Having Dominion Over Us

Odyssey

The dangers of facing a mutant in Asimov’s classic. This edition published by Panther Books 1967.

Mutation in any living being is inevitable, and a change in the genes is bound to affect the human race itself, from one cause or another, sooner or later.  And, as I discussed in a previous Odyssey post, A Change For The Better?, when that happens it could have an impact on us all.

Such genetic alterations could result in a deterioration of the race but, as the rules of natural selection tend to dictate, over time they should bring about improvements.  Which is not necessarily an advantage to the rest of us who have been left behind.  How we cope with our mutated superior cousins – or, perhaps more to the point, how they cope with us – might become a problem.

There are plenty of examples in science fiction where superiority through mutation is seen as either a blessing or a curse.  Olaf Stapledon’s 1935 novel Odd John describes a mentally superior person who seems to be above the rules that apply to “ordinary” people, with echoes of the Übermensch of Friedrich Nietzsche, but fundamentally suggests that such an existence is not compatible with ours.

It strikes one as fairly unavoidable that anyone born with exceptional powers of some description or another will believe themselves to be superior, and act accordingly.  In the Marvel Comics world of the X-Men, we feel hardly surprised that Magneto, born with the ability to generate magnetic fields, will seek to establish the domination of mutants with superhuman abilities over everyone else.  Since mutants are better than humans in evolutionary terms, surely they are better fit to rule.

The 1981 film Scanners depicts a small group of people who have abnormal telepathic and telekinetic powers, seen as a potential weapon for use by a security company.  Needless to say, some scanners believe that they can use their abilities to achieve world-wide domination, and try to create more scanners like themselves.  A fairly understandable reaction, one imagines, for any who feel isolated from, and yet are convinced that they are better than, the rest of humanity.

Perhaps the most well-known mutant in the annals of classic science fiction is the character known as The Mule who appears in Isaac Asimov’s 1952 novel Foundation and Empire, the second part of his original Foundation trilogy.  The Mule has the ability to manipulate the emotions of others, creating fear, envy or devotion as he wills, and his drive for absolute power throughout the Galaxy is unstoppable.  Even the Foundation itself, repository of the scientific and technological knowledge which should carry human civilization through a galactic dark age, cannot withstand him.

And the key point, described in one of the most famous scenes in science fiction, is that even the great science of psychohistory developed by Hari Seldon, which attempts to predict future events and chart the course of the Foundation through those dark ages, could not foresee the existence of The Mule.  A mutation is, almost by definition, unexpected and unplanned.

But clearly mutations may not necessarily always lead to changes which increase the physical and mental dominance of a species.  In his 1931 short story The Man Who Evolved, Edmond Hamilton’s researcher examines mutations behind evolution, concluding that cosmic rays are the primary cause.  Subjecting himself to bombardment with such rays, he attempts to force his own development up the evolutionary ladder, and does indeed soon find himself wishing to subjugate humanity.  But the final stage of his evolution turns out to be anything but a dominating, oppressive tyrant.

Possibly the most successful mutant, in the long run, could be the one most capable of adapting to live in peace and harmony with lesser species.  We must hope that that is the case with humans.

 


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: Messages from Mythology | Dislike of the Unlike

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