically reduced the number of tax preparation companies. Currently many fast food franchises are replacing food preparation workers with robots.

But that's OK said the economists. The displaced workers just need some more education so they can find jobs which have not been computerized yet. And they will be higher paying jobs, just you wait and see!

The economists got a rude shock when computers started taking away high-education jobs. That wasn't supposed to happen. It was also a chilling wake-up call to those with high-education jobs who had been smugly saying their jobs were safe.

For example, a new company called Enlitic applied Google's deep learning software TensorFlow to the task of diagnosing lung cancer by examining lung CT scans. They easily trained the software to do the work. Then they did a test where a panel of four of the world’s top human radiologists competed with the software. The results were dramatic. The human radiologists had a false positive rate (incorrectly diagnosing cancer) of 66%. The software had a false positive rate of only 47%. What is worse, the human radiologists had a false negative rate (missing a cancer diagnosis) of 7% while the software had a false negative rate of Zero.

Which means that once Enlitic trains their software on the other diseases, human radiologists will suddenly find themselves out of a job. The software will be cheaper than a radiologist's salary ($286,000/year), and can work 24-7. OK Mr. Economist, what sort of education would you suggest so these suddenly unemployed radiologists can find a better-paying job? Preferably a job that will NOT become lost to computer software before they even complete their education.

Such software is also making inroads into stealing such jobs as writing sports stories, journalism, computer programming, sewing garments, marketing, doing the job of junior lawyers by sorting through previous court cases and legal resources to find precedents, money management, and writing legal briefs. Not to mention financial analysts. And it is just a matter of time before general medical diagnosis falls as well.

As one commentor noted: It's not that complicated. Automation will go from freeing us up to do what we're good at, to being better than us at what we're good at. That's why it's different.

The mood among economists is becoming grim. While many are still maintaining that new jobs will eventually replaced the vanished ones, their pronouncements are starting to sound a bit hollow. The economists who believe the jobs will not be coming back used to be a tiny minority, but a 2014 Pew Research revealed such economists are now more like 48%. Technology is now destroying more jobs than it creates. The Luddite Fallacy is on very shaky ground.

Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a study with the findings that almost half of U.S. jobs are at high risk of computerization over the next 20 years. Positions that are particularly vulnerable to automation include telemarketers, tax preparers, watch repairers, insurance underwriters, cargo and freight agents, and mathematical technicians. Driving jobs on mining sites are already being automated and long-distance truck drivers, forklift operators and agricultural drivers could be replaced within five to 10 years.

A more recent McKinsey report suggested today's technology could feasibly replace 45% of jobs right now.

And for jobs requiring lower education lost to automation, even if they are eventually replace in the long-term, the short-term can wreck the entire US economy if the number of jobs is huge enough. It can be a disaster if the transition is too fast. The advent of autonomous cars and driverless trucks could put five million people in the US out of a job. The point being that the US economy does not have the ability to create five million new jobs fast enough to employ these people.

There are those who say: but what about creative jobs? A robot might be stronger and a computer might be smarter, but can they make art? The first point is if you actually think you can solve the unemployment problem by teaching the unemployed to be artists, well good luck with that. The second point is yes, computers are starting to make art.

Taken to its logical extreme, eventually there won't be any more jobs. None, everything will be done by robots and computers. Which is a problem since in modern society one needs money in order to avoid starving to death. And there are not a lot of ways to get money without a job. Not legal ways at any rate. The only people with money will be the ones that own the robots, or have income from either stocks or being independently wealthy.

Yes, corporations that manufacture goods for sale are shooting themselves in the foot by firing all their employees and replacing them with robots. This reduces the number of potential customers (ones who have money to purchase your product at any rate). However this is a "tragedy of the commons" situation. Basically each company figures the declining number of customers is Somebody Else's Problem, not their problem. Even worse, if a company decides to virtuously hang on to their workers to maintain the number of consumers, the company will find itself at a competitive disadvantage with respect to all their evil competitors who use robots. The virtuous companies will go bankrupt from the unfair competition from the evil companies.

But the big point is any society is only three missed meals away from violent anarchy. If widespread technological unemployment increases, the problem will be solved either elegantly by government and society, or it will solve itself inelegantly by natural forces. Probably food riots and angry hungry people setting up lots of guillotines to take care of the robot owners. The French Revolution was over 200 years ago, but the situation is much the same and if we are unlucky so will be the solution. Everything old is new again.

And obviously the food riots are not going to hold off until 100% unemployment happens. They will start much sooner than that.

So what are the elegant solutions?

Banning/refusing innovation
Somehow slow down the rate of technological innovation. Yeah, like that's ever going to work. There is too much money to be made by corporations through innovation. And you'll need global enforcement, or innovation-banned nations cannot compete with illegal innovation-allowed nations (see Butlerian Jihad). Practically all economists won't even consider this as a solution.
Welfare payments
Subsidies and hand outs to those affected. This is a band-aid trying to treat a sucking chest wound. Welfare is intended to be a temporary solution to until the situation fixes itself. Unfortunately this situation is permanent and "those affected" will include about 90% of the population.
Basic Income
Give everybody a salary large enough for food and housing, for free. Of course the first question that arises is "where is all that money going to come from" and the answer is usually "by taxing the rich" (though there are some schemes that somehow privatize the money source). Some say it is a bad idea because it will be a disincentive to work, which overlooks the fact that the problem is there isn't any work to be had. There are many who say such a scheme will be inevitable because the only alternative is guillotines.
This is a re-hash of the "educate displaced workers with skills to get new jobs." Try telling that to the radiologists (who will probably become so enraged that they will double the number of bones in your body). Besides, there won't be any jobs to be educated into.
Public Works
In other words, create enough fake jobs composed of worthless busy-work to give everybody a job (see Featherbedding). This creates the illusion of full employment. Again the question arises: where will the money come from?
Shorter Working Hours
This boils down to "as the amount of available work shrinks, it will have to be rationed so everybody can have a job." Obviously this is a stop-gap measure, not a solution. If the amount of available work is now zero, so will be the size of your work-ration.
Broadening the ownership of technological assets
If the only way to make money is by either owning robots or owning stock, then the government will have to give everybody free robots and stock so they can live. Again, who is going to pay for this?

And there are those who say that the rich should foot the bill for a solution, telling them that this is the fee for "guillotine insurance."

But a commentator named Kalin said: The elites will share their wealth only insofar as it's cheaper to do that (bread and circuses) than it is to keep the proles at bay through force. What Marx saw as an inexorable trend towards socialism may have in fact just been a temporary consequence of the industrial revolution, wherein labor was especially important and the power of an individual worker was large in historical terms. It's not impossible to imagine a sort of "Neo Feudalism" where a small minority of elites find it cheaper to maintain control via technological force-multipliers than to share their earnings such that everyone is actually happy or nearly so.

In other words, the rich will do the math and may well discover that a private army is cheaper than funding a Basic Income.

EWreckedSean observed: "This is how we get a Kwisatz Haderach..."


Mass automation is undermining our democracy in a very specific way: it's acting as the ultimate "resource curse."

"Countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources."

Scholars debate the causes of the resource curse, but one popular theory has to do with the way autocrats fund themselves relative to democracies.

Autocrats, it turns out, need a lot of wealth to pay their cronies. No dictator rules alone; they need someone to run the military, someone to collect the taxes, and someone to enforce the laws. Those people have to be paid, and handsomely, or they'll overthrow the dictator (or just allow the dictator to be overthrown). This is called "selectorate theory" and this video is a great introduction.

Oil wealth, specifically, undermines democracy because when autocrats have access to oil wealth, they don't need to depend on their citizens very much. (Indeed, many oil-rich autocratic countries just allow other countries to come in and drill it, keeping local labor entirely out of the loop.)

Resource-cursed autocracies tend to democratize when the oil wealth runs out and they need to rely on the people's productivity to deliver wealth to cronies. When autocrats are forced to allow people to educate themselves and communicate with one another, democracy ensues.

It can work the other way, too. In every democracy, there's a group of folks asking themselves a question: is now the time to try a coup, to replace democracy with an autocracy? As the value of capital increases and the value of human labor decreases, the advantages of staging a coup become more and more enticing.

For years we've thought of human labor as the "ultimate resource." But it turns out that human labor isn't the ultimate resource. Robot labor that's just as good if not better than human labor is a resource beyond any we've ever seen.

But that means that we're discovering/inventing the ultimate resource curse.

We might use automation to fund universal basic income, or a class of elites could use it to undermine "unnecessary" citizens (the "unnecessariat"), establishing a corporate fascism.

When the government depends on human productivity for our tax base, the government needs to keep us all well-educated and healthy. But soon, government won't depend on human labor.

"Is now the time?" they're asking. And, increasingly, the answer is "yes."


People could indulge in such whims, because they had both the time and the money. The abolition of armed forces had at once almost doubled the world’s effective wealth, and increased production had done the rest. As a result, it was difficult to compare the standard of living of twenty-first-century man with that of any of his predecessors.

Everything was so cheap that the necessities of life were free, provided as a public service by the community as roads, water, street lighting and drainage had once been. A man could travel anywhere he pleased, eat whatever food he fancied—without handing over any money. He had earned the right to do this by being a productive member of the community.

There were, of course, some drones, but the number of people sufficiently strong-willed to indulge in a life of complete idleness is much smaller than is generally supposed. Supporting such parasites was considerably less of a burden than providing the armies of ticket-collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks, stockbrokers and so forth whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another.

From CHILDHOOD'S END by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

"Good God, just how big is this underground city?"

"It goes down seventeen levels and now extends nearly to our South Eastern coastline."

Gaynor shook his head slowly, fumbled in his pocket and produced an empty (cigarette) packet. "Ah, well."

"Try one of ours." Michael tossed him one. "They're not superb but they don't turn your ears green like your brands. In the first place they're not synthetic and in the second we have manufacturing standards. No, there's no tip, just suck in a couple of times. If you are fortunate enough to join our community you'll get forty a week basic."


"Unlike the Administration we maintain the aged and physically unemployable. For these there is the basic: free accommodation, food, beamed entertainment and a few minor luxuries."

"Your economic system seems well worked out."

"Excellent." Relling rubbed his hands as if he had accomplished something important. "Now let's go out and spend some money."

"What money?" Perplexity made Gaynor sound aggressive.

"Mine for demonstrable purposes. You have only basic, a hundred units a week, which is not enough to go rash on. Of course, as soon as you decide on this job, you will get a salary plus basic."

From THE PRODIGAL SUN by Philip E. High (1964)

Future Shock

One of the many ways of classifying personally types in twain is into "Neophiles" and "Neophobes." The former love and enjoy changes and new things, the latter instead hate and feel threatened by the same. Neophobes are hostile to series of changes, with responses ranging from "Stop The World, I Want To Get Off" to full blown Reactionary feelings.

And when the changes start coming faster and faster (i.e, the rate of change increases), Neophobes become more and more frantic. Which makes the current world situation a pretty dire place for Neophobes, since accelerated change is exactly what is happening. None of the Neophobe attempts to turn the clock back have any effect (generally because large corporations are making too much money exploiting the changes). At some point a given Neophobe is going to snap.

This threatens advancement along a tech tree since technological advancement is by definition a series of changes. Such technological changes always have a social impact. Just ask anybody who used to have a job on an automobile assembly line. Or people forced to be caregivers for their elderly parents who were granted longer lifespans by advancements in medical technology (welcome to the Sandwich Generation).

The concept (and the very term itself) of Future Shock was popularized by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book. As of this writing (2016) Toffler's book has been shown to be quite accurate by current events. There is a worryingly large segement of the population that is so oppressed by Future Shock that they apparently have undergone a psychological break, and now refuse to accept facts from science and indeed from reality in general.

Characteristically science fiction authors have some future shock aversion themselves, because it makes writing science fiction so much more difficult. There are many literary methods.


Future Shock is a book written by the futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970. In the book, Toffler defines the term "future shock" as a certain psychological state of individuals and entire societies. His shortest definition for the term is a personal perception of "too much change in too short a period of time". The book, which became an international bestseller, grew out of an article "The Future as a Way of Life" in Horizon magazine, Summer 1965 issue. The book has sold over 6 million copies and has been widely translated.


Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society". This change overwhelms people. He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he popularized the term "information overload."

Development of society and production

Alvin Toffler distinguished three stages in development of society and production: agrarian, industrial and post-industrial.

The first stage began in the period of the Neolithic Era when people invented agriculture, thereby passing from barbarity to a civilization. The second stage began in England with the Industrial Revolution during which people invented the machine tool and the steam engine. The third stage began in the second half of the 20th century in the West when people invented automatic production, robotics and the computer. The services sector attained great value.

Toffler proposed one criterion for distinguishing between industrial society and post-industrial society: the share of the population occupied in agriculture versus the share of city labor occupied in the services sector. In a post-industrial society, the share of the people occupied in agriculture does not exceed 15%, and the share of city laborers occupied in the services sector exceeds 50%. Thus, the share of the people occupied with brainwork greatly exceeds the share of the people occupied with physical work in post-industrial society.

Fear of the future

Alvin Toffler's main thought consists of the fact that modern man feels shock from rapid changes. For example, Toffler's daughter went to shop in New York City and she couldn't find a shop in its previous location. Thus New York has become a city without a history. The urban population doubles every 11 years. The overall production of goods and services doubles each 50 years in developed countries. Society experiences an increasing number of changes with an increasing rapidity, while people are losing the familiarity that old institutions (religion, family, national identity, profession) once provided. The so-called "brain drain" – the emigration of European scientists to the United States – is both an indicator of the changes in society and also one of their causes.

From the Wikipedia entry for FUTURE SHOCK

Rather, I'd just like to note that the past decade or so seems to have been marked by a worldwide upwelling of bigotry and intolerance

This stuff is pervasive; you can come up with alarming news of authoritarian excesses in every corner of the globe.

What's going on?

Reading Robert Altermeyer's The Authoritarians gives one or two pointers, but the narrow focus — on authoritarian followers in politics — begs the question of where all this authoritarianism is coming from.

The term Future Shock was coined by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in the 1960s to describe a syndrome brought about by the experience of "too much change in too short a period of time". Per Wikipedia (my copy of Future Shock is buried in a heap of books in the room next door) "Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a 'super-industrial society'. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from 'shattering stress and disorientation' — future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also popularized the term information overload."

It's about forty years since "Future Shock" was published, and it seems to have withstood the test of time. More to the point, the Tofflers' predictions for how the symptoms would be manifest appear to be roughly on target. They predicted a growth of cults and religious fundamentalism; rejection of modernism: irrational authoritarianism: and widespread insecurity. They didn't nail the other great source of insecurity today, the hollowing-out of state infrastructure and externally imposed asset-stripping in the name of economic orthodoxy that Naomi Klein highlighted in The Shock Doctrine, but to the extent that Friedmanite disaster capitalism can be seen as a predatory corporate response to massive political and economic change, I'm inclined to put disaster capitalism down as being another facet of the same problem. (And it looks as if the UK and USA are finally on the receiving end of disaster capitalism at home, in the post-2008 banking crisis era.)

My working hypothesis to explain the 21st century is that the Tofflers underestimated how pervasive future shock would be. I think somewhere in the range from 15-30% of our fellow hairless primates are currently in the grip of future shock, to some degree. Symptoms include despair, anxiety, depression, disorientation, paranoia, and a desperate search for certainty in lives that are experiencing unpleasant and uninvited change. It's no surprise that anyone who can offer dogmatic absolute answers is popular, or that the paranoid style is again ascendant in American politics, or that religious certainty is more attractive to many than the nuanced complexities of scientific debate. Climate change is an exceptionally potent trigger for future shock insofar as it promises an unpleasant and unpredictable dose of upcoming instability in the years ahead; denial is an emotionally satisfying response to the threat, if not a sustainable one in the longer term.

Deep craziness: we're in it, and there's probably not going to be any reduction in the prevalence of authoritarian escapism until we collectively become accustomed to the pace of change. Which will, at a minimum, not happen until the older generations have died of old age — and maybe not even then.

From A WORKING HYPOTHESIS by Charles Stross (2010)

The elderly are all involuntary refugees in an alien culture that is the future version of their own childhood home.

Also, their knees hurt! (This is why so many of them are grumpy.)

Charles Stross (2017)

(ed note: During the fall of the Galactic Empire the Vegan Scout Starfire was sent on a bogus mission into unexplored space, basically to die in the wilderness. The ship gradually falls apart due to lack of spares and proper engineers. Finally it crashes on an unknown planet, the ship a total wreck. But Captain Vibor snaps and calmly orders the crew to fix the unfixable ship.)

     “Let’s have it,” he said and sat down on a bedroll. He was aware that the tension which had held them all for a second or two was relaxing. And he knew that the rangers would follow his lead—they would wait for his decision.
     “(Captain) Vibor is no longer with us—he’s—he’s cracked.” Smitt fumbled for words. And Kartr read in him a rising fear and desolation.
     “Is it because of his loss of sight? If that is so, the condition may be only temporary. When he becomes resigned to that—”
     “No. He has been heading for a breakdown for a long time. The responsibility of command under present conditions—that fight with the Greenies—he was good friends with Tork, remember? The ship falling to pieces bit by bit and no chance for repairs— It’s added up to drive him under. Now he’s just refusing to accept a present he doesn’t dare believe in. He’s retired into a world of his own where things go right instead of wrong. And he wants us in there with him.
     …But Kartr could at this moment understand the odd incidents of the past months, certain inconsistencies in Vibor’s orders—one or two remarks he had overheard.
     “You think that there is no chance of his recovering?”
     “No. The crash pushed him over the edge. The orders he’s given during the past hour or so—I tell you—he’s finished!”

(ed note: This is the fate of those suffering from acute Future Shock)

From STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton, 1953.
Collected in STAR SOLDIERS (2001), currently a free eBook in the Baen free library.

The first person to introduce the concept of Future Shock was Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock. The main argument is that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a “super-industrial society”. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change will leave them disconnected, suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation” – future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of future shock.

A few years earlier, Gordon Moore in his now famous paper introduced the idea that would eventually be called Moore’s Law, that states that the speed and density of microprocessor design will follow an exponential curve. This was at a time when computers had barely had any impact on society, nearly 20 years before PC’s made hardly a dent on the economic landscape. 30 years later we saw the explosion of the Internet into the world. Now 40 years later, microprocessors speed is doubling almost every year, and its effects are extraordinary. Not a day goes buy now when some scientific or technological advance isn’t hitting the front pages. As Ray Kurzweil suggest with his Law of Accelerating Returns, microprocessor are such an integrated part of our lives of economic progress, that now society too is caught up in this accelerating change, suggesting that we could see as much change in the next 25 years, as we saw in the last 10,000 years combined!

As one of the leading thinkers on the singularity, Eliezer Yudkowsky is someone accustomed to thinking about extremes of future technological change and advancement. After having many wide ranging discussions with futurists of all stripes, he noticed that certain technological implications can be too “far out” or shocking to some groups more than others. So he came up with what he calls Future Shock Levels or the level that different people find themselves in terms of their concept of the future, and what they are willing to consider, or which is too futuristic or even shocking for them.

Shock Level 0

Degree of Change: Flat.

Technologies: Same as today, maybe more TV channels, bigger cars or TV’s.

The legendary average person is comfortable with modern technology – not so much the frontiers of modern technology, but the technology used in everyday life. Most people, TV anchors, journalists, politicians.

For people at this level, the future is seen as pretty much the same as it is today. If you could chart their concept of the future on a graph, you would see change reaching a plateau today and leveling off from here on out. Almost every economic and political paper about the future I’ve read falls into this category. When they discuss wide ranging implications of their policy decisions, there is hardly any mention of technological change at all, and only in the most mundane ways with concepts of Level 1 being described as something to be afraid of, with dangerous out-of-control implications. The current climate of fear over cloning and stem-cell therapy falls into this level.

Shock Level 1

Degree of Change: Logarithmic, then hitting a relative plateau in a decade or two.

Technologies: Virtual reality, living to a hundred, e-commerce, hydrogen economy, ubiquitous computing, stem-cell cloning, minor genetic improvements.

At this level you will find the majority of futurists and future oriented publications. Modern technological frontiers as depicted in WIRED magazine and books like Future Shock and Bill Gates, The Road Ahead. Included in this group are most scientists, novelty-seekers, early-adopters, programmers and technophiles.

Placed on a chart, future progress will continue upwards in a logarithmic fashion, with each year bringing the same amount of change as last year. Eventually this incremental change will lead to people living to a hundred, and optimistically in a society with clean energy, general economic prosperity, and conservative space exploration scenarios.

In my experience most of the people described above think about the future in relatively conservative terms. If you ever read a future oriented article by one of them they often say things like, “This probably won’t happen in my lifetime, but perhaps my children or grandchildren will live to see it”, If you ever read a quote like that you know you’re reading someone at SL1. Almost every report that comes out of NASA is hopelessly stuck at SL1.

Shock Level 2

Degree of Change: Logarithmic to Exponential

Technologies: major genetic engineering, medical immortality, interstellar travel, and new “alien” cultures.

At this level you’ll find your typical SF Fan. Literary SF and cutting edge magazines like Mondo 2000, Omni or Future magazine of days past were filled with Level 2 ideas. Ironically, I don’t know of a single popular SF movie or TV show that exists comfortably at this level. Not even Star Trek qualifies for SL2, as it barely considers life spans past 100, with immortality remaining the exclusive domain of “super-advanced aliens”.

Up and until the 1980’s there wasn’t much discussion of future change past level 2, except in the most limited sense. This is probably because the concept of radical accelerating change was still beyond the radar of almost every forward thinking person at the time. Enabling Level 3 technologies like molecular nanotechnology were not even considered then. The only exceptions I know of are Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary, who were completely at home with post-human evolution (SL3).

