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Gotta Make Way

A recurring subject in science fiction is the future of humanity, and - in particular - the possibility that we may be evolving into a different and perhaps superior form. While some science fiction considers such changes on the cosmic timescales of the distant future, a range of texts have instead considered how such Homo superior individuals would fare amongst a more primitive, Homo sapiens population [1].

Lone Supermen

Many early examples of this trope imagine the advent of such an advanced individual as a lone and random freak occurrence. Amongst the earliest of these is The Hampdenshire Wonder (novel, 1911) by J. D, Beresford. In this text, Victor Stott is the young son of a famous but now-injured cricketer, born and raised amidst the working class. Perhaps influenced in the womb by his parents’ hopes and ambitions, he is born with an oversized head and a penetrating gaze. He soon manifests a complete lack of social skills but a profound intellect, which is fed by the library of the local squire Challis. His foray into this environment shows the usually unsympathetic character in a moment of real pathos:

“Is there none of my kind?” he said. “Is this,” and he laid a hand on the pile of books before him, “is this all?”

“There is none of your kind,” replied Challis; and the little figure born into a world that could not understand him, that was not ready to receive him, walked to the window and climbed out into the darkness.

The Man of the Year Million as illustrated in the Pall Mall Budget journal of 1893

However young Stott is generally an antagonistic character. He makes no friends, and his story is told from the perspective of the squire and of a journalist who comes to tolerate but never to like him.

Stott’s distended skull is a vision of future humanity heavily influenced by H G Wells’ popular satirical essay “The Man of the Year Million”, published in the Pall Mall Budget journal in 1893. In this, Wells extrapolated evolutionary and social trends into the future, predicting that industrialisation and intellectualisation would lead to larger brains and atrophied limbs, bodies and nervous systems. This somewhat oversimplifies the evolutionary pathway - Neanderthals, for example, had larger brain volumes than modern humans, and some early hominids were more gracile - and also fails to explain how these super-brained individuals move or gain any advantage from their form. It was nonetheless a powerful influence on science fiction visions of future humanity and other advanced aliens.

Book cover for The Man with Six SensesThe Hampdenshire Wonder was likely an influence on other early texts. Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses (novel, 1927) also features an exceptional individual reported by a third party. Her character Michael Bristowe is not gifted with any particular intellect, but does exhibit clairvoyance and the ability to sense things or discern their nature at a distance. Like Victor Stott he is physically weak and an unlikeable character, whose gifts are nurtured by a more privileged member of the middle classes, in this case a young woman, Hilda, who is also the subject of the narrator’s affections. This story follows the life of Bristowe into adulthood, and shows him finding work using his talents, but also being destroyed by them.

The book cover for Odd John by Olaf StapledonOlaf Stapledon’s 1935 novel Odd John combines elements of both these earlier examples. His character, John Wainwright, is also born as a physical mutant with a distended skull, and also manifests a highly advanced intellect from infancy. His slow development and signs of indifference to humanity are reported by a biographer-narrator just as in the earlier instances, as are his rapidly developing psychic abilities. Indeed, he proves able not just to communicate telepathically, but also to manipulate objects and even generate atomic power with the power of his mind. For much of the novel, John is as alone and out of place as Victor Stott (who is explicitly name-checked in the book) and Michael Bristowe. Indeed, at one point he cannot help expressing his dismay:

Suddenly he stopped, and clenched his fists, and cried out, “Cattle! Cattle! A whole world of cattle! My God, how they stink!”
(pg 123, SF Masterworks edition, 2012).

However, unlike his predecessors, Stapledon’s John develops into a physically strong young man, and while his initial attempts to find others like himself reveals only lunatics and murderers, eventually John is able to psychically locate and connect to others of the same long-lived, evolved type. Unfortunately this group of advanced humans express little but contempt for conventional humanity - indeed this book may be the first to use the term Homo superior [2]. Relocating to an island colony, John and his peers have few moral qualms about manipulating or experimenting on humans, and find themselves in a conflict with Homo sapiens that is not fated to end well.

