Exceptions to a Rule

Exceptional people achieving so much more when working together. This edition published by Corgi Books 1973.

Identifying exceptional people may not be as easy as one might expect.  The very fact that they are indeed exceptional, and have possibly far greater potential than the rest of us, might make it hard for us ordinary folk to recognise their existence.  They are just too different for us to know it.

Fiction can help us to understand, and appreciate, differences in others.  Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gave an insight into the thinking of someone with what appears to be high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, though that is never entirely clear.  He is an outsider, and problems of communication with others lie at the heart of the story.

Yet those same people may have remarkable abilities – autistic savants sometimes have capacities in areas such as mathematics, music or art which are far above what are considered normal.  But because they are abnormal, the mass of the human race distance themselves from them – the outsider, by definition, doesn’t fit in.  And “fitting in” is supposed to be everyone’s aim in life.

Daniel Keyes’ 1966 science fiction story Flowers for Algernon describes the painful isolation of a person who receives surgery to enhance intelligence.  His previous relationships fail and he cannot “fit in” at his new level of genius.  We are left with a sense of a wonderful opportunity wasted.  And so it is only to be expected that those who are treated as outsiders will seek the companionship of others with a similar outlook on life and, if their abilities are truly exceptional, combine their efforts.

This is the theme of Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 science fiction novel More Than Human – possibly his most famous book and the winner of a “Retro Hugo” award in 2004.  A group of children who do not fit in at all, but have unusual mental powers, find that they can work as a group and achieve so much more; only then can they realise a psychic potential far beyond the ordinary.  They refer to it as “bleshing” – a mixture of “blending” and “meshing” – but, as is pointed out, “a lot more than that”.

The concept of those with unusual powers achieving a form of synergy as a group featured in the 1981 film Scanners.  The scanners of the title have telepathic and telekinetic powers which may cause them individually to feel like outcasts, but when their “scans” combine “the power they can generate is fantastic”.  A few, though, have frightening levels of such ability by themselves alone.

Which leads to the idea of a gestalt – a symbiosis of individual beings to form a collective unit.  The young people in Sturgeon’s story only achieve maturity when they merge, creating a whole which is so much greater than the parts.  Ultimately, the combination of powers of extraordinary individuals could lead anywhere; Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 novel Childhood’s End showed the achievement of a new stage in human evolution – the development of a single intelligence of immense power.

On a far more practical level in real life, the idea of merging personalities is not unknown.  Flora Rheta Schreiber’s account of the treatment of what was then called multiple personality disorder in her 1973 book Sybil showed the effective resolution of a situation where sixteen personalities inhabited the same person through merging them into one integrated whole.  No-one would suggest that such a means of psychiatric treatment should necessarily be equated with a fictional integration of minds, but we should not automatically assume that it will never be possible to establish a human gestalt, especially given likely future advances in transferring the human mind into cyberspace.

Exceptional people may be all around us, though we may not recognise it.  And if they should ever combine their talents, perhaps in ways beyond current technology, the rest of us may be the losers.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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