Varicose Brains, Part 2: Heading Towards the Future

Martin Kottmeyer
Magonia 68, September 1999

Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) is largely remembered as an important French astronomer whose textbooks were standard references for the profession. He is an important figure in the tradition of the plurality of worlds. He believed that intelligent life filled the universe like many intellectuals did, but he was an important advocate of the growing view that those other worlds would not be inhabited by beings identical to man.
Astronomy was learning that those other worlds had different properties that would create environments that would force different adaptations by life evolving on them.
He is less well remembered as the author of a few works that are now considered part of the science fiction tradition. Lumen (1873) provides illustration of his view by describing aliens on distant worlds like planets around Gamma Virgo, Delta Andromeda, a minor star in Cygnus, and Theta Orion. On the first the inhabitants are vaguely humanoid, but have different sense organs and reproduce asexually in a manner that is too mysterious to explain to those limited to earthly senses. The next has seal-like intelligences that draw their nutrition from a gas-liquid ocean. The next has peaceful trees that are bisexual and preach an anarchistic political philosophy. The other has beings possessing such weak molecular bonds they collapse to dust but re-assemble again.(1) A later work, Urania (1890) includes aliens with eyes that emit a magnetic influence capable of killing who or whatever receives its glance. The main focus though is on our neighbours, the Martians. They are six-limbed and have a heightened sensitivity, intellectuality, and a superior morality. (2)
Camille Flammarion
The work that demands our attention for the history of the idea of the Grays is Omega: The Last Days of the World (1893). The book is an attempt to sketch out the future history of mankind in a fictional framework and seemingly the first such that presupposes the reality of deep time in the forward direction. Geologists, astronomers, and evolutionary philosophers had proposed the idea in a general way and tried to speculate about it, but novelists had not found a way to wrap their words around it. Flammarion’s effort is weighed down with expositions on the history of predictions about the end of the world and the opinions of scientists.
Any contemporary editor would slash the book’s length by two-thirds and end up with a lyrically utopian short story with moments of beautiful melancholy. As is, it is more a work of science popularization and has more than a measure of interest in how the opinions of the era date it. The age of the world has fewer zeros in it with the significance of radioactivity as yet unrecognized. As the world cools, the seas sink into the core and the earth eventually dies from desertification. Without water vapour, weather ceases. The bigger the world, the slower the cooling. Mars and the Moon went first; Earth and Venus are going next; eventually Jupiter will follow. Percival Lowell’s Mars, a decade later would also foretell our eventual desertification though he premises it on the shrinking of the solar nebula, with Mars cooling first because it was farther away.
Omega becomes relevant to us when it describes humanity in the thirtieth century. The nervous system began to grow more sensitive. Women’s heads were smaller than men’s were because “her exquisite sensibility respond(ed) to sentimental considerations before reason could act in the lower cells.” The neck had a greater supple grace. The mouth had a penetrating sweetness and beauty. The hair was luxuriant with light curls. Her head had increased with the exercise of intellectual faculties. Both sexes had cerebral circonvolutions that were more numerous and more pronounced. “In short, the head had grown, the body had diminished in size. Giants were no longer to be seen.” (3)
He elaborates, “Four permanent causes had modified insensibly the human form; the intellectual faculties and of the brain, the decrease in manual labour and bodily exercise, the transformation of food, and the marriage system. The first had increased the size of the cranium as compared with the rest of the body; the second had decreased the strength of the limbs; the third had diminished the size of the abdomen and made the teeth finer and smaller; the tendency of the fourth had been rather to perpetuate the classic forms of human beauty: masculine beauty, the nobility of an uplifted countenance, and the graceful outlines of womanhood.”
By the 100th century, man had acquired new delicacy in all the senses and had added new ones; an electric sense to attract and repel matter and a psychic one that allowed communication at a distance like a transcendental magnetism. Inter-astral communication with Mars and Venus was discovered. Space travel, so obvious a development to us, never crossed Flammarion’s mind even towards the finale when it is known Jupiter has life and oversees the death of the last couple, Omegar and Eva, amid the remaining cities of glass. By the 200th century, a single race existed. It was small in stature, light-coloured, and suggested Anglo-Saxon and Chinese descent. Differences converged towards one race, one language, one general government, and one religion. Flammarion laments that humanity did not grow wings as poets had prophesied. Electric apparatus, airships, allowed him to soar in the sky instead. (4)
The human body becomes transfigured with still further time. Woman achieve perfect beauty. She has slender, translucent white skin, eyes “illuminated by the light of dreams,” smaller mouth and idealized jaw, and soft rose lips so dazzling one dared not kiss them. The new race was “infinitely superior.” (5) Eventually, it achieves intellectual greatness and well being. Humanity is increasingly released from the empire of matter and gross appetites. A new system of alimentation is formed. The metamorphosis becomes so absolute, fossil specimens of men in geological museums seemed too gross to be true ancestors. (6) This state of affairs lasts at length until desertification at last forces the population to shrink. Decadence and degeneration sets in and barbarism returns. (7)
We see the occasional echo of Flammarion’s prior works in the enhanced nervous sensitivities and new senses. The bigger heads and smaller bodies reflect the evolutionary ideas of Spencer at minimum. It is an open question if Flammarion was exposed to H.G. Wells’ ideas. His ideas were not in wide distribution at the probable time of the writing of Omega, but Flammarion was blatantly fluent in all the science of the era. One feature that argues against it is that Flammarion did not see future humanity as bald. Perfect woman still had “long and silky hair, in whose deep chestnut were blended all the ruddy tints of the setting sun.”(8) He blended the evolutionary pressures differently with sexual dimorphism an important part of the mix and degeneracy less emphasized. He also took his final product more seriously than Wells did his. Whether the similar elements bespeak independent constructions working out a similar logic or exposure to Wells’ argument, the variations show evolutionary logic did not force an immutable conclusion in all elements of form. There was room to play around with the idea.

