The campfire creates a golden glow illuminating the ground and the nearby surrounding bushes and trees. Beyond this cozy sphere of glimmering radiance, it is pitch black. Out there in the mysterious beyond we can hear the sounds of insects chirping and animals calling out to each other. But what else is out there in the vast unfathomable reaches of space and time, beyond our little group, who are huddled together and warmed by the campfire in the forests of Connecticut in 1959?
I am kneeling in the middle of a circle of my fellow members of Boy Scout Troop 22 as they listen to me explain the image I am drawing with a stick in the dirt. I am enthusiastically expounding on the meaning of the strange shape sketched out on the ground. The top of the image is a big circle representing a head with a giant centered single eye and elongated pointed ears. The etched-in mouth and nose are proportionately very tiny, as is the outlined body below the diagramed head. But the fingers on the hands of this imagined being are very long and bone thin. With great energetic confidence, I explain that this image realistically depicts, based on modern scientific reasoning, how humans will look in the far distant future; we will be cyclops with big heads, big brains, long dexterous fingers, and tiny atrophied bodies.
I must have encountered these futuristic ideas someplace, or extrapolated from some book I had read, or movie I had seen; I no longer can recall. I do remember though some of my reasoning at the time: Our primitive ancestors had smaller brains; the human brain (and consequently the human head) has progressively grown larger as intelligence has become more important than physical strength; hence, the human head will get even bigger in the future. In modern times we are becoming increasingly dependent on our machines to do all our physical labor, and consequently our bodies will not need to be as big or strong in the future. Yet we will need extended, highly flexible fingers to efficiently operate all the buttons, knobs, and control switches on our advanced future technologies and gadgets. I have no recollection now why I thought our two eyes would merge into one—for it would dysfunctionally eliminate binocular vision—except that a single eye makes these hypothetical future humans look exceedingly spooky and strange, and that, to my twelve-year-old mind, was a good thing.
To the best of my memory this short talk I gave to my boy scout troop on the future evolution of humans was my first futurist, science fiction-like lecture. The setting for this eerie talk was ideal. In the dark night of the woods, enveloped in cosmic mystery with the glimmering distant stars overhead, my imagination was set free to sail in “awe and wonder” into the “outer limits” and bedazzling future possibilities of human existence. And cloistered together in the secure and comforting light of our campfire, with spooky noises emanating from the beyond, my boy scout friends were both unnerved and enthralled with my weird speculations on human evolution.
I was probably not aware at the time that a good part of the image of future humans I was describing in my campfire lecture derived from H. G. Wells’ “The Man of the Year Million” (1893/2005). Wells’ hypothetical vision presented in his essay was not the first attempt to imagine the future evolution of humanity, but his projection of an intellectual being with a big brain and frail body became highly influential in the next century. It is probable that whatever sources I drew my ideas from were informed directly or indirectly by Wells’ famous image. Wells had other ideas of future humans as well, most notably the Eloi and the Morlock of 800,000 AD in his novel The Time Machine (1895), but additionally in his books The Food of the Gods (1904), Men Like Gods (1923), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). All these novels and visions of future humans are described in the coming chapters.
Although we may more strongly associate science fiction with aliens, advanced technologies, and outer space travel, an immensely important and pervasive theme throughout the history of science fiction has been speculations on the future evolution of humanity. As explained in the first volume of this history of science fiction (Lombardo, 2018), the theory of evolution has been repeatedly applied to hypothetical visions of the future of humanity, including biological, psychological, and social dimensions; techno-human fusions of flesh and machines (cyborgs); and trans-human technological replacements (robots) of the entire human body, brain, and even mind. Within this volume, as well as the next volume in this series, we will see a host of narrative examples of future humans, beginning with Wells, continuing with E. M. Foster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), C. Fowler Wright’s “The Amphibians” (1924), and Francis Flagg’s “The Machine Man of Ardathia” (1927), and culminating in the 1930s in “Doc” Smith’s cyborg, psychic-empowered “Lensmen” and Olaf Stapledon’s panorama of successive future humans in Last and First Men running through eighteen different species two billion years into the future. Indeed, one species of Stapledon’s future humans has more than two eyes and another species are essentially just “big brains,” totally divorced from biological bodies and directly tethered to intricate technological appendages and mechanical support systems.
We can argue that the topic of future humans is inherently more unnerving than aliens from outer space, since profound transformations within ourselves (foreseen in the future) are more deeply disequilibrating at a psychological and personal level. Our sense of who and what we are is directly challenged in futurist images of humans. These dissonant images threaten and upset our sense of an intrinsic, homeostatic human identity. Although from a survival perspective this reaction may make sense, it is unrealistic and unscientific, since human nature, psychologically and biologically, is not a constant. We have evolved and changed in the past and in all probability, we will continue to do so—perhaps even more dramatically—in the future (Lombardo, 2009, 2014, 2017). It is essential to our very nature to transform. But into what? That is the threatening and yet fascinating question repeatedly addressed in science fiction.