The Marching Morons

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“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.


1 Background
2 Plot summary
2.1 The Problem
2.2 The solution
2.3 The con
3 Characters
4 Stories with similar premises and themes
5 See also
6 References
7 External links


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.”
Plot summary
The Problem

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 average, or median, by definition.) Several generations before the onset of 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 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.
The solution

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 incinerated in the Nazi death-camps.
The con

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.

In Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 book Last and First Men, he describes the decline of human intelligence due to excess procreation on the part of the workers.

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 useless third of 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 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 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 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.



9 responses to “The Marching Morons

  1. This is similar to Idiocracy in that the people are morons. Knowledge is power and this is true all throughout.

  2. This story and many others are great examples of why education is so important. Many people heard about happiness and never bothered to conclude their own ideas and such acted without a second thought which led to their deaths in outer space. If any of these people truly considered what was going on they would have had the intelligence to see what was right in front of them. It seems unfair for people to be treated this way but like the saying goes you can lead a horse to water but you cant make it drink.

  3. the possible future if we continue to dumb down society, Its easy to conclude that idocracy was inspired by this

  4. I cannot imagine a world where every single person on this Earth is a moron. That would be the dumbest way to illustrate the downfall of the human race. Morons… As some students have said about, “Marching Morons” and “Idiocracy” being similar, However, in” Marching Morons” that society hasn’t gotten to a point of complete idiocy. Still, both of these stories depict on society that had neglected intelligent people or just intelligence in general. what i wouldn’t be able to understand is how those society even got to that point, and how they could let that happen! i know its just fictitious, but the chances of a society NOT noticing the change in average intelligence and fixing it would seem pretty slim.

  5. My eyes are bugging out at this very idea of having “morons” controlling the country. I can only wish that there are more decently intelligent people left. This is just a little small reflection but in an interview a couple years back with Obama, he thought there were 57 states. 57!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Unbelievable.

  6. The other comments are right about this having a resemblance to “Idiocracy”. Except, for the difference in intelligence. The morons have to be managed to keep chaos from happening. I would totally understand why they would do this. Its frightening to think of how the world will be hundreds of years from now.

  7. has the same concept as idiocracy , scary to see that some people now are kind of a resemblance to the uneducated people in the movie. the way things are going now I can only imagine our country in about 30 years.

  8. “Marching Morons” and “Idiocracy” have a resemblance, and it is sad to say that being analysed by many highly educated people and authors, express their interpretations as a world full of irrational, incoherent human beings.

  9. OMG, this story is terrifying to me. I just can’t imagine living in a world full of Morons. This story is an extreme version of ” Idiocracy”, and that movie was a rude awakening of how dumb-asses could rule this country. I really wondering by reading this story and the many books that have been published on this subject if this country is already on its way to its doom, by Morons/idiots. I really hope not.

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