Louis Boussenard, a French writer of adventures, provides our next example. In Ten Thousand Years in a Block of Ice (1898), a polar adventurer freezes to death in an iceberg and awakens to a group of small men with large globular heads who float about in the air. They flee in pained dismay when he makes a noise. Future men are a racial blend of Chinese and blacks. It is their advanced psychic development that allows them to levitate themselves along with other objects. They are abnormally sensitive to sensory stimuli.

The explorer was bearded and that leads to his being thought to be a possible slave until a show of intellect gains him their respect. The future men are involved in a project to communicate with Mars using fields covered in black and white cloth to portray symbols. This echo of the Mars mania of the late 1880s, distinctly reminiscent of similar landscape symbol schemes, strikes the explorer as ridiculously inefficient. They also display ludicrous misunderstandings of artefacts of his era displayed in a museum. Combined with a cultural smugness thought to be of Chinese provenance and their enslavement of the more primitive, the explorer becomes disenchanted.
A confusing ending has the explorer fear his life work of a complete theory of evolution might be destroyed in a volcanic eruption. It might all be a dream, but maybe not. (9) The Chinese element recalls Flammarion’s work, but the blend with blacks creatively differentiates the two. Flammarion was basically utopian in his thoughts. Boussenard is not. The element of levitation is a variant on Flammarion’s prediction of psychic and electric powers and nicely presages the occurrence of gliding levitation that recurrently appears in later UFO lore, sometimes in conjunction with Grays, but sometimes other forms. (10)
George Griffith populates his Mars with scientifically advanced macrocephalic humanoids in A Honeymoon in Space (1901) They diverge from the Martians of War of the Worlds in being giants, but they are decadent, warlike, and have few emotions. (11) They are further along the evolutionary path and have given themselves over to a ruthless and extreme rationalism. They try to eliminate all physical differences and emotions. The honeymooners also visit a dead moon, a sinless Venus, a Ganymede of opulent crystal cities, and a Saturn with an ecology adapted to a semi-gaseous ocean. They portray phases of a quasi-Spencerian evolutionary scheme. Though infantile and derivative, the book is said to have an undeniable panache. (12)
A short story by Eden Philpotts, “A Story Without an End,” (1901) concerns various creatures speculating about higher forms of life. Trilobites, dinosaurs, modern man, and a man of the year million take turns in this game. Future man turns out to be cone-heads. The cone-like head extends three-feet above the face. His is pink, pliable, has gills, wings, is telepathic and subsists on odours. (13)
H.G. Wells offers a twist on his own creation in First Men in the Moon (1901). The moon is honeycombed within by a society of large insects. Division of labour has led to a portion of the society specializing in matters of intellect and they form a sort of aristocracy. For a Selenite destined to be a mathematician, the talent is nurtured with perfect psychological skill.
“His brain grows, or at least the mathematical faculties of his brain grows, and the rest of him only so much as is necessary to sustain this essential part of him…they bulge ever larger and seem to suck all life and vigour from the rest of the frame. His limbs shrivel, his heart and digestive organs diminish, his insect face hidden under its bulging contours…his deepest emotion is the evolution of a novel computation.”
Ruling all was the Grand Lunar. Resembling a small cloud, it had a brain case measuring many yards in diameter and was tended by a number of body servants who sustained him. It has intense staring eyes. He eventually saw the dwarfed little body, white, with shrivelled limbs and ineffectual tentacles. “It was great. It was pitiful.” (14)
George Raffalowitz”s Planetary Journeys and Earthly Sketches (1908) includes a short story “Trip to a Planet” which opens with a close encounter. A pair of hairless, macrocephalic entities in billowing robes are floating above a field and communicating to each other by telepathy. The narrator learns they had just stopped off before a visit to Mars and he prevails upon them to take him along. We eventually learn their unidentified home world is seven times larger than ours is. Their culture is utterly without emotion and they don’t understand concepts like beauty, rage, good, and evil. There are few females and few children. Most of the population consists of neuters. Death is voluntary and usually chosen when there is a sense of failure. Other stories in the collection describe worlds with entities like windmill people genetically altered to resemble sails and a hyperanthrope planning to take over the universe. Bleiler suggests the book is half-eccentric and devoid of talent. “It is astonishing it was published.” Yet how easy it would be argue the similarities to modern lore are sufficient to argue it was a veiled ‘true’ encounter.(15)
