Those Magnificent Minds: Enhanced Intellects on the Loose in SF

What would you do to make yourself smarter? Take a mix of illegal drugs, preferably injected straight into the cerebral cortex? Implant your skull with all sorts of black market tech that might burn out your gray matter and leave you drooling on the upholstery? Total brain transplant?

Funny thing is, if any those dubious intelligence enhancement techniques actually worked and you were lucky enough to survive the procedure, you’d likely look back and think to yourself, “Well, that was dumb.” 

But superior smarts do provide for a lot of fun and games, especially when it comes to dealing with alien overlords, tyrannical governments, and pranking tech support. Here are three stories where the main characters achieve superhuman IQs through various means and then go on to steer human evolution and generally make things difficult for the powers-that-be.

COUNT TO A TRILLION – John C. Wright

THE RUNDOWN: In order to comprehend a newly discovered alien artifact, Menelaus Montrose injects himself with an intelligence boosting cocktail–which knocks his IQ into the stratosphere while also driving him rather insane. Split into two identities, Menelaus must try to figure out the purpose of the alien artifact while also trying to reform his enhanced, yet shattered mind into a cohesive unit.

THE CONTRAST: The vast scope of this story is what sets it apart in a powerful way. Menelaus’ journey to the stars and back (both physically and mentally) spans centuries, involving cryogenic preservation and a far-flung vision for the human race. His heightened intellect is portrayed as a form of madness that frightens the garden-variety humans who must deal with him in order to ensure the survival of the species in the face of a looming extraterrestrial threat.

THE CURVE OF THE EARTH – Simon Morden

THE RUNDOWN: Meet Samuil Petrovitch–a Russian cyborg who has brought nations to their knees, started and ended wars, and likes to begin drinking as early in the morning as possible. So when his adopted daughter goes missing under mysterious circumstances, and US intelligence agencies try to block investigations, Samuil isn’t shy about throwing his every last dirty (and often violent) trick into the fray to get her back, and damn the consequences to himself or the world at large.

THE CONTRAST: Every element of Samuil’s enhanced intellect and technical prowess is bent on enforcing his preferred version of reality on the world and those around him. Disagree with his ideology? Then expect to be mentally, emotionally, and physically abused at every possible turn. Samuil actually starts out with a naturally genius-level IQ, made all the more powerful with cybernetic upgrades that lets him tap into and manipulate surrounding tech and data with ease.

THE DEPARTURE (Book One in The Owner series) – Neal Asher

THE RUNDOWN: Alan Saul wakes up in a crate headed for an incinerator, amnesiac, and with a skull stuffed with highly advanced tech that lets him do all manner of wonders–including slaughtering those who want him dead and sparking a one-man revolution against the dystopian global regime. At the same time, a Mars colonist investigates a murder that places her into direct conflict with the ruthless base commanding officer, who is willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone in order to further his suicidal agenda.

THE CONTRAST: From the get-go, Saul is distanced from his fellow humans by his far superior intellect. He fully embraces every chance to empower himself further, even when it means discarding his soul and conscience (if such things even existed). Emotion and conversations with other characters are relegated to calculated routines and background processes. So one might not necessarily “sympathize” with him as a character, but more just be fascinated by the massive “car-wrecks” he causes and a piling body count thanks to his unforgiving agenda and growing control over any nearby technology.

THE VERDICT

The Curve of the Earth is great dystopian science fiction with a huge contrast in characters who come from vastly different cultures and life experiences. Samuil’s take-no-prisoners cyborg tactics make for some fun scenes where he leads authorities around by their collective noses–but it does suffer a bit from his iron-clad opinions and constantly preachy attitude against anything that doesn’t line up with his worldview.

The Departure provides a solid mirror to Samuil’s overly emotional quest for his version of justice. Alan Saul divests himself of most scraps of compassion or empathy, making him the epitome of a cold, killing machine. It’s like a Bourne Identity thriller, if Jason Bourne’s super-agent skills got upgraded with nanotech and artificial intelligence. It makes for some brutally compelling scenes, but may fall short for readers who want a hero they can cheer for without cringing.

In the end, Count to a Trillion gets to look smug about its test scores. A unique vision of the future combines well with memorable characters (fancy a super-genius with a heavy drawl and a penchant for old-fashioned handguns?). As mentioned before, the scope of the plot is nicely staggering at times, and Count to a Trillion doesn’t shy away from hard questions about what defines intelligence and humanity itself. Nor does it provide any easy answers.

While higher intelligence seems a worthy goal, these stories will definitely make you think twice about the lengths you’d be willing to go to achieve such–and what you might do if you attained that boosted IQ, putting you in a mental weight class all your own. Rule the world? Send our species to the stars? Become an uncontested Jeopardy champion?

It’s enough to make your brain hurt.

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