“The Marching Morons,” by Cyril W. Kornbluth

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One of our readers pointed out the similiarity between the movie Idiocracy and a short story by Cyril W. Kornbluth named “The Marching Morons” which appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction in April, 1951.

Like Idiocracy, the story involves a man who is put into stasis for centuries and wakes up in a new world where humanity has bred itself into oblivion. The Margaret Sanger style eugenics implications are even clearer in this story than in Idiocracy, told with both wit and compassion. Unlike the movie, this story addresses the question of how technology could persist, and comes up with the Nietzschean idea of an upper caste of intelligent people who have ended up enslaved to the masses of fools.

The story falls into the style which is convenient to call “honest” when we in fact mean realistic, with some aggression behind it in the telling of an important story that is mostly forgotten because of its political inconvenience. For Kornbluth, who was Jewish, to explore anything tinged with eugenics in the years after WWII was not only personally brave but ran the risk of great condemnation. Perhaps he was a victim of political correctness because it seems this story should have wider reach.

“The Marching Morons” is written in the older style of science fiction that readers of Ray Bradbury may be familiar with, which is not so much self-consciously “literary” content embedded in mass market writing but a compact, vivid style in which every detail is important but the big picture is not lost in the details. Kornbluth writes with what we might call passion but is more appropriately termed “urgency” in that this story takes place in a desperate time, and was written in a desperate time.

While the presence of this story in the heritage of Idiocracy seems obvious, it is also important to point to an earlier work which it would have been hard for any science fiction fan to miss: The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. In this book, a Victorian scientist travels to the future. He finds the planet is now divided into two groups: the Morlocks, brutal and crude creatures that fear the light and control the planet from its surface, and Eloi, light and graceful creatures of intelligence which live below the surface in menial circumstances.

As the protagonist explores, he discovers that the Morlocks have descended from the working classes of his time and have through evolutionary pressures become essentially Orcs, thoughtless and violent but obsessive. They live by feeding on the Eloi, to whom Darwin has not been kind because when intelligence is no longer needed for survival, it becomes a burden and the thoughtless and violent dominate it.

Apparently Wells was influenced by E. Ray Lankester’s book Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880) in which the author sets forth the idea that if a species gains a constant food supply, evolution pushes toward a suppression of form in a kind of marginal profit obtained by removing expensive features that are no longer necessary.

It may also serve as an answer to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, in which he posits an underground species of angelic human-like creatures known as Vril-ya will take over earth with superior intelligence. Much as Orwell answered Huxley, Wells answered Bulwer-Lytton, suggesting that instead of the utopian vision he portrays a Lankesterian degeneration of humanity lurked in the future, which is the theme held in common with both Idiocracy and “The Marching Morons.”

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Idiocracy (2006)

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Some say the role of art is to show us what is in the future by amplifying what we refuse to notice about the present. Idiocracy takes on this task by showing us what happens to a egalitarian, sex-obsessed, entertainment-besotted and distraction-oriented culture over five centuries.

Set in 2505, Idiocracy follows the story of two people chosen for a crionics experiment because they are average in intelligence, physical ability and motivation. Absolutely expendable in the present time, they spend a half-millennium in cryostasis and emerge into a changed world.

Following the long tradition of hyperbolic absurdist comedy, Idiocracy portrays the world in broad brush strokes and basic colors. It does this because if it got any subtler, we would recognize America 2015 A.D. in this mess. In the future, the Dunning-Kruger effect — by which the stupid are arrogantly confident and the intelligent timorously hesitant — leads to a population of morons.

In the future world, society is ruled by entertainment of the most Beavis and Butthead variety, constant sexual and masturbatory stimulus, and the type of consumer hell that was imagined by 1980s thrash bands. People are not only brick stupid, but hopelessly vapid, living in a constant flood of distractions while their world crumbles around them. Idiocracy amplifies present problems to their maximum: pollution, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become not just commonplace, but dominant.