James Alexander’s The Lunarian Professor (1909) has the narrator on a fishing trip when he encounters a lunarian working a handcar down a railroad track. It is humanoid with a large, globular head and huge eyes. It also has six wings of various sizes. He got here by manipulation of gravitation, though he won’t explain further to prevent our invading space. Lunarians live within the moon thanks to their science. They are entrepreneurial and ultimately altruistic. They know the Earth’s future mathematically and unroll a map of our history to come. Alexander gets some of the near term things right like the spread of cities, women’s rights, loosening of marriage, synthetics, and photo-electricity. Some of it is wrong like the end of war. Around the time we develop the ability to choose the sex of children, the Lunarians plan to intervene and enforce the creation of a third sex that is neuter. It will be more intelligent and less passionate. The resemblance to modern ufology’s Hybrid Program is hard to miss. What degree of similarity exists probably reflects a dramatic and definitional sensibility that aliens are smarter and more powerful than we are and should thus engage in grandiose projects like meddling in the fate of our species. (16)
The Lunarian reveals that by the tenth millennium mankind will be short, large-headed, toothless, and nearly bald. By the hundredth millennium, he shrinks even more and will have no digestive system. The umbilical cord stays after birth and machines infuse nutrition into the creature. It has long arms, but no ears, teeth, or toes.
James Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) describes the childhood of a future man born to normal parents by apparently spontaneous mutation. The child has a large, bald head and seems otherwise physically normal. He forgets nothing and by the age of four has consumed the knowledge of a large private library. “He is too many thousands of years ahead of us.”(17) The child has a disconcerting stare, a powerful glance, and is somewhat taciturn and unburdened by emotions. He also finds faith unnecessary and there is some suggestion a fanatical rector is the child’s murderer. It is among the great early scientific romances. (18)
William Greene, in “The Savage Strain”(1911), envisions North Americans as shorter and weaker in the year 2410, but with a more developed mental ability. They are mild and peace loving. Science has removed all effort and peril with perfect weather control and anti-gravity leading to degeneracy. The Yellow Peril returns and the professor hero invents an elixir of courage which saves the day by making these future men aggressive. There is a side-effect of warring tribalism afterwards, but at least America is free. (19) “John Jones’s Dollar”(1915) by Harry Keeler accepts the notion of larger heads and punier bodies for the year 3221 with apparently little fuss. (20)
The Russian author Aleksandre Romanovich Beliaev worked in the tradition of The Time Machine when making The Struggle in Space: Red Dream, Soviet-American War (1918). Corrupt, capitalistic America has its workers live in Moorlockian tunnels where they have reverted to savagery. In both cultures, future man is bald, myopic, physically weaker and disease-ridden. Americans have degenerated to pot-bellied, spindle-legged, bulb-heads and use genetic engineering to create monstrous man-machine combinations. Eurasian man is altruistic and servile to a telepathic master. A battle for world rule leads to a threat to destroy the world with atomic energy by a degenerate banker who drains blood from victims for his consumption. The narrator sacrifices himself by destroying the headquarters of the American villain. Call this cartoon adventure from the other side of the mirror. (21)
The great adventure writer Edgar Rice Burroughs enters our history in 1922 with the story “The Chessmen of Mars.” A race called the kaldanes exists that is 90% brain by volume with only the simplest of vital organs forming the remainder. They do not even have lungs. This is in ultimate preparation for a time when the atmosphere has thinned to nothing. The eyes were hideously inhuman, set far apart, protruding and lidless. They have enormous hypnotic powers and can control the will of humans. A girl abducted by the kaldanes experienced him fastening “his terrible eyes upon her. He did not speak, but his eyes seemed to be boring straight to the centre of her brain … They seemed but to burn deeper and deeper, gathering up every vestige of control of her entire nervous system.”(22)

