The Marching Morons
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, 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 title “Marching Morons” appears to be derived from a theory of population growth referred to as “The Marching Chinamen” or “The Marching Chinese.” The theory holds that if the entire population of China were to line up and file through a gate, they would never finish, as China’s population is large enough that the children of those currently passing through the gate will mature and have more children, who themselves have time to mature and have yet more children, ad infinitum. An illustration of the concept was the “The Marching Chinese” cartoon published in the Ripley’s Believe or Not Comic strip, which claimed that if the Chinese population were to “march – 4 abreast – past a given point they would never finish passing though they marched forever and ever.” The cartoon makes the claim that the calculation was “based on U.S. Army marching regulations.”
The human population is now 3,000,000 highbred elite and 5,000,000,000 morons. The “average” IQ is 45. (Presumably compared to the true present day, as in the real world, an IQ score of 100 is both average, ormedian, by definition.) Several generations before the onset in the story, the small number of remaining 100-and-higher-IQ technocrats, after being ignored by the general public about the impending population problem, banded together to preserve the human race. The elite work feverishly like slaves in order to keep the morons alive.
The elite have had little success in solving The Problem (also called “Poprob” 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, as there are not nearly enough elite to do the job;
- Propaganda against large families isn’t working because every biological drive is towards fertility
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 (and subsequent drowning in) the sea: convince the morons to travel to Venus in spaceships that will kill their passengers once they fly out of view of land (possibly, the story implies, because they are built by morons, though obtaining consistent destruction in the proper flight phase might be beyond their competence). (The story predates the Moon landing, and the safety of future 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. Fake postcards are sent from the supposedly happy new residents of Venus to relatives left behind, describing the wonderful, easy life — in the same way as fraudulent postcards were sent to relatives of those imprisoned in the Nazi work-camps.
In a twist of irony, Barlow, a conman, is conned 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 not solving The Problem earlier. The story also suggests that they recognize what a monster Barlow truly is, and had no intention of letting him rule them as promised. In the end, Barlow is placed on a spaceship and sent to share the fate of his billions of 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, is a series of vignettes of odd cultures seen through the eyes of an explorer from one of the cultures trying to find out what has happened to the others. 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).
A similar plot appears in the 1980 novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams. The Golgafrinchans have tricked the most useless third of their population to get on a spaceship and leave their home planet Golgafrincham; unfortunately, since the Golgafrinchans included telephone sanitizers on their list of most useless people, and no one was left behind who was willing to do any cleaning, the rest of the planet was killed by a contagious disease contracted from a dirty telephone.
The Simpsons‘ 1999 “Treehouse of Horror X” segment “Life’s a Glitch, Then You Die”, had the Earth facing destruction due 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 locked into crashing 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, where the protagonist Monroe (played by 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 phrases, “Would you buy that for a quarter?” and “Would you buy it for a quarter?” as its signature. 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 buythat 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 a common prostitute) sleep for 500 years, only to awaken in a future so incredibly dumbed-down that the ability to give the 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 during the more intelligent past.