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Insanity in Science Fiction


Michele Dutcher

Insanity in Science Fiction

A cyberfriend and I were recently talking online about insanity in general and I began to wonder about the way that madness shapes storylines in Science Fiction. This exploration of mental decline is a normal part of literature because Scifi & Fantasy deals with all facets of the human experience.


You have the obvious stereotype of Mad Men like Khan in the Wrath of Khan  – Star Trek movie - but even his madness is shown as an ongoing process. Khan’s basic gripe is that he is physically and mentally superior to those around him and thereby should be worshiped and revered by those ‘beneath’ him.  In spite of this perfectly valid way of looking at things, he is expelled from Earth after the Genetic Wars of 1990 along with 70 of his followers.  He then has a duel for supremacy with James Kirk and is beaten again, this time being left on a planet that is wild but able to be tamed with some work. However, after a few months the planet’s star implodes – leaving the planet’s inhabitants to die in frozen desperation, all except for Khan whose one goal becomes revenge upon the person who he now regards as his nemesis for never coming back to check on the colony: James Kirk. “From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!” 


This cry from the abyss is a quote from an earlier madman: Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick. Captain Ahab once again has some justification for his hated of the whale as the whale bit off his leg, but his fanatical rage against the creature makes him unable to exact the revenge he feels he deserves.  Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco calls Ahab "a brilliant personification of the very essence of fanaticism".

Graphic novels are filled with crazy doctors who are geniuses but insane nonetheless.  Where would superheroes be without insane evil geniuses to subdue – only to have them escape and start the whole game again?


Beyond sheer fanatical madness, however, there are other types of insanity in science fiction. For example, in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughter House Five, the main character swears that he has become unstuck in time and occasionally spends days on an alien planet with a movie actress for the pleasure of his alien captors. Near the end of the book he is giving a speech to a hall filled with people and he tells them that a man in the balcony is going to shoot him but not to be alarmed because soon he will be alive again during another stage of his life.  He is then shot by a man in the balcony – exactly on cue.  It is at this point that Vonnegut’s work trips over from being merely the ramblings of an insane character to a science fiction character based in a time travelling rotating paradox.  This forces the reader to attempt to figure out what is real is what is only real in the character’s mind. 


Philip K Dick, of course, was an expert in this kind of reality Jell-O, where what is true keeps shifting, making it difficult to tell reality from non-reality.  In his story Total Recall, an everyman in the near future is thrust into a spy game that ends on Mars…or does it?  The reader is left to discern if it wouldn’t it be more rational if Douglas Quaid was merely having a mental breakdown caused by a malfunctioning machine messing with his mind or if he were a superspy on another planet. This inability to tell reality from insanity is replayed over and over in Phillip K Dick’s short stories, which brings us to another level of insanity in science fiction: the author himself.


Philip K Dick, who was a genius getting paid only $20 per story, became so out of touch with common reality that he told people around him about a bright pink ray of light that infused his brain with information from a source originating beyond Earth.  This kind of mental predisposition to schizophrenia, where a person can’t trust their brain to correctly interpret what is real and what is not, can lead to a wealth of sci/fi and fantasy potential stories…although not a wealth of cash usually.

Perhaps Edgar Allen Poe was set up by a jealous rival, but most common thought is that he was mentally off balance.  His 1835 story, The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall, is recognized as one of – if not the first - science fiction short story.  It’s about a man who flies to the Moon in a balloon and meets a vast crowd of ugly little people with no ears who communicate by way of telepathy alone. There are very eerie similarities between Poe’s aliens and the aliens in the book Communion, btw.

Poe seems to have been bipolar, with both periods of amazing creativity and periods of crippling lows. He also had symptoms of OCD, being compelled to walk around his dead wife’s grave a certain number of times every night.

Ray Bradbury has one character in his book The Martian Chronicles who rails against going crazy. Dr. Hathaway is living in isolation with his wife and daughter – waiting, hoping that someone will eventually wander by.  They do and Dr. Hathaway is rescued, but when asked if his wife and daughter want to come along too, he explains that these are merely robots he created to keep himself from going crazy while waiting for rescue.

