I was reminded the other day of a wonderful 1948 story I read as a kid, ‘In Hiding’, by Wilmar Shiras (1908-1990). I read it in a 1960s-era anthology of sci-fi stories, and it left a huge impression on me.
Shiras wrote it, apparently, for her children. And the plot was straight forward: a school psychologist investigates a B-grade student who turns out to be a polymath supra-supergenius (I know what I said). He’s hidden his talents because the usual outcome of being smart at school is to be targeted for bullying.
In the story he was being brought up by his grandparents: his parents were nuclear scientists and there had been a reactor accident, years earlier, while his mother was carrying him – producing mutations that led to enhanced intelligence. The ‘nuclear’ origin of the intelligence was purely a plot device. Back then, although ‘atomic’ was widely used as a synonym for ‘magic’, ionising radiation was known to destroy. (Non-ionising radiation isn’t good for you either – think sunburn.)
The genius behind Shiras’ story was that it wasn’t really sci-fi: it was social commentary. The sci-fi style reason why the kid was smart was a pretext to explore what society does to people who have outstanding abilities. The tale was the first of a series later assembled into a novel, Children of the Atom (1953). I haven’t read that – but the progenitor still resonates because of the way Shiras had, in effect, hit upon one of the fundamentals of the human condition; people who ‘think different’ are bullied for it, especially at school. And you don’t have to be a mega-genius to trigger the problem. Einstein (who was a mega-genius) struggled not just at school but at university; he was the epitome of ‘thinking different’. Winston Churchill, who had a formidable intellect, later wrote that his school days were best forgotten.
As far as I can tell it’s because the sort of thinking that defines ‘intelligence’ at school and in society (data storage and recall, like an IQ test or a TV quiz game) runs against the style of thinking of truly creative intellects (analysis, conceptual innovation, integration of ideas, identifying new shapes and patterns that nobody’s thought of before). The really creative and smart people stand out because they are cognitively different. Look at Nikolai Tesla.
It’s also possible for somebody to be very bright in the superficial sense, yet behave stupidly because their particular mind-set or character ties their sense of self-worth in to a particular idea system or set of behaviours, on which they then make analytical judgements. What it means is that ‘intelligence’ has many facets.
I’m not sure whether smart kids are still targeted and bullied at school for it today, or smart adults by society. Possibly not: after all, geeks won. These days, I think other reasons are found to beat on people. Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018