One can hardly miss how very like this is to David Jacobs in his latest descriptions of how modern Grays are able to stare into eyes, travel down the optic neural pathway, and fire “neurons at whatever sites he wants.”(23) The nose was “scarce more than two small parallel slits set vertically” above a round mouth. Most had a skin that was bluish-gray. They “have no sex, except the king who is bisexual” and lays thousands of eggs. To move about they domesticated a local animal and interbred it with captive red Martians to create a rykor, a muscular but headless humanoid slave into which the chelae can be inserted to manipulate the spinal cord. When kaldanes show emotion, it is atypical and condemned by others of their race.
They explain themselves as a natural development of nature. First, life existed with no brains, then rudimentary nervous systems formed, and then small brains.
“Evolution proceeded. The brains became larger and more powerful. In us you see the highest development, but there are those of us who believe that there is yet another step – that some time in the far future our race shall develop into a super-thing — just brain. The incubus of legs and chelae and vital organs will be removed. The future kaldane will be nothing but a great brain. Deaf, dumb, and blind it will be sealed in its buried vault far beneath the surface of Mars … just a great, wonderful, beautiful brain with nothing to distract it from eternal thoughts.” The kaldane swoons at the thought asking could anything be more wonderful? The abductee disputes this, “Yes, I can think of a number of things that would be infinitely more wonderful.” (24)
There has been a suggestion that Ras Thavas, The Mastermind of Mars (1928), fits our notion of a Gray, physically and unemotionally, but there are ambiguities in the situation. His race, the people of Toonol, has a fetish of science that strikes the narrator as “unintelligent because unbalanced,” and had an atrophied “heart and soul” from generations of inhibition. However suggestive, it is not evident that this is mirrored in their general physical form as was true of the kaldanes. (25)
A movie called Radiomania appears in 1923 that deserves at least passing mention. It is said to contain a dream sequence in which Martians are depicted as having oversize heads. They wear vaguely Egyptian looking cloths. Little more is known and there does not seem to be any video copies of it available. (26)
John Lionel Tayler’s The Last of My Race (1924) is set in 302,930 A.D. where we learn man has been superseded by a new species, Sapiens minimus. It has a huge head with tremendous brainpower, big chest, long thin legs, light weight, and a superior sense of touch. This species is however dying out. A still higher form of life is replacing it, but the visitor to the future must not see it. The psychological impact would kill him. (27)
The Dr. Hackensaw series includes “A Journey to the Year 3000″ where the doc and Pep learns people there have bigger heads and slighter bodies. Teeth are extracted and the gums hardened at an early age. Pep accidentally runs over a future man in a driving accident and is sentenced to become an experimental subject and earning her great pain. The conjunction of the gray form with a painful experimental procedure is another interesting precursor to contemporary abduction horrors. The appearance of the form in such pulp hackwork is a nice indication that it has full rights to being called a stereotype already in 1925. (28)
The June 1926 Amazing Stories features a story by G. Peyton Wertenbaker titled “The Coming of the Ice” [left] and describes the strange men of the hundredth century as “men with huge brains and tiny, shrivelled bodies, atrophied limbs, and slow ponderous movements.” The illustration by Frank R. Paul is an interesting sight. A couple of the diminutive figures could almost pass for Grays but for the fact that they are clothed in pants, shirts, socks, and wear helmets that to the eyes of someone in the Nineties look rather like bicycle headgear. (29)
The short story by Donald Wandrei of “The Red Brain” (1927) involves the last days of the universe when all that remains are some giant brains with god-like powers living beneath a glassy shell on the cooled star of Antares. They had evolved from inhabitants on a nearby planet. Everything is becoming cosmic dust and the brains turn to The Red Brain for hope since his thoughts are so profound they have trouble understanding them. He finds a solution and the brains enter into telepathic bond to hear it. His mental energy kills them all. It turns out he was mad. Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” inspired this. (30)
In Ray Cummings’ story “Beyond the Stars”(1928) an airship voyages into the macrocosm where our world is but an atom. They come into a world that is being invaded by another. The invaders are a dual life form. Small huge-headed beings sit atop gigantic bodies that are imbecilic. As Bleiler notes, this is an obvious echo of Burroughs’ kaldanes. (31)
“Evolution Island” appears in the March 1928 pulp Weird Tales and features the discovery that evolution can be accelerated or reversed by means of an earthly radiation. A mad doctor enters the evolution ray and is transformed into a big-domed superman with four tentacles with plans to conquer the world. Our heroes try to stop him, but are captured and bound. They helplessly watch as an armada of plants in globular air vessels takes off for an attack. Well, not too helplessly actually, for they burst free and turn the evolution ray on in devolving mode and turn everything, the fleet included, into primordial slime. (32)
The idea that radiation could manipulate evolution is an offshoot of the doctrine of orthogenesis that still had adherents in the Twenties. Chemical processes in the germplasm were thought to force generations along trend lines that led to overdevelopment. Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, a leading palaeontologist of the era, accepted orthogenesis and offered a theory of racial senility that applied the notion to the growth of the human brain and primate evolution generally. You will likely recall the name from his involvement in the Piltdown hoax. (33) The theory of mutation had been introduced by DeVries in 1910 and the notion of “mutation-pressure” driving evolution followed in due course. (34) Herman Muller bombarded flies with increasing doses of X-rays and found a proportional increase in mutations. Thus in 1927, he announced the “Artificial Transmutation of the Gene” and suggested his discovery could guide the evolution of plants, animals, and even humans. (35)
G.O. Olinik’s gimmick of the evolution ray is taken up later by pulp master Edmond Hamilton for his long praised and often reprinted short story “The Man Who Evolved” (1931). In it a mad biologist learns he can speed up evolution by means of concentrated cosmic rays and decides to submit himself to its effects. The first dose makes him taller, more muscular, a veritable physical Adonis. The face conveyed immense intellectual power shining through clear dark eyes.