All of these stories hold in common the Nietschian concept of a superman who would supercede humanity, and most also involve a recognition of the isolation such an individual would face. In each case, the story’s subject is viewed as a threat to social and moral stability, usually loathed and feared, but there is never any real prospect that they will replace humanity in its entirety. While the stories are rooted in the long-observed phenomenon of natural mutation, none attempt to explain or justify the occurrence of one or a few advanced individuals amidst the vast swathe of humanity.

Children of the Atom

The identification of the mechanism of human heredity in the form of DNA, together with the near-simultaneous discovery of the mutagenic properties of radiation, may have helped inspire a raft of narratives involving super-humans (often children) in the 1940s and 1950s.

The island of superior humans in Odd John may have been an inspiration for the short story, "Conqueror’s Isle", written by Nelson Bond in 1946, which was dramatised by the US radio series Escape in 1949. In this narrative, an American wartime pilot crash lands on a Pacific island towards the end of the Second World War and finds himself and his crew imprisoned so as not to reveal its secret. It is, in fact, the home of a super-race of psychically-gifted humans who have been gathering apart from, but infiltrating, the wider world for years. They plan to inherit the Earth, but to do so naturally over time. Trying to describe his captors, the pilot waxes lyrical:

“They begin where we leave off. Our vaunted physics and mathematics are their nursery ABCs; the hard-won learning of our best brains is theirs intuitively. They sense what we must study; and what they must study, we cannot even begin to grasp. They are the new lords of creation - homo superior!”

While the pilot’s horror at this concept and fear for his own conception of humanity is apparent, the story also makes it clear that the goal of this variant of Homo superior isn’t subjugation or taking control by force, but rather a gentle acknowledgement of the inevitability of their eventual dominance. Bond makes a point of stating that “being that great step further along the path to perfection, they are born with the instinct to gentleness. That is why their weapons anaesthetise but do not harm. They will not, they cannot, kill”. His pilot character nonetheless advocates nuclear annihilation of the island - recognising the natural justice in the case of the new men, but unable to tolerate their difference.

Book cover for More than Human by Theodore SturgeonThe gentleness and sophistication of Bond’s Homo superior is by no means universal. Harking back to the early stories of “grotesque” children with special abilities is More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953). His characters suffer appalling abuse and neglect, and include an abandoned “idiot”, the young daughter of a prostitute, two very young black girls and an infant with Down’s syndrome - all seen as shocking deviations from the norm at the time. As they gradually learn, this mismatched group each have some element of psionic abilities and together they form a gestalt: an organism greater than the sum of its parts. As one character puts it when speaking to a member of the normal Homo sapiens population:

“We’re Homo Gestalt, you understand? We’re a single entity, a new kind of human being. We weren’t invented. We evolved. We’re the next step up. We’re alone; there are no more like us. We don’t live in the kind of world you do, with systems of morals and codes of ethics to guide us. We’re living on a desert island with a herd of goats!”

“I’m the goat.”

“Yes, yes, you are, can’t you see? But we were born on the island with no one like us to teach us, tell us how to behave. We can learn from the goats all the things that make a goat a good goat, but that will never change the fact that we’re not a goat! You can’t apply the same set of rules to us as you do to ordinary humans; we’re not the same thing!” (Corgi SF collectors edition, 1973, pg 202)

The children here choose to live in a cave buried deep in the woodland: isolated, uneducated and stealing what they need. Much of the story involves their grim struggle for survival in the face of a hostile world, and a gradual negotiation of their relationship to humanity.