Shock Level 3

Degree of Change: Exponential

Technologies: Immortality, nanotechnology, human-equivalent AI, intelligence increase, mind uploading, total body revision, intergalactic exploration, megascale engineering.

Clearly identifiable people didn’t exist at this level until the 1980’s when groups like the Extropians and transhumanists emerged. Writers like Robert Anton Wilson, and Timothy Leary with his SMI2LE concept were the first people to my knowledge who discussed this level in any depth. However, it wasn’t until Eric Drexler published his book Engines of Creation that finally set the stage for concrete, detailed technological speculation of SL3 possibilities.

Shock Level 4

Degree of Change: Exponential to Hyperbolic (Accelerating Acceleration)

Technologies: Singularity, Matrioska “Jupiter” Brains, Powers, complete mental revision, ultraintelligence, posthumanity, Alpha-Point computing, Apotheosis, the total evaporation of “life as we know it.”

The only people I know who are comfortable discussing change at this level are Singularitarians, and some cutting edge psychedelic pioneers like Terence McKenna and John Lilly. Olaf Stapledon in his book Star Maker waxed poetic about SL3 megascale engineering and SL4 ultra-intelligences, and John Lilly discussed multiple encounters with a SL4 intelligences, which he gave names like “ECCO” and “Solid State Entities”. The first writer to bring this into concrete technological terms was Vernor Vinge in his 1993 paper . These ideas were soon picked up by Extropians and Transhumanists, but as far as I know it wasn’t until the Singularitarians that this level was embraced concretely and enthusiastically.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, If there’s a Shock Level Five, I’m not sure I want to know about it!

Eliezer goes on to say,

“If somebody is still worried about virtual reality (low end of SL1), you can safely try explaining medical immortality (low-end SL2), but not nanotechnology (SL3) or uploading (high SL3). They might believe you, but they will be frightened – shocked.

That’s not to say you can’t do it. In fact, you can take advantage of the future shock to carry the idea. You just have to be careful.

By a similar token, a Singularitarian can shock a science-fiction fan, but not an Extropian – the Extropian will be interested, perhaps enthusiastic, but not shocked. (Of course, if the person was already enthusiastic about Transhumanism, they might be wildly enthusiastic about the Singularity.) An Extropian can shock your average Wired reader, but should be careful about trying this with the “person on the street” – they may be frightened. And so on. In general, one shock level gets you enthusiasm, two gets you a strong reaction – wild enthusiasm or disbelief, three gets you frightened – not necessarily hostile, but frightened, and four can get you burned at the stake.”

From FUTURE SHOCK LEVELS by Paul Hughes (2004)

(ed note: A decade before the events in the novel, the alien Maseni land on Terra and become our best friends. Sadly, a large percentage of the human population has an acute attack of Future Shock. Neophobes, the entire lot of them.)

     “You have this compulsion to talk with zanies,” Brutus said. “We never encounter a batch of Pure Earthers that you pass by; you’ve always got to stop and have a few words with them.”
     “They fascinate me,” Jessie said.
     “Sometimes, I think you could be one of them, with a little nudge,” the hell hound said, contemptuously.
     Jessie ignored the hound’s sneering remark. He said, “The Pure Earthers are borderline Shockies; if they’d been just a hair more upset by the Maseni landing and all that’s come since, they’d be in one of the homes. I’ll never have the chance to see any real Shockies, but I can get an idea what they must be like from studying the Pure Earthers.”
     “Why this interest in Shockies?” Brutus asked.
     “You know why. My parents are Shockies.”
     “Oh, yeah,” Brutus said. “I forgot.” But he hadn’t forgotten at all. He was just looking for something more to sneer about. “They went starkers when the Maseni touched down, a couple of wide-eyed blubbers.”
     Jessie watched the approaching Pure Earthers. “That’s right.”

     The first Maseni interstellar ships had landed a decade ago, in the second week of October, 1990. Within a year, the population of Earth—regardless of nationality, race, ethnic group, or education—had been roughly divided into three types of reactions.

     First, there were those who were profoundly shocked by these developments, but who were able to cope and reorder the nature of their lives and the limits of their perceptions of the universe. These were about forty-five percent of the population.

     Another forty-five percent were simply unable to adjust. These were the Shockies. They were jolted by the realization that mankind was not the most intelligent species in existence, a fact scientists had predicted for years but which the Shocldes had always rejected as “holcum” or “bunkum” or “crap,” or “heresy” or “craziness”. They were further jolted to discover— thanks to the Maseni—that the supernatural world actually existed, that the denizens of nightmare were real (vampires, werewolves, etc.). And they were crushed to discover that (insert deity of choice) was not quite the being they had always thought. Not only were their patriotic and racial convictions smashed, but so was their spiritual belief…

     Shockies behaved in one of three ways:
  1. Uncontrolled rage that led to murder, bombing, rape and rampages of undirected violence.
  2. As they had always acted before, refusing to acknowledge that the Maseni existed or that their world had changed at all, no matter how much that changed world impinged on their fantasy.
  3. Or they simply became catatonic, staring off into another world, unable to speak, unable to feed themselves or control their own bodily functions.
     Cultural shock, severe, horrible.

     Space-program scientists had long theorized the extent of such a sickness an alien race should ever be found, but none of them had realized how far-reaching the illness would be.

     “Are you going to bleed for them forever?” Brutus asked. “Haven't you ever heard of ‘survival of the fittest’? Did the Cro-Magnon man weep for the Neanderthal?”
     “These were my parents,” Blake said. “My mother and father. If they could have just accepted change, a little bit—”
     “Then they’d have been Pure Earthers,” Brutus said. “Would you have been any happier with that?”
     “I guess not.”

     The Pure Earthers, at first, had no name and operated under no central organization; that development had required five years in the making. But they were all alike, and they could function coherently as a group; the Pure Earth League was an inevitable product of the Maseni landing. Those citizens who had not gone starkers but who were also unable to cope, about ten percent of the world population, agitated for an end of Human-Maseni relations and a return to the simpler life. They were, of course, doomed to extinction. Their own children, more accustomed to seeing Maseni and supernaturals in the streets, were falling away from the older folks; succeeding generations would give fewer and fewer bodies to the Cause.

     Millennium City was a 200-store shopping mall, most of it under a single roof, with indoor pedwalks, indoor and outdoor parks, fountains, convention facilities, hotels, more fountains, amusement centers, free theaters and museums, robot guides to help you find your way, a three hundred million credit wonder that had been completed only a year before. It was staffed exclusively by robots and was efficiently run, enormously profitable.

     Only ten years earlier, it could never have been built —and not only because Maseni technology was required to construct it. Ten years ago, the city of Los Angeles simply would not have had the room, in the heart of its west side, to contain such a lavish, three-hundred-acre structure. Then, there had been too many people, too much crowding.

     Now, a decade after the Maseni landing on Earth, the city was only half as populated as it had been. Forty-five percent of the city’s people had gone starkers and ended up in homes for Shockies. Many of these, in the following ten years, either took their own lives or died from too long in a catatonic trance. For the most part, the Shockies were those who were already hopelessly at odds with their times; they were, in many cases, those who ignored the warnings of ecologists and continued to have large families, polluting the Earth with excess flesh. Removed from the mating cycle, they no longer contributed to the population boom.

     Those who adapted to the Maseni and the other changes, tended to have no families, or small ones. As the Shockies died, the population dropped, and land became available. With the welfare rolls almost wiped out, and with vital services crying for good workers, everyone again had a job and everyone was more affluent than any time in the nation’s history. There was not only room to build Millennium City, but also credits to spend there.

     Old office buildings were torn down, as were rows and rows of shabby houses where no one lived any more. They razed factories that had once produced useless gadgets and flashy gewgaws, for none of these things were now in demand; society had suddenly become aware of its own power and of the true value of possessions. Millennium City not only provided services and products, but a place to feel at ease, a center for commerce which was, at the same time, a business establishment and a community meeting place.

From THE HAUNTED EARTH by Dean Koontz (1973)

You Are Not Ready

This is when a technological advance is so powerful and destructive that some idiot will eventually use it to cause powerful destruction. Things are bad enough when some human researcher stumbles over the advance, but it can be lots worse when the advance is some ultra-high tech paleotechnology from a long extinct Forerunner species. The classic example is the Krell technology from the movie Forbidden Planet.

The important point to note is that the technology is not bad or evil per se, only in the hands of a primitive emotional race such as human beings. Once the human race reaches maturity such technology is safe. Imagine a type of nanotechnology that can be hacked into a form that can turn the entire planet Terra into gray goo, yet simple enough to be made by a bright teenager in their parent's garage. Terra wouldn't last five minutes before it started to dissolve. Some idiot would try it, probably thousands of idiots simultaneously. Morons who what to see what happens, angry people who want to make the entire world pay, depressed people who want to really end it all, those who think such a corrupt world needs a do-over, I'm sure you can think of many others.

However, you cannot child-proof the entire universe. The long term solution is not to suppress technology, but to uplift humanity. Because suppressing technology never works in the long term. When it is steam-engine time, it is steam-engine time.

But sometimes people try. The TV Trope is Keeper of Forbidden Knowledge. An example are the colonists sent to planet Topaz in Andre Norton's The Defiant Agents. The Western Alliance and Greater Russian are both frantically sending interstellar colonists to every planet they can find. They hope to find valuable paleotechnology from the forerunner galactic empire that collapsed about ten thousand years ago. Topaz is supposed to be a Western planet but Russia infiltrates some of their own. Paleotechnology is discovered. However, both sets of colonists realize that if either the Alliance or Russia gets their hands on the alien tech, Terra will be destroyed in the resulting war. So they set themselves up as keepers of forbidden knowledge, with three colonists on each side knowing the secret, and faking the failure of the colony.

The Dragonborn: Surely there's more you can tell me.
Master Arngeir: There is indeed much that we know that you do not. That does not mean that you are ready to understand it.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Commonly uttered phrase by powerful — often Sufficiently Advanced — beings when lesser lifeforms (like our heroes) ask for assistance or technical support. Oftentimes, the heroes get a hold of the information or gear for themselves, and the point is proven or refuted. (If the hero keeps insisting for an answer, they may get an Armor-Piercing Response, which may prove that they're indeed not ready.)

In other situations, this can be a line uttered by either The Mentor or the Big Bad. In the former case, he is telling our young hero not to be brash and preparation is very important (though the hero will rarely listen). In the latter case, it is used as a rather hammy taunt.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

The Weapon

The room was quiet in the dimness of early evening. Dr. James Graham, key scientist of a very important project, sat in his favorite chair, thinking. It was so still that he could hear the turning of pages in the next room as his son leafed through a picture book.

Often Graham did his best work, his most creative thinking, under these circumstances, sitting alone in an unlighted room in his own apartment after the day’s regular work. But tonight his mind would not work constructively. Mostly he thought about his mentally arrested son–his only son–in the next room. The thoughts were loving thoughts, not the bitter anguish he had felt years ago when he had first learned of the boy’s condition. The boy was happy; wasn’t that the main thing?

He opened the door. A stranger stood there; he said, “Dr. Graham? My name is Niemand; I’d like to talk to you. May I come in a moment?”

The small man interlocked his fingers; he leaned forward. He said, “Dr. Graham, you are the man whose scientific work is more likely than that of any other man to end the human race’s chance for survival.”

A crackpot, Graham thought. Too late now he realized that he should have asked the man’s business before admitting him. It would be an embarrassing interview–he disliked being rude, yet only rudeness was effective.

“Dr. Graham, the weapon on which you are working–”

Niemand’s eyes met Graham’s and he said, “I like him,” with obvious sincerity. He added, “I hope that what you’re going to read to him will always be true.”

Graham didn’t understand. Niemand said, “Chicken Little, I mean. It’s a fine story–but may Chicken Little always be wrong about the sky falling down.”

Graham suddenly had liked Niemand when Niemand had shown liking for the boy. Now he remembered that he must close the interview quickly. He rose, in dismissal.

He said, “I fear you’re wasting your time and mine, Mr. Niemand. I know all the arguments, everything you can say I’ve heard a thousand times. Possibly there is truth in what you believe, but it does not concern me. I’m a scientist, and only a scientist. Yes, it is public knowledge that I am working on a weapon, a rather ultimate one. But, for me personally, that is only a by-product of the fact that I am advancing science. I have thought it through, and I have found that that is my only concern.”

“But, Dr. Graham, is humanity ready for an ultimate weapon?”

Graham frowned. “I have told you my point of view, Mr. Niemand.”

Niemand said, “I took the liberty of bringing a small gift to your son, doctor. I gave it to him while you were getting the drinks for us. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Of course. Thank you. Good night.”

Graham closed the door; he walked through the living room into Harry’s room. He said, “All right, Harry. Now I’ll read to–”

There was sudden sweat on his forehead, but he forced his face and his voice to be calm as he stepped to the side of the bed. “May I see that, Harry?” When he had it safely, his hands shook as he examined it.

He thought, only a madman would give a loaded revolver to an idiot.

From THE WEAPON by Fredric Brown (1951)

      Ashe himself and a younger partner, Ross Murdock, had been part of the final action which had solved the mystery, having traced that source of knowledge not to an earlier and forgotten human civilization but to wrecked spaceships from an eon-old galactic empire—an empire which had flourished when glacial ice covered most of Europe and northern America and humans were cave-dwelling primitives.

     Voyage tape fed into the controls of the ship had taken the men, and, when rewound, it had almost miraculously returned them to Earth with a cargo of similar tapes found on a world which might have been the capital for a government comprised of whole solar systems. Tapes—each one was the key to another planet.
     And that ancient galactic knowledge was treasure such as humans had never dreamed of possessing, though many rightly feared that such discoveries could be weapons in hostile hands. Tapes chosen at random had been shared with other nations at a great drawing. But each nation secretly remained convinced that, in spite of the untold riches it might hold as a result of chance, its rivals had done better. Right at this moment, Ashe knew there were Western agents trying to do at the Russian project just what Camdon (the Russian spy) had done there (stolen the coordinates of the Western-own planet Topaz). However, that did not help in solving their present dilemma about Operation Cochise (Western operation to colonize Topaz), now perhaps the most important part of their plan.
     "We test and we test," said the fat man. "Always we test. We move like turtles when it would be better to race like greyhounds. There is such a thing as overcaution, as I have said from the first. One would think"—his accusing glance included Ashe and Kelgarries—"that there had never been any improvising in this project, that all had always been done by the book. I say that this is the time we must take the big gamble, or else we may find we have been outbid for space entirely. Let those others discover even one alien installation they can master and—" his thumb shifted from his lip, grinding down on the desk top as if it were crushing some venturesome but entirely unimportant insect—"and we are finished before we really begin."

(ed note: The Russians claim-jump Topaz and set up their own colony. It includes colonists who are descended from the Tartars, and who are enslaved by a brain control gizmo. They also set up an orbital defense network to destroy the Western colony ship when it arrives.

The Western colony ship shows up, is attacked, but manages to survive for a crash landing. The Russians think the ship was destroyed. The only survivors are the Western colonists, all descended from Apache native americans, and who are still recovering from the Redax treatment. Redax leaves them thinking and reacting just like their distant ancestors. Back on Terra there is also colony teams composed of Eskimos and Pacific Islanders, waiting for appropriate planets to be discovered.

As it turns out, there is indeed a forerunner installation on the planet inside some hidden towers. It is just jam packed with lethal high tech weapons that the human race is not mature enough to use. Luckily the Russians are unaware of the installation.

The Apache team meet up with Tartars who have escaped Russian brain control and they make a common cause against the evil Russian overlords. This will be a challenge since they only have bow & arrows, spears and knives. The Russians have helicopter and machine guns.)

     "Listen," Jil-Lee, his side padded with bandages, stepped closer—"and tell me, younger brother, what is it that you seek in these towers?"
     "On another world there were secrets of the old ones to be found in such ancient buildings. Here that might also be true."
     "Yet, Nolan, I do not believe that it is for more voyage tapes that our younger brother now searches, nor would those do us any good—as our ship will not rise again from here. What is it that you do seek?"
     "Knowledge—weapons, maybe. Can we stand against these machines of the Russians? Yet many of the devices they now use are taken from the star ships they have looted through time. To every weapon there is a defense."
     Nolan blinked and for the first time a hint of interest touched the mask of his face. "To the bow, the rifle," he said softly, "to the rifle, the machine gun, to the cannon, the bomb. The defense can be far worse than the first weapon. So you think that in these towers there may be things which shall be to the Russian's machines as the bomb is to the cannon of the Horse Soldiers?"
     Travis had an inspiration. "Did not our people lay aside the bow for the rifle when we went up against the Bluecoats?"
     "We do not so go up against these Russians!" protested Lupe.
     "Not now. But what if they come across the mountains, perhaps driving the Tatars before them to do their fighting—?"
     "And you believe that if you find weapons in these towers, you will know how to use them?" Jil-Lee asked. "What will give you that knowledge, younger brother?"
     "I do not claim such knowledge," Travis countered. "But this much I do have: Once I studied to be an archaeologist and I have seen other storehouses of these star people. Who else among us can say as much as that?"
     "That is the truth," Jil-Lee acknowledged. "Also there is good sense in this seeking out of the tower things. Let the Russians find such first—if they exist at all—and then we may truly be caught in a box canyon with only death at our heels."

(ed note: Travis Fox finds the forerunner towers, and watches an alien briefing recording)

     But this much he did know—these towers had been built by the bald spacemen (the forerunners), and they were highly important to that vanished stellar civilization. The information in this room, as disjointed as it had been for him, led to a treasure trove on Topaz greater than he had dreamed.
     Travis swayed on the bench. To know so much and yet so little! If Ashe were only here, or some other of the project technicians! A treasure such as Pandora's box had been, peril for one who opened it and did not understand.
     And there was another thing he knew: The Russians must not find this. Such a discovery on their part would not only mean the end of his own people on Topaz, but the end of Earth as well. This place might hold new and alien knowledge that could destroy whole nations at a time!
     If he could—much as his archaeologist's training would argue against it—he would blot out this whole valley above and below ground. But while the Russians might possess a means of such destruction, the Apaches did not. No, he and his people must prevent its discovery by the enemy by doing what he had seen as necessary from the first—wiping out the Russian leaders! And that must be done before they chanced upon the tower!

     Travis slogged on. He was so tired now that only the drug from the ration bars he mouthed at intervals kept him going at a dogged pace, hardly more than a swift walk. And always his mind was haunted by fragments of pictures, pictures he had seen in the reader. The big bomb had been the nightmare of his own world for so long, and what was that against the forces the bald star rovers had been able to command?
     "Towers—" He struggled to keep his wits through the pain and billowing weakness beginning to creep through him. "Russians mustn't get to the towers! Worse than the bomb … end us all!"
     He had a hazy glimpse of Nolan and Jil-Lee closing in about him. The desire to cough tore at him, but they had to know, to believe …
     "Russians get to the towers—everything finished. Not only here … maybe back home too …"

     "I have been thinking of this treasure house in the towers. Suppose we could find new weapons there… ."
     Travis hesitated. He still shrank from the thought of opening the secret places behind those glowing walls, to loose a new peril.
     "If we took weapons from there and lost the fight …" He advanced his first objection and was glad to see the expression of comprehension on Jil-Lee's face.
     "It would be putting the weapons straight into Russian hands," the other agreed.
     "We may have to chance it before we're through," Manulito warned. "Suppose we do get some of their technicians into this trap. We may need a bigger nutcracker than we've ever seen."
     With a return of that queasy feeling he had known in the tower, Travis knew Manulito was speaking sense. They might have to open Pandora's box before the end of this campaign.

(ed note: A small group of Apaches, lead by Fox, go to the towers for the bare minimum of alien weapons. They only take three disintegration pistols.)

     The Apaches looked into a set of compartments, each holding an object with a barrel, a hand grip, a general resemblance to the sidearms of their own world and time, but sufficiently different to point up the essential strangeness. With infinite care Travis worked one out of the vise-support which held it. The weapon was light in weight, lighter than any automatic he had ever held. Its barrel was long, a good eighteen inches—the grip alien in shape so that it didn't fit comfortably into his hand, the trigger nonexistent, but in its place a button on the lower part of the barrel which could be covered by an outstretched finger.
     Travis sighted the long barrel of the weapon at a small bush backed by a boulder, and he pressed the firing button. There was no way of knowing whether the weapon was loaded except to try it.
     The result of his action was quick—quick and terrifying. There was no sound, no sign of any projectile … laser beam … or whatever might have issued in answer to his finger movement. But the bush—the bush was no more!
     A black smear made a ragged outline of the extinguished branches and leaves on the rock which had stood behind. The earth might still enclose roots under a thin coating of ash, but the bush was gone!
     "The breath of Naye'nezyani—powerful beyond belief!" Buck broke the horrified silence first. "In truth evil is here!"
     Jil-Lee raised his gun—if gun it could be called—aimed at the rock with the bush silhouette plain to see and fired.
     This time they were able to witness disintegration in progress, the crumble of the stone as if its substance was no more than sand lapped by river water. A pile of blackened rubble remained—nothing more.
     "To use this on a living thing?" Buck protested, horror basing the doubt in his voice.
     "We do not use it against living things," Travis promised, "but against the ship of the Russians—to cut that to pieces. This will open the shell of the turtle and let us at its meat."
     Jil-Lee nodded. "Those are true words. But now I agree with your fears of this place, Travis. This is a devil thing and must not be allowed to fall into the hands of those who—"
     "Will use it more freely than we plan to?" Buck wanted to know. "We reserve to ourselves that right because we hold our motives higher? To think that way is also a crooked trail. We will use this means because we must, but afterward …"
     Afterward that warehouse must be closed, the tapes giving the entrance clue destroyed. One part of Travis fought that decision, right though he knew it to be. The towers were the menace he had believed. And what was more discouraging than the risk they now ran, was the belief that the treasure was a poison which could not be destroyed but which might spread from Topaz to Earth.
     Suppose the Western Alliance had discovered that storehouse and explored its riches, would they have been any less eager to exploit them? As Buck had pointed out, one's own ideals could well supply reasons for violence. In the past Earth had been racked by wars of religion, one fanatically held opinion opposed to another. There was no righteousness in such struggles, only fatal ends. The Russians had no right to this new knowledge—but neither did they. It must be locked against the meddling of fools and zealots.
     "Taboo—" Buck spoke that word with an emphasis they could appreciate. Knowledge must be set behind the invisible barriers of taboo, and that could work.
     "These three—no more—we found no other weapons!" Jil-Lee added a warning suggestion.
     "No others," Buck agreed and Travis echoed, adding:
     "We found tombs of the space people, and these were left with them. Because of our great need we borrowed them, but they must be returned to the dead or trouble will follow. And they may only be used against the fortress of the Russians by us, who first found them and have taken unto ourselves the wrath of disturbed spirits."
     "Well thought! That is an answer to give the People. The towers are the tombs of dead ones. When we return these they shall be taboo. We are agreed?" Buck asked.
     "We are agreed!"
     Buck tried his weapon on a sapling, saw it vanish into nothingness. None of the Apaches wanted to carry the strange guns against their bodies; the power made them objects of fear, rather than arms to delight a warrior. And when they returned to their temporary camp, they laid all three on a blanket and covered them up. But they could not cover up the memories of what had happened to bush, rock, and tree.
     "If such are their small weapons," Buck observed that evening, "then what kind of things did they have to balance our heavy armament? Perhaps they were able to burn up worlds!"

