"The Marching Morons" is a science fiction short 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, 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 prudently not having children and excessive breeding by less intelligent people, the world is full of morons, with the exception of an elite few who work slavishly to keep order. Barlow, who was a shrewd conman in his day, has a solution to sell to the elite.
In the "Introduction" of 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 Little Black Bag". In contrast to the "little black bag" arriving in the past from the future, Kornbluth wanted to write about a man sent from the present to the future. To explain sending a man to the future, Kornbluth borrowed from David Butler's Just Imagine science fiction film in which a man is struck by lightning, trapped in suspended animation, and reanimated in the future. Indeed, after the character John Barlow is told how he had been in a state of suspended animation in "The Marching Morons", Barlow mutters, "Like that movie."
There are three million highbred elite and five billion morons: the "average" IQ is 45. (In the real world, an IQ score of 100 is average, by definition.) Several generations before the onset in the story, geneticists, after being ignored by the general public about the impending population problem, banded together to preserve "the breed". The elite work feverishly like slaves in order to keep the morons productive.
The elite have had little success in solving The Problem for several reasons: 1) the morons must be managed or else there will be chaos and inevitably there would be five hundred million tons of rotting flesh left over 2) it is not possible to sterilize all of the morons, there are not nearly enough elite to do the job, and 3) 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 past history (using elements of lemming behavior and Hitler's Final Solution).
Harnessing his experience in scamming people into buying worthless land and knowledge of lemmings dying in a mass migration futilely trying to swim across the ocean, Barlow finds a solution to The Problem. Before giving away his solution, Barlow secures promises of money, fame, and political power, including the title of World Dictator.
Barlow reveals his Solution: convince the morons to travel to Venus in unsafe spaceships -- built by morons -- that will kill their passengers. (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 helps with his knowledge of Hitler. 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 imprisoned in the Nazi work-camps.
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. In the end, Barlow is placed on a spaceship and sent to share the fate of his billions of victims.
* Efim Hawkins. 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. 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. Psychic.
* Hawk-faced man. Meets with Tinny-Peete and Barlow.
Relation to other stories
The novel Search the Sky, by the same author, 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).
The title, "Marching Morons" is derived from a population theory referred to as "The Marching Chinamen". According to this theory, if all the people in China were forced to march in ranks through a gate, the column would never end. The story has been told in various ways, sometimes with people marching in single file, two by two, or in ranks up to 10 at a time, and changes as the Chinese population grows. Obviously this makes a difference to how long it would take for all the people in China to march through one gate. The rationalization for the claim, that the marching would never end, comes from the fact that babies are being born while their grandparents are marching through the gate, those children would get in line with their parents, and grow up while waiting in that long line for a chance to march through the gate. Eventually the next generation will also marry and bear children before they reach the gate. Thus, it's theorized that the population is increasing too quickly for that entire population to perform the prescribed task. The best known illustration of the concept was the "Marching Chinese" cartoon published in the Ripley's Believe or Not newspaper cartoon, which claimed four abreast and specified the calculation was based on US Army marching regulations.
A similar plot appears in 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 janitors(Telephone hygiene engineers) on their list of most useless people, no one was left behind who was willing to do any cleaning, and the rest of the planet was killed by contagious disease contracted from a public telephone.
Posted by Bob Wallace, who is brilyunt, as we all know.