Stopping there would have made him the greatest man of the age, but the experiment must go forward. The next dose reduces the body by half. It is thin and shrivelled. “The head supported by this weak body was an immense, bulging balloon that measured fully 18 inches from brow to back! It was almost entirely hairless, its great mass balanced precariously upon his slender shoulders and neck. And his face too was changed greatly, the eyes larger and the mouth smaller, the ears seeming smaller, also.” The change appeals to him, preferring more brain to the still animal body of the first stage. A witness fears he says this because he is losing all human emotions and sentiment.
He takes another dose and the witness observes the worsening spectacle, “He had become simply a great head! A huge hairless head fully a yard in diameter, supported on tiny legs, the arms having dwindled to mere hands that projected just below the head! The eyes were enormous, saucer-like, but the ears were mere pinholes at either side of the head, the nose and mouth being similar holes below the eyes.” The Brain Monster expresses pride and boasts that with this colossal brain he would be master of the planet free to pursue any experiment he wishes, even the destruction of all life. His mental powers now include telepathy.

Only a great brain remained, running on pure energy and devoid of all emotion and desire save a burning curiosity and desire for truth
Another dose follows. It is now a “gray head-thing,” wrinkled and folded, two eyes, and only two muscular tentacles. The body is entirely atrophied. It boasts of soaring vista of power beyond imagination. One more dose and he will reach the end of the road. That turns out to be gray limp mass four feet across whose only sign of life is twitching. Only a great brain remained, running on pure energy and devoid of all emotion and desire save a burning curiosity and desire for truth. He thinks one more dose will generate a still higher form – the last mutation. The switch is thrown. It turns out evolution is not orthogenetic; it is circular. The being is now a quivering jelly of protoplasm. The implications sink in and an insanely laughing witness destroys the lab. (36)
Hamilton, like Wells, populated deep space with the form just as he did deep time. In “Crashing Suns” (August 1928), an intelligent alien race intends to crash their dying sun into ours to reinvigorate it. They are globes of pink, unhealthy-looking flesh a yard across and upheld by slender, insect-like legs. They have short thin limbs for arms. (37) Similarly, he creates intelligent Martians with bulbous heads and stilt-like legs and arms for “A Conquest of Two Worlds” (1932). It also has a large chest to get oxygen from the thinner air. (38) “Fessenden’s World” (1937) includes a short description of a world ruled by an oligarchy of living brains. Their race of servants is destroyed by a plague of growing rot. Some of the brains survive to create a race of servant machines, but they revolt and destroy the brains. Without the brains to direct them, they come to wreck and that world dies. (39)
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”(1928) is another revered scientific romance, a classic morality play warning of the dangers of over-reliance on technology and civilization. People live within the bowels of a great Machine that takes care of the necessities of survival. There is a sensibility among the inhabitants that “there will come a generation that has got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation seraphically free from the taint of personality.” The limbs of the body were becoming so atrophied it could not pick up a book for its only uses were eating, sleeping, and producing ideas.

One woman is described as a swaddled lump of flesh with a face as white as a fungus. A few had lived outside the machine and one such visitor had a moustache. The inhabitants looked on him as reverting to a savage and the Machine would have no mercy on him. The problems start when the master brain perishes, quietly and complacently, and all starts to sink into decadence. They had sinned. “The sin against the body – it was for that they wept in chief; the centuries of wrong against the muscles and the nerves, and those five portals by which we apprehend – glozing it over with talk of evolution, until the body was white pap, the home of ideas as colourless, the last slushy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars.” It is time to start over in the external world. (40)
Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1931) offered a pair of important variations on the Big Brain concept. Ten million years in the future, the environment acted upon a few human species surviving a disaster to create Second Man. They had a roomier cranium, but this needed a more massive neck, stouter legs, and greater bones. Their eyes were large and jade green. Teeth were smaller and fewer and some organs like the appendix and tonsils had gone away. This is basically sounder architecture and has a good logic about it. Sexual interest was more sublimated. They had an innate cosmopolitanism. They acted less impulsively. They enjoyed a long age of idyllic peace. (41)