Book cover of Children of the Atom by Walter ShirazIn sharp contrast are the short stories by Wilmar H. Shiraz compiled as Children of the Atom (novel, 1953; short stories, 1948-1953). Told from the viewpoint of a normal human child-psychologist, they reveals the existence of hyper-intelligent teenagers who were all born after their (now-deceased) parents were irradiated in a nuclear accident. Unusually for this trope, none of the children are telepathic or psionically gifted, and each has negotiated a place in the human world (often a place of distinction behind an adult pseudonym). These children each have distinctive characters, preferences and skills, but all show a powerful intellect and a common sense of isolation amidst normal humans. The first two stories, “In Hiding” and “Opening Doors”, perhaps articulate this most clearly, as individual children - one confined to an asylum - learn they are no longer to be alone.

A running analogy through these stories equates conventional humans to babies or puppies, who can show affection and perhaps complete simple tasks, but not provide true companionship or conversation. Indeed the psychologist narrator character wonders if he can aspire to the role of valued pet, rather than being seen as just another yapping puppy, when his charges mature far beyond him. Several of the later stories take as their theme the need to negotiate this relationship to humanity, for their own security and the benefit of both groups, even after the children gather in a private school of their own devising.

Illustration from the Galaxy magazine publication of Star, Bright showing Star's tween father trying to visualise a tesseractA near-contemporary short story which takes a different approach is Mark Clifton’s “Star, Bright (1952, adapted for radio in anthology series X-Minus-One). Here the subject of the story, Star, is the very young daughter of a nuclear physicist who serves as narrator. From the age of about three, she demonstrates both superior intelligence and psionic abilities, but (unlike some earlier examples) remains a small child emotionally and in her interactions with her father, who she refers to as a “tween” in contrast to her own status as a “bright” and the “stupids” all around. This is something of a challenge for the elder man. Indeed at one point her father, having already banned her from crossing the road without permission, finds himself also banning his daughter from crossing the time-stream.

While Star initially appears to be a lone individual, a young boy who moves in next door proves also to be a bright (through no coincidence), and the pair search for the others of their kind that they are sure exist but appear to have excised themselves from the time-stream. Again, we see the older, Homo sapiens narrator and the themes of both learning to navigate the relationship with “stupids” and a craving for like-companionship.

In the 1954 short story “The Limiting Factor”, by Theodore Coswell, by contrast, we encounter an older and more established group of young adults who share telepathy, levitation and other psionic talents. On deciding to leave the bulk of humanity behind and venture into space, they learn that this is a common stage in the evolution of sentient life in the Galaxy, and are forced to consider the consequences of their departure both for themselves and those they leave behind. Despite its brevity, this story asks questions regarding the obligation of the individual to the group, or equivalently of Homo superior to Homo sapiens, the ability of those of disparate types to coexist, and the relative limitations of technology versus the human mind.

Cover of the CD release of a BBC radio adaptation of The ChrysalidsMany of the same questions, and the group theme, also reappeared in the following year’s The Chrysalids (novel, 1955) by John Wyndham. Neither More than Human, “Star, Bright” nor “The Limiting Factor” had attempted to explain the evolution of their advanced humans, portraying their advent as inevitable. However The Chrysalids follows Children of the Atom in seeing the mutation as a consequence of radiation exposure - in this case the lingering effects of a past nuclear war. While physically-mutated children are killed or banished, a small group of children instead develop a mental mutation. They pass unnoticed through their childhood, before being imperilled as young adults. The Chrysalids also returns to a theme which was more prominent in the earlier texts such as The Hampdenshire Wonder - the perceived conflict between advances in human intellect or ability and the strictures of a rigid and unchanging religion.

The Next Stage of Human Evolution.

Matthew Gore communicating mentally in the children's television programme Chocky.A later work by John Wyndham, Chocky (novel, 1963), also features a child with well-developed telepathic and intellectual abilities. The child, Matthew Gore, becomes an artistic prodigy, but fails to socialise, and comes under close scrutiny. It becomes clear that in this case, the abilities are not intrinsic but instead result from psychic manipulation by Matthew’s “invisible friend”, the alien Chocky.

