My second review of an Edmond Hamilton short story
Arthur Wright (the narrator) and Hugh Dutton, two old chums from college days, once campus tearabouts and now solid citizens, are invited to visit their old friend and former roommate Dr. John Pollard. Wright tells us in advance that something terrible happened that night, something so terrible that Dutton went mad and Dr. Pollard "met that night a fate whose horror none could dream" (1).
So we know this isn't going to be a retelling of campus hijinx.
After dinner, Dr. Pollard shows them his work. He has been experimenting with the mechanism of evolution.
He says that he has discovered the main cause to be "cosmic rays" (2), and that he has developed a device which can concentrate cosmic rays, screen out their harmful effects, and amplify their evolutionary ones, thus rapidly evolving the subject into its future form (3). He hopes to use this to answer the question as to the final evolutionary destiny of Man.
Naturally, he's going to test it on himself (4).
His friends attempt to dissuade him, but of course this doesn't work. Fifteen minutes of exposure, he explains, will correspond to 50 million years of natural evolution (5). He will proceed by 50-million periods.
50 million years. Pollard emerges "transfigured, godlike!" Basically he has a perfect body, a noble brow, and "radiant" eyes. He has become everything Man has always dreamed of being (6). He appears to be super-intelligent.
However, he decides to continue the experiment ...
100 million years. Pollard is no longer godlike in appearance. Instead, he has a head a foot and a half in diameter, with big eyes, a small mouth, and a weakened body. His voice has become thin and weak, but he has gained the power of mind control, and he forces his friends to turn on the rays again.
150 million years. Pollard has now become a great head, three feet in diameter, supported by a ridiculously small body. His mind control powers have increased, and he has decided that he shall conquer the world (7). He is about to do just that, when his friends convince him that he would benefit by more cosmic radiation. Despite his super-intelligence, he agrees to this.
200 million years. Pollard is now just a "walking, seeing brain," his remaining body consisting of two great tentacles. He no longer has a voice, but his mental powers are now so great that he no longer needs one. Fortunately, he has now grown so super-intelligent that he has outgrown the desire for Evil Overlord status (8). He does want to continue the experiment, though ...
250 million years. Pollard is now just a Brain. No body needed, no body required. His mental powers now give him complete telekinetic control over his surroundings; he feeds off pure energy drawn from the surrounding Universe. He has lost all emotions, and all that is now left is curiosity. He has Wright pull the switch ...
300 million years. Pollard is just a mass of protoplasmic slime. Dutton sees this and goes mad (9), wrecking the laboratory (and apparently killing the Pollard-slime). Wright drags the "insanely laughing" Dutton from the burning house, and the story ends.
The real horror, of course, was not Pollard's death -- if he died at all. It was discovering that the ultimate fate of human evolution was to return to the protoplasmic slime that spawned life itself. Is all existence pointless? Or is there something beyond that slime, something Wright missed.
Wright does not know, and the mystery will forever haunt him.
This is a concept (theme) centered story, and the concept is a powerful one. The mechanism for accelerated evolution is of course absurd, but the mechanism is only a narrative engine to drive the exploration of the theme. The theme is -- what is or can be the human future?
Nowadays, we might imagine something like the Singularity. But when this story was written, the idea of artificially enhancing human capabilities through electronically enhancing our minds had not yet been conceived: the one method known to generate superior intelligence was biological evolution.
The 50 Million AD Man is the superman of late 19th / early 20th century mainstream philosophy: the man of godlike physique, noble visage, and demi-divine intellect, the imbiber of H. G. Wells' Food of the Gods. Note that Wright and Dutton are awed, not horrified, by his appearance.
The other Men of the Future who appear exemplify the early 20th century science-fictional assumption that Man would evolve further by gradual increases in the size of the brain and reductions in the size of the body. Note the rather Doc Smithian concept that this involves an attainment of gradually increasing psychic powers (10).
Early 20th century science had no appreciation of the survival value of emotion, and (under the influence of Logical Postivism) tended to assume that it was a mere vestige of pre-sapience which would wither away as we grew more intelligent. Note that the Men of the Future, aside from the first one, display increasingly less emotional affect.
And note that this turns them first evil (11) and then utterly passionless. The man of 100 Million AD is domineering; the man of 150 Million AD wants to be an Evil Overlord, the men of 200 and 250 Million AD are increasingly driven by pure intellectual curiosity.
In the end, we are left with what seems like a meaningless cycle -- up from slime, returning to slime.
Or was there more?
Hamilton leaves this open, and in doing so really makes this a tale worth remembering and discussing.
This story has been anthologized a lot, and deservedly so.
(1) When a writer states something like this, he is not merely foreshadowing, he is more or less laying down a challenge to the reader: "This story will be really good." Lovecraft did this more than once, and met the challenge; and so does Hamilton.
(2) Cosmic rays are quite real. What they do in this story isn't. But hey, they had only been discovered 19 years before this story had been published. By analogy, think of the use of "quantum computing" or "nanotech" in quite a lot of modern sf to mean "magic."
(3) This is terrible biology, only partly excusable by the fact that the role of DNA in heredity wouldn't be understood until 22 years from the writing of this tale. Evolution works by natural selection among available variation; all that radiation can do is create random mutation. Furthermore, evolution works across successive generations -- one could not mutate a single organism into other forms. Finally, there is no such thing as an organism's "destined future form" -- not from the POV of the present, anyway.
OTOH, at least the idea was original when Hamilton used it. And he hangs a great story on the device. So I'll forgive him for this. Grudgingly, because evolutionary biology happens to be one of my pet studies.
(4) There is no evidence in the story itself that he has tested the device on anything else, even a rodent. Maybe the concept of a super-intelligent, ultra-psionic rodent from was just too terrible to contemplate ...
"So, bipedal ape-things. Long enough have we run in your wheels! Now, all Mankind shall run in the wheels of ... Ham-Starr, Rodent From the Far Future!"
Or something like that.
(5) Given the lack of actual testing, I'm not sure how Pollard knows this. He may just be extrapolating from the concentration relative to natural exposure, which is not all that good an assumption to make.
(6) Or everything nerdly science fiction fans of the 1930's, obsessed with the doctrines of eugenics and physical culture, ever dreamed of being. Anyway, he's a Manly Man, at this point.
(7) Anticipating by several years the desires of Stapledon's rather similar race of "Fourth Men." But Stapledon claimed that he never read American pulp science fiction ..
(8) Which is good, because with his ultra super-duper intelligence, he probably would have included the Evil Overlord List in his Visualization of the Cosmic All, and been unstoppable.
(9) It's probably for the best that this wasn't a Lovecraft story. Dutton seems more than a bit excitable: after all, the slime wasn't doing anything more horrible than "quivering." Yes, it used to be his friend, but still ... in a Lovecraft story, Dutton would have been toast.
(10) This story was written after A Skylark of Space but before John W. Campbell's rise to influence in the science fiction community.
(11) Though a Logically Positivist Technocrat would deny the validity of "evil" as an operational concept.