Initially, that is. Then, “Just as the fangs of the sabre-toothed tiger had finally grown so large it could not eat, so the brain of the second human species threatened to outgrow the rest of the body. In a cranium that was initially roomy enough, this rare product of nature was now increasingly cramped; while a circulatory system that was formerly quite adequate, was becoming more and more liable to fail in pumping blood through so cramped a structure.” Congenital imbecility and various mental diseases took over. Before complete doom a more stable variation appeared and interbred with the remnants. (42)
Third Man superseded Second Man and this race embarked on a project to create the next race, envisioned as a super-brain. We would call it a genetic engineering scheme with elements of embryo growth acceleration. The brain grew to 12 feet across with “a body reduced to a mere vestige upon the under surface of the brain.” It was kept alive mechanically and chemically in a factory of a house called a brain room. It knew no emotions except curiosity and constructiveness. It had an artificial telepathy. Eventually ten thousand such super-brains were constructed and they constituted the Fourth Men. The Great Brains enslaved Third Man then eventually destroyed him save for some held for experimental purposes in cages. Unfortunately the life of the intellect was barren and they realized the necessity for a body and lower brain tissue to form values. They reworked the remnants of Third Man to construct their successors, the Fifth Men. (43)

There seems to be little doubt the Stapledon was consciously playing with the ideas of Wells as he did regularly in most of his work. (44) Some also allege the influence of Flammarion due to the fact that both were indulging in deep time histories, but in the issues of Gray history the Wellsian influence is more recognizable, particularly since dimorphism between the sexes is not much in evidence in Stapledon’s descriptions.
The year 1931 gave us a veritable wave of these creatures. Besides Stapledon and Hamilton, there was Clifford Simak’s “The World of the Red Sun” in which a Big Brain named Golan-Kirt comes out of the cosmos and rules the Earth five million years hence. (45) Then there were the bald, big-brained humanoids from Alpha Centaurus who abduct Buck Rogers and his cohorts as part of a sampling expedition designed to take specimens of life for interstellar transport. (46) Stanton Coblentz’s “Into Plutonian Depths” had a Frank Paul illustration that nicely prefigures the Gray form in having a bulbous head, large eyes, no evident nose or ears, a scrawny frame and bony limbs. (47)

Jack Williamson’s “The Moon Era” is particularly notable. (48) An alien race started to become dependent on machines. Some saw the dangers associated with machines and split away, but those who became the Eternal Ones continued the path of degeneration.

“Their limbs atrophied, perished from lack of use. Even their brains were injured, for they lived an easy life…facing no new problems…Generation upon generation their bodies wasted away. Until they were no longer natural animals. They became mere brains, with eyes and feeble tentacles. In place of bodies, they use machines. Living brains, with bodies of metal.”
They became too weak to reproduce and turned to their science to give them immortality. But the brains rot and they now seek those who split away to acquire Mothers “to change their offspring with their hideous arts and make of them new brains for the machines.”(49) Seen up close, the Eternal ones are a horror: “A soft helpless gray thing, with huge black staring eyes.” Closer: “And their eyes roughened my skin with dread. Huge black, and cold. There was nothing warm in them, nothing human, nothing kind. They were as emotionless as polished lenses.” In one battle, a Mother is able to paralyze an Eternal One by staring into its eyes.(50) Her mental energy is greater. The foreshadowing of the Hybrid program and the evil eye powers of modern Grays is not perfect, but yet looks hauntingly suggestive.