     Menlik (the Tartar shaman) pulled at his upper lip. "That is also truth. But now they have no eyes in the sky, and with so many of their men away, they will not patrol too far from camp. I tell you, andas, with these weapons of yours a man could rule a world!"
     Travis looked at him bleakly. "Which is why they are taboo!"
     "Taboo?" Menlik repeated. "In what manner are these forbidden? Do you not carry them openly, use them as you wish? Are they not weapons of your own people?"
     Travis shook his head. "These are the weapons of dead men—if we can name them men at all. These we took from a tomb of the star race who held Topaz when our world was only a hunting ground of wild men wearing the skins of beasts and slaying mammoths with stone spears. They are from a tomb and are cursed, a curse we took upon ourselves with their use."
     There was a strange light deep in the shaman's eyes. Travis did not know who or what Menlik had been before the Red conditioner had returned him to the role of Horde shaman. He might have been a technician or scientist—and deep within him some remnants of that training could now be dismissing everything Travis said as fantastic superstition.
     Yet in another way the Apache spoke the exact truth. There was a curse on these weapons, on every bit of knowledge gathered in that warehouse of the towers. As Menlik had already noted, that curse was power, the power to control Topaz, and then perhaps to reach back across the stars to Earth.
     When the shaman spoke again his words were a half whisper. "It will take a powerful curse to keep these out of the hands of men."
     "With the Russians gone or powerless," Buck asked, "what need will anyone have for them?"
     "And if another ship comes from the skies—to begin all over again?"
     "To that we shall have an answer, also, if and when we must find it," Travis replied. That could well be true … other weapons in the warehouse powerful enough to pluck a spaceship out of the sky, but they did not have to worry about that now.
     "Arms from a tomb. Yes, this is truly dead men's magic. I shall say so to my people. When do we move out?"

(ed note: The Apaches and the free Tartars attack the Russian base. The brain-controlled Tartars are diverted, the three Apaches with disintegrator start carving the Russian starship into confetti. They then enter the ship to destroy all the critical equipment.)

     Darkness! Travis snapped on the torch for an instant, saw about him the relays of a com system, and gave it a full spraying as he pivoted, destroying the eyes and ears of the ship—unless the burnout he had effected below had already done that. A flash of automatic fire from his left, a searing burn along his arm an inch or so below the shoulder—
     Travis' action was purely reflex. He swung the burner (disintegrator pistol) around, even as his mind gave a frantic No! To defend himself with automatic, knife, arrow—yes; but not this way. He huddled against the wall.
     An instant earlier there had been a man there, a living, breathing man—one of his own species, if not of his own beliefs. Then because his own muscles had unconsciously obeyed warrior training, there was this. So easy—to deal death without really meaning to. The weapon in his hands was truly the devil gift they were right to fear. Such weapons were not to be put into the hands of men—any men—no matter how well intentioned.

     "First," the Apache spoke his own thoughts—"we must return these."
     The three alien weapons were lashed into a square of Mongol fabric, hidden from sight, although they could not be so easily shut out of mind. Only a few of the others, Apache or Mongol, had seen them; and they must be returned before their power was generally known.
     "I wonder if in days to come," Buck mused, "they will not say that we pulled lightning out of the sky, as did the Thunder Slayer, to aid us. But this is right. We must return them and make that valley and what it holds taboo."
     "And what if another ship comes—one of yours?" Menlik asked shrewdly.
     Travis stared beyond the Tatar shaman to the men about the fire. His nightmare dragged into the open … What if a ship did come in, one with Ashe, Murdock, men he knew and liked, friends on board? What then of his guardianship of the towers and their knowledge? Could he be as sure of what to do then? He rubbed his hand across his forehead and said slowly:
     "We shall take steps when—or if—that happens—"
     But could they, would they? He began to hope fiercely that it would not happen, at least in his lifetime, and then felt the cold bleakness of the exile they must will themselves into.
     "Whether we like it or not," (was he talking to the others or trying to argue down his own rebellion?) "we cannot let what lies under the towers be known … found … used … unless by men who are wiser and more controlled than we are in our time."
     Menlik drew his shaman's wand, twiddled it between his fingers, and beneath his drooping lids watched the three Apaches with a new kind of measurement.
     "Then I say to you this: Such a guardianship must be a double charge, shared by my people as well. For if they suspect that you alone control these powers and their secret, there will be envy, hatred, fear, a division between us from the first—war … raids … This is a large land and neither of our groups numbers many. Shall we split apart fatally from this day when there is room for all? If these ancient things are evil, then let us both guard them with a common taboo."
     He was right, of course. And they would have to face the truth squarely. To both Apache and Mongol any off-world ship, no matter from which side, would be a menace. Here was where they would remain and set roots. The sooner they began thinking of themselves as people with a common bond, the better it would be. And Menlik's suggestion provided a tie.
     "You speak well," Buck was saying. "This shall be a thing we share. We are three who know. Do you be three also, but choose well, Menlik!"
     "Be assured that I will!" the Tatar returned.
     Perhaps clan and Horde would combine or perhaps they would drift apart—time would tell. But there would be the bond of the guardianship, the determination that what slept in the towers would not be roused—in their lifetime or many lifetimes!
     Travis smiled a bit crookedly. A new religion of sorts, a priesthood with sacred and forbidden knowledge … in time a whole new life and civilization stemming from this night. The bleak cold of his early thought cut less deep. There was a different kind of adventure here.

From THE DEFIANT AGENTS by Andre Norton (1960)

      "There was a chance once," said Webster, almost as if he were speaking to himself. "A chance for new viewpoints, for something that might have wiped out the muddle of four thousand years of human thought. A man muffed that chance."
     Grant stirred uncomfortably, then sat rigid, afraid Webster might have seen him move.
     "That man," said Webster, "was my grandfather."
     Grant knew he must say something, that he could not continue to sit there, unspeaking.
     "Juwain may have been wrong," he said. "He might not have found a new philosophy."
     "That is a thought," declared Webster, "we have used to console ourselves. And yet, it is unlikely. Juwain was a great Martian philosopher, perhaps the greatest Mars had ever known. If he could have lived, there is no doubt in my mind he would have developed that new philosophy.
     But he didn't live. He didn't live because my grandfather couldn't go to Mars."

(ed note: The world government in Geneva found evidence that a race of hyper-intelligent mutants had developed in the Ozarks. They send agent Grant to contact them, and ask if they can complete Juwain's unfinished philosophy. Grant encounters Joe the mutant.)

     Joe's voice broke his thoughts.
     "You're an enumerator, aren't you? Why don't you ask me the questions? Now that you've found me you can't go off and not get it down on paper. My age especially. I'm one hundred sixty-three and I'm scarcely adolescent. Another thousand years at least."
     He hugged his knobby knees against his chest and rocked slowly back and forth. "Another thousand years and if I take good care of myself—"

     "But that isn't all of it," Grant told him, trying to keep his voice calm. "There is something more. Something that you must do for us."
     "For us?"
     "For society," said Grant. "For the human race."
     Grant stared. "You mean that you don't care."

     Joe shook his head and in the gesture there was no bravado, no defiance of convention. It was just blunt statement of the fact.
     "Money!" suggested Grant.
     Joe waved his hands at the hills about them, at the spreading river valley. "I have this," he said. "I have no need of money."
     "Fame, perhaps?"
     Joe did not spit, but his face looked like he had.
     "The gratitude of the human race?"
     "It doesn't last," said Joe and the old mockery was in his words, the vast amusement just behind his lips.
     "Look, Joe," said Grant and, hard as he tried to keep it out, there was pleading in his voice, "this thing I have for you to do is important … important to generations yet to come, important to the human race, a milestone in our destiny—"
     "And why should I," asked Joe, "do something for someone who isn't even born yet? Why should I look beyond the years of my own life? When I die, I die, and all the shouting and the glory, all the banners and the bugles will be nothing to me. I will not know whether I lived a great life or a very poor one."
     "The race," said Grant.
     Joe laughed, a shout of laughter. "Race preservation, race advancement. That's what you're getting at. Why should you be concerned with that? Or I?"
     The laughter lines smoothed out around his mouth and he shook a finger in mock admonishment. "Race preservation is a myth … a myth that you all have lived by—a sordid thing that has arisen out of your social structure. The race ends every day. When a man dies the race ends for him—so far as he's concerned there is no longer any race."
     "You just don't care," said Grant.
     "That," declared Joe, "is what I've been telling you."

     He squinted at the pack upon the ground and a nicker of a smile wove about his lips. "Perhaps," he suggested, "if it interested me—" Grant opened up the pack, brought out the portfolio.
     Almost reluctantly he pulled out the thin sheaf of papers, glanced at the title: "Unfinished Philosophical Proposition and Related Notes of Juwain". He handed it across, sat watching as Joe read swiftly and even as he watched he felt the sickening wrench of terrible failure closing on his brain.

     Back in the Webster house he had thought of a mind that knew no groove of logic, a mind unhampered by four thousand years of moldy human thought. That, he had told himself, might do the trick.
     And here if was. But it still was not enough. There was something lacking—something he had never thought of, something the men in Geneva had never thought of, either.
     Something, a part of the human make-up that everyone, up to this moment, had taken for granted.
     Social pressure was the thing that had held the human race together through all millennia—held the human race together as a unit just as hunger pressure had held the ants enslaved to a social pattern.
     The need of one human being for the approval of his fellow humans, the need for a certain cult of fellowship—a psychological, almost physiological need for approval of one's thought and action. A force that kept men from going off at unsocial tangents, a force that made for social security and human solidarity, for the working together of the human family.
     Men died for that approval, sacrificed for that approval, lived lives they loathed for that approval. For without it a man was on his own, an outcast, an animal that had been driven from the pack.
     It had led to terrible things, of course—to mob psychology, to racial persecution, to mass atrocities in the name of patriotism or religion. But likewise it had been the sizing that held the race together, the thing that from the very start had made human society possible.
     And Joe didn't have it. Joe didn't give a damn. He didn't care what anyone thought of him. He didn't care whether anyone approved or not.
     Grant felt the sun hot upon his back, heard the whisper of the wind that walked in the trees above him. And in some thicket a bird struck up a song.
     Was this the trend of mutancy? This sloughing off of the basic instinct that made man a member of the race?
     Had this man in front of him, reading the legacy of Juwain, found within himself, through his mutancy, a life so full that he could dispense with the necessity for the approval of his fellows? Had he, finally, after all these years, reached that stage of civilization where a man stood independent, disdaining all the artificiality of society?

     Joe looked up.
     "Very interesting," he said. "Why didn't he go ahead and finish it?"
     "He died," said Grant.
     Joe clucked his tongue inside his cheek. "He was wrong in one place." He nipped the pages, jabbed with a finger.
     "Right here. That's where the error cropped up. That's what bogged him down."
     Grant' stammered. "But … but there shouldn't be any error. He died, that's all. He died before he finished it."
     Joe folded the manuscript neatly, tucked it in his pocket.
     "Just as well," he said. "He probably would have botched it."
     "Then you can finish it? You can—" There was. Grant knew, no use of going on. He read the answer in Joe's eyes.

     "You really think," said Joe and his words were terse and measured, "that I'd turn this over to you squalling humans?"

     Grant shrugged in defeat. "I suppose not. I suppose I should have known. A man like you—"
     "I," said Joe, "can use this thing myself."

From CENSUS by Clifford Simak (1944)

(ed note: Of all races in the universe, the Atheleni have safely passed the second armageddon but not the first. They invented but only used one the Telepathic Madness, but have yet to face the challenge of inventing nuclear weapons)

Aretenon glanced at the furnishings of his chamber, recalling with an effort the fact that in his own youth almost everything he saw would have appeared impossible or even meaningless to him. Not even the simplest of tools had existed then, at least in the knowledge of his people. Now there were ships and bridges and houses—and these were only the beginning.

‘I am well satisfied,’ he said. ‘We have, as we planned, diverted the whole stream of our culture, turning it away from the dangers that lay ahead. The powers that made the Madness possible will soon be forgotten: only a handful of us still know of them, and we will take our secrets with us. Perhaps when our descendants rediscover them they will be wise enough to use them properly. But we have uncovered so many new wonders that it may be a thousand generations before we turn again to look into our own minds and to tamper with the forces locked within them.’

They Are Not Ready

This is sort of the inverse of You Are Not Ready. Terran space explorer may run across a planet-bound technologically-primitive alien species. Naïve and idealistic explorers may succumb to the temptation to help out the aliens by giving them a few technological tips.

This is generally a very bad idea:

  • The aliens technological development will become distorted. At the least will be horrible technological disruption, at worse the species may inadvertently or advertently kill themselves off.
  • Do you want Space Barbarians? Because this is how you get space barbarians.

This is more or less the reason for the Star Trek's famed Prime Directive.

Man Was Not Meant To Know

As opposed to the above, this is technology that will be forever bad and evil, no matter how mature humanity becomes. This is not quite as common in science fiction, since science generally does not admit to the existence of any such thing. It generally is found only in stories based around one moral system or another so the evilness is relative to the morality, not an absolute. More like in fantasies like H. P. Lovecraft's tales of dread Cthulhu.

Spock: I do not dispute that in the wrong hands...
McCoy: "In the wrong hands"? Would you mind telling whose are the right hands, my logical friend?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, but Power Corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some powers — and responsibilities — are too great for anyone to be trusted with.

A character may realize this on his own — perhaps the Big Bad has just been defeated, and his Ancient Artifact is now in The Hero's control. After contemplating all the good he could do, The Hero may realize that he can't take away people's free will. He may experience a "We're Not So Different" moment, and gain some sympathy for his enemy.

Alternatively, the party may begin fighting over who should control this power, demonstrating their inability to be trusted with it. Eventually, a wiser member will point out that the only possible solution is for no one to have it.

In any case, the choice will usually be clear. The source of power must be discarded, destroyed, or sealed back in its tin. This may be a final resolution, a return to the status quo, or even the beginning of a quest to get rid of the power. If the proper choice isn't made, this may mark the Start of Darkness.

See No MacGuffin, No Winner when the power is lost as a karmic punishment, rather than a willing decision in fear of the consequences. Also compare It Belongs in a Museum. Does not refer to powers that only women have, or only The Chosen One or many should have.

See also: The World Is Not Ready, Status Quo Is God, Reluctant Mad Scientist, and Technological Pacifist. If the power simply isn't used, for no specific reason, that's Holding Back the Phlebotinum. If the protagonists aim for this trope but don't succeed, see Dangerous Device Disposal Debacle.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.

Obviously it is a hot-button issue. Most groups become hysterical when you suggest limiting their right to reproduce (especially if said group fears they will slip from being the majority to being the minority).

They get even more hysterical when they are prevented from reproducing by being put to death.

However there are other troubling questions. The main one is exactly what sort of measuring standard are you using to define "improved"? Almost as troubling is "who decides the measuring standards, and who does the measuring?" Obviously those in power can abuse this as a nasty form of ethnic cleansing.

More innocently, harm can mistakenly be done. For instance, sickle-cell anaemia is a genetically caused disease which occurs when the person inherits two allele of the sickle cell trait. People suffering from it rarely live past age 60. So that allele should be eugenically eliminated, right? Wrong! People with one allele are resistant to the even more deadly disease malaria. In this case, using eugenics would do more harm than good. The same holds true for the cystic fibrosis allele and cholera.

There is also the fear that such manipulation will reduce genetic diversity thus leading to inbreeding depression. In Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein, genetic selection for increased health, longevity, and intelligence has become so widespread that the unmodified 'control naturals' are a carefully managed and protected minority.

Finally there is all those hideous overtones of Nazi Germany.

A milder form of eugenics is when the decision is made by the parents, not the government. You generally see this in science fiction with in vitro fertilization and a doctor giving the parents genetic counselling. The doctor gives the parents a list with check-boxes so the parents can chose what traits they want in their offspring, and advises them to omit obvious genetic diseases. The choices are fed into the machine, there is some quick genetic engineering on the zygote, then it is ready to be implanted (or popped into the artificial womb). See the movie Gattaca.

I don't trust people to genetically 'design' their child because I see what they do with character creation in games.

From a thread in Reddit: Shower Thoughts by Slimebeast (2016)

There are many ways to implement eugenics.


After homo sapiens becomes a multi-planet species, the question becomes, would we remain a single species of humanity? Scott Solomon thinks a lot about this question in his new book Future Humans, which will be published by Yale Press in October. In it, he explores the future evolution of our species, including some musings on Mars.

“The general concept for the book is to ask about our ongoing evolution, from the perspective of a scientist who takes what we know about our past, what we know about today, and thinking about the long-term possibilities for our species,” Solomon, a biologist at Rice University in Houston, said. What, he wondered, would it take to lead to development of a new species? Put another way, how long would humans on Mars remain human?

Solomon explained that new species evolve most commonly when a barrier prevents a population from mating, such as on an island archipelago, so species on separate Galapagos islands evolve along separate lines. With modern humanity, of course, the trend is going in the opposite direction, as people move around the planet at a rate unprecedented in human history. “So on planet Earth it would take a major change to imagine us having populations isolated long enough to have distinct species,” he said.

The gulf between Earth and Mars might present such a barrier, if the Martian colony were self-sustaining and persistent. Through natural selection, humans and any organisms they bring with them, such as a plants, may evolve and adapt to Mars' harsh environment and low gravity, which is only a third of Earth's gravity.

Lacking a magnetosphere, Mars is bombarded by an increased rate of radiation, which also favors speciation. Ionizing radiation causes mutation in genes, which would provide a source of new genetic variations. That could accelerate the process of adaptation. On the downside, Solomon said, the higher radiation might just kill people. Or it might cause colonists to perpetually huddle inside small habitats and space suits, leading a Morlock-like existence and facing a similar evolutionary fate.

Ultimately it still may take a long time for speciation to occur. The one solid data point we have on Earth is the colonization of the Americas, which were settled by waves of people moving across the Bering Strait around the end of the last ice age. These populations were then isolated from the rest of world for about 10,000 years. When Europeans arrived they found a distinct population of native Americans, Solomon said, but certainly not a different species. That would suggest that, on a planet with a similar atmosphere and gravity as the Earth, it would take a human population more than 10,000 years to speciate. Mars is not that planet, of course.

Another factor to consider as humans contemplate colonizing other worlds, Solomon said, is the “founder effect,” which simply means that when a small number of people establish a new population from a larger population, the genes of the founders will have a huge influence on that population moving forward. This occurred with the small bands of humans spreading out from Africa.

“I’m thinking about what the long-term fate of our species may be,” Solomon said. “When selecting colonists I don’t believe we should be trying to select what attributes we want in a new species of humans. But it’s interesting to think that if you were to take only people from certain populations, or try to include a diversity of all of humanity, how those outcomes would be very different for the potential of what might become a new species of humans.”


Quote Brain Wave has been moved here.


Nothing to do with corn

“Ladies, Lords.

Today, with the advent of cheaply available nanomutagens, we are seeing an explosion in human genetic alteration ranging from pre-natal to geriatric–and from targeted risk factor reduction to wholesale alteration of secondary sexual characteristics. The government does not possess any agency for regulating such operations, and the recent passage of court bill 2301AP-8903 legally binds it to inaction. I believe this is a failure on the part of this committee, inasmuch as we are obligated to also advise policy.

The problem is that legalization of all such genetic engineering doesn’t merely pass the burden of inevitable failures onto the expectant parents or individual requesting the treatment (as the legislature appears to have concluded); it also creates a sociogenetic debt.

True, we have overseen the almost complete eradication of the more common genetically linked susceptibilities–as well as single-gene genetic disorders proper, such as CF and TS in the last decade alone. In the case of the former, we can all agree that eliminating the most common ΔF508 mutation was a triumph of science and humanity.

But what about myopia? If present trends continue, genes for imperfect eyesight will be ruthlessly bred out until no human wears eyeglasses. Gone will be the bespectacled academic, the horn-rimmed librarian, the bookish teen. This correction of a genetic fault will thereby alter our culture.

People have preferences for hair, eye color, and so on. So far, diversity has been preserved only by the presence of differing racial and societal expectations of attractiveness. But already we see evidence of women crippled by their parents’ absurdly idealized notions of beauty, especially body weight, and men too Hellenistically sculpted to fit into standard space suits. We’re at an inflection point where an entire generation could be born blond if some hypothetical singer with sandy hair became sufficiently popular.”

