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Worlds Without End Blog

Big Headed Humans With Telepathy Posted at 11:17 AM by James Wallace Harris


Our online science fiction book club is reading Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov and discussing one story a week. The first story is “The Man Who Evolved” by Edmond Hamilton, first appeared in the April 1931 issue of Wonder Stories. The story is very old fashioned, about a mad scientist, Dr. John Pollard, inviting two friends to observe an experiment. The narrator, Arthur Wright, describes what he and Hugh Dutton see when Pollard subjects himself to distilled cosmic rays.

Wikipedia has a nice summary. You can read the story online in a scan of April 1931 Wonder Stories. Also, here’s a “Retro Review” that’s rather nice.

The setting is like something out of Frankenstein. Pollard has built a machine that gathers cosmic rays, which he believes is the agent of evolution. Each 15-minute exposure will alter his body as if had evolved for 50 million years. Wright and Dutton watch Pollard transform six times, each time his brain grows larger and his body becomes smaller. Pollard acquires telepathy and vast knowledge. Of course, all this is ridiculously unscientific. However, Hamilton is using the story to imagine what will happen to humans in the future. Hamilton is mining the same motherload as Olaf Stapledon, H. G. Wells, and many other early science fiction writers when they thought about the future of our species.

I love reading old science fiction stories like this because they give perspective on the nature of science fiction. You must ask yourself when you read such a tale, “What other science fiction stories have explored the same theme?” Right off the bat I thought of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, First and Last Men by Olaf Stapledon, Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, and Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – and of course “The Sixth Finger” from the old TV show, The Outer Limits, which featured a plot that Hamilton should have sued them over.

What all these stories boil down to is this: What will Humans 2.0 be like? Time and time again science fiction predicts people with ESP abilities. 1950s science fiction was full of such stories. And quite often, they predicted people with larger heads. Star Trek often featured many big headed aliens – the first pilot which became the episode “The Menagerie” featured big-headed aliens with telepathy.

I don’t think humans will ever evolve to have ESP powers. But we will create a species of intelligent machines that will have telepathy with radio waves and networking.

I am rather bothered by the constant desire to see humans have telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition and other wild talents. Aren’t they the same talents we assigned in the past to God and gods – prayer, the invisible hand of God, and prophecy? The reason why this country is so politically divided today is most citizens reject science for magic. They can’t accept evolution or global warming because it means giving up on an immortal soul and heaven.

Why can’t science fiction imagine evolution creating non-magical abilities for us? I consider science fiction failing if all it can come up with for our future evolution is reprocessed abilities from myths and religions. The insights of The Enlightenment are evolutionary. Compassion is evolutionary. Technology is evolutionary. Global cooperation is evolutionary. Computers and networking are evolutionary.

What natural abilities could we expect for biological evolution to give us in the future? I think the epitome of gifts would be a better understanding of reality without the desire for magic. If you watch the nightly news what we need is better bullshit detectors rather than telepathy. Personally, I’d like a better memory or a body that’s less prone to disease and decay. I wish I could synthesize more information and model bigger concepts in my head. I admit that telepathy could be useful, but I just can’t see any way that nature would give us built in radios. However, I can imagine us becoming more empathetic. Could that lead to being able to read each other’s moods or feelings?

One lesson I’ve learned from writing is my thoughts are not very coherent. It takes a lot of writing and editing to make them gel into something understandable. I’m not sure telepathy would be very effective. Writing takes work and time, and even then, it’s very hard to make a coherent message that others will read and interpret in the same way it was intended.

Let’s say you are Edmond Hamilton in 1931 and want to convey the ideas of “The Man Who Evolved” to friends. Would telepathy have worked better than Wonder Stories?

I think science fiction needs to get out of the rut of big headed humans with ESP.

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