The film shadows past stories on this topic, notably Brave New World. In that novel, eugenics — the science of managing the intelligence of offspring — was controlled by government to produce leaders, artisans and drones. In the idiocratic world all eugenics has been abandoned and people survive through the buildup of technology which manages the world for them, having grown too stupid to do more than press buttons. As in Demolition Man, which alludes to the Huxley book, future authorities depend on maintaining the appearance of order through the absence of conflict. Citizens are threatened by insane police, bribed with sex and money, and kept distracted by Roman empire style circuses with a technological edge.

What this film does well is to show us a vision of hell. It keeps this vision on the line between what we recognize and what we can imagine, but the allusions to our present world are too close to be ignored. The future culture represents a cross between pro-wrestling, redneck culture, barrio living and urban lifestyles. Consistently the lowest common denominator is revealed in everything. The future population seems to be mostly Hispanic and white, with relatively few African-Americans but a health number of people of indeterminate mixed origins. This fits the theme of this movie, which is taking America A.D. 2005 and exaggerating it to reveal the natural end result of the path it is on.

In the intervening decade, the gap between reality and Idiocracy has narrowed to an alarming degree. What cannot be denied is that the future, like the present, is insufferable. People are fools, but if anyone smarter than they are arrives, they call him an idiot and metaphorically crucify him for their own entertainment. Arguing with them is like talking to people on the internet who cite Wikipedia and big media articles, but do not understand them, creating a kind of circular debate where the only people who understand it are in the minority and as a result are ignored. People lack awareness of anything more than their immediate needs in their immediate future, and have not only a lack of empathy but something worse than apathy, which is total obliviousness toward all consequences which cannot be immediately visualized. In Idiocracy, ignorance wins out over knowledge and intelligence every time, and the only way to get anything done is to lie to people and play to their superstitions and ignorance. It is a cynical and yet strikingly accurate view of the future.

Where this movie becomes difficult is that it is a cross between political polemic and cartoon, although it is not animated. There is no subtlety, no depth of character other than vague goodwill, and every scene exists to prove a point on the outline of an essay which might be titled Too Much of a Good Thing: How Humanity Won All Challenges and Atrophied Into Mental Retardation. The underlying pro-eugenics theme does not focus, as most of them do or movies such as Gattaca flirt with, on the production of superior beings so much as on the proliferation of average ones, and how that in turn induces average to consistently lower itself to avoid excluding anyone. The most crushing scene occurs when lead character Joe Bauers attempts to explain simple reality to a group of future-idiots, and is mocked for his trouble by those who rely on supposed “superior” knowledge.

I doubt this movie will find any fans in our established elites, for whom the idiots of this hypothetical — and it is best to put a big fat question mark next to that word — future seem like ideal constituents. Nor will it find many political supporters, since it avoids taking a side and instead points numbly and ardently at the elephant in the room. It is however most effective as a type of conditioning, in that after watching this movie the traits of people around in stand revealed in their full selfishness/narcissism, denial and manipulative distraction. For that reason, it fits within the metal worldview of seeing our society as a hugbox of denial of its own decline, and the rot coming from within and being masked by — not helped by — the rhetoric of peace, love, equality, subsidy and happiness which is the opiate of our fellow citizens as they zone out and wait to become idiots of the future.

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Comments on the internet

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Sometimes, after a long day of seeing the utterly moronic, cruel and pointless comments that people type on the Internet, I have this dream.

In this dream I see a white panel van driving around town. It’s an old Ford Econoline from the 80s with sticker letters on the side that say FLORIST. It takes the out-of-the-way streets and the byways, circles around the areas that will not make it onto a postcard or the front page of the newspaper. In other words, it moves unnoticed among the rest of us… people like you and me. It drives slowly, its engine muttering and exuding a smell of hot oil.

This is the Eugenics Van.

Inside the cabin, the radio crackles with a new message.

“123 Maple Street, Unit Four. Some guy keeps posting Nickelback lyrics and unwarranted criticism to YouTube.” The driver looks at the navigator and they exchange nods. The EV picks up speed and halfway crosses town to the address.

A knock at the door rings out in unit four. “Just leave it outside,” croaks the voice of a bloated moron.