TS [2301-05-22 13:28, 2301-05-22 13:33]


Just now, he was reading up on Vivers. Kelly could find little in the ship’s library on the strange creatures. He asked Torwald, and the older spacer gave him a microfilm monograph, written by none other than one Torwald Raffen, that contained more accurate information than any “official” document about the secretive subspecies.

Kelly learned that in the last century, a few decades after the first interstellar drive was perfected, a group of geneticists got together and decided, after the fashion of scientists, that the human race could stand some improvement. They were going to create the Future Man. It was decided that humans were good mainly for surviving and that the new human race would have to be even better at it in order to be equal to the unknown exigencies of new worlds. It was agreed that the upright, bipedal, digit-handed human form could scarcely be improved upon for generalized capability, but that little improvements could be added here and there, specialties without specialization, as it were. Onto this they grafted a mentality obsessively concerned with survival. The result was the Viver, though it was not quite what they had planned. The fear that Vivers generated in ordinary humans was sufficient to get genetic engineering of humans banned forever. Kelly scratched Teddy’s ears and pondered that. The pseudobear had become a close friend, for it seemed to be the only life form on board that didn’t give him orders, chew him out, or think up unpleasant jobs for him to perform.

The typical Viver, Kelly read, was between six and seven feet tall and covered with horny, articulated plates of chitin that roughly followed the lines of human musculature. The hands were human in design but much larger, the knuckles covered with a spiked band of bone. The fingertips were equipped with inch-long retractile claws that did not interfere with ordinary use of the fingers when sheathed. Elbows and knees were heavily knobbed and bore large spikes. The feet had no toes, the foot being equipped with a club of bone and chitin where the toes should be. At the back of the leg, just below the calf, was a protrusion somewhat like a horse’s fetlock that concealed a seven-inch razor-sharp spur, perhaps the deadliest of the Viver’s natural weapons.

The head, set on a long flexible neck, was the least human feature of a Viver. The eyes were huge, taking up most of the skull’s interior. They were covered with a transparent plate and could swivel independently of one another. There were several, smaller apertures around the skull for the eyes to peer through. The beings had no true teeth, just serrated chitin.

Internally, Vivers difiered even more radically from the human parent stock. The brain was distributed throughout the body in tiny nodes, and the heart was likewise decentralized, being a series of small pumps distributed throughout the circulatory system. Practically the only way to kill a Viver was to cut him up into very small pieces. All parts, including brain tissue, were regenerative. It had been speculated that if a Viver were split in two down the middle, two complete Vivers would be the eventual result. So far no one had had the nerve to try that particular experiment.

Psychologically, all else was subordinate to the survival imperative. A Viver concerned himself with the survival of his race, his clan, his family, and himself. There were no political loyalties, only biological ones. They were smugglers because they had no respect whatever for ordinary human laws. They would have made invincible soldiers, but they saw war as a threat to their survival and studiously ignored conflicts between ordinary humans.

However, there was one exception. Young Vivers, before being judged fit to reproduce, had to undergo a period of exile during which they were expected to take part in wars and other adventures of a violent sort. It was for this last reason that the Space Angel was calling upon the good ship K’Tchak.

The Viver ship resembled a collection of buildings held together with tubes and braces, and, essentially, that was what it was. Built in space, it was never intended to land. The craft had to be big, for it contained almost all of the clan K’Tchak, and additions were made as the clan expanded. Despite their horrible tempers, Vivers liked the company of their own kind and ran to large families. It was all part of their obsession with survival.

As she approached, the Angel had about a fleet’s worth of armament trained on her. This was not because of her new weaponry; lifeboats received the same treatment from a Viver clan ship. Torwald gave a few passwords over the ship-to-ship and obtained grudging permission to go aboard, alone. As a security precaution, the skipper insisted that Torwald carry a scanner giving full aural and visual communication with those aboard the Angel. The Vivers did not object to the procedure; Vivers understood all about security precautions.

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)

End of Natural Selection

A concept that appears in science fiction once or twice is that "humans have stopped evolving", specifically technology and medical science have drastically hindered the process of natural selection. For instance, in primitive times a person with the genetic disease Phenylketonuria probably would not be able to survive long enough to reproduce (natural selection will prevent passing on the genetic disease). But currently modern medicine can detect the disease in newborns, and treat it with a special diet. In other words the person would survive long enough to pass it on to their offspring, thus thwarting natural selection.

Sir David Attenborough stated "We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 95–99 percent of our babies that are born." Others have pointed out that while that might be true of 1st world countries, it is far from being true for the entire world.

In the Alan E. Nourse novel The Bladerunner (no relation to the movie of the same name) the world of the future has free, comprehensive medical treatment is available for anyone so long as they qualify for treatment under the Eugenics Laws. Preconditions for medical care include sterilization, and no legitimate medical care is available for anyone who does not qualify or does not wish to undergo the sterilization procedure (including children over the age of five). The ideas is to stop thwarting natural selection.

Others say humans are indeed still evolving, all we have done is shifted a large number of selective forces. While modern medicine has averted many biological cause of natural selection, one can see many new versions of natural selection by just perusing the Darwin Awards. In other words: deadly diseases has been replaced by Jackass.

A tangentially related concept appears in the Cyril Kornbluth short story The Marching Morons (which later inspired the movie Idiocracy). In the story, married couples who are intelligent tend not to have children, while unintelligent couples breed like cockroaches. After several hundred years of this, the average intelligence is what we would currently call an IQ of 45. The few intelligent people have no idea how to stop the collapse of society, but lucky for them a con artist who had been in suspended animation for 300 years has an answer that is effective (abet draconian).

The main flaw with the story is that the possibility of genetically breeding for stupidity is unproven.


"When did mankind lose touch with natural selection? No matter how inferior a human's genes are, that person is protected by laws, and can't be killed. Even those incapacitated in accidents or stricken with a serious illness are needlessly kept alive. What a drawn out, wasteful existence. It's this divorce from natural selection that has caused mankind to stop evolving. It's a step down. The devolution of mankind. But I intend to accelerate the culling of genetically inferior humans. To rekindle the refining fire of natural selection!" — Hans Davis, Metal Gear Ac!d

Some evil mad scientists use their twisted intellect solely for personal gain. This particular villain is not so provincial. His genius and his motives go hand in hand, and his concerns are (he thinks) with the welfare of the human species. Simply put, to the Evilutionary Biologist, humanity is stuck in an evolutionary rut, and it's up to him to put us back on the proper path so we can continue to evolve.

Why the Evilutionary Biologist believes this is necessary varies, as do his methods. Some Evilutionary Biologists simply believe that humanity has erred in its domination of the environment, and thus our very survival as a species is threatened unless they force us to continue evolving. Others see change and so-called improvement as goals in and of themselves, and resolve to use scientific advancement to cause them. Still others seek to create a new race of biologically superior transhumans or just the Ultimate Life Form with the power of science, either because they see humans as having outlived their time on the planet or because of a genuine desire to improve the human condition. They often subscribe to the philosophies of Social Darwinism and "The Ends Justify the Means". It's not uncommon for them to practice what they preach and marry a woman they see as fit and worthy for them and father a Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter.

Regardless, because of his dedication, the Evilutionary Biologist is willing to break laws, engage in experimental alterations upon other human beings, and ruin lives for the higher goal. Their creations are no less exempt; whether they're Replacement Goldfish, with the Cloning Blues, or genetically "programmed" to have evil In the Blood, their "children" are doomed to live sad, short, rebellious lives, unless they really do feel parental. They will never realize that Evil Evolves, and will never be able to identify themselves as the villains.

Evilutionary Biologists often create inhuman monsters and artificial humans to serve as minions and Mooks, as well as to populate their extensive Garden of Evil. They themselves may even be willing to suffer the fruits of their experimentation, often resulting in a monstrous, inhuman new body.

Whenever an Evilutionary Biologist appears on the scene — they are the most common form of villainous biologist in many games and Speculative Fiction media — be on guard for a Science Is Bad aesop to rear its ugly head.

This is especially ironic because in real biology, one of the core precepts of the theory of evolution is that it does not "improve" a species, because there is no such thing as an ideal form for a species — only what is best* at surviving and reproducing in current conditions. If the environment changes, the species must adapt all over again, which is why genetic diversity (Nature's way of "hedging her bets") is usually a good thing. Moreover, assuming that a species must evolve if subjected to imposed selection pressures (or Phlebotinum-induced mutations) overlooks the harsh fact that most organisms don't adapt in the face of such challenges: they simply go extinct, which is why we're not rubbing elbows with mammoths, sauropods and trilobites today. Deliberately applying such selective forces to humans may let us join them in extinction, not improve upon our current state. Finally, evolution is conservative, and a species which is thriving (you know, like Homo sapiens) is unlikely to evolve new traits, because it's doing fine the way it is. Sharks, for example, haven't changed much since before the first dinosaurs appeared, and they're just as successful as ever...making the entire mania of the Evilutionary Biologist suspect at best.

Even so, Goal-Oriented Evolution was taken dead seriously by many in the heyday of the Eugenics Movement, and still gets cited by people who really ought to know better (Singularitarians are frequently guilty of it).

Examples of this trope will probably be German, and possibly one of Those Wacky Nazis, if we want to be really obvious.

Compare Designer Babies.

* Or rather "good enough". Products of evolution are often The Alleged Car of the natural world. Go figure

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


     But I can tell you what sort of a planet it is (Planet Sanctuary). Like Earth, but retarded.
     Literally retarded, like a kid who takes ten years to learn to wave bye-bye and never does manage to master patty-cake. It is a planet as near like Earth as two planets can be, same age according to the planetologists and its star is the same age as the Sun and the same type, so say the astrophysicists. It has plenty of flora and fauna, the same atmosphere as Earth, near enough, and much the same weather; it even has a good-sized moon and Earth's exceptional tides.
     With all these advantages it barely got away from the starting gate. You see, it's short on mutations; it does not enjoy Earth's high level of natural radiation.
     Its typical and most highly developed plant life is a very primitive giant fern; its top animal life is a proto-insect which hasn't even developed colonies. I am not speaking of transplanted Terran flora and fauna—our stuff moves in and brushes the native stuff aside.
     With its evolutionary progress held down almost to zero by lack of radiation and a consequent most unhealthily low mutation rate, native life forms on Sanctuary just haven't had a decent chance to evolve and aren't fit to compete. Their gene patterns remain fixed for a relatively long time; they aren't adaptable—like being forced to play the same bridge hand over and over again, for eons, with no hope of getting a better one.
     As long as they just competed with each other, this didn't matter too much—morons among morons, so to speak. But when types that had evolved on a planet enjoying high radiation and fierce competition were introduced, the native stuff was outclassed.
     Now all the above is perfectly obvious from high school biology . . . but the high forehead from the research station there who was telling me about this brought up a point I would never have thought of.
     What about the human beings who have colonized Sanctuary?
     Not transients like me, but the colonists who live there, many of whom were born there, and whose descendants will live there, even into the umpteenth generation—what about those descendants? It doesn't do a person any harm not to be radiated; in fact it's a bit safer—leukemia and some types of cancer are almost unknown there. Besides that, the economic situation is at present all in their favor; when they plant a field of (Terran) wheat, they don't even have to clear out the weeds. Terran wheat displaces anything native.
     But the descendants of those colonists won't evolve. Not much, anyhow. This chap told me that they could improve a little through mutation from other causes, from new blood added by immigration, and from natural selection among the gene patterns they already own—but that is all very minor compared with the evolutionary rate on Terra and on any usual planet. So what happens? Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a spaceship?
     Or will they worry about the fate of their descendants and dose themselves regularly with X-rays or maybe set off lots of dirty-type nuclear explosions each year to build up a fallout reservoir in their atmosphere? (Accepting, of course, the immediate dangers of radiation to themselves in order to provide a proper genetic heritage of mutation for the benefit of their descendants.)
     This bloke predicted that they would not do anything. He claims that the human race is too individualistic, too self-centered, to worry that much about future generations. He says that the genetic impoverishment of distant generations through lack of radiation is something most people are simply incapable of worrying about. And of course it is a far-distant threat; evolution works so slowly, even on Terra, that the development of a new species is a matter of many, many thousands of years.

From STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

Improving lives doesn’t.

Among the baker’s dozen of known galactic species that crawled their way to sapience, sociopsychologists were astonished to find that every one of them had the same intelligence. The bipeds from Earth, the avian dinosaurs from that one outer rim world, the furry bear-creatures that ate methane, put any together and they score within 10 points of each other on an IQ test. This wasn’t true for any other attribute. (Im)mortality? widely varying. Genders? Different systems. Biochemistry? Carbon through Arsenic. Size, shape? Hell no.

But intelligence? Why that?

It turns out that entry-level sapience evolves as a survival trait. Hunt/find your food, develop technologies to make that easier, maybe do some farming, and so on. After basic establishment of civilization, mortality drops by factors in the hundreds or thousands. Population booms, and you start getting plagues from the species concentrating in cities.

This is where it gets interesting. See, once you have plagues, you need doctors. And once you have doctors, you start thinking about all of the other ways to cheat death. So the plagues are beaten back by vaccinations or antibiotics, and then your civ starts concentrating on welfare and quality-of-life.

Pretty soon, your species is living at the maximum, or nearly, of their theoretically longest lives. For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia.

This is bad.

At best, evolution stagnates. Your weak and stupid have the same chance of reproduction as anyone else–and they’re certainly not going to die before influencing their environments. Diseases that should have killed are mere annoyances, chomping futilely against a barrier of solid medical science. Predators that once ravaged tribes now are confined in zoos or hunted to extinction.

So no one gets any smarter.

The long and short of it is, after a certain point, intelligence is no longer a tremendous advantage to survival and, subsequently, traditional selection factors are abrogated completely. That is point at which medical science develops, which itself happens only when sapients begin the process of introspection and develop sympathy–that is, shortly after the development of sapience itself.


(ed note: Councilor Lake is a sector governor of the Union. Velmeran is an alien Starwolf. Valthyrra is a Starwolf artificial intelligent computer.)

     Which was much easier said than done, Councilor Lake reflected. And just the beginning of his own problems. The human race was dying, or at least degenerating to the point that it could no longer care for itself. The genetic message that made a human was deteriorating; random, detrimental mutations were not only occurring at an alarming rate but were being passed into the common genetic pool. There was no determining the exact cause, although the Councilor preferred to believe that mankind had been too long removed from the laws of natural selection that had guided its evolution.
     People were smaller than they had been in the first days of space flight, slighter of build and gentler of mood and feature. Unfortunately, people were also less intelligent than they had been, less able to reason and remember. Mental deficiency and imbalance claimed a fourth of the population, and another fourth was genetically sterile. It was a problem that had been a very long time coming, but it had finally become so bad that the High Council could no longer ignore it. For in another thousand years the machinery of the Union, of human civilization itself, would grind to a halt for want of maintenance. That might seem like a very long time, but for a problem fifty thousand years in the making, it was already too late.
     Still, Councilor Lake wanted to save what he could. And if stern measures were taken now, a large part of the Union could be saved. The only solution was to enforce the sterilization of large segments of the population, intervening where nature had failed. The general population would not take such controls lightly. The military would be needed to enforce order, especially on those worlds that bore little love or loyalty for the Union from the start. And for that, the problem that the Starwolves represented would have to be eliminated. Or at least reduced to a manageable level.

     "But if we (Starwolves) are not destroying the Union, what is?" Velmeran asked.
     "We see the results, but we can only argue the cause," Lake explained. "Personally, I believe it is because we were not meant for civilized life. Nature gave us hands and a brain so that we could tie a rock to a stick to make a better club. All the rest has been our own idea. Then we began the process of removing ourselves from our environment, the circumstances and conditions that shaped us. Our evolution has stalled out; our civilization promises equal chances for both the weak and strong, and nature intended harsher rules. Cut off from any shaping influence, our species has begun to decline right down to the genetic level.
     "The genetic code that defines a human is becoming too foggy and ragged to read properly. Over a third of our population is genetically sterile. Random mutation has driven infant mortality to levels that we have not known since the dark ages. Mental deficiency and mental imbalance claim a quarter of the population. Do you wonder if we are not in trouble? Our race is dying out, for want of proper maintenance."

     "There is something that I would like to know," Velmeran said quickly. "Have you kept any statistics on the genetic deterioration of the human race?"
     "Genetic deterioration?" Valthyrra's lenses seemed almost to blink in confusion. "Actually, it is hard for me to make any valid observations, but that does not change the fact of its reality. Our own human worlds are in slow decline, and there is every indication that the Union worlds are proceeding at a much greater pace. Especially the inner worlds — it is getting so bad that if all the machines were to suddenly stop, it is doubtful that they could ever get anything running again."
     "Why?" Velmeran asked.
     "Because Mother Nature is a stern mistress," she explained, the information analysis, storage and retrieval systems in her warming to the task. "The one rule of all life is change, and the driving force is survival. But that is a game that modern, civilized man has not been forced to play in nearly sixty thousand years. Nature intended that only the best should thrive and multiply, but for so long now nearly everyone survives — and reproduces indiscriminately. Change continued, but in a random, ineffectual manner, and once begun the process accelerates itself.

From THE STARWOLVES by Thorarinn Gunnarsson (1988)


In the real world, a Mutant is an organism that suffered a mutation while in the embryonic state. The natural occurrence of genetic mutations is integral to the process of evolution.

The vast majority of mutations either [A] have little or no noticeable effect or [B] kills the embryo before it can be born. The process of evolution is advanced by zillions of tiny mutations over zillions of generations, culled by the relentless forces of natural selection.

No, exposure to radiation will not turn you into a mutant. But if your gonads are irradiated, your future children might be.

Early science fiction authors either didn't understand mutations or found the actual process incredibly boring. So they jazzed it up.

They frantically waved their hands and breathlessly announced that mutation could lead to the Next Stage Of Human Evolution™ !

This concept contains two ignorant fallacies for the price of one. First off it makes the ridiculous assumption that there are "levels" of evolution (measured by what metric, pray tell?) then it compounds the stupidity by postulating that evolution is working towards a specific goal ("orthogenesis") and you can use these non-existent evolutionary levels to measure the progress to the non-existent goal. The tell-tale sign of the latter is the phrase "more evolved."

In reality, the only "goal" of evolution is for the organism to be able to survive and thrive in whatever the current conditions happen to be in this geological epoch. Since conditions change with time, the goal of evolution is a moving target.

Early SF writers who were evolution-theory morons assumed that "intelligence" was the goal of evolutionary progress, the "ultimate life-form" at the top of the evolutionary ladder. The ultimate intelligent life-form was some sort of giant brain. Examples include the Arisans from E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series.

This would lead more evolved females to demand Cesarean section. You see the relatively large size of the human baby's head is the reason why of all the species on Terra, humans are pretty much the only ones who suffer painful child birth. The evolution of a larger pelvis has not kept up with the evolution of larger baby heads.

Latter writers assumed that the goal was a set of superhuman abilities (you know: super-strength, advanced intelligence, immunity to various lethal things, and of course psionic abilities). Examples include Adam Warlock. Others cut to the chase and postulated that the end goal was to evolve humans into energy beings. Examples from Star Trek include the Organians, the Q, and arguably the Melkot, the Thasian, the Metrons, the Medusans, and the Zetarian.

The "levels of evolution" nonsense also lead to nonsensical stories where radiation from nuclear testing creates a crop of mutant children all with the same mutation. In reality mutations are more random than Pi. Not all such stories have this flaw, but there are enough to be really annoying. The only way to get lots of mutants with the same random mutation is if they share a common ancestor.

The stupid writers also got the mechanism wrong. In reality if somebody was exposed to a mutagen, their future offspring might be mutants because the DNA in the germ cells got mangled prior to procreation. But the writers were under the misapprehension that the mutagen would transform the poor exposed person into a mutant on the spot, much like the way cosmic ray exposure created the Fantastic Four. This erroneous concept was apparently created by Hugo de Vries in his 1901 story Die Mutationstheorie.

Mutants are not just people either, don't forget the radiation-spawned giant ants in the movie Them!.

None of this is scientifically accurate, but it is very exciting reading.

In Edmond Hamilton's 1931 story The Man Who Evolved, the concepts were twisted for a shock ending. The mad scientist Dr. John Pollard figures out that cosmic rays are responsible for evolution (sort of true) so exposing a person to concentrated cosmic rays will rapidly evolve them to the next stage of evolution (nope, author is unclear on the concept, it will just fry them to a crisp). With each treatment his brain becomes larger while his body becomes more spindly. At the next to the last stage he is nothing but a huge brain feeding on telepathic energy. Unfortunately for him the final stage is a pathetic primitive single-celled organism. Because apparently the levels of evolution are arranged more as a circle than as a rising staircase.

After 1945 science fiction writers finally got it through their heads that radiation would cause you to have mutant children, but not grant you any unusual powers apart from a drastically shortened lifespan. But they were still stuck on that goal oriented evolution nonsense.

The authors did however invented a brand new trope: a world wide rise in the number of mutants born due to either nuclear testing or in the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear war. "Children of the Atom" so to speak.

In science fiction, mutants from low level rises of background radiation due to nuclear testing tend to be superior beings with super powers. The X-Men and Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps fall into this category.

Post-atomic-war mutants on the other hand tend to be pathetic cripples with misshapen bodies and the wrong number of limbs. In Forrest J. Ackerman's shaggy-dog story The Mute Question, the muties have a proverb: two heads are better than none.

The muties of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky fall into this category, though in this case the radiation is not from an atomic war. As it turns out the mutie Joe-Jim also has two heads.

