The Marching Morons
"The Marching Morons" is a science fiction story written by Cyril M. Kornbluth, originally published in Galaxy in April 1951. It was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two after being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965.
The story is set hundreds of years in the future: the date is 7-B-936. John Barlow, a man from the past put into suspended animation by a freak accident involving a dental drill and anesthesia, is revived in this future. The world seems mad to Barlow until Tinny-Peete explains the Problem of Population: due to a combination of intelligent people not having children and excessive breeding by less intelligent people (see Fertility and intelligence), the world is full of morons, with the exception of an elite few who work slavishly to keep order. Barlow, who was a shrewd real estate con man in his day, has a solution to sell to the elite, in exchange for being made World Dictator.
In the "Introduction" to The Best of C. M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl (Kornbluth's friend and collaborator) explains some of the inspiration to "The Marching Morons". The work was written after Pohl suggested that Kornbluth write a follow-up story that focuses on the future presented in the short story "The Little Black Bag". In contrast to the "little black bag" arriving in the past from the future, Kornbluth wanted to write about a man arriving in the future from the past. To explain sending a man to the future, Kornbluth borrowed from David Butler's 1930 science fiction film, Just Imagine, in which a man is struck by lightning, trapped in suspended animation, and reanimated in the future. In "The Marching Morons", after the character John Barlow is told how he had been in a state of suspended animation, Barlow mutters, "Like that movie."
The human population is now 3,000,000 highbred elite and 5,000,000,000 morons, and the "average" IQ is 45 (whereas in the real world, an IQ score of 100 is average, or median, by definition). Several generations before the onset of the story, the small number of remaining 100-and-higher-IQ technocrats, ignored by the general public about the impending population problem, work feverishly to keep the morons alive.
The elite have had little success in solving the Problem (also called "Poprob", for 'population problem', in the story) for several reasons:
- The morons must be managed or else there will be chaos, resulting in billions of deaths;
- It is not possible to sterilize all of the morons;
- Propaganda against large families is insufficient, because every biological drive is towards fertility (the story predates the development of hormonal contraception).
The elite had tried everything rational to solve the population problem, but the problem could not be solved rationally. The solution required a way of thinking that no longer existed – Barlow's "vicious self-interest" and knowledge of the distant history.
Barlow derives a solution based on his experience in scamming people into buying worthless land and knowledge of lemmings' mass migration into the sea: convince the morons to travel to Venus in spaceships that will kill their passengers out of view of land. (The story predates the moon landing, and the safety of space travel is summed up in a description of a rocket that crashed on the moon.) Propaganda depicts Venus as a tropical paradise, with "blanket trees", "ham bushes" and "soap roots". In a nationalistic frenzy, every country tries to send as many of their people to Venus as possible to stake their claim.
Barlow's help includes using his knowledge of Nazi propaganda tactics: postcards are sent from the supposedly happy new residents of Venus to relatives left behind, describing a wonderful, easy life, in the same way as fraudulent postcards were sent to relatives of those incinerated in the Nazi death-camps.
In a twist of irony, Barlow is cheated by his erstwhile assistants. Kornbluth describes the con: "It was a wonderful, wonderfully calculated buildup, and one that he [Barlow] failed to suspect. After all, in his time a visitor from the past would have been lionized." Barlow does not realize that the elite despise him as they despise all people from the past for having not solved The Problem earlier. In the end, Barlow is placed on a spaceship and sent to share the fate of his victims.
- Efim Hawkins: A potter owning a shop near a lake. Often goes for walks through the woods while waiting for his kilns to cool. An "all around man". Reanimated Barlow with 60cc of "simple saline in the trigeminal nerve".
- John Barlow: A real estate agent from the past (1988). Put in a state of suspended animation after a freak dentist accident involving an electrical shock and the "experimental anesthetic Cycloparadimethanol-B-7" (known as "Levantman shock" in the future).
- Tinny-Peete: A psychist.
- Ryan-Ngana (Hawk-faced man): Meets with Tinny-Peete and Barlow.
Stories with similar premises and themes
In H. G. Wells' 1895 novel The Time Machine, the time traveller travels to the year 802,701 where he discovers that humanity has split into two different species: the dimwitted Eloi and the subhuman Morlocks. He believes that the Morlocks evolved from the working class while the Eloi evolved from the idle upper class. The Eloi never work, but the Morlocks, being in control of what subterranean machinery remains, ensure that the Eloi continue to live their utopian existence — as feed lot cattle.
The 1954 novel Search the Sky, by Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, depicts the efforts of a space explorer sent out into the galaxy to determine the fate of several lost Earth colonies. The final section involves a visit to Earth, which has succumbed to the "Marching Morons" effect. Eventually the explorer contacts the "elite" who are actually running the society, but in this story the elite are unwilling to take any kind of drastic action to reduce population (including withdrawing so everyone else starves).
"To Serve Man", an episode of The Twilight Zone first broadcast in 1962, presents a similar theme in which extraterrestrials convince gullible humans to cheerfully migrate to an unknown alien planet where they will be rendered as food.
A similar plot appears in the 1980 novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams. The Golgafrinchans convince "the most useless third" of their population to get on a spaceship and leave their home planet; unfortunately, since the spaceship contains all the telephone sanitizers, the rest of the planet's population is killed by a contagious disease contracted from a dirty telephone. The "useless" Golgafrinchans eventually populate the Earth.
The Simpsons ' 1999 "Treehouse of Horror X" segment "Life's a Glitch, Then You Die", had the Earth facing destruction due to the Y2K bug. While the most intelligent elite of Earth escape to Mars, all of Earth's useless celebrities are tricked into boarding a spaceship destined to crash into the sun.
John Barlow's "suspended animation by botched surgery" would be used as a major plot element in Woody Allen's 1973 comedy science-fiction film Sleeper, in which the protagonist (Allen) enters the story in a similar fashion and with similar demands.
"The Marching Morons" presents an inane radio game show, Take It and Stick It, that uses the signature phrases "Would you buy that for a quarter?" and "Would you buy it for a quarter?". The 1987 dystopian comedy RoboCop (which presented a similarly cynical view of an over-commercialized future desensitized to violence) makes an allusion to the line, adjusted for inflation, as the catchphrase of a TV comedian ("I'd buy that for a dollar!").
The 2006 comedy movie Idiocracy adds a few twists to the "Marching Moron" effect: in this story, two subjects participating in a suspended-animation experiment ("the most average guy" in the U.S. Army and the only female willing to participate, a prostitute) sleep for 500 years and awaken in a future so lacking in intelligence that the ability to give the correct answer to "1 + 1" qualifies one as a genius. The cultural elite has become extinct, but the decaying society is kept somewhat functional by machines, and the government is actually run on behalf of a few mega-corporations. These corporations are staffed and directed by morons with the limited aid of management computers programmed in the past.
- Fertility and intelligence
- Flynn effect
- Harrison Bergeron
- The Space Merchants
- The Gene Bomb
- A Day Without a Mexican
- The City Without Jews
- Pohl, Frederik. Introduction. The Best of C. M. Kornbluth. New York, New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc. ISBN 0-8008-0723-5.
- "The Marching Morons" at the Internet Archive