Five cautionary SF stories about enhanced intelligence

Five cautionary SF stories about enhanced intelligence

The world is becoming more and more complex and places increasing demands on people’s cognitive abilities. How convenient it would be if we could just increase our intelligence!

This has caught the eye of a number of science fiction writers (of course!), as well as the potential complications that could arise.

camp concentration by Thomas M. Disch (1968)

Conscientious objector Louis Sacchetti defied the endless war, was arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned without delay or significant public notice. When high-ranking men in America become aware of President McNamara’s Louis, the confused poet is suddenly transferred to the top-secret Camp Archimedes.

Smarter Americans fight better wars. Or so believes General Humphrey Haast, who believes he has the means to produce smarter Americans. The general’s preferred means of enhancing intelligence is infection with a strain of syphilis, which will invariably be fatal within a year.

By the time Louis discovers that enhancement is a death sentence, he has already received an injection.

Science fiction is full of bold visionaries who push conventional science aside in pursuit of progress. The general belongs to a very special subgroup: he is a weirdo whose pseudo-scientific plans do not lead to the desired results.

Bounded in a Nutshell by Charles Sheffield (1978)

Merle Walters’ WAWD Corporation is baffled. Kirkwood Research officials in distant locations have suddenly begun to exhibit coordinated behavior with no apparent means of communication. Kirkwood revolves around WAWD, and WAWD needs to know how.

While applied psionics is considered, the truth proves both more mundane and alarming at the same time. Kirkwood has access to unexpectedly advanced computer technology – along with some even more disturbing abilities.

Our heroes soon realized that while having a computer network just a thought away is convenient, long-distance communication is limited by relativity. Humanity unwilling to give up connectivity might find itself trapped on Earth.

Beggar in Spain by Nancy Kress (1993)

Why settle for random evolution when genetic engineering can guarantee designer babies? One reason could be that one cannot necessarily foresee the consequences of such changes.

Consider what happened when scientists engineered some superior humans who are extraordinarily intelligent… but even normal adults often find dealing with basic babies a challenge. Now imagine bright but sleepless babies who can cry 24/7. Caregivers collapsed and some babies died.

When the surviving insomniacs reach adulthood, other problems arise. The sleepless are not only devoid of any need for sleep, they are brighter and healthier than any unreformed child. If you give them twenty-four time each day to study and do, they are more accomplished. Why should such superlative beings shoulder the burden of supporting their lackluster baseline kin?

brain child by George Turner (1991)

Life in mid 21stSt Century Australia is peachy except for overpopulation, runaway climate change and escalating economic catastrophe. Only geniuses could figure their way out of Australia’s trap. In 2002, Australia set out to produce some geniuses.

Decades later, David Chance is blackmailed by his previously unknown father into investigating the so-called Nursey Children. This grand experiment produced three distinct types of geniuses: one who excelled in science (the group David’s father belongs to), one in the arts, and a legitimately post-human group whose achievements make no sense to basic human minds could be evaluated. This last group inexplicably died in mass suicide, leaving a hidden legacy for David to explore.

This novel appears to share a setting with another Turner novel, The drowning towersalias The sea and the summer. If so, there is hope. The drowning towers makes clear that human civilization is finally reaching a happier balance with nature… long after it could matter to anyone in this book.

Black snowy days by Claudia O’Keefe (1990)

Fearing that Eric would take Pope after his low-key father, Eric’s mother did what any sane parent would do in her place: she used science to improve Eric. The ungrateful Eric went on to demonstrate that his terrible judgment was as overblown as his genius – cue a near-fatal car crash and life-saving suspended animation.

Years later, Eric wakes up to find that his body and mind have improved while he slept. He cannot blame his mother for her boldness. They and billions of others perished in the global thermonuclear war of 2058. It doesn’t take long for Eric to discover that although his mother is dead, he is still her pawn. He is the means with which she will shape the world according to her will long after her death.

The plot suggests that what Eric’s mother really wanted in her son wasn’t brute genius, but docility. He has some free will, but it doesn’t matter how things go.


There is, of course, a bewildering body of work written on the subject of intelligence enhancement. These five only scratch the surface. If you have favorites that I haven’t mentioned – yes, I see them all Flowers for Algernon Fans wave their hands – comments are below.

In the words of fanfiction author Musty181four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book critic, and long-running favorite Darwin Award nominated James Davis Nicoll “looks like a standard Mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times, as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Prize finalist Young people read old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon You will find here.

#cautionary #stories #enhanced #intelligence

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