In the X-Men stories there is often deep-seated prejudice against mutants, since average humans have the not unreasonable fear that mutants will supplant them. Draconian anti-mutant laws are passed, and periodically there are attempts at mutant genocide. Which just goes to show what idiots average humans are. Especially given the stupendous superpowers possessed by mutants and how angry they become when you try pulling that "final solution" atrocity on them.

There is also plenty of "mutants are evil" garbage in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. Take a post-nuclear apocalypse community with about Amish levels of technology, mix in an oppressive religion with a paranoid fear of the new, and you have a formula for a real eugenic nightmare. Mutations are considered to be "Blasphemies" and must be either killed or sterilised and banished to the Fringes.

In the Perry Rhodan novels, Terra discovers that the solar system is surrounded by highly advanced interstellar empires that would love to annex the planet. He needs an ace-in-the-hole or Terra is doomed. The Mutant Corps is a team of mutants with psionic powers which the alien empires cannot cope with. The 18 founding-members were mostly Japanese who were born shortly after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The X-Men are sort of the Marvel comics version of Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps, since X-Men issue #1 came out about two years after Perry Rhodan volume 6.

The archtypical superhuman mutants are the Slans from the eponymous novel by A. E. van Vogt. Every subsequent novel with "Homo Superior" mutants owes something to the Slans (though the novel is sadly unknown nowadays). When it came out, science fiction fans embraced the concept. This is because they naturally figured that they were Slans. The fans started using the pejorative term "mundane" for non-fans, sort of a science-fiction-fan version of the term "Muggle." A house or building where lots of SF fans lived was called a "Slan-shack."

There are a couple of science fiction novels dealing with mutants and galactic empires. They imply that mutants tend to appear when an empire is in the "decline and fall" stage. In his immortal Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov has the mutant the Mule appear during the Dark Ages after the fall of empire. In Andre Norton's Star Ranger the historian mentions that the current time of galactic empire collapse is when "change mutants" make their appearance.

Other novels mention dark rumors about how mutant occur on those planets beyond the rim of the galactic empire. An example is John Brunner's Altar On Asconel.

In Jack Williamson's Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock, the children of asteroid miners occasionally are born with abilities useful in the space environment. Rob McGee is immune to radiation, and has an ability to sense gravitational masses. This allows him to navigate the asteroid belt with relative ease. McGee is the first evidence of asterites evolving into humans suited for living in space.


Blink now, and man is creeping along the galactic rim, in those areas which were later to be regarded as the home of mutants and pirates—but which, significantly, were and remain the only areas where interstellar ships have been built by human beings.

(ed note: Human Empire ships are xenopaleotechnology inherited from a long extinct Forerunner race)

“From me you won’t get the full story,” Vix countered. “I guess no one knows it except those devils on Asconel—Bucyon, and the witch Lydis, and maybe that monster Shry!” He shot a keen look at Spartak. “You flinched when I said ‘witch,’ and ‘devil’ too—don’t you hold with such terms?”

Spartak looked at the table before him, choosing his words carefully. “There are certainly records of mutations developing possessed of what are generally called supernormal talents,” he granted. “Indeed, it was part of Imperial policy for some millennnia to maintain the stability of the status quo by locating such mutations and—if they hadn’t already been put to death by supersititious peasants or townsfolk— transporting them to the lonely Rim worlds. There are said to be whole planets populated by such mutations now. But words like, ‘witch’ have—ah—unfortunate connotations.”

From THE ALTAR ON ASCONEL by John Brunner (1965)

     “I believe that you did break free from him,” Zicti said soberly. “Which is why I have laid the compulsion on you — But, let us examine the facts — you men of Ylene are six point six on the sensitive scale, are you not?”
     “Yes. But Arcturians are supposed to be only five point nine— ”
     “True. But there is always the chance lately that one may be dealing with a change mutant. And this is the proper time in the wave of history for change mutants to appear. A pity we do not know more of Cummi’s background. If he is a mutant that would explain a great deal.”
     “Mutants!” Kartr repeated and he shivered. “I was on Kablo when Pertavar started the Mutant Rebellion— ”
     “Then you know what can come of such an upcurve in mutant births. There are good and bad results from all changes.”

From STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton (1953)

“Joe, what is a superman?”

Gilead did not answer.

“Very well, let’s chuck the term,” Baldwin went on. “It’s been overused and misused and beat up until it has mostly comic connotations. I used it for shock value and I didn’t shock you. The term ‘supermen’ has come to have a fairy tale meaning, conjuring up pictures of x-ray eyes, odd sense or senses, double hearts, uncuttable skin, steel muscles—an adolescent’s dream of the dragon-killing hero. Tripe, of course. Joe, what is a man? What is man that makes him more than an animal? Settle that and we’ll take a crack at defining a superman—or New Man, homo novis, who must displace homo sapiens—is displacing him—because he is better able to survive than is homo sap. I’m not trying to define myself, I’ll leave it up to my associates and the inexorable processes of time as to whether or not I am a superman, a member of the new species of man—same test to apply to you.”


“You. You show disturbing symptoms of being homo novis, Joe, in a sloppy, ignorant, untrained fashion. Not likely, but you just might be one of the breed. Now—what is man? What is the one thing he can do better than animals which is so strong a survival factor that it outweighs all the things that animals of one sort or another can do much better than he can?”

“He can think,”

“I fed you that answer; no prize for it. Okay, you pass yourself off a man; let’s see you do something, What is the one possible conceivable factor—or factors, if you prefer—which the hypothetical superman could have, by mutation or magic or any means, and which could be added to this advantage which man already has and which has enabled him to dominate this planet against the unceasing opposition of a million other species of fauna? Some factor that would make the domination of man by his successor, as inevitable as your domination over a hound dog? Think, Joe. What is the necessary direction of evolution to the next dominant species?”

Giiead engaged in contemplation for what was for him a long time. There were so many lovely attributes that a man might have: to be able to see both like a telescope and microscope, to see the insides of things, to see throughout the spectrum, to have hearing of the same order, to be immune to disease, to grow a new arm or leg, to fly through the air without bothering with silly gadgets like helicopters or jets, to walk unharmed the ocean bottom, to work without tiring—Yet the eagle could fly and he was nearly extinct, even though his eyesight was better than man’s. A dog has better smell and hearing; seals swim better,balance better, and furthermore can store oxygen. Bats can survive where men would starve or die of hardship; they are smart and pesky hard to kill. Rats could—Wait! Could tougher, smarter rats displace man? No, it Just wasn’t in them; too small a brain.

“To be able to think better,” Gilead answered almost instantly. “Hand the man a cigar! Supermen are superthinkers;anything else is a side issue. I’ll allow the possibility of super-somethings which might exterminate or dominate mankind other than by outsmarting him in his own racket-thought. But I deny that it is possible for a man to conceive in discrete terms what such a super-something would be or how this something would win out. New Man will beat out homo sap in homo sap’s own specialty—rational thought, the ability to recognize data, store them, integrate them, evaluate correctly the result, and arrive at a correct decision. That is how man got to be champion; the creature who can do it better is the coming champion. Sure, there are other survival factors, good health, good sense organs, fast reflexes, but they aren’t even comparable, as the long, rough history of mankind has proved over and over—Marat in his bath, Roosevelt in his wheelchair, Caesar with his epilepsy and his bad stomach. Nelson with one eye and one arm, blind Milton; when the chips are down it’s brain that wins, not the body’s tools.’…

…“We defined thinking as integrating data and arriving at correct answers. Look around you. Most people do that stunt just well enough to get to the corner store and back without breaking a leg. If the average man thinks at all, he does silly things like generalizing from a single datum. He uses one-valued logics. If he is exceptionally bright, he may use two-valued, ‘either-or’ logic to arrive at his wrong answers. If he is hungry, hurt, or personally interested in the answer, he can’t use any sort of logic and will discard an observed fact as blithely as he will stake his life on a piece of wishful thinking. He uses the technical miracles created by superior men without wonder nor surprise, as a kitten accepts a bowl of milk. Far from aspiring to higher reasoning, he is not even aware that higher reasoning exists. He classes his own mental process as being of the same sort as the genius of an Einstein. Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.

“For explanations of a universe that confuses him he seizes onto numerology, astrology, hysterical religions, and other fancy ways to go crazy. Having accepted such glorified nonsense, facts make no impression on him, even if at the cost of his own life. Joe, one of the hardest things to believe is the abysmal depth of human stupidity.

“That is why there is always room at the top, why a man with just a leetle more on the ball can so easily become governor, millionaire, or college president—and why homo sap is sure to be displaced by New Man, because there is so much room for improvement and evolution never stops.

“Here and there among ordinary men is a rare individual who really thinks, can and does use logic in at least one field—he’s often as stupid as the rest outside his study or laboratory—but he can think, if he’s not disturbed or sick or frightened. This rare individual is responsible for all the progress made by the race; the others reluctantly adopt his results. Much as the ordinary man dislikes and distrusts and persecutes the process of thinking he is forced to accept the results occasionally, because thinking is efficient compared with his own maunderings. He may still plant his corn in the dark of the Moon but he will plant better corn developed by better men than he.

“Still rarer is the man who thinks habitually, who applies reason, rather than habit pattern, to all his activity. Unless he masques himself, his is a dangerous life; he is regarded as queer, untrustworthy, subversive of public morals; he is a pink monkey among brown monkeys—a fatal mistake. Unless the pink monkey can dye himself brown before he is caught.

“The brown monkey’s instinct to kill is correct; such men are dangerous to all monkey customs.

“Rarest of all is the man who can and does reason at all times, quickly, accurately, inclusively, despite hope or fear or bodily distress, without egocentric bias or thalmic disturbance, with correct memory, with clear distinction between fact, assumption, and non-fact. Such men exist, Joe; they are ‘New Man’—human in all respects, indistinguishable in appearance or under the scalpel from homo sap, yet as unlike him in action as the Sun is unlike a single candle.”

Gilead said, “Are you that sort?”

“You will continue to form your own opinions.”

“And you think I may be, too?”

“Could be. I’ll have more data in a few days.”

Gilead laughed until the tears came. “Kettle Belly, if I’m the future hope of the race, they had better send in the second team quick. Sure I’m brighter than most of the jerks I run into, but, as you say, the competition isn’t stiff. But I haven’t any sublime aspirations. I’ve got as lecherous an eye as the next man. I enjoy wasting time over a glass of beer. I just don’t feel like a superman.”

“Speaking of beer, let’s have some.” Baldwin got up and obtained two cans of the brew. “Remember that Mowgli felt like a wolf. Being a New Man does not divorce you from human sympathies and pleasures. There have been New Men all through history; I doubt if most of them suspected that their difference entitled them to call themselves a different breed. Then they went ahead and bred with the daughters of men, diffusing their talents through the racial organism, preventing them from effectuating until chance brought the genetic factors together again.”

“Then I take it that New Man is not a special mutation?”

“Huh? Who isn’t a mutation, Joe? All of us are a collection of millions of mutations. Around the globe hundreds of mutations have taken place in our human germ plasm while we have been sitting here. No, homo novis didn’t come about because great grandfather stood too close to a cyclotron; homo novis was not even a separate breed until he became aware of himself, organized, and decided to hang on to what his genes had handed him. You could mix New Man back into the race today and lose him; he’s merely a variation becoming a species. A million years from now is another matter; I venture to predict that New Man, of that year and model, won’t be able to interbreed with homo sap—no viable offspring.”

“You don’t expect present man—homo sapiens—to disappear?”

“Not necessarily. The dog adapted to man. Probably more dogs now than in umpteen B.C.—and better fed.”

“And man would be New Man’s dog.”

“Again not necessarily. Consider the cat.”

“The idea is to skim the cream of the race’s germ plasm and keep it biologically separate until the two races are permanently distinct. You chaps sound like a bunch of stinkers. Kettle Belly.”

“Monkey talk,”

“Perhaps. The new race would necessarily run things—”

“Do you expect New Man to decide grave matters by counting common man’s runny noses?”

“No, that was my point. Postulating such a new race, the result is inevitable. Kettle Belly, I confess to a monkey prejudice in favor of democracy, human dignity, and freedom. It goes beyond logic; it is the kind of a world I like. In my job I have mingled with the outcasts of society, snared their slumgullion. Stupid they may be, bad they are not—I have no wish to see them become domestic animals.”

For the first time the big man showed concern. His persona as “King of the Kopsters,” master merchandiser, slipped away; he sat in brooding majesty, a lonely and unhappy figure. “I know, Joe. They are of us; their little dignities, their nobilities, are not lessened by their sorry state. Yet it must be.”

“Why? New Man will come—granted. But why hurry the process?”

“Ask yourself.” He swept a hand toward the oubliette (where he destroyed the last record of the easy technique to make the sun go nova). ‘Ten minutes ago you and I saved this planet, all our race. It’s the hour of the knife. Some one must be on guard if the race is to live; there is no one but us. To guard effectively we New Men must be organized, must never fumble any crisis like this-and must increase our numbers. We are few now, Joe; as the crises increase, we must increase to meet them. Eventually—and it’s a dead race with time—we must take over and make certain that baby never plays with matches.”

He stopped and brooded. “I confess to that same affection for democracy, Joe. But it’s like yearning for the Santa Claus you believed in as a child. For a hundred and fifty years or so democracy, or something like it, could flourish safely. The issues were such as to be settled without disaster by the votes of common men, befogged and ignorant as they were. But now, if the race is simply to stay alive, political decisions depend on real knowledge of such things as nuclear physics, planetary ecology, genetic theory, even system mechanics. They aren’t up to it, Joe. With goodness and more will than they possess less than one in a thousand could stay awake over one page of nuclear physics; they can’t learn what they must know.”

Gilead brushed it aside. “It’s up to us to brief them. Their hearts are all right; tell them the score—they’ll come down with the right answers.”

“No, Joe. We’ve tried it; it does not work. As you say, most of them are good, the way a dog can be noble and good. Yet there are bad ones—Mrs. Keithley and company and more like her. Reason is poor propaganda when opposed by the yammering, unceasing lies of shrewd and evil and self-serving men. The little man has no way to judge and the shoddy lies are packaged more attractively. There is no way to offer color to a colorblind man, nor is there any way for us to give the man of imperfect brain the canny skill to distinguish a lie from a truth.

“No, Joe. The gulf between us and them is narrow, but it is very deep. We cannot close it.”

“I wish,” said Gilead, “that you wouldn’t class me with your ‘New Man’, I feel more at home on the other side.”

“You will decide for yourself which side you are on, as each of us has done.”

From GULF by Robert Heinlein (1949)

The Death of Cities

Yes, as of this writing people who live in rural areas are quite upset that all the good-paying jobs appear to be in urban areas so there is an exodus toward the cities.

But in the future, things may reverse themselves, sort of.

Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that there is sort of an inverse relationship between communication and transportation. What he means is the more advanced one becomes, the less you need the other. If communication develops virtual reality to the point where businesses can conduct meetings with members who physically are located all over the globe and you can't tell the difference, why go to the expense and inconvenience of traveling physically to a meeting? Already many corporations are experimenting with telecommuting.

By the same token, if transportation develops a teleportation device that can whisk you from Hong Kong to New York in a fraction of a second, who needs teleconferences? In other words: in many ways communication and transportation are two different techniques dealing with the same problem.

With respect to cities, the point is that if either technology becomes advanced enough, who needs cities?


Even from the air, the city looked deserted. But only two and a half hours were left—there was no time for further exploration. Orostron made his decision, and landed near the largest structure he could see. It seemed reasonable to suppose that some creatures would have sought shelter in the strongest buildings, where they would be safe until the very end.

The deepest caves—the heart of the planet itself—would give no protection when the final cataclysm came. Even if this race had reached the outer planets, its doom would only be delayed by the few hours it would take for the ravening wavefronts to cross the Solar System.

Orostron could not know that the city had been deserted not for a few days or weeks, but for over a century. For the culture of cities, which had outlasted so many civilisations had been doomed at last when the helicopter brought universal transportation. Within a few generations the great masses of mankind, knowing that they could reach any part of the globe in a matter of hours, had gone back to the fields and forests for which they had always longed. The new civilisation had machines and resources of which earlier ages had never dreamed, but it was essentially rural and no longer bound to the steel and concrete warrens that had dominated the centuries before. Such cities as still remained were specialised centres of research, administration or entertainment; the others had been allowed to decay, where it was too much trouble to destroy them. The dozen or so greatest of all cities, and the ancient university towns, had scarcely changed and would have lasted for many generations to come. But the cities that had been founded on steam and iron and surface transportation had passed with the industries that had nourished them.

From RESCUE PARTY by Arthur C. Clarke (1946)

      He hobbled over and sat down beside Gramp on the bench.
     "We're leaving," he said.
     Gramp whirled on him. "You're leaving!"
     "Yeah. Moving out into the country. Lucinda finally talked Herb into it. Never gave him a minute's peace, I guess. Said everyone was moving away to one of them nice country estates and she didn't see no reason why we couldn't."
     Gramp gulped. "Where to?"
     "Don't rightly know," said Mark. "Ain't been there myself. Up north some place. Up on one of the lakes. Got ten acres of land. Lucinda wanted a hundred, but Herb put down his foot and said ten was enough. After all, one city lot was enough for all these years."
     "Betty was pestering Johnny, too," said Gramp, "but he's holding out against her. Says he simply can't do it. Says it wouldn't look right, him the secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and all, if he went moving away from the city."
     "Folks are crazy," Mark declared. "Plumb crazy."

     The years had moved too fast. Years that had brought the family plane and helicopter, leaving the auto to rust in some forgotten place, the unused roads to fall into disrepair. Years that had virtually wiped out the tilling of the soil with the rise of hydroponics. Years that had brought cheap land with the disappearance of the farm as an economic unit had sent city people scurrying out into the country where each man, for less than the price of a city lot, might own broad acres. Years that had revolutionized the construction of homes to a point where families simply walked away from their old homes to the new ones that could be bought, custom-made, for less than half the price of a prewar structure and could be changed at small cost, to accommodate need of additional space or just a passing whim.

     Gramp sniffed. Houses that could be changed each year, just like one would shift around the furniture. What kind of living was that?
     He plodded slowly down the dusty path that was all that remained of what a few years before had been a busy residential street. A street of ghosts, Gramp told himself- of furtive, little ghosts that whispered in the night. Ghosts of playing children, ghosts of upset tricycles and canted coaster wagons. Ghosts of gossiping housewives. Ghosts of shouted greetings. Ghosts of flaming fireplaces and chimneys smoking of a winter night.

     "I have something to say," said Webster. "Something that should have been said long ago. Something all of you should hear. That I should be the one who would tell it to you is the one thing that astounds me. And yet, perhaps, as one who has worked in the interests of this city for almost fifteen years, I am the logical one to speak the truth.

     "Alderman Griffin said the city is dying on its feet and his statement is correct. There is but one fault I would find with it and that is its understatement. The city … this city, any city … already is dead.
     "The city is an anachronism. It has outlived its usefulness. Hydroponics and the helicopter spelled its downfall. In the first instance the city was a tribal place, an area where the tribe banded together for mutual protection. In later years a wall was thrown around it for additional protection. Then the wall finally disappeared but the city lived on because of the conveniences, which it offered trade and commerce. It continued into modem times because people were compelled to live close to their jobs and the jobs were in the city.
     "But today that is no longer true. With the family plane, one hundred miles today is a shorter distance than five miles back in 1930. Men can fly several hundred miles to work and fly home when the day is done. There is no longer any need for them to live cooped up in a city.
     "The automobile started the trend and the family plane finished it. Even in the first part of the century the trend was noticeable—a movement away from the city with its taxes and its stuffiness, a move toward the suburb and close-in acreages. Lack of adequate transportation, lack of finances held many to the city. But now, with tank farming destroying the value of land, a man can buy a huge acreage in the country for less than he could a city lot forty years ago. With planes powered by atomics there is no longer any transportation problem."

     He paused and the silence held. The mayor wore a shocked look. King's lips moved, but no words came. Griffin was smiling.

     "So what have we?" asked Webster. "I'll tell you what we have. Street after street, block after block, of deserted houses, houses that the people just up and walked away from. Why should they have stayed? What could the city offer them? None of the things that it offered the generations before them, for progress had wiped out the need of the city's benefits. They lost something, some monetary consideration, of course, when they left the houses. But the fact that they could buy a house twice as good for half as much, the fact that they could live as they wished to live, that they could develop what amounts to family estates after the best tradition set them by the wealthy of a generation ago—all these things outweighed the leaving of their homes.
     "And what have we left? A few blocks of business houses. A few acres of industrial plants. A city government geared to take care of a million people without the million people. A budget that has run the taxes so high that eventually even business houses will move to escape those taxes. Tax forfeitures that have left us loaded with worthless property. That's what we have left.

     "If you think any Chamber of Commerce, any ballyhoo, any hare-brained scheme will give you the answers, you're crazy. There is only one answer and that is simple.
     The city as a human institution is dead. It may struggle on a few more years, but that is all."

From CITY by Clifford Simak (1952)

She was bitterly disappointed to hear that the age of cities had passed. Despite all that Leon could tell her about the completely decentralised culture that now covered the planet from pole to pole, she still thought of Earth in terms of such vanished giants as Chandrigar, London, Astrograd. New York, and it was hard for her to realise that they had gone forever, and with them the way of life they represented.

‘When we left Earth,’ Leon explained, ‘the largest centres of population were university towns like Oxford or Ann Arbor or Canberra; some of them had fifty thousand students and professors. There are no other cities left of even half that size.’

‘But what happened to them?’

‘Oh, there was no single cause, but the development of communications started it. As soon as anyone on Earth could see and talk to anyone else by pressing a button, most of the need for cities vanished. Then anti-gravity was invented, and you could move goods or houses or anything else through the sky without bothering about geography. That completed the job of wiping out distance, which the airplane had begun a couple of centuries earlier. After that, men started to live where they liked, and the cities dwindled away.’