Amelia Reynolds Long, in 1932, offered a twist on Hamilton’s Man-Who-Evolved in a short story called “Omega.” A man is hypnotically future-regressed to the last days of the earth, but his talent is so excellent he experiences an actual physical alteration.
“He had shrunken several inches in stature, while his head had appeared to have grown larger, with the forehead almost bulbous in aspect. His fingers were extremely long and sensitive, but suggestive of great strength. His frame was thin to emaciation…He has become a man of the future physically as well as mentally.”
The hypnotist is unable to bring him back, but they continue to hear him report the course of future deep time. Dinosaurs return, as does tropical life generally. Then they are gone with plant life withering. The Moon grows larger and gravity lightens. Volcanoes erupt and lightning crackles. The Earth dissolves. “Creation is returning to its original atoms!” Nothing of the man remains but a dancing myriad of infinitesimal atoms. Geologic time, not just evolution, turns out to be circular. (51)
John W. Campbell’s “Twilight’ (1934) is a somewhat significant entry in our chronology due to the importance of the author. It was popular enough to have been reprinted at least twice. A modern man accidentally time travels seven million years forward. He finds there a machine city with no life in it. It is a perfect technology constantly repairs itself and is in persistent readiness to serve. He finds an airship and travels around till he discovers there is a remnant of humans.
“They were little men – bewildered – dwarfed, with heads disproportionately large. But not extremely large. Their eyes impressed me most. They were huge, and when they looked at me there was a power in them that seemed sleeping, but too deeply to be roused.”
There were few young among them and they were respected and cared for intently. Humanity was becoming sterile. The machines killed off bacteria and purified all water so well they killed the seas. The food chain was destroyed. The machines did thinking better than man did and afterwards the big heads were merely vestigial artefacts of a wondrous evolution. They did not know how to turn the machines off and so they would run forever even though everyone would eventually be dead. One can imagine this might have been an answer to E.M. Forster. The Machine will not stop. (52)
In Nat Schachner’s “Past, Present, and Future” (1937) men wake ten thousand years in the future after preservation in a cavern filled with an inert gas. The first figure encountered is a little man with a bald bulging forehead. He had a delicate body, spindly limbs, and brain case that could be easily disrupted. The nose was vestigial. He is a member of the Technician class and fear had been bred out of them. Soon, he sees members of the Worker class and they are muscular, husky men who tower over the intellectualized Technicians. The sense is that division of labour is again the cause of the divergent forms. (53)
Henry Kuttner brings men of the future to the present in a unique way in “No Man’s World” (1940). A movie called “Men of Tomorrow” is playing and they portray the stereotype with Hollywood unoriginality. The Titans are bulbous-headed and spindly-limbed. They walk off the screen when radiation from a comet interacts with a new film projection technique to create a rift in the dimensional planes. It opens Earth to a war between the Titans and an alien race of crystal spheres called the Silicates.(54) “Evolution’s End”(1941) by Robert Arthur has future humanity enslaved by The Masters:
“Their great, thin-skulled heads and mighty brains” prove vulnerable to sunlight and they retreat to underground chambers. They are “nothing but brain – Great machines for thought which know nothing of joy or sorrow or hunger for another.”
Actually it is admitted later the head is set upon a small neckless body, the neck being lost so the weight could be handled by shoulder and back muscles. They made selector machines to insure large brained male slaves do not mate with large brained females to maintain their superiority. A lecture about sabre-tooth tigers and dinosaurs tells us the familiar lessons of orthogenetic overdevelopment. The Masters have evolved to only think and all feelings, even enjoyment, now is lost. Some of them are going mad and experiments with a new evolution ray indicate the entire race of Masters is doomed to go mad. One of the Masters decides it is wisest to end it all now. He sets an Adam and Eve free and gives them the means to destroy the caverns of the Masters.(55) It is a nice mood piece fleshing out an episode in Stapledon’s future history with a brief homage to Hamilton.
Robert Heinlein’s “Waldo”(1942) is regarded by the Panshins as an after-whiff of the Big Brain tradition. A man with a cool, unsympathetic intellect is also physically helpless, but due to rotundity instead of emaciation. This may reflect knowledge of the growing evidence that technological civilization resulted in a sedentary life and obesity, rather than a scrawny physique. (56)
Neil Bell’s Life Comes to Seathorpe (1946) seemingly follows in the Stapledon tradition by having present man create his evolutionary successor. The scientist plans on calling him Homo splendicus. The head is large and magnificent. The brain is more complex. The respiratory, digestive, and excretory systems are simpler, but on purpose. He also plans another thing he thinks is an improvement. The “sex life of man as evolved by Nature dooms him forever to remain among the beasts…It tortures him, humiliates him, degrades him, nullifies the possibilities of his brain, saps his vitality, infests him with the grossest superstitions, and compels him to actions from which in recollection he recoils in disgust and revulsion. These things must pass away if man is to fulfil his destiny.” (57) We are getting closer to the Fifties.
This history of the idea behind the Grays deserves a break about here due to a transition in the history of science fiction. In 1939, John Campbell takes over Astounding magazine and inaugurates what has become known as The Golden Age. As the Panshins tell it, Campbell preferred stories about the intermediate range future when we would be exploring the stars. He no longer had interest in deep time and man’s eventual fall before the march of time and nature. “No more Big Brains, domestic or foreign after 1939 in Campbell’s Astounding. It was part of the pre-Atomic Age, the Age of Technology.” (58) He also rejected stories of bug-eyed monsters invading Earth to eat us or breed with Earth’s fair maidens. “And obviously those interstellar harem-agents aren’t interested in offspring anyway; there couldn’t possibly be any.” (59)
It should be apparent enough that ideas associated with the Grays were a recurrent motif in the scientific romances of the early half of the Twentieth century. The Panshins said as much in their history of the development of science fiction. They state the violent rejection of Big Brain was a typical theme around the 1930s. “In one alien exploration story after another, Big Brain alien and Big Brain humans were shot, bludgeoned, or even stomped to death.” (60) Paul Carter could be cited to corroborate this in his observation that Frank R. Paul regularly did cover paintings of spindly, big-domed men of the future for issues of Wonder Stories in the early 1930s. (61)
While one could have saved some effort by just trusting them, there is something to be said for demonstration over mere opinion. No doubts remain that a tradition of big-brained, small-bodied fictional characters did exist subsequent to Wells and prior to the emergence of the flying saucer culture. Many of those stories are lost except to collectors of the pulps. What appears here comes down through reprints, anthologies, and speciality scholars.