Perhaps of more interest in the context of Homo superior are the television sequels, Chocky’s Children (1985) and Chocky’s Challenge (1986), written to follow on from a television dramatisation of Chocky (1984) by the same dramatist, Anthony Read [3]. In these sequels, Matthew finds first one peer and then a larger group of other children who have developed abilities, including telepathic sensitivity. Again, their advanced status is the result primarily of contact with Chocky, who aims to give them access to advanced technologies (which, in turn, makes them targets for the unscrupulous). However Chocky’s role is described as that of a teacher, enabling the children to use the full natural capacities of their brains. Their wide geographical distribution and variety in individual talents strongly imply that the alien is tapping some intrinsic potential in rare members of humanity, rather than able to originate it. While her stated goal is to deliver new and safe technologies (and in particular “cosmic energy”) to human-kind as a whole, she also states an intention to nurture this rare example of intelligence - which might be compatible with accelerating its evolution but not with distorting it.

A forecast of psychically gifted super-individuals or gestalts as a future stage of human evolution has been around for a long time. It provides the climax, for example, of Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood's End (novel, 1953), in which children around the world start intimidating, frightening, ignoring and eventually moving away from their parents. They prove to be on the path to a transcendent transformation that redraws humanity and Earth itself within a single generation, a transformation witnessed and protected by an alien race [4]. In the words of Toby Mulholland’s 1997 BBC radio adaptation of the story: “Loneliness is what makes us human, Jan. That's what I've learnt. Our children will never be lonely again. But they will never be human either.”

The pace of change here is inconsistent with any established model of evolution, in which changes are gradual and take place over millions of years rather than decades. It’s also scientifically implausible for identical genetic mutations to emerge in widely scattered, unrelated individuals simultaneously. However this premise motivates a number of texts, as it did, for example, Sturgeon’s More than Human.

The young group of Homo Superior in the 1970s original series of The Tomorrow PeopleThe idea of such gifted individuals as the next stage of human evolution is the central premise in an earlier television series made by the same company as Chocky, and which no doubt influenced the later Chocky stories. The Tomorrow People was an episodic television serial from Thames Television, which was broadcast between 1973 and 1979 (indeed, its first broadcast on 30th April 1973 appeared almost exactly 50 years before this blog entry). Here, rare adolescents experience a dangerous “breakout” in which their telepathic gifts become awakened, threatening their sanity and lives. However, once past this, the young people become part of a select group referring to themselves as Tomorrow People or Homo superior, and referring to others by the (affectionately derogative) nickname Saps. This group, drawn from a variety of ethnicities and societal backgrounds, gathers in a secret underground headquarters known as The Lab (reflecting an interest in science on the part of one of the main characters), and fights a variety of both alien and Earth-native threats to human life. They also interact with a wider Galactic Federation, which comprises other telepathic species and offers some advice and guidance.

The young people of the 1990s version of The Tomorrow PeopleIt’s interesting to note that, unlike some of the earlier incarnations of Homo superior (although rather like the variant in "Conquerer’s Isle"), Tomorrow People show no overt animosity to humanity, and possess a Prime Barrier, meaning that they are physically unable to kill another being (Sap or otherwise). This does not, however, prevent them from seeking the company of others of their own kind, isolating themselves from the common run of humanity, and unilaterally assuming responsibility (uninvited) for the protection of Earth. Their place amongst Homo sapiens is described by a sap character (Professor Cawston) in an analogy which echoes the goats, cattle and puppies invoked by earlier texts:

“They've had plenty of experience in the art of survival. Can you imagine living your whole life in a tribe of monkeys, with your very survival depending on them not finding out that you are a human, a superior being…?”

The relatively long run of this series means that there was opportunity to explore many of the same tropes seen in early incarnations of Homo superior - fear of prejudice, difficulties in adjustment and negotiation of family issues, anthropological study by a sap psychologist, and the sense of isolation that comes of such difference. A constant fear articulated in the series was that the Homo sapiens authorities presented a threat to the new race. This was still more the case with respect to others seeking to abuse their abilities, particularly in the context of the Cold War, with memorable stories including the attempts of the British military to weaponise their abilities (“Secret Weapon”, 1975) and the breakout of a young Russian agent (“The Dirtiest Business”, 1977). However unlike many of the examples of Homo superior above, the Tomorrow People generally celebrated their difference to the norm, and never questioned the inevitability of The Great Breakout, which was described as imminent, and which could lead all Earth’s children to become Homo superior.