From THE SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH (short-story version) by Arthur C. Clarke (1958)


"Immortality" means being partially or fully immune to dying from old age. You can still die from starvation, being blown out an airlock with no spacesuit, or being drilled between the eyes by a laser rifle.

"Invulnerability" on the other hand is being remarkably difficult to kill. Having a body composed of diamond, Wolverine-levels of regeneration, resurrection like Count Dracula, that sort of thing.

Having one of these abilities does not necessarily mean you have the other. TV Tropes calls having both Complete Immortality.

Immortality is a perennial favorite, since practically nobody wants to die. I'm not kidding. The concept dates back at least to the The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BCE) the earliest surviving great work of literature.

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."
— Woody Allen

Yes, we don't live forever. People and animals change as they age, and eventually catch disease and die.

Eternal life is ingrained in the collective human consciousness, having been present in literature and myths for as long as they've been around. Literally. The Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest heroic epic known to the modern world) is, in large part, about the titular character's search for a way to live forever.

Of course, having been around for so long, Our Immortality Is Different, and comes in several flavours. These tropes are not mutually exclusive; there's plenty of room for overlap.


For general tropes relating to immortality, see This Index Will Live Forever.

Problems With Immortality

But the invention of any new technique of prolonging lifespan is guaranteed to create major problems in the society and political power structure.

For one thing, unless you pass laws about term limits and maximum age of political office, you've suddenly got a gerontocracy on your hands.

For another, if the lifespan lengthens to past about 500 years or so, you'd better limit the number of children allowed to a family or overpopulation will make a reappearance. Once you have death control you have to have birth control or you'll be standing on Zanzibar. Logically, the reason any species has the ability to procreate is because they are mortal. Otherwise the species would go extinct. Remove the mortality and you remove the need for procreation.

Naturally, this becomes less acute if immortality is not for everyone, but just for a privileged few. Even if that spoil-sport Immanual Kant says it is immoral to do something that is only bad if everybody does it.

TV Tropes calls this the Immortal Procreation Clause: The fertility of a species is inversely proportional to its lifespan. Thus, as a species approaches immortality, their birth rate approaches zero. This can be the result of natural infertility, or because they don't want to be up to their eyebrows in squalling babies so contraception is employed.

On a broader level there is the problem that reducing the birth rate also reduces the evolution rate of the species. No children, no evolution. Keeping in mind that the invention of modern medicine has already put a damper on evolution.

There are other problems with immortality, over and above the literary motive of saying it is just plain immoral for some reason or another.

It has often been noted that in society "the rich get richer." At least nowadays the super rich eventually die so their wealth is divided among the children. But an immortal rich person is just going to keep getting richer. The same goes for a politically powerful immortal. They keep getting to be more powerful and are never removed by death (well natural death at any rate, I'm sure the descendants will be busy hiring assasins).

In "The Martyr" by Alan E Nourse the invention of immortality puts the breaks on progress. They can only give the treatment to 500 carefully selected people each year, but after a couple of decades the effect is quite noticeable. The starship project stalls because there is no motivation to get things done in a timely fashion. Since each treatment adds another sixty years to your life, why not spend yet another year on starship testing just to be absolutely sure? And the politicians start becoming permanent fixtures. With each decade they just add to their repertoire of dirty political tricks, new novice politicians don't stand a chance. Stagnation.

The "lack of pressure" drawback is also featured in Between The Strokes Of Night by Charles Sheffield, in chapter 29.

In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun the Spacers have a lifespan of 400 years or so. They become hypercautious and terrified of disease, since they have so many more years to lose than a filthy Earthman with their three-score and ten. Spacers are also unbelievably conservative and resistant to change.

In many science fiction stories the supreme enemy of an immortal being is boredom. After ten-thousand years or so it is almost impossible for an immortal to find anything new, or even anything they've only encountered five hundred times before. In The Lost Worlds of 2001 Arthur C. Clarke said "There were few things that an immortal welcomed and valued more greatly than surprise; when there was none left in the universe, it would be time to die." This is explored in Raymond Z. Gallun's The Eden Cycle and Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time sequence where the protagonists must go to extreme and absurd lengths to keep ennui at bay.

In the role playing game The Burning Wheel, the Elves are immortal. As a consequence they are elegiac, tragic, and constantly grief-stricken. After all, the longer you live, the larger the number of friends you have seen die (generally in combat). Us older people have experienced a mild version of this: the older you get, the more of your beloved TV and movie actors you loved from childhood depart for that big silver screen in the sky. Especially in the year 2016.

In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End Captain Teague tells Jack Sparrow: "It's not just about living forever, Jackie. The trick is living with yourself forever."

But immortality is not all bad. It comes in handy with slower-than-light space travel. Or even faster-than-light, the "anti-agathic" immortality drugs of James Blish's Cities In Flight series were developed because star travel at 20c still consumes a huge chunk of one's lifespan. In Robert Forward's Rocheworld, the drug No-Die slows the aging process to one-fourth the normal rate. Unfortunately it temporarily lowers intelligence by roughly the same factor. It is needed because the STL laser light-sail is going to take 42 years to fly to Barnard's Star, and a crew of retirement-age astronauts would do an exceedingly poor job of exploration.

Science fiction authors are also fond of teasing the reader about immortality. In Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo? by Gerald Kersh the protagonist meets the eponymous Cuckoo who was born in 1507. He suffered a severe head trauma, and was treated by mad doctor Ambroise Paré with The Digestive (a concoction of oil of roses, honey, turpentine, and egg whites). This makes Cuckoo both immortal and invulnerable. Cuckoo wants to buy a farm to produce the needed ingredients so he can make a fortune selling The Digestive.

The protagonist torpeodes Cuckoo's plan by pointing out the wide variations in bee honey, eggs, et al. The chances of recreating the formula by using such organic ingredients is zilch.


(ed note: In this story, the galactic emperor is immortal. Which sounds like it would be dangerously easy to wind up with an empire ruled eternally by an undying tyrant. But luckily there is an unplanned safeguard.

The galactic emperor rules justly and with due concern for all those affected by his decisions. Because if not, the emperor dies.

You see every few decades, the emperor undergoes immortality treatments. These prevent the emperor from dying from old age. But there is a side effect. During the treatment, the emperor sees every single thing they have done in their life. With intense recall.

If the emperor has made too many decisions which were without empathy, which were cruel to those under the emperor's rule, the replay of those memories will kill him.)

". . . The Just, the All-powerful, the All-knowing, His Celestial Majesty, Tate the First!"

He sat down.

Nobody moved anywhere. This was no ordinary function, where he granted audiences or issued the decrees which could alter the destiny of whole stellar systems. This was the time when he had to prove his fitness to rule, or die. In utter silence he pressed one of the two studs set in the arm of his throne, and tried to relax as golden bands of beautifully worked metal closed around his limbs, chest, and head, holding him rigid.

When given before the age of forty and renewed every twenty years, the Immortality Treatment prevented the disease of senility and death from occurring in life based on the carbon series of compounds—which meant practically all forms of life. There were thousands of dogs, cats, and monkeys to prove that it worked. But in beings of higher intelligence—human or otherwise—it did not work at all, unless the being in question was mentally very, very tough.

The radiation which stimulated the regenerative centers produced other effects as well, some of them good, others quite fatally bad. The treatment increased the I.Q., and gave to the mind a perfect, eidetic memory. It also, for the few seconds duration of the treatment, so intensified the effects of what had come to be called the "area of conscience" that any being having sufficient intelligence to base his actions on a moral code had to take three seconds of the most frightful psychological torture ever known. He had to live with the cruel, debased, and utterly nauseous creature that was himself.

Many preferred to die rather than take three seconds of it. Most had no such choice—their life force was obliterated with the first, savage blast of self-knowledge.

This secondary effect of the treatment was experienced in a complete reliving of the past, with each incident diamond-sharp in visual, auditory, and tactile sense recall. But not only that. The mind was given a terrifying insight into the end results of that being's most trivial-seeming actions. Unthinking words or gestures made over the years and forgotten, when blown up by the triple stimulus of perfect memory, increased I.Q., and a hypersensitive "conscience" became lethal as a suicide's bullets. The mind just could not take such an overwhelming blast of self-guilt, even for three seconds, so it, and the body containing it, died.

Only one person had successfully undergone the Immortality Treatment.

Tate, though he had lived—with thirty-seven previous treatments—for seven hundred and sixty-eight years, still took only three seconds. And there was no blurring or telescoping of events. Each incident was complete, and though it occupied only microseconds of time, each bore its charge of guilt potential.

From DYNASTY OF ONE by James White (1955)

      ‘It’s not as simple as that. What I’m telling you now I’ve discovered slowly—usually when I’ve been dreaming or slightly drunk. You may say that invalidates the evidence, but I don’t think so. At first it was the only way I could break through the barrier that separates me from Omega—I’ll tell you later why I’ve called him that. But now there aren’t any obstacles: I know he’s there all the time, waiting for me to let down my guard. Night and day, drunk or sober, I’m conscious of his presence. At times like this he’s quiescent, watching me out of the corner of his eye. My only hope is that he’ll grow tired of waiting, and go in search of some other victim.’
     Connolly’s voice, calm until now, suddenly came near to breaking.
     ‘Try and imagine the horror of that discovery: the effect of learning that every act, every thought or desire that flitted through your mind was being watched and shared by another being. It meant, of course, the end of all normal life for me. I had to leave Ruth and I couldn’t tell her why. Then, to make matters worse, Maude came chasing after me. She wouldn’t leave me alone, and bombarded me with letters and phone calls. It was hell. I couldn’t fight both of them, so I ran away. And I thought that on Syrene, of all places, he would find enough to interest him without bothering me.’

     ‘Now I understand,’ said Pearson softly. ‘So that’s what he’s after. A kind of telepathic Peeping Tom—no longer content with mere watching….’
     ‘I suppose you’re humouring me,’ said Connolly, without resentment. ‘But I don’t mind, and you’ve summed it up pretty accurately, as you usually do. It was quite a while before I realised what his game was. Once the first shock had worn off, I tried to analyse the position logically. I thought backward from that first moment of recognition, and in the end I knew that it wasn’t a sudden invasion of my mind. He’d been with me for years, so well hidden that I’d never guessed it. I expect you’ll laugh at this, knowing me as you do. But I’ve never been altogether at ease with a woman, even when I’ve been making love to her, and now I know the reason. Omega has always been there, sharing my emotions, gloating over the passions he can no longer experience in his body.

     ‘The only way I kept my control was by fighting back, trying to come to grips with him and to understand what he was. And in the end I succeeded. He’s a long way away and there must be some limit to his powers. Perhaps that first contact was an accident, though I’m not sure.
     ‘What I’ve told you already, Jack, must be hard enough for you to believe, but it’s nothing to what I’ve got to say now. Yet remember—you agreed that I’m not an imaginative man, and see if you can find a flaw anywhere in this story.

     ‘I don’t know if you’ve read any of the evidence suggesting that telepathy is somehow independent of time. I know that it is. Omega doesn’t belong to our age: he’s somewhere in the future, immensely far ahead of us. For a while I thought he must be one of the last men—that’s why I gave him his name. But now I’m not sure; perhaps he belongs to an age when there are a myriad different races of man, scattered all over the universe—some still ascending, others sinking into decay. His people, wherever and whenever they may be, have reached the heights and fallen from them into the depths the beasts can never know. There’s a sense of evil about him, Jack—the real evil that most of us never meet in all our lives. Yet sometimes I feel almost sorry for him, because I know what has made him the thing he is.
     ‘Have you ever wondered, Jack, what the human race will do when science has discovered everything, when there are no more worlds to be explored, when all the stars have given up their secrets? Omega is one of the answers. I hope he’s not the only one, for if so everything we’ve striven for is in vain. I hope that he and his race are an isolated cancer in a still healthy universe, but I can never be sure.
     ‘They have pampered their bodies until they are useless, and too late they have discovered their mistake. Perhaps they have thought, as some men have thought, that they could live by intellect alone. And perhaps they are immortal, and that must be their real damnation. Through the ages their minds have been corroding in their feeble bodies, seeking some release from their intolerable boredom. They have found it at last in the only way they can, by sending back their minds to an earlier, more virile age, and becoming parasites on the emotions of others.
     ‘I wonder how many of them there are? Perhaps they explain all cases of what used to be called possession. How they must have ransacked the past to assuage their hunger! Can’t you picture them, flocking like carrion crows around the decaying Roman Empire, jostling one another for the minds of Nero and Caligula and Tiberius? Perhaps Omega failed to get those richer prizes. Or perhaps he hasn’t much choice and must take whatever mind he can contact in any age, transferring from that to the next whenever he has the chance.

     ‘It was only slowly, of course, that I worked all this out. I think it adds to his enjoyment to know that I’m aware of his presence. I think he’s deliberately helping—breaking down his side of the barrier. For in the end, I was able to see him.’
     Connolly broke off. Looking around, Pearson saw that they were no longer alone on the hilltop. A young couple, hand in hand, were coming up the road toward the crucifix. Each had the physical beauty so common and so cheap among the islanders. They were oblivious to the night around them and to any spectators, and went past without the least sign of recognition. There was a bitter smile on Connolly’s lips as he watched them go.
     ‘I suppose I should be ashamed of this, but I was wishing then that he’d leave me and go after that boy. But he won’t; though I’ve refused to play his game any more, he’s staying to see what happens.’
     ‘You were going to tell me what he’s like,’ said Pearson, annoyed at the interruption. Connolly lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply before replying.

     ‘Can you imagine a room without walls? He’s in a kind of hollow, egg-shaped space—surrounded by blue mist that always seems to be twisting and turning, but never changes its position. There’s no entrance or exit—and no gravity, unless he’s learned to defy it. Because he floats in the centre, and around him is a circle of short, fluted cylinders, turning slowly in the air. I think they must be machines of some kind, obeying his will. And once there was a large oval hanging beside him, with perfectly human, beautifully formed arms coming from it. It could only have been a robot, yet those hands and fingers seemed alive. They were feeding and massaging him, treating him like a baby. It was horrible….
     ‘Have you ever seen a lemur or a spectral tarsier? He’s rather like that—a nightmare travesty of mankind, with huge malevolent eyes. And this is strange—it’s not the way one had imagined evolution going—he’s covered with a fine layer of fur, as blue as the room in which he lives. Every time I’ve seen him he’s been in the same position, half curled up like a sleeping baby. I think his legs have completely atrophied; perhaps his arms as well. Only his brain is still active, hunting up and down the ages for its prey.
     ‘And now you know why there was nothing you or anyone else could do. Your psychiatrists might cure me if I was insane, but the science that can deal with Omega hasn’t been invented yet.’

     ‘Your story’s as logical as mine, but neither of us can convince the other. If you’re right, then in time I may return to “normal”. You can’t imagine how real Omega is to me. He’s more real than you are: if I close my eyes you’re gone, but he’s still there. I wish I knew what he was waiting for! I’ve left my old life behind; he knows I won’t go back to it while he’s there. So what’s he got to gain by hanging on?’ He turned to Pearson with a feverish eagerness. ‘That’s what really frightens me, Jack. He must know what my future is—all my life must be like a book he can dip into where he pleases. So there must still be some experience ahead of me that he’s waiting to savour. Sometimes—sometimes I wonder if it’s my death.’

     He never saw the flash of the gun or heard the feeble but adequate explosion. The world he knew had faded from his sight, and around him now were the fixed yet crawling mists of the blue room. Staring from its centre—as they had stared down the ages at how many others?—were two vast and lidless eyes. They were satiated for the moment, but for the moment only.

From THE PARASITE by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

      "I'll ask a question, you try to answer it. Between us, we may come up with something. Look, obviously the Norms didn't arrange this because they got the roughest deal of the lot. The Delinks did very little better and, come to think of it, the stinkers didn't rake off any cream, which leaves us with the Geeks. Think it's the Geeks?"
     "No," flatly.
     "Why not?"
     "For the very obvious reason that until six years ago there were no Geeks. This business has been going on for over three centuries."
     Gammon said "Damn!" explosively. "That leaves us with the unpleasant thought that this is the work of outsiders—aliens. Sounds a bit melodramatic."
     "Unfortunately, melodramatic or otherwise, it is the most logical conclusion."

     Gammon's eyes narrowed. "I agree up to a point but there are holes in the theory through which I could drive a brigade of armor-floats in battle formation. Take our invader, call him 'Ugly.' Ugly arrives here with enough gimmicks and telepathic what-have-yous to conquer the entire world in six weeks flat, coffee breaks included. At the end of three hundred years, however, he still appears to be fumbling around trying to figure out what to do next. It doesn't make sense and, on top of this, while wearing himself to death on this divide-and-destroy-when-I-get-around-to-it technique, he permits a new dispensation to arise… an advanced breed of man who might, in the long run, kick him clean off the planet."
     "Or," said Toynbee, softly, "do the final destroying job for him."
     Gammon blanched. "I wish you hadn't brought that up. You're right, of course, too right, and because of it I'm going to have some damn sleepless nights. On the other hand, this easy-plan, long-term credit invasion still doesn't make sense."

     IN THE FORT, Gammon's cigarette twitched at the corner of his mouth as he read through Craig's latest report.
     Finally he put it down. "From a scientific angle this is completely without merit. Every fact mentioned is derived from this group's peculiar talents. I'm inclined to distrust this crystal ball viewpoint."
     Toynbee looked at him. "I have the feeling that you are talking to convince yourself."
     Gammon frowned. "There are occasions when I think we have worked together too damn long. All right, damn you, the report may not be scientific, maybe these Stinkers did just sit around feeling things, but the conclusions are logical."

     Toynbee grinned. "Suppose you summarize—just for a change."
     Gammon smiled twistedly. "As you wish." He tossed across a sheet of paper. "That is what the Stinkers think the invaders looked like. It was drawn by one of them, a man named Miguel."
     Toynbee studied it and shuddered slightly. "I think I'd prefer to sit down with a Stinker." He looked again at the round head with its triangular eyes and curled proboscis. The thing had a barrel body, squat legs and long thin supple arms which almost reached the ground.
     Gammon, watching his expression, said, "Pity it."
     "Pity it!"
     "You heard me. According to what the Stinkers felt, it was a gentle, peace-loving and highly advanced life-form. It came here under duress, bluntly, at gun point. The skeletons we found, some odd hundred thousand, were all that remained of a once thriving civilization."
     Toynbee frowned at him. "You're not making very much sense."
     "Not yet I'm not. Listen, the Stinkers think these unfortunate creatures were carriers for some sort of parasite." He paused and looked at the other directly. "Look, just as a kind of confirmation and assuming the conclusions are correct, could you carry on from there?"
     "You mean draw logical conclusions from the data so far to hand?"

     "Well—" Toynbee frowned. "Assuming these creatures were, as you suggest, parasites,, one must conclude, since they needed carriers, they were comparatively helpless."
     "Go on, you're doing fine."
     "The parasites, then, were the real invaders and they got here using the advanced technology of another life-form. Let's see now, since they were comparatively helpless, they needed that advanced technology both to establish themselves and to construct a hideout and/or hideouts from which they could operate."
     Toynbee paused and paled slightly. "I'm not sure I care for my own logic."
     "Never mind that—I don't care for it either. So far you're bearing out everything Craig has said."
     "Thanks for nothing. Where was I? Oh, yes. Conclusion one. Having established themselves, they then concealed the means of their invasion by the telepathic illusion of a Texas mountain. There is a subsidiary and unpleasant conclusion to be drawn from that. Having played their part, I am quite sure that the carriers did not destroy themselves in a wild orgy of self-loathing. I think they were ordered to destroy themselves, their technology and all clues as to their planet of origin in case, subsequently, that same technology might be used against them or provide a clue as to the whereabouts of the parasites themselves."
     "How do you mean—ordered?"
     "You would bring that one up, wouldn't you? I think the invaders exercised intense telepathic control over their carriers."

     Gammon paled. "If I didn't know otherwise I'd say you read this damn report over my shoulder. Anything else?"
     "One other point, the most frightening of all. The invaders are still here and still taking over. I think, by our standards, they are well-nigh immortal and can afford to take their time."
     Gammon nodded. "It fits and not only fits but confirms the Stinkers' conclusions. I have an uncomfortable feeling, however, drawing on my limited knowledge of parasites, that these things, having sucked us dry of whatever they want, will move on. In a couple of million years, maybe, the one hundred thousand remaining humans will be dumping these creatures on some other unfortunate planet. Whereupon, having carried out all their orders, they will be telepathically forced to destroy themselves."

     "I wish you'd shut up," said Toynbee uneasily. He sighed. "The Stinkers don't know where these parasites are?"
     "No. They are working on it but these flying things in the sky are fouling up the wavelengths or whatever they use."
     "That's neat too," said Toynbee bitterly. "These things sit around in armchairs with their presumed legs crossed and let their mechanical gimmicks divide humanity up for the slaughter. No, that's wrong; they don't want to slaughter us. They want some of us here to use. Not only are they parasites, but sooner or later, they'll want carriers again."
     He rose, abruptly. "Gammon, we've got to find them. If we have to drain the oceans and sift every grain of sand in existence we've got to find them."

     Before he could pause to study them, however, malevolence seemed to strike him with almost physical force and his eyes were drawn to the contents of the room.
     Tanks, row upon row of square transparent tanks, filled to the top with a darkish liquid. Above each tank was a sort of framework and from framework hung…
     Gammon looked again and shuddered. The thing looked like a huge and partly skinned bat, and it hung half in and half out of the liquid. It had no eyes, no wings but its resemblance to a huge bat was unmistakable. The things pulsed slowly and regularly like the throats of toads.
     Gammon turned to the Commander, who was staring almost pop-eyed at the scene.
     "Bring down the Seventh Weapon," he said softly. "Dump it smack in the middle of this lot, set the timing for reasonable evacuation and seal this place up." He looked about him. "God, I'm going to enjoy watching this lot fry. I can feel no pity whatever."
     Five hours later, an area of ground which had once held Fort Knox heaved like the back of a wounded animal. Jets of vapor hissed from sudden fissures and abruptly ignited into five hundred foot geysers of flame. The surface of the earth smoked, became a red crust and crumbled into an ever widening crater.

