Dislike of the Unlike

BIS Space Odyssey

The fear of one’s superiors in Van Vogt’s first novel. This edition published by Panther Books 1978. Cover illustration by Chris Foss.

Elite groups in our society can be objects of respect, admiration or envy – or indeed fear – for the rest of us.  In the latest edition of Odyssey, we look into how they may be portrayed both in science fiction and in reality, and how they may develop in the future.  It can be an uncomfortable subject.

If all goes well, an elite section within society should be in a position to provide guidance and direction, whether in a patronizing manner or otherwise, or whether given by example or through enforcement, for us poor masses in our everyday lives.  They are the ones who ought to be better placed to achieve overall control of our civilization for the greater good.  At least, hopefully.

In what is quite possibly the most politically incorrect science fiction story of all time – The Marching Morons written by Cyril M Kornbluth in 1951 – a future world is in crisis because intelligent people aren’t having children whereas unintelligent ones are breeding like rabbits.  The overall intelligence of humanity is disastrously low, and the relatively small elite of those who are clever enough have the thankless task of trying to maintain law and order in an ever-deteriorating society.

Don’t worry – it is meant to be a satire.  Well, probably.  But there is a clear point being made that those endowed with the necessary skills, education and abilities have an obligation to everyone else to “rule” in one way another, or at the very least set an example, for the benefit of all.

However, there will always be an inevitable, all too human, reaction to any group which we may feel is getting the idea that it’s better than the rest of us.  We don’t like it, even if it appears to function to everyone’s advantage and not necessarily just for its own power and advancement.  And if those who comprise this elite group are a bit too different from us, we would like to see the back of it.

The science fiction author AE Van Vogt expressed this well in his first novel Slan from 1940.  Slans are telepaths with superior intelligence who make ordinary people feel extremely vulnerable.  The fear of someone being able to read your thoughts when you can’t read theirs, and then also being immensely cleverer than you and physically superior as well (as indeed Slans are), is bound to make you wary, to say the least.  A degree of resentment from the general population is inevitable.

The answer may be for anyone with superior powers to keep very quiet about what they can do.  The “metapsychics” in Julian May’s 1987 novel Intervention act in secret to try to manipulate humanity’s future, but have the colossal advantage that an overwhelmingly powerful galactic society of similarly-endowed beings are waiting in the wings to intervene for the benefit of the entire race.

Slans, though, are known for what they are, and humans feel diminished, weak and pitiful alongside them.  Earth’s dictator observes that “every year the wreck of human aspirations and human hopes piles higher around us.  Every year there’s greater dislocation, more poverty, more misery.  Nothing is left to us but hatred…”  On the other hand, a Slan expresses her contempt for ordinary humans: “We are immeasurably their superiors.  Shall we live in endless hiding, endure privation on the colder planets when we long for the green Earth and freedom..?  We owe them nothing but pain.”

There’s a message in all this for anyone who is part of an elite, whether by virtue of physical or mental attributes, or who aspires to be so.  They may feel that all the ordinary folk automatically admire them, respect them and wish them well in all their endeavours.  In which case they may not be as bright as they think they are.  A little humility, and just getting on with others as best one can to everyone’s mutual advantage, may be much more important in the long run.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Exceptions to a Rule A Change For The Better?

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