Subsequent revivals of the series in 1992-1995 and 2013-2014 reflected changes in the viewing demographic and social context. The 1990s version removed the authoritative presences of the Galactic Federation and the artificial intelligence TIM, leaving the youngsters less certain in their role and more independent, while the action was generally faster paced. It nonetheless explored several of the same questions - particularly with respect to negotiating relationships with their parents and the sense of responsibility that comes with their powers. The short-lived 2013 version was aimed at an older demographic, shifting the main cast from young adolescents to young adults, and increasing the level of violence, threat and social dysfunction in the setting. The latter was also heavily influenced by other mutation narratives including The X-Men franchise and Mutant-X.

Marvel’s X-Men had first appeared in 1963 as a team of superheroes who acquired their gifts through mutation. Over the series’ long history, radiation was invoked as one possible origin for this mutation, and the series expanded to include the idea of a special school for young mutants and an extended discourse on the discrimination, prejudice and threats they faced (a theme particularly prominent in the X-Men live action movie series of the early 2000s). The franchise explicitly evoked comparisons between Nazi Germany and the decision to regulate, control and suppress the abilities of mutants [5]. Despite its influence, and like many comic-based texts, X-Men is occasionally difficult to fit into the science fiction cannon. There is overlap here with the Homo superior theme. However while the other examples focus on mental gifts (either psychic or intellectual) which (while difficult to reconcile with modern science) might plausibly follow from modified brain activity, the majority of X-Men abilities lean more towards fantasy than science fiction. Features such as shooting lasers from one’s eyes, for example, are physically and energetically implausible in the extreme.

Gotta Make Way?

David Bowie giving a voice to inter-generational misunderstanding in Oh, You Pretty ThingsDavid Bowie’s hit pop song “Oh! You Pretty Things” (1971) famously includes the assertion:

Look out at your children,
See their faces in golden rays.
Don't kid yourself they belong to you,
They're the start of a coming race.

​​The earth is a bitch; We've finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use.

And the refrain

​​Oh, You Pretty Things!
Don't you know you're driving your Mamas and Papas insane?
Let me make it plain: You gotta make way for the Homo Superior

As this song articulates so clearly, a dominant theme in this sub-genre over time has been one of intergenerational conflict. The increasing rate of societal change through the twentieth century has brought into sharp relief the tendency of parents not to understand the beliefs and aspirations of their children, and indeed vice versa. With media (and later social media) to spread fashions and reinforce shifts in attitude, this has never been more visible, although it’s worth noting that complaints about young people’s attitudes can be traced back at least as far as the Anglo-Saxons (“I also tell you, brother Edward, that you act wrongly when you abandon the English customs which your fathers observed and love the customs of heathens, wit them you show that you despise you kin and your elders, when you adorn yourself in Danish fashion, with bared neck and blinded eyes.”) and the Romans (“Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.”). In the context of Homo superior narratives, the failure of one generation to understand another is rationalised as owing to profound and insurmountable physical or mental differences between them - an arguably counterproductive approach to promoting intergenerational understanding.

It’s interesting to note that direct parental influences are very rarely present in such stories. While “Star, Bright” and Chocky feature an involved and caring parent, other stories including The Hampdenshire Wonder, More than Human and Children of the Atom feature children who are neglected, abandoned or orphaned, while in "The Limiting Factor", The Man with Six Senses, Odd John and the 1970s version of The Tomorrow People parents are either not mentioned or fade rapidly into background and are dropped from the main narrative. The Chrysalids is notable for having a parent actually become the main persecutor of the children concerned. By contrast, Chocky and the 1990s The Tomorrow People include examples of parents who remain involved but struggle to understand or connect with their children. While other adults do take on mentoring roles in many of the cases discussed here, the sense that the next evolution of humanity will be isolated and unknowable to its parents (particularly upon reaching adolescence, represented by a breakout event) is a recurring trope.