     "What I don't understand," said Gammon, after broaching his subject, "is what these damn parasites got out of it. They were completely helpless, blind and presumably disinterested in the planet they had conquered. Why did they do it?"
     Craig smiled. "You're almost answering the question yourself but, as it's somewhat involved, I'd better explain."
     He paused to smile at his wife sitting some distance away. "I don't know how these creatures began but presumably they evolved to their present state of outward helplessness. Not that helplessness mattered, since they could always enslave some other unfortunate life-form to take care of their wants."
     "I'm afraid," said Toynbee, "I am unable to perceive any particular elation in hanging upside down in a tank of fluid even if someone does take care of your needs."
     Craig laughed. "I'm afraid you're both missing the point. Our invader, specifically, was not blind, not helpless. He was enjoying every possible physical experience and, at the same time, drinking the most intoxicating wine of all—absolute power."

     They stared at him blankly. Finally Toynbee said, "How?"
     "Through his host, of course. The invader was telepathic. Everything the host experienced the parasite experienced and, if he liked that particular experience, he could do a little mental manipulation to get some more."
     "The invader saw, but through the eyes of his hosts, moved and felt through the same medium and, each time, absorbed a quota of knowledge from the same source."
     "I assume and I can only assume, mind you, that after a time it paled. The invader had run through the whole range of the host's experiences, wearied of that particular world and wanted to move on."
     Craig sighed and shook his head. "The last time that happened, they gave their usual tele-hypnotic orders and the hosts went out to find one for them. Unfortunately they found us and the parasites moved on."

From INVADER ON MY BACK by Philip E. High (1968)

Decadent Population

Tales of technology turning civilizations into worthless decadent people dates back at least to H. G. Well's The Time Machine (1895), with the pathetic Eloi and brutal Morlocks. Things have only accelerated since then. Some such stories have become quaint, overtaken by events. E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (1901) has people living in little cubbies, their only activity is using a sort of video conferencing machine to communicate with others. Sounds to me like present day guys living in their mother's basement, doing little else besides trolling Facebook and Twitter.

I remember people predicting the downfall of Western Civilization due to the invention of the TV remote control. Just think about a generation of couch potatos too lazy to get up, walk to the TV set, and change the channel. Actually, such predictions were not far off the mark.


(ed note: Trellises are sort of fractal polymer carbon that Star God races use as disposable packing material. Sort of like hyper-advanced styrofoam packing peanuts. Some aliens covet the stuff for inexplicable alien reasons. Therefore this Star God refuse can be used as a trade item. Our heroes hope to trade some with the Tusk-legs in exchange for some Regrowth Agent to repair their spaceship. So they have arrived at the star system called "Harmoniuos Repose" aka "Rest In Peace" or RIP. "Automation" is a sort of non-sentient ultra-AI used to take care of things.)

Harmonious Repose. An ugly name, thought Ravna. Pham's "light-hearted" translation was worse: Rest In Peace. In the Beyond, almost everything habitable was in use. Civilizations were transient and races faded ... but there were always new people moving up from Below. The result was most often patchwork, polyspecific systems. Young races just up from the Slowness lived uneasily with the remnants of older peoples. According to the ship's library, RIP had been in the Beyond for a long time. It had been continuously inhabited for at least two hundred million years, time for ten thousand species to call it home. The most recent notes showed better than one hundred racial terranes. Even the youngest was the residue of a dozen emigrations. The place should be peaceful to the point of being moribund.

This secondary harbor was not really part of the tusk-leg race's terrane. The inside of the arc was far different from what they had seen on the Skroderiders' first trip. There were no exterior views. Cramped passages wound between irregular walls pocked with dark holes. Insects flew everywhere, often covering parts of the camera balls. To Pham, the place looked filthy.

There was no evidence of the terrane's owners—unless they were the pallid worms that sometimes stuck a featureless head(?) up from a burrow hole. Over his voice link, Blueshell opined that these were very ancient tenants of the RIP system. After a million years, and a hundred transcendent emigrations, the residue might still be sentient, but stranger than anything evolved in the Slow Zone. Such a people would be protected from physical extinction by ancient automation, but they would also be inward turning, totally cautious, absorbed in concerns that were inane by any outside standard. It was the type that most often lusted after trellis work.

From A FIRE UPON THE DEEP by Vernor Vinge (1992)

      Sid Throndyke overrode his respirator to heave a deep sigh.
     "Wow!" he said, flipping to his wife's personal channel. "A tough day on the Office channel."
     The contact screens attached to his eyeballs stayed blank: Cluster was out. Impatiently, Sid toed the console, checking the channels: Light, Medium and Deep Sitcom; auto-hypno; Light and Deep Narco; four, six, and eighty-party Social; and finally, muttering to himself, Psychan. Cluster's identity symbol appeared on his screens.
     "There you are," he grieved. "Psychan again. After a hard day, the least a man expects is to find his wife tuned to his channel—"
     "Oh, Sid; there's this wonderful analyst. A new model. It's doing so much for me, really wonderful. . . ."
     "I know," Sid grumped. "That's all I hear. I'd think you'd want to keep in touch with the Sitcoms, so you know what's going on; but I suppose you've been tied into Psychan all day—while I burned my skull out on Office."
     "Now, Sid; didn't I program your dinner and everything?"
     "Um." Mollified, Sid groped with his tongue for the dinner lever, eased the limp plastic tube into his mouth. He sucked a mouthful of the soft paste—
     "Cluster! You know I hate Vege-pap. Looks like you could at least dial a nice Prote-sim or Sucromash. . . ."
     "Sid, you ought to tune to Psychan. It would do you a world of good. . . ." Her sub-vocalized voice trailed off in the earphones. Sid snorted, dialed a double Prote-sim and a Sucromash, fuming at the delay. He gulped his dinner, not even noticing the rich gluey consistency; then, in a somewhat better mood, flipped to the Light Sitcom.

     The stylized identity-symbol of the Pubinf announcer flashed on Sid's screens, vibrating in resonance with the impersonal voice of the Official announcer:
     " . . . . cause for concern. CentProg states that control will have been re-established within the hour. Some discomfort may result from vibration in sectors north of Civic Center, but normalcy will be restored shortly. Now, a word on the food situation."

     "Listen," a hoarse voice said. "Everybody, listen. We're blanketing all the channels this time—I hope. This is our last try. There's only a few of us. It wasn't easy getting into here—and there's no time left. We've got to move fast."
     The voice stopped as the man on the screen breathed hoarsely, swallowed. Then he went on:
     "It's the ice; it's moving down on us, fast, a god-awful big glacier. The walls can't stand much longer. It'll either wipe the city off the map or bury it. Either way, anybody that stays is done for.
     "Listen; it won't be easy, but you've got to try. Don't try to go down. You can't get out below because of the drifts. Go up, onto the roofs. It's your only chance—you must go up."
     The image on Sid's contact screens trembled violently, then blanked. Moments later, Sid felt a tremor—worse, this time. His cocoon seemed to pull at him. For a moment he was aware of the drag of a hundred tiny contacts grafted to the skin, a hundred tiny conductors penetrating to nerve conduits—
     An almost suffocating wave of claustrophobia swept over him. The universe seemed to be crushing in on him, immobile, helpless, a grub buried in an immense anthill—
     The shock passed. Slowly, Sid regained a grip on himself. His respirator was cycling erratically, attempting to match to his ragged breathing impulses. His chest ached from the strain. He groped with a toe, keyed in Cluster's identity pattern.

     CentProg was still dark. Sid was staring at the blank screens when a new shock sent heavy vibrations through his cocoon. Sid gasped, tried to keep cool. It would pass; it wasn't anything, it couldn't be. . . .
     The vibrations built, heavy, hard shocks that drove the air from Sid's lungs, yanked painfully at arms, legs, neck, and his groin. . . .
     It was a long time before the nausea passed. Sid lay, drawing breath painfully, fighting down the vertigo. The pain—it was a help, in a way. It helped to clear his head. Something was wrong, badly wrong. He had to think now, do the right thing. It wouldn't do to panic. If only there wouldn't be another earthquake. . . .
     Something wet splattered against Sid's half-open mouth. He recoiled, automatically spitting the mucky stuff, snorting—
     It was Vege-pap, gushing down from the feeding tube. Sid averted his face, felt the cool semi-liquid pattering against the cocoon, spreading over it, sloshing down the sides. Something was broken. . . .
     Sid groped for the cut-off with his tongue, gagging at the viscous mess pouring over his face. Of course, it hadn't actually touched his skin, except for his lips; the cocoon protected him. But he could feel the thick weight of it, awash in the fluid that supported the plastic cocoon. He could sense it quite clearly, flowing under him, forcing him up in the chamber as the hydrostatic balance was upset. With a shock of pain, Sid felt a set of neuro contacts along his spinal cord come taut. He gritted his teeth, felt searing agony as the contacts ripped loose.
     Half of the world went dark and cold. Sid was only dimly aware of the pressure against his face and chest as he pressed against the cell roof. All sensation was gone from his legs now, from his left arm, his back. His left contact screen was blank, unseeing. Groaning with the effort, Sid strained to reach out with a toe, key the emergency signal—
     Hopeless. Without the boosters he could never make it. His legs were dead, paralyzed. He was helpless.

     He tried to scream, choked, fought silently in the swaddling cocoon, no longer a euphorically caressing second skin but a dead, clammy weight, blinding him. He twisted, feeling unused muscles cramp at the effort, touched the lever that controlled the face-plate. He'd had a reputation as an open-air fiend once—but that had been—he didn't know how long. The lever was stiff. Sid lunged against it again. It gave. There was a sudden lessening of pressure as the burden of Vege-pap slopped out through the opening. Sid sank away from the ceiling of the tiny cubicle, felt his cocoon ground on the bottom.
     For a long time Sid lay, dazed by pain and shock, not even thinking, waiting for the agony to subside. . . .
     Then the itching began. It penetrated Sid's daze, set him twitching in a frenzy of discomfort. The tearing loose of the dorsal contacts had opened dozens of tiny rents in the cocoon; a sticky mixture of the supporting water bath and Vege-pap seeped in, irritating the tender skin. Sid writhed, struggled to scratch—and discovered that, miraculously, the left arm responded now. The motor nerves which had been stunned by the electroneural trickle-flow through the contacts were recovering control. Feebly, Sid's groping hand reached his inflamed hip—and scrabbled against the smooth sheath of plastic.
     He had to get out. The cocoon was a confining nightmare, a dead husk that had to be shed. The face-plate was open. Sid felt upward, found the edge, tugged—
     Slippery as an eel, he slithered from the cocoon, hung for an instant as the remaining contacts came taut, then slammed to the floor a foot below. Sid didn't feel the pain of the fall; as the contacts ripped free, he fainted.

     When Sid recovered consciousness, his first thought was that the narco channel was getting a little too graphic. He groped for a tuning switch—
     Then he remembered. The earthquake, Mel, the canned announcement—
     And he had opened his face-plate and fought to get out—and here he was. He blinked dully, then moved his left hand. It took a long time, but he managed to peel the contact screens from his eyes. He looked around. He was lying on the floor in a rectangular tunnel. A dim light came from a glowing green spot along the corridor. Sid remembered seeing it before, a long time ago. . . . the day he and Cluster had entered their cocoons.
     Now that he was detached from the stimuli of the cocoon, it seemed to Sid, he was able to think a little more clearly. It had hurt to be torn free from the security of the cocoon, but it wasn't so bad now. A sort of numbness had set in. But he couldn't lie here and rest; he had to do something, fast. First, there was Cluster. She hadn't answered. Her cocoon was situated right next to his—
     Sid tried to move; his leg twitched; his arm fumbled over the floor. It was smooth and wet, gummy with the Vege-pap that was still spilling down from the open face-plate. The smell of the stuff was sickening. Irrationally, Sid had a sudden mouth-watering hunger for Prote-sim.
     Sid fixed his eyes on the green light, trying to remember. He and Cluster had been wheeled along the corridor, laughing and talking gaily. Somehow, out here, things took on a different perspective. That had been—God! Years ago. How long? Maybe—twenty years? Longer. Fifty, maybe. Maybe longer. How could you know? For a while they had tuned to Pubinf, followed the news, kept up with friends on the outside. But more and more of their friends had signed contracts with CentProg. The news sort of dried up. You lost interest.
     But what mattered now wasn't how long, it was what he was going to do. Of course, an attendant would be along soon in any case to check up, but meanwhile, Cluster might be in trouble—

     The tremor was bad this time. Sid felt the floor rock, felt the hard paving under him ripple like the surface of a pond. Somewhere, a rumbling sound rolled, and somewhere something heavy fell. The green light flickered, then burned steadily again.
     A shape moved in the gloom of the corridor; there was the wet slap of footsteps. Sid sub-vocalized a calm "Hi, fellows." The silence rang in his ears. My God, of course they couldn't hear him. He tried again, consciously vocalizing, a tremendous shout—
     A feeble croak, and a fit of coughing. When he recovered his breath, a bare and hairy face, greenish white, was bending over him.
     " . . . . this poor devil," the man was saying in a thin choked voice.
     Another face appeared over the first face's shoulder. Sid recognized them both. They were the two that had been breaking into decent channels, with their wild talk about a glacier. . . .
     "Listen, fellow," one of the bare-faced men said. Sid stared with fascinated disgust at the clammy pale skin, the sprouting hairs, the loose toothless mouth, the darting pink tongue. God, people were horrible to look at!
     " . . . . be along after a while. Didn't mean to stir up anybody in your shape. You been in too long, fellow. You can't make it."
     "I'm. . . . good. . . . shape. . . ." Sid whispered indignantly.
     "We can't do anything for you. You'll have to wait till the maintenance unit comes along. I'm pretty sure you'll be okay. The ice's piled itself up in a wall now, and split around the city walls. I think they'll hold. Course, the ice will cover the city, but that won't matter. CentProg will still handle everything. Plenty of energy from the pile and the solar cells, and the recycling will handle the food okay. . . ."
     " . . . . Cluster. . . ." Sid gasped. The bare-faced man leaned closer. Sid explained about his wife. The man checked nearby face-plates. He came back and knelt by Sid. "Rest easy, fellow," he said. "They all look all right. Your wife's okay. Now, we're going to have to go on. But you'll be okay. Plenty of Vege-pap around, I see. Just eat a little now and then. The Maintenance machine will be along and get you tucked back in."
     "Where. . . . ?" Sid managed.
     "Us? We're heading south. Matt here knows where we can get clothes and supplies, maybe even a flier. We never were too set on this Vital Programming. We've only been in maybe a few years and we always did a lot of auto-gym work, keeping in shape. Didn't like the idea of wasting away. . . . Matt's the one found out about the ice. He came for me. . . ."
     Sid was aware of the other man talking. It was hard to hear him.
     A sudden thought struck Sid. " . . . . how long. . . . ?" he asked.

     It took three tries, but the bare-faced man got the idea at last.
     "I'll take a look, fellow," he said. He went to Sid's open face-plate, peered at it, called the other man over. Then he came back, his feet spattering in the puddled Vege-pap.
     "Your record says. . . . 2043," he said. He looked at Sid with wide eyes. They were red and irritated, Sid saw. It made his own eyes itch.
     "If that's right, you been here since the beginning. My God, that's over. . . . two hundred years. . . ."
     The second bare-faced man, Matt, was pulling the other away. He was saying something, but Sid wasn't listening. Two hundred years. It seemed impossible. But after all, why not? In a controlled environment, with no wear and tear, no disease, you could live as long as CentProg kept everything running. But two hundred years. . . .
     Sid looked around. The two men were gone. He tried to remember just what had happened, but it was too hard. The ice, they had said, wouldn't crush the city. But it would flow around it, encase it in ice, and the snow would fall, and cover it, and the city would lie under the ice.
     Ages might pass. In the cells, the cocoons would keep everyone snug and happy. There would be the traditional sitcoms, and Narco, and Psychan. . . .
     And up above, the ice.

From COCOON by Keith Laumer (1962)

      The First Electronic Age, Peyton knew, had begun in 1908, more than eleven centuries before, with De Forest’s invention of the triode. The same fabulous century that had seen the coming of the World State, the airplane, the spaceship, and atomic power had witnessed the invention of all the fundamental thermionic devices that made possible the civilisation he knew.
     The Second Electronic Age had come five hundred years later. It had been started not by the physicists but by the doctors and psychologists. For nearly five centuries they had been recording the electric currents that flow in the brain during the processes of thought. The analysis had been appallingly complex, but it had been completed after generations of toil. When it was finished the way lay open for the first machines that could read the human mind.
     But this was only the beginning. Once man had discovered the mechanism of his own brain he could go further. He could reproduce it, using transistors and circuit networks instead of living cells.

     Toward the end of the twenty-fifth century, the first thinking machines were built. They were very crude, a hundred square yards of equipment being required to do the work of a cubic centimetre of human brain. But once the first step had been taken it was not long before the mechanical brain was perfected and brought into general use.
     It could perform only the lower grades of intellectual work and it lacked such purely human characteristics as initiative, intuition, and all emotions. However, in circumstances which seldom varied, where its limitations were not serious, it could do all that a man could do.

     The coming of the metal brains had brought one of the great crises in human civilisation. Though men had still to carry out all the higher duties of statesmanship and the control of society, all the immense mass of routine administration had been taken over by the robots. Man had achieved freedom at last. No longer did he have to rack his brains planning complex transport schedules, deciding production programmes, and balancing budgets. The machines, which had taken over all manual labour centuries before, had made their second great contribution to society.

     The effect on human affairs was immense, and men reacted to the new situation in two ways. There were those who used their new-found freedom nobly in the pursuits which had always attracted the highest minds: the quest for beauty and truth, still as elusive as when the Acropolis was built.

     But there were others who thought differently. At last, they said, the curse of Adam is lifted forever. Now we can build cities where the machines will care for our every need as soon as the thought enters our minds—sooner, since the analysers can read even the buried desires of the subconscious. The aim of all life is pleasure and the pursuit of happiness. Man has earned the right to that. We are tired of this unending struggle for knowledge and the blind desire to bridge space to the stars.

     It was the ancient dream of the Lotus Eaters, a dream as old as Man. Now, for the first time, it could be realised. For a while there were not many who shared it. The fires of the Second Renaissance had not yet begun to flicker and die. But as the years passed, the Decadents drew more and more to their way of thinking. In hidden places on the inner planets they built the cities of their dreams.
     For a century they flourished like strange exotic flowers, until the almost religious fervour that inspired their building had died. They lingered for a generation more. Then, one by one, they faded from human knowledge. Dying, they left behind a host of fables and legends which had grown with the passing centuries.
     Only one such city had been built on Earth, and there were mysteries about it that the outer world had never solved. For purposes of its own, the World Council had destroyed all knowledge of the place. Its location was a mystery. Some said it was in the Arctic wastes; others believed it to be hidden on the bed of the Pacific. Nothing was certain but its name—Comarre.

From THE LION OF COMARRE by Arthur C. Clarke (1949)

Intelligence Amplification


Drugs that amplify intelligence (temporarily or permanently) are called Nootropics (aka smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers).

Examples from science fiction include R-47 from Gordon Dickson's THE R-MASTER, “VC” (viral coefficient) from John Brunner's THE STONE THAT NEVER CAME DOWN, "Hormone K Treatment" from Ted Chiang's UNDERSTAND, Methuen Treatment from L. Sprage de Camp's THE EXHALTED, NZT-48 from the movie LIMITLESS and CPH4 from the movie LUCY.


THE IQ BOOSTERS WORKED SWIFTLY, SURGING UP through the arteries in her neck, seeking the outer layers of the neocortex. Manufactured from algae that had been genetically tricked into producing human enzymes, one set of boosters more than tripled the rate at which nerves recharged and fired, while other substances increased the growth of new nerve connections and modulated energy efficiency. It was the increase in firing frequency that had the first and most profound effect. After only two days on the boost, Tarn and her crew were connecting disparate and seemingly unrelated facts faster than they had ever before in their entire lives, possibly faster than any human beings since the beginning of time.

One side effect of her newly acquired abilities was that she could now clearly see the flicker of her liquid crystal display pad, which usually cycled too quickly for the human eye to register. Watching the pad (especially in the 3-D mode) became an activity guaranteed to trigger migraine, and she worried that there might be other unanticipated effects. Yet they were all being forced to think faster, to redesign their own brain chemistries, and, whenever necessary, to experiment upon themselves. They had no choice.

From THE KILLING STAR by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski


A Brain-Computer Interface replaces the standard interaction between person and computer via monitor, keyboard, and mouse with something a little more intimate. The comptuter is connected direcly to your brain via implanted electrodes or something like that. Imagine a USB port in your skull. See the above link for details.

In the intelligence amplification category, such an interface can allow such IQ accelerating techniques as querying Google at the speed of thought and providing a math coprocessor for your brain.

In William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive are datachips called "skill softs." If you need to speak Mandarin Chinese, pop in a Mandarin skill soft into the chip port on your skull. Ditto nuclear physics, cordon bleu chief, or military strategist. Skill softs for physical skills like karate, sharpshooting, and jet fighter pilot will require additional interfaces to your reflex nervous system. Skill softs are Upgrade Artifacts.