“Flowers for you sir,” says the person at the door wearing a khaki uniform with FLORIST embroidered on the name tag. He makes his voice nasal to seem meek and submissive. “Need your signature sir.”

He hears grumbling and cursing within as clothing is pulled over resisting flesh. The door opens and a standard modern lumpenperson stands there. The florist hands him the flowers, which are made of soft plastic. “What the?” says the dufus, but that’s all he says, because the florist has whipped out a silenced Ruger .22 and shot him through the eye.

The bullets are hollowed and filled with a potent neurotoxin which causes the retard to contort and flail as his central nervous system is eaten from within. The florist picks up the flowers which have bounced when they were dropped and punted by the spasmic death of the imbecile. He waves to his partner in the van who arrives, also wearing a florist uniform and carrying a rug.

They roll up the dufus in the rug, then search the house for a suitcase. They pack it with the wallet, phone, personal effects and enough clothing to make it appear that dufus has gone on a short trip. Then they take the rug and suitcase down to the van and throw them in the rear.

Once a day, the EV drives to a funeral home on the outskirts of town. There it backs up slowly to the incinerator and deposits a few dozen bodies. The foreman shrugs and pulls the lever, dropping them into the flames. The ash is crushed and scattered on the roses at the far side of the cemetery next to a rest stop known to be frequented by truckers looking for glory holes.

The cops get called to the idiot’s house and declare him missing. His family wail and flutter their tiny forearms lost in oceans of fat but since they are dysfunctional, it is assumed that this idiot is just another person lost. The file goes onto a shelf and idiot goes into the statistics. The EV is long gone, moved on to a new city.

Society goes on its merry oblivious way. Outside of its notice, the EV drives slowly through the everyday streets of our cities, stopping wherever stupidity disrupts the pursuit of life. It filters humanity of the useless so people who have a purpose in existing can finally catch a break and not be forced to constantly ignore the imbecilic among them. Somehow its victims are forgotten, unnoticed or ignored and absolutely nothing of even remote significance is interrupted by their absence.

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Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles

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Horror films, like heavy metal, have drifted for the past two decades looking for a new path. A few trends have passed: violence porn, hipster zombie movies, and the incomparable Human Centipede series of dementia. But audiences have converged, and people seek horror films that are brainy and metaphorical like the roots of the genre, yet perhaps with a bit of the sci-fi and social paranoia of the newer genre.

Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles launches into this with a story spun from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: if science can make a better human, what happens if it’s a “better” (as envisioned by humans) version of you? For Generation X, this brings great trauma as we all know our parents would have “upgraded” in a moment. It also calls into question our relations with other people, namely would we hit a magic button to make our friends, lovers and coworkers smarter, faster and better?

Per the usual for horror films with aspirations to “atmosphere,” the movie begins slowly with an idyllic scene. Three average people go on vacation. The only glitch is that their chosen destination happens to be on top of an experimental genetics facility. The glitch has a subthread, which is that the facility is still active and samples from its environment for fresh humans to improve. The three fall into its trap and must confront their new doubles who are stronger, smarter and most of all, more confident.

The metaphorical nature of horror movies emerges in full flavor here. While the plot progresses, the questions hang in that dense atmosphere the movie creates. Perhaps if we encounter a better version of ourselves, we should just lay down and die. After all, they fix all that we find tragic and pointless about ourselves. But there are other issues here, much as there were in Frankenstein. Does greater ability alone convey the wisdom and moral character to use that ability well? Perhaps improvements make us more competent, but no more directed toward what we should be doing. Then again, it is hard to argue with a better version of yourself. And from the perspective of your clone, you appear as obsolete as a VHS tape, and if the clone can step into your life and make a better version of it, should it be allowed to happen?

Cloned: The Recreator Chronicles launches viewers down a path of extreme skepticism about humanity through a metaphor which can apply to technology, eugenics or even the cult of self-esteem. While much of the action fits the standard form of personal drama to further a plot, the writers skillfully layer cues to the darker issues beneath which unfold as the movie goes on. Nothing is as it seems. And as this plot races to its nihilistic conclusion, that is as should be.

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