Another theme that recurs in this fiction is the relationship between humanity and religion or other ethical and moral codes. This can arguably be traced back to the root of such fiction in concepts of human evolution. The realisation by Darwin and others that not just the animal kingdom but humanity itself is inconstant and must adapt over time shook the deep certainties that underlay the established Christian religion (and many others). As a result, it motivated the framing of science as in conflict with religion and the questioning of their relative importance to society and culture. It also provoked a wider discussion about hitherto-unquestioned assumptions in western culture and how social structures can or should adjust to change. Texts in which a new species of humanity arises provide an opportunity to question on what principles their new society should be built. This is asked explicitly in some examples, such as More than Human, the last third of which is entitled “Morality”, and which explores the lack of an ethical and moral framework for Homo Gestalt. In other examples, such as The Tomorrow People, the questions are considered implicitly in the formulation of new guiding principles like the Prime Barrier.

Perhaps more than any other theme though, narratives of psychic or gifted individuals provide a commentary on the way society treats marginalised individuals. Those individuals may be marginalised because of their race, class, physical or apparent learning differences, sexuality, religion or other axes of diversity, but in each case they lie outside the societal norm and suffer prejudice because of it. In extreme cases, such prejudice may result in abuse or assault, in others a cumulative series of assumptions or decisions (conscious or otherwise) disadvantage the marginalised individuals relative to their peers. The narratives of Homo superior often play with such assumptions to reveal that members of such marginalised groups are, in fact, the inheritors of mankind. They encourage engagement from members of marginalised groups - loners, introverts, and those of minority ethnicities and sexualities amongst them. They challenge their audience not to judge by appearance or by background. And they also encourage members of the audience to aspire to join the ranks of coming race - The Tomorrow People, for example, specifically suggested that every child then alive might be one of their members and just yet to reach the apotheosis of breakout.

Projecting human society and technology into the future is a key goal of science fiction. Perhaps it is unsurprising that projecting the future of humanity itself, in the short term as well as the long term, is also a preoccupation. Science fiction also provides an arena in which society can reflect upon its own flaws and examine alternates to the way we live and act. In the next stage of evolution writers have seen an opportunity to consider both the dark prejudice that mar the present of humanity, and the bright future that could lie ahead.

“Gotta Make Way?”, Elizabeth Stanway. Cosmic Stories blog, 23rd April 2023.


[1] Since this is a big topic, I’m not going to talk about aliens or other telepaths living amongst humanity, so, for example, I’m going to overlook Zenna Henderson’s The People stories on this occasion. [Return to text]

[2] The concept of an emotional and intellectual aloofness in advanced humans continues in multiple examples to the current time, including The Next in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s Long Earth series (2012-2016), who lack the ability to engage with a human or social imaginary but can communicate and innovate at rates incomprehensible to normal humans. [Return to text]

[3] Chocky’s Challenge was also novelised by Mark Daniel in 1986. The middle story, Chocky’s Children, was not released in print. [Return to text]

[4] The alien overlords in Childhood’s End act as passive midwives of a natural process. There are also stories in which aliens actively accelerate the development of human psychic capacities - for example, in the radio plays of Wally K Daly: The Children of Witchwood (2005), and the trilogy Before the Screaming Begins (1978), The Silent Scream (1979) and With a Whimper to the Grave (1984). [Return to text]

[5] The same theme can be seen in the treatment of telepaths in the Babylon 5 universe, who must either become part of a fiercely regulated instrument of state terror or take intolerable suppressant drugs. [Return to text]

All views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Warwick. All images sourced online and used her for commentary and criticism. Original lyrics and images are copyrighted to their creators.