Sunday, November 26, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 33: The Marching Morons by C. M. Kornbluth

Kornbluth, C.M. "The Marching Morons." Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1951.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.86/10
My Rating:        7/10

"Some things had not changed."

An average man from 1988 is awoken in the distant future to a world in which the average IQ is 45.

In his time, Barlow was a successful but dishonest realtor. A dental accident left him in a coma, and he was sealed in a vacuum until, centuries later, a potter discovers his body, recognizes his ailment and immediately cures him. Barlow is brought to a government rep and eventually learns of the current state of the world. Evidently, over the last generations, the more educated classes produced less children while the less educated continued to breed furiously, so that the genetics passed down led to a crisis of idiocy, and an overpopulation of morons. The government wants Barlow to help find a way to reduce the population, so that eventually a balance can be found. Being a man of greed and lesser morals, Barlow comes up with a harsh solution while demanding a dictatorship in return.

While this is among Kornbluth's best-known stories, and much praised, I was less taken by it. The circumstances are certainly interesting, and I do like the depiction of the chaotic future society where objects are oversized rather than miniaturized, radios are still the main source of information and entertainment, and paper money is still being used while movie theatres have become so advanced that sensory enhancements include scent, despite featuring primarily blatant propaganda. Other than the radio news segment, I did not care for the overt comedy and feel the story would have had a natural element of comedy in the circumstances alone. The tone is comedic though the storyline is quite dark--extremely dark as it deals with eugenics in a plot set up by a clearly racist man, so that the need to eliminate morons can ultimately be diverted to a need to eliminate anyone of a darker skin tone or a different set of beliefs. While Kornbluth does not pursue this particular route outwardly, the two are placed side-by-side, so that racial cleansing is a possibility in a world determined to pursue moron-cleansing.

There are a lot of similarities between "The Marching Morons" and Kornbluth's other popular story "The Little Black Bag." For a premise, each presents us with unlikeable characters accidentally embroiled in time travel who gain fame and fortune by taking advantage of the people around them. In "The Little Black Bag," however, protagonist Dr. Brayard Kendrick attempts to improve upon himself and, despite conning those around him, does perform positive acts for society. In "The Marching Morons," Barlow has no intention or even a kindling of awareness of doing good, and goes to extremes to gain as much from helping government than he possibly can. He is overtly racist and egocentric, and sees people as cattle, or more specifically, as lemmings. Nowhere is there even the hint of any gains he might make, and his desires are to the extremes of selfishness. The end differs greatly, for while they are both taken down from the heights they have achieved, Barlow suffers a cruel death through an act of vengeance by those who promised him great wealth, while Kendrick's demise is quite somber, as he has given a great deal of aid to those around him, and has learned to be a better person through his experiences, despite having begun his career with less than moral motives.

This characterization of Barlow in the midst of a moronic dystopia leads us to wonder if it is not the constant breeding of the genetically poor that leads to a bleak, dysfunctional future, but instead the lack of morals in the average contemporary man and in government. And this, subtly presented, is the most interesting idea in the story. Barlow behaves similarly to the higher IQ government officials, whose intelligence is used not to save humanity, as they recruit Barlow for this, but to eventually execute Barlow once humanity has been saved. The officials use Barlow to exterminate the moron population, and are pleased at the extermination, but primarily because it was done other hands. They in turn exterminate the exterminator on grounds that he is dangerous and a threat to them, whereas the officials were the threat to the moron population--the entire citizenry of the planet--as the ruse to wipe them out was effectively their own. In fact, it is implied that the officials have conjured up this idea of extermination but were unable to act on it, as soon as an outsider with the ability to effectuate the plan is easily paid off to do so. There is no talk of education programs or methods other than propaganda aimed to reduce the birthrate, and the simplest form of cleansing is death, not rehabilitation of any kind. A comment on the current state of an uninvolved mass and a government out to protect itself. 

I do not like this story as much as I liked "The Little Black Bag," but I do like the thinking it offers if we peel away the humour.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


Todd Mason said...

Hm. I don't remember any mooting of any other sort of chauvinism being endorsed by the Secret Rulers of the future in "Marching"...but it has been a number of years since I've read it...likewise, I don't see the protagonist's fate as Revenge so much as disposal/dismissal once his usefulness is at an end. I don't think Kornbluth at any point endorses anything about those who use the hapless survivor to execute, in every sense, their desired result...and that is much of his point. But I seem to be relatively lonely in seeing it this way...but it is clear to me that Kornbluth is mocking those who see themselves as natural and deserving elites in a way that any survivor (which Kornbluth barely was) of WW2, particularly when Jewish, might be inclined to do. I'm glad you do gather they had their own Final Solution in mind...but were glad to have someone work out the final details for them, so that they could choose not to deal with their complicity.

Todd Mason said...

I'll need to dig a bit, as it's not obviously in a quick skim online (perhaps even looking to Mark RIch's not terribly balanced bio), but I wonder when Mary Byers and Kornbluth's deeply learning-disabled child was born, and how their mutual situation led up to forming what I see as the double-bottomed message of this story...which, too often, is seen of late as All For mass murder.

Ah, well.

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