I can’t leave the idea of insanity in Science Fiction and Fantasy without noting poor Gollum from The Hobbit, guarding his precious ring, following the rest of the hobbits over the fields and mountains, obsessed with getting ‘my precious’ back.  The fact that Gollum was once a happy go lucky Hobbit like the rest of the Shire makes his descent into madness that much more emotional.   

Fortunately there are some creatures in SciFi who are not insane. The Foundation Series has an almost eternal character who survives age after age without going crazy named R. Daneel Olivaw – a robot, located near the core of Earth’s moon.  But even this robot is in danger of mental collapse when found, as its brain can’t hold anymore memories and even the most advanced AI brains can only hold 20,000 years of memories.  So the robot puts forth the idea to a visitor that it must meld his mind with an organic intellect, specifically a certain child’s superior brain – for the good of the galaxy.

Perhaps only AIs will achieve stable mental health over tens of thousands of years as they hang back, allowing humans to evolve slowly.  Although we may never catch up with AIs, we can at least hope they will be benevolent in their attitudes towards their creators. 

Welcome to this month’s issue of Quantum Muse: A person would have to be crazy to go anywhere else for great sci/fi Fantasy.    


2016-05-31 08:54:26
Magonian - Oh boy, we're getting closer and closer to the "What exactly IS insanity (and is religion related to it, and if so in what way)?" My fevered brain recalls Matthias and his albinoid acolytes in The Omega Man. Could we call them insane if they were now mutants? Perhaps their inquisitorial religiosity was a natural consequence of their biological transformation?

2016-05-25 23:43:03
Ironspider - Here's a supplemental question to the original proposition of this piece: you mention AIs achieving stable mental health - was Hal insane or too sane? 'Logical inconsistencies' in its programme brought it to the conclusion that the human crew of the expedition were a threat to mission success. Was that a valid position, or the result of bad programming? Was Hal a high-profile victim of RIRO (Rubbish-In, Rubbish-Out)? Can an AI only ever be as sane as the collective sanity of its programmers? Though pitched at the lower end of the scale, what about the robot Hector, in Saturn 3, who absorbed the mental problems of his human handler, Captain Benson. And would a true artificial sentience be just as likely to suffer mental issues as a biological creature? And to muddy the water still further, what about alien mental stability - for example the Splurgs in Perry Chapdelaine's 'Swampworld West', where periods of 'insanity' are a necessary part of their existence?

2016-05-25 10:29:28
Of course, I started out this discussion by saying that this was the best editorial ever because I just wanted someone to start the discussion. It's like this: without mental illness and religion, science fiction would be an infinitely different genre. Michele Dutcher

2016-05-15 10:47:14
mark211 - I agree - this is a really interesting piece and well researched too.

2016-05-13 09:21:12
micheledutcher - As far as early science fiction - We also have Paradise Lost by John Milton, who wrote 10000 verses about a fictitious journey to a fictitious place (and managed to scare the Dickens out of generations after that - all based on 6 sentences in The Bible. And before that, of course, is Plato's detailed description of Atlantis and how a culture could have existed in the middle of a great sea only to be destroyed in one day and one night - apocalyptic science fiction. People have always enjoyed telling tall tales. I guess I should have said, Modern Science Fiction, and yes, The Time Ship: a Chrononautical Journey does predate Poe's story of travelling to the moon.

2016-05-11 11:53:44
you really believe that a superior sentient being would b so benign as to allow this living killing machines to exist? Read A TECHNICAL SINGULARITY by Murray Shanahan

2016-05-11 11:51:56
Another interesting early piece

THE TIME SHIP, A Chrononautical Journey,by Enrique Gaspar, translated by Yolanda Molina-Gavilin & Andrea Bell 1887, pre HG WELLS by 8 years.

2016-05-11 05:17:29
Magonian - Abso - 'ahem' - lutely :)

2016-05-05 14:27:24
micheledutcher - This is the best editorial ever written in this universe or any universe known or unknown!

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