By James Baltrum, English Faculty.
Mary Shelley published her novel Frankenstein in 1818. H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898. MTV unleashed Snooki upon the world as it introduced us to Jersey Shore in the latter half of 2009. Perhaps this trio may seem less an ironic gathering and have more in come with each other than a first glance allows. Each of these cultural, or pop-cultural, moments addresses in its own way the struggle, danger, or absence of intellect. Tracing the major issues surfacing and re-surfacing throughout sci-fi culture, one finds a border-line obsession with the pros and cons of intelligent inquiry (versus say… emotional awareness or moral rigor), and in most cases such evidence voices a concern for the purely intellectual life. Likewise, evidence demonstrating a preference for the anti-intellectual over the intellectual life amounts to something of an Everest throughout relatively modern American politics and pop-culture.
In sci-fi literature, this obsession with the intellectual, or rather, this obsessive fear of the intellectual, manifests itself with one iconic image: the brain. Conjure up any cinematic version of the Frankenstein tale, and each contains the proverbial floating brain in a glass jar. My personal favorite has always been Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody Young Frankenstein in which Igor (Marty Feldman) has the misfortune of telling Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) that the brain belonged to “Abby… Someone. Abby Normal, I think.” A classic film from my childhood indeed! The encased and floating brain is entirely removed from its counterpart, the body. In each film adaptation, the brain – whether it’s the brain of the monster or the brain of the doctor who created the monster – is a focal point and a fault. The monster’s body lies limp, useless, harmless; it is only once the brain is jump-started with a few thousand volts of lightning that horror or hilarity ensues (depending on which version you’re watching…)
H.G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) provides its readers with a grim look into its author’s perception of the Industrial Revolution, with its Martian invasion and their mechanized tripods and heat-rays. Wells’ narrator provides albeit brief descriptions of the extraterrestrial beings at the helms of these devastating machine: “the internal anatomy… as dissection has since shown, was quite simple. The greater part of the structure was the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear, and tactile tentacles” (142). The narrator goes on to explain, “our bodies are half made up of glands and tubes and organs, occupied in turning heterogeneous food into blood. The digestive processes and their reaction upon the nervous system sap our strength and colour (sic) our minds. Men go happy or miserable as they have healthy or unhealthy livers, or sound gastric glands” (143). A graphic and less-than-gracious evaluation of the human body and its effects upon our higher psychological functions. The narrator seems almost admiring and envious of the invaders as he concludes, “the Martians were lifted above all these organic fluctuations of mood and emotion” (143). In other words, because the Martians were made up largely of brain matter, they were not constrained or confused by matters of the heart (i.e. “mood and emotion”) but because of this separation between the heart and the head, because of this totality of the brain, the narrator also notes “never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal” (64) while assessing the ruins of yet another burned our village he happens upon. Wells’s message, in a nutshell, rings apparent: the mind, when left unchecked by matters of the heart such as mood, emotion, and/or morality, wreaks havoc. The 1958 sci-fi horror film Fiend Without a Face takes the culturally presumed dangers of pure intelligence a step further. A not-so-thinly veiled commentary against nuclear science lies behind an army of alien beings made up of nothing but crawling brains with stems or spinal cords in tow. Special effects being what they were in 1958, the creatures flop around in scene after scene like water balloons of cerebral gumbo, but the point is clear. No arms, legs, or body of any sort… not even facial features to distract us. A brain is a dangerous thing on its own!
Science fiction and America’s political arena and pop-culture would seem to make strange bed fellows to be sure, but each has waged its own little battles against intelligence and the value of human intellect. You don’t have to surf too far through the channels anymore to find any number of “reality” TV shows episodically illustrating cast members’ increasingly unintelligent behavior, and it’s almost always assured that the cast member of any of these shows who does the most unintelligent thing (and survives) will be rewarded with his or her own spin-off series the following season. Nothing should be more real than good journalism, and bad journalism can be just really dangerous (if not life-threatening!). Enter Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (a.k.a Joe, the Plumber)… In 2009, Wurzelbacher travelled to Israel as a war correspondent for a politically conservative news source, hoping to illustrate that good journalism does not require any special intellect or skills sets and can be achieved, if not improved upon, by any “average Joe.” However, Wurzelbacher wound up providing a lot of other news sources with the expected evidence that, amongst other things, qualified journalists perhaps do possess a level of intelligence not found in the average population, an intelligence sharpened by keen perceptions, critical judgments, and challenging experiences. Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, in 1992, walked on to the then-popular (now defunct) Arsenio Hall Show and belted out a saxophone solo-ed “Heartbreak Hotel” in an attempt to show what a regular (and damn cool – if you include the dark sunglasses he donned during the performance) guy he was. Entertainment takes precedence over intelligent discourse… Likewise, in 2008, the McCain-Palin camp attempted to get as much mileage as they could out of the VP Hockey Mom image of Sarah Palin as an everyday working mother contra Obama’s having attended Columbia and Harvard Law School and presiding over the Harvard Law Review: hockey (everyday) vs. Harvard (elitist)…
A new show I’ve been trying to watch regularly, if and when I can watch TV regularly, is HBO’s The Newsroom. Within the first ten minutes of the show’s first episode, the main character Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) laments that America is no longer the greatest country in the world but thinks back to the days when it was, stating, “We aspired to intelligence;
didn’t belittle it to make ourselves feel bigger.” There’s nothing wrong with the everyday, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with some good old-fashioned entertainment, but there’s also nothing essentially wrong with intelligence either. It doesn’t need to be feared, mocked, or cut down. What it does need is to be nurtured whenever it’s identified. Like a sapling, it should be care for and protected so that when it matures, whatever fruit it bears can be utilized in the best way possible to help as many of us as possible.
 Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2008.