In James White Sector General science fiction novels if for instance, a human surgeon had to operate on a Melfan patient, the surgeon would be temporarily imprinted with an appropriate memory tape. This is a brain recording of an alien surgeon who is an expert in the required surgery. The trouble is the brain recording is not just the surgical skill, it is all the alien's memories. So the poor surgeon has an alien split-personality as long as they are imprinted. The memory tape is erased from the surgeon's brain immediately afterwards. Diagnosticians are entities who have such mental stability that they can hold multiple brain recordings simultaneously. They use this cross-knowledge to do original research.

The movie Brainstorm noted how such an interface can be used to record an experience on tape and play it back so another person can experience the same things. Eating a meal at a five-star restaurant, sky-diving, traveling to exotic places. Not to mention pornographic applications. They didn't go into it in the movie but such an interface can be used to directly connect two people together, creating a sort of computer assisted telepathy.


From the person's standpoint, it appears like their mind is moved out of their meat body and transferred into a computer.

From an outside view it looks more like an incredibly advanced computer program is written which can perfectly simulate your memories, thoughts, and personality. The meat person still exists, they are a little dubious about this perfect simulation software running in the computer in the next room. Yes, this opens a screaming can of flailing worms full of questions about what is identity and related matters.

This is part of the Digital Crew Concept for slower-than-light starships, since uploaded people only require a computer, they have no mass and require no consumables.

Note this can result in the extinction of the human race by Existential Risk 6.1 Take-over by a transcending upload.



You are in an operating room. A robot brain surgeon is in attendance. By your side is a potentially human equivalent computer, dormant for lack of a program to run. Your skull, but not your brain, is anaesthetized. You are fully conscious. The surgeon opens your brain case and peers inside. Its attention is directed at a small clump of about 100 neurons somewhere near the surface. It determines the three dimensional structure and chemical makeup of that clump non-destructively with neutron tomography, phased array radio encephalography, and ultrasonic radar. It writes a program that models the behavior of the clump, and starts it running on a small portion of the computer next to you. Fine wires are run from the edges of the neuron assembly to the computer, providing the simulation with the same inputs as the neurons. You and the surgeon check the accuracy of the simulation. After you are satisfied, tiny relays are inserted between the edges of the clump and the rest of the brain. Initially these leave brain unchanged , but on command they can connect the simulation in place of the clump. A button which activates the relays when pressed is placed in your hand. You press it, release it and press it again. There should be no difference. As soon as you are satisfied, the simulation connection is established firmly , and the now unconnected clump of neurons is removed.

The process is repeated over and over for adjoining clumps, until the entire brain has been dealt with. Occasionally several clump simulations are combined into a single equivalent but more efficient program. Though you have not lost consciousness, or even your train of thought, your mind (some would say soul) has been removed from the brain and transferred to a machine.

In a final step your old body is disconnected. The computer is installed in a shiny new one, in the style, color and material of your choice. You are no longer a cyborg halfbreed, your metamorphosis is complete.

Advantages become instantly apparent. Your computer has a control labelled speed. It had been set to slow, to keep the simulations synchronized with the old brain, but now you change it to fast. You can communicate, react and think a thousand times faster. But that’s just a start.

The program in your machine can be read out and altered, letting you conveniently examine, modify, improve and extend yourself. The entire program may be copied into similar machines, giving two or more thinking, feeling versions of you. You may choose to move your mind from one computer to another more technically advanced, or more suited to a new environment. The program can also be copied to some future equivalent of magnetic tape. If the machine you inhabit is fatally clobbered, the tape can be read into a blank computer, resulting in another you, minus the experiences since the copy. With enough copies, permanent death would be very unlikely.

As a computer program, your mind can travel over infor- mation channels. A laser can send it from one computer to another across great distances and other barriers. If you found life on a neutron star, and wished to make a field trip, you might devise a way to build a neutron computer and robot body on the surface, then transmit your mind to it. Nuclear reactions are a million times quicker than chemistry, so the neutron you can probably think that much faster. It can act. acquire new experiences and memories, then beam its mind back home. The original body could be kept dormant during the trip to be reactivated with the new memories when the return message arrived. Alternatively, the original might remain active. There would then be two separate versions of you, with different memories for the trip interval.

Two sets of memories can be merged, if mind programs are adequately understood. To prevent confusion, memories of events would indicate in which body they happened. Merging should be possible not only between two versions of the same individual but also between different persons. Selective mergings, involving some of the other person's memories, and not others, would be a very superior form of communication, in which recollections, skills, attitudes and personalities can be rapidly and effectively shared.

(ed note: the process should be familiar with computer programmers who worked on a large project with many programmers. They use a version control system. If two programmers work on the same segment of the program at the same time, the two version must be merged )

Your new body will be able to carry more memories than your original biological one, but the accelerated infomiation explosion will insure the impossibility of lugging around all of civilization’s knowledge. You will have to pick and choose what your mind contains at any one time: There will often be knowledge and skills available from others superior to your own, and the incentive to substitute those talents for yours will be overwhelming. In the long run you will re- member mostly other people’s experiences, while memories you originated will be floating around the population at large. The very concept of you will become fuzzy, replaced by larger, communal egos.

Mind transferral need not be limited to human beings. Earth has other species with brains as large, from dolphins, our cephalic equals, to elephants, whales, and giant squid, with brains up to twenty times as big. Translation between their mental representation and ours is a technical problem comparable to converting our minds into a computer program. Our culture could be fused with theirs , we could incorporate each other’s memories, and the species boundaries would fade. Non-intelligent creatures could also be popped into the data banks. The simplest organisms might contribute little more than the infonnation in their DNA. In this way our future selves will benefit from all the lessons leamed by terrestrial biological and cultural evolution. This is a far more secure form of storage than the present one, where genes and ideas are lost when the conditions that gave rise to them change.

Our speculation ends in a super-civilization, the synthesis of all solar system life, constantly improving and extending itself, spreading outwards from the sun, converting non-life into mind. There may be other such bubbles expanding from elsewhere. What happens when we meet? Fusion of us with them is a possibility, requiring only a translation scheme between the memory representations. This process, possibly occurring now elsewhere, might convert the entire universe into an extended thinking entity, a prelude to even greater things.

by Hans P. Mouravec (1978)

The Singularity

The Singularity is a theoretical event where computer artificial intelligence escapes control and Everything Changes. If an AI figures out how to improve its intelligence, the Singularity will happen rather quickly because computers can do a gazillion mathematical calculations in a fraction of a second. It took mankind about 300,000 years to go from the Middle Paleolithic to present-day knowledge, a crude AI could do that much in about four months.

Charles Stross calls it "The Rapture Of The Nerds", because Singularity fans talk about it in terms one generally only hears among eschatologists. Human history will come to an end, beer will be five cents a pint, everybody will have their brain uploaded into the paradise of a hyper interstellar internet, there to live out a blissful immortality while being all watched over by machines of loving grace. And it is going to happen Real Soon Now.

Others (who have watched the Terminator movies) see a future where an artificial intelligence is created, who immediately decides to exterminate the human race via killer robots.

But both predictions are meaningless, since the point of a singularity is it signals where the math breaks down and future prediction is impossible. Sort of like a historical event horizon. Any prediction you make is revealing more about the hopes and fears lurking inside your personality than it is the actual details of the post-Singularity future.

Anyway the label was first mentioned by Stanislaw Ulam in 1958. But it was popularized by Vernor Vinge to the point where pretty much every science fiction author has at least heard the term. Of course there have been a few science fiction stories written about it.

Vinge is of the opinion that the Singularity will strike the instant that some entity appears that is "Superintelligent." It will then work its will, and the human history will vanish into the unpredictable event horizon of the Singularity. Vinge figures this can happen four different ways:

  • A computer may be developed that is both awake and superhumanly intelligent. This might be from some human genius who builds a very smart machine, or by a human who makes a computer capable of such recursive self-improvement that when the human's back is turned the computer undergoes an intelligence explosion, bootstrapping itself into superintellence.

  • A large computer network may "wake up" as a superintelligent entity. Arthur C. Clarke used this in his 1965 story Dial "F" for Frankenstein when the telephone system wakes up. Nowadays the first thing that springs to mind is the internet, which is a disturbing thought. Blasted thing will have 4chan for a dark subconscious.

  • A computer/brain interface may become so intimate that the users will be for all intents and purposes superintelligent.

  • There may be no computers involved at all. Biological science might be able to grant human beings the power of superintelligence.

Naturally once you have a superintelligent being, there is nothing stopping it from creating a super-superintelligent being, and so on.


"Transcendence," Admiral Barry said. "That seems to be an ongoing theme with these creatures."

"Yes, sir. In particular, we think they're talking about the GRIN Singularity."

Since the twentieth century—some would say earlier—human technology had been advancing in exponential leaps, each advance in science spawning new advances in dizzying and fast-accelerating profusion. It wasn't just the technology that had been growing; it was the pace of that growth, the ever-increasing speed of technological innovation and development. Just five centuries ago, humans had made their first successful heavier-than-air flight in a fabric-and-spruce glider powered by a gasoline engine, a voyage lasting all of twelve seconds and covering 120 feet. Thirty years later, aviator Wiley Post flew a Lockheed Vega monoplane around the world, the first man to do so solo, making eleven stops along the way and logging the total time in the air at 115 hours, 36 minutes.

And thirty years after that, humans were riding rockets into low Earth orbit, circling the globe in ninety minutes, and were just six short years from walking on the Moon.

In the late twentieth century, a science fiction writer, math professor, and computer scientist named Vernor Vinge had pointed out that if the rate of technological change was graphed against time, the slope representing that change was fast approaching a vertical line—what he called the "technological singularity" in an essay written in 1993. Human life and civilization, he'd pointed out, would very quickly become unrecognizable, assuming that humans weren't replaced entirely by their technological offspring within the next few decades.

Other writers of the era had pointed out that there were four principle drivers of this exponential increase in high-tech wizardry: genetics, robotics, infotechnology, and nanotechnology, hence the acronym "GRIN." The GRIN Singularity became a catchphrase for the next four centuries of human technological progress.

"GRIN wasn't quite the apotheosis people thought it would be," Noranaga pointed out.

"That's kind of a strange statement coming from a guy who breathes with gills and can outswim a dolphin," Barry pointed out.

"He's right, though," Mendelson said. "The way the pace of things was picking up in the twenty-first century, it looked like humans would become super-sentient god-machines before the twenty-second. The surprise is that we didn't."

"Well," Koenig said, "we did kind of get distracted along the way."

As Mendelson had pointed out, the only surprising thing about any of this was that the rate of increase hadn't already rocketed into the singularity sometime in the late twenty-first century. Various factors were to blame— two nasty wars with the Chinese Hegemony culminating in an asteroid strike in the Atlantic, the ongoing struggle with Earth's fast-changing climate and the loss of most of Earth's coastal cities, the collapse of the global currency and the subsequent World Depression. The Blood Death of the early twenty-second century had brought about startling advances in nanomedicine.. .but it had also killed one and a half billion people and brought about a major collapse of civilization in Southern Asia and Africa.

Those challenges and others had helped spur technological advances, certainly, but at the same time they'd slowed social change, redirected human creativity and innovation into less productive avenues, and siphoned off trillions of creds that otherwise would have financed both technological and social change. Human technological advance, it seemed, came more in fits and starts than in sweeping asymptotic curves.

(ed note: science fiction authors should note that Mr. Keith did not want to write about a post-Singularity human society, so he offered reasons why the Singularity had not happened. Yet.)

Revolt of the AIs

This is the nightmare Skynet Scenario, with hordes of Terminator robots hunting down humans with phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, crunching human skulls underfoot. Once the rogue artificial intelligence is created, it decided to exterminate the human race for reasons that make sense to its cybernetic mind.


Yet if you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past several years, you’ve almost certainly seen articles from a wide range of news outlets about the looming danger of artificial general intelligence, or “AGI.” For example, Stephen Hawking has repeatedly expressed that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” and Elon Musk — of Tesla and SpaceX fame — has described the creation of superintelligence as “summoning the demon.” Furthermore, the Oxford philosopher and director of the Future of Humanity Institute, Nick Bostrom, published a New York Times best-selling book in 2014 called Superintelligence, in which he suggests that the “default outcome” of building a superintelligent machine will be “doom.”

What’s with all this fear-mongering? Should we really be worried about a takeover by killer computers hell-bent on the total destruction of Homo sapiens? The first thing to recognize is that a Terminator-style war between humanoid robots is not what the experts are anxious about. Rather, the scenarios that keep these individuals awake at night are far more catastrophic. This may be difficult to believe but, as I’ve written elsewhere, sometimes truth is stranger than science fiction. Indeed, given that the issue of AGI isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, it’s increasingly important for the public to understand exactly why the experts are nervous about superintelligent machines. As the Future of Life Institute recently pointed out, there’s a lot of bad journalism about AGI out there. This is a chance to correct the record.

Toward this goal, step one is to realize is that your brain is an information-processing device. In fact, many philosophers talk about the brain as the hardware — or rather, the “wetware” — of the mind, and the mind as the software of the brain. Directly behind your eyes is a high-powered computer that weighs about three pounds and has roughly the same consistency as Jell-o. It’s also the most complex object in the known universe. Nonetheless, the rate at which it’s able to process information is much, much slower than the information-processing speed of an actual computer. The reason is that computers process information by propagating electrical potentials, and electrical potentials move at the speed of light, whereas the fastest signals in your brain travel at around 100 miles per second. Fast, to be sure, but not nearly as fast as light.

Consequently, an AGI could think about the world at speeds many orders of magnitude faster than our brains can. From the AGI’s point of view, the outside world — including people — would move so slowly that everything would appear almost frozen. As the theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky calculates, for a computer running a million times faster than our puny brains, “a subjective year of thinking would be accomplished for every 31 physical seconds in the outside world, and a millennium would fly by in eight-and-a-half hours.”

Already, then, an AGI would have a huge advantage. Imagine yourself in a competition against a machine that has a whole year to work through a cognitive puzzle for every 31 seconds that you spend trying to think up a solution. The mental advantage of the AGI would be truly profound. Even a large team of humans working together would be no match for a single AGI with so much time on its hands. Now imagine that we’re not in a puzzle-solving competition with an AGI but a life-and-death situation in which the AGI wants to destroy humanity. While we struggle to come up with strategies for keeping it contained, it would have ample time to devise a diabolical scheme to exploit any technology within electronic reach for the purpose of destroying humanity.

But a diabolical AGI isn’t — once again — what many experts are actually worried about. This is a crucial point that the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker misses in a comment about AGI for the website To quote Pinker at length:

“The other problem with AGI dystopias is that they project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. Even if we did have superhumanly intelligent robots, why would they want to depose their masters, massacre bystanders, or take over the world? Intelligence is the ability to deploy novel means to attain a goal, but the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself: being smart is not the same as wanting something. History does turn up the occasional megalomaniacal despot or psychopathic serial killer, but these are products of a history of natural selection shaping testosterone-sensitive circuits in a certain species of primate, not an inevitable feature of intelligent systems.” Pinker then concludes with, “It’s telling that many of our techno-prophets can’t entertain the possibility that artificial intelligence will naturally develop along female lines: fully capable of solving problems, but with no burning desire to annihilate innocents or dominate the civilization.”

Unfortunately, such criticism misunderstands the danger. While it’s conceptually possible that an AGI really does have malevolent goals — for example, someone could intentionally design an AGI to be malicious — the more likely scenario is one in which the AGI kills us because doing so happens to be useful. By analogy, when a developer wants to build a house, does he or she consider the plants, insects, and other critters that happen to live on the plot of land? No. Their death is merely incidental to a goal that has nothing to do with them. Or consider the opening scenes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which “bureaucratic” aliens schedule Earth for demolition to make way for a “hyperspatial express route” — basically, a highway. In this case, the aliens aren’t compelled to destroy us out of hatred. We just happen to be in the way.

The point is that what most theorists are worried about is an AGI whose values — or final goals — don’t fully align with ours. This may not sound too bad, but a bit of reflection shows that if an AGI’s values fail to align with ours in even the slightest ways, the outcome could very well be, as Bostrom argues, doom. Consider the case of an AGI — thinking at the speed of light, let’s not forget — that is asked to use its superior intelligence for the purpose of making humanity happy. So what does it do? Well, it destroys humanity, because people can’t be sad if they don’t exist. Start over. You tell it to make humanity happy, but without killing us. So it notices that humans laugh when we’re happy, and hooks up a bunch of electrodes to our faces and diaphragm that make us involuntarily convulse as if we’re laughing. The result is a strange form of hell. Start over, again. You tell it to make us happy without killing us or forcing our muscles to contract. So it implants neural electrodes into the pleasure centers of everyone’s brains, resulting in a global population in such euphoric trances that people can no longer engage in the activities that give life meaning. Start over — once more. This process can go on for hours. At some point it becomes painfully obvious that getting an AGI’s goals to align with ours is going to be a very, very tricky task.

Another famous example that captures this point involves a superintelligence whose sole mission is to manufacture paperclips. This sounds pretty benign, right? How could a “paperclip maximizer” pose an existential threat to humanity? Well, if the goal is to make as many paperclips as possible, then the AGI will need resources to do this. And what are paperclips composed of? Atoms — the very same physical stuff out of which your body is composed. Thus, for the AGI, humanity is nothing more than a vast reservoir of easily accessible atoms, atoms, atoms. As Yudkowsky eloquently puts it, “The [AGI] does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.” And just like that, the flesh and bones of human beings are converted into bendable metal for holding short stacks of paper.

At this point, one might think the following, “Wait a second, we’re talking about superintelligence, right? How could a truly superintelligent machine be fixated on something so dumb as creating as many paperclips as possible?” Well, just look around at humanity. By every measure, we are by far the most intelligent creatures on our planetary spaceship. Yet our species is obsessed with goals and values that are, when one takes a step back and peers at the world with “new eyes,” incredibly idiotic, perplexing, harmful, foolish, self-destructive, other-destructive, and just plain weird.

For example, some people care so much about money that they’re willing to ruin friendships, destroy lives and even commit murder or start wars to acquire it. Others are so obsessed with obeying the commandments of ancient “holy texts” that they’re willing to blow themselves up in a market full of non-combatants. Or consider a less explicit goal: sex. Like all animals, humans have an impulse to copulate, and this impulse causes us to behave in certain ways — in some cases, to risk monetary losses and personal embarrassment. The appetite for sex is just there, pushing us toward certain behaviors, and there’s little we can do about the urge itself.

The point is that there’s no strong connection between how intelligent a being is and what its final goals are. As Pinker correctly notes above, intelligence is nothing more than a measure of one’s ability to achieve a particular aim, whatever it happens to be. It follows that any level of intelligence — including superintelligence — can be combined with just about any set of final goals — including goals that strike us as, well, stupid. A superintelligent machine could be no less infatuated with obeying Allah’s divine will or conquering countries for oil as some humans are.

So far, we’ve discussed the thought-speed of machines, the importance of making sure their values align with ours, and the weak connection between intelligence and goals. These considerations alone warrant genuine concern about AGI. But we haven’t yet mentioned the clincher that makes AGI an utterly unique problem unlike anything humanity has ever encountered. To understand this crucial point, consider how the airplane was invented. The first people to keep a powered aircraft airborne were the Wright brothers. On the windy beaches of North Carolina, they managed to stay off the ground for a total of 12 seconds. This was a marvelous achievement, but the aircraft was hardly adequate for transporting goods or people from one location to another. So, they improved its design, as did a long lineage of subsequent inventors. Airplanes were built with one, two, or three wings, composed of different materials, and eventually the propeller was replaced by the jet engine. One particular design — the Concorde — could even fly faster than the speed of sound, traversing the Atlantic from New York to London in less than 3.5 hours.

The crucial idea here is that the airplane underwent many iterations of innovation. Problems that arose in previous designs were improved upon, leading to increasingly safe and reliable aircraft. But this is not the situation we’re likely to be in with AGI. Rather, we’re likely to have one, and only one, chance to get all the problems mentioned above exactly right. Why? Because intelligence is power. For example, we humans are the dominant species on the planet not because of our long claws, sharp teeth and bulky musculatures. The key difference between Homo sapiens and the rest of the Animal Kingdom concerns our oversized brains, which enable us to manipulate and rearrange the world in incredible ways. It follows that if an AGI were to exceed our level of intelligence, it could potentially dominate not only the biosphere, but humanity as well.

Even more, since creating intelligent machines is an intellectual task, an AGI could attempt to modify its own code, a possibility known as “recursive self-improvement.” The result could be an exponential intelligence explosion that, before one has a chance to say “What the hell is happening?,” yields a super-super-superintelligent AGI, or a being that towers over us to the extent that we tower over the lowly cockroach. Whoever creates the first superintelligent computer — whether it’s Google, the U.S. government, the Chinese government, the North Korean government, or a lone hacker in her or his garage — they’ll have to get everything just right the first time. There probably won’t be opportunities for later iterations of innovation to fix flaws in the original design, if there are any. When it comes to AGI, the stakes are high.

It’s increasingly important for the public to understand the nature of thinking machines and why some experts are so worried about them. Without a grasp of these issues, claims like “A paperclip maximizer could destroy humanity!” will sound as apocalyptically absurd as “The Rapture is near! Save your soul while you still can!” Consequently, organizations dedicated to studying AGI safety could get defunded or shut down, and the topic of AGI could become the target of misguided mockery. The fact is that if we manage to create a “friendly” AGI, the benefits to humanity could be vast. But if we fail to get things right on the first go around, the naked ape could very well end up as a huge pile of paperclips.

     Really smart A.I. wouldn't directly attack humans.
     It would pit them against each other.

     Has it already started?

From a tweet by Christian Payne (2016)

The global financial system is a paperclip maximizer-type AI, only instead of paperclips it turns you into debt.

What happens when Singularitarianism meets Neurotheology meets CRISPR meets germ-line genetic manipulation?

Our paperclip maximizer AI overlords get human slaves genetically programmed to worship them. The end.

From a tweet by Charles Stross (2016)

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