"Pincushion Pete" by Ian Creasey — story background

On a bright but chilly summer morning in Edinburgh, Peter Lonsdale entered the campaign headquarters at his usual time of seven o'clock.  No-one else had arrived yet, but the computers had been active overnight, scanning the world's media for news stories and offensive terms.  Pete glanced at the big screen, pleased to see that the trend lines still sloped downward for IDIOT, CRETIN, MORON and the rest.  News items were spiking upward, as expected.  This week marked the tenth anniversary of the Campaign Against Intellectual Discrimination, and Pete had spent the last few days writing articles and giving interviews.

There is a historical tendency for various forms of discrimination to become less acceptable over time: for instance, racism, sexism, and homophobia are now frowned upon.  The premise of "Pincushion Pete" is that this tendency will continue, so that today's commonplace prejudice becomes tomorrow's unacceptable discrimination.  Today it's inappropriate to call someone a faggot or a cripple (or other words that I daren't even write here), but no-one will complain if you call someone an idiot.  Yet why is it acceptable to discriminate against the stupid?  No-one can help being born with low intelligence, any more than they can help being born black, female, homosexual, or disabled.

In the world of "Pincushion Pete", it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of their intelligence.

The satirical side of the story reframes stupidity as a medical condition: Sub-Median Intelligence Syndrome.  A pressure group, the Campaign Against Intellectual Discrimination, tries to redefine insults (e.g. "idiot", "cretin", "moron") as being hate speech.  After all, one measure of the traction of anti-discrimination campaigns is their success at reshaping public discourse and making particular words unacceptable.

The story's serious side examines what it means to treat intelligence as an anti-discrimination issue.  This thematic territory has been explored before, for instance in Kurt Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron".  However, that story used the method of "levelling down": social equality is achieved by handicapping the more intelligent members of society.

In my story, I decided to go the opposite route of "levelling up": less intelligent people can use gene-therapy patches to boost their intelligence, in the same way that disabled people can use wheelchairs to improve their mobility.

There is a well-known story about boosting intelligence — "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.  However, in that story, the intelligence boost doesn't work very well: it's only temporary.

For my purposes, I assumed that the intelligence boost would work properly.  It delivers a permanent benefit by improving a subnormal intelligence to a normal level.  It doesn't create geniuses, but it does alleviate stupidity.

This raises a moral issue: to what extent is stupidity an affliction that should be cured?

My answer was influenced by another writer's story, which treated a similar theme in a way that I disagreed with.  I'm reluctant to name the specific story, because I'm sure the other writer had what seemed like valid reasons for their choice.  And there's little point in arguing, because stories are fiction, and fictional situations aren't evidence.  Part of an author's craft lies in shaping the circumstances of a story to support the desired conclusion.  When this is done skilfully, the reader barely even notices how the dice have been loaded.  In the other writer's story, I thought the circumstances seemed carefully contrived, in a manner that didn't reflect the wider context.  So I responded with my own story, presenting the circumstances in a different way to support my own interpretation of the issues.

Finally, aside from the moral aspect, there are the practical consequences.  If intelligence-boosting patches become available, how does that affect society?  What are the knock-on effects?  What is the new normal?

Page last updated: 9 April 2019