There are a few notable items excluded from this history due to matters of ambiguity. The floating disembodied, bald Big Brain who is the Wizard of Oz (1939) is an illusory creation and more symbolic of cleverness than futurity. Aleister Crowley’s portrait of the bald extraterrestrial Lam (1919) seems relevant to some people, but the match is far from exact.(62) Crowlean literature is too dreary to track down the full details needed to understand it, so any role of devolutionary thought would be speculative and, my bet, doubtful. Ming the Merciless is bald and ruthless and in early strips he seems to be a somewhat emaciated figure, but he is oriental in aspect and Chinese rulers for some reason often seem bald. Weird Tales’ Elwyn Backus did a story “Behind the Moon”(1930) where little gray humanoid creatures capture a fair maiden astronaut and plan to use her as breeding material to improve their race. There are not enough details to know if this race of mushroom beings fits a devolutionary profile. (63)

The theme of Big Brain figures being sterile or otherwise unable to procreate has been demonstrated to be a repetitive feature of these stories. It is conceivable this is merely a straightforward corollary of the degeneration of the rest of the body. Yet there is a legitimate doubt here. Parasites as a class are the prime exemplars of general bodily degeneration, but they do not show signs of dying off from sterility. Too, if the ease of technological civilization were modifying the body, wouldn’t the leisure lead to more sex and a selection of characteristics favourable to arousal? To borrow a thought from Dr. Strangelove, there would be much time and little to do — they would breed prodigiously.
The underlying logic may reflect a rather interesting piece of medical folklore. As was noted in part one, Herbert Spencer expressed a concern that greater intelligence was associated with decreased fertility and this seemed supported from anecdotal knowledge of the lives of intellectuals. This was probably a case of confirmation bias. It was in support of a long-standing belief that the brain, spinal cord, and seminal fluid are all interrelated and grows from superstitions believed to date all the way back to the Stone Age. (64) In the 1800s the dominant form of this myth was the idea that expending the seed through masturbation led to insanity. Even mere promiscuity carried the hazard of starving the nerves. The inverse corollary was that abstinence was good for mental functioning.
In the early 1900s, the myth took the form of the theory of seminal economy. It was believed there was a finite amount of seminal matter that could be formed out of the blood. When the brain hoarded the seminal matter, little was left for procreation. “Superior human specimens are nearly always sterile or capable of only mediocre progeny.” Bram Dijkstra notes that by 1915 this article of faith had attained the status of folk wisdom and few questioned its universal truth. (65) It is easy enough to see how such a notion would lead to an orthogenetic logic of future brain overdevelopment forcing infertility. This must be termed speculative for none of the stories actually spell out such a reason for the sterility of Big Brains.

Though the gray idea-complex began to disappear from science fiction in the Forties, it continued on in the general culture in other ways like comics and, quite interestingly, science popularization. Roy Champman Andrews, in 1945, offered a description of “How We Are Going to Look” in what was perhaps the most read magazine of the period, Readers Digest.
“Human beings, half a million years from now would be caricatures in our eyes – something out of a bad dream. Big round heads, almost globular, hairless as a billiard ball; even the women! Very clever these future people will be — much more intelligent than we are — but, alas at the expense of hearing, tasting, seeing, and smelling. Their faces will be smaller. But they will be taller, probably several inches, with longer and only four toes. We might hesitate to invite one of those future humans for dinner, were he to appear now in advance of his time, except for his conversational brilliance. But he would have some have some physical advantages over us: no appendicitis; no sinus trouble; no fallen arches; neither hernia in man nor the falling of the uterus in women.”
Chapman’s reasoning is mainly extrapolation from past trends and a sensibility that nature does not allow defects in architecture to go on indefinitely. It does not sound particularly Darwinian. An especially nice feature of the article is a pair of illustrations showing future man and woman. Thanks to a lack of scale, they happen to evoke the look of the Grays, particularly the one of the Moody abduction, thirty years later.
William Howell, author of an anthropological tome Mankind So Far, provided a similar popularization for the budding scientists of the Forties in Science Digest.
“The horoscopes for mankind are principally purveyed by the funny papers…According to one school of thought, the beast in us will continue to recede and the brain to advance, until we have huge bald heads together with spindly legs and wormy little bodies. We shall all wear glasses, talk algebra, and live on food pills. This apparently is to be the triumph of science, and a prospect at which we well may shudder.”
Luckily we are not really faced with it. He accepts some of Henry Shapiro’s ideas and feels the heads will be rounder to economize bone with the face smaller and chin more pointed. He notes baldness is hereditary and common in Whites, but rare in other races. Whether it will become universal is anybody’s guess. “I doubt whether science will be able to do the slightest thing about it.” If you favour extrapolation of trends, plug in the news that brains today are actually slightly smaller than in the Upper Palaeolithic and the final result makes you look small-minded. (66) Though Howell disputes the funny papers’ horoscope, all those kids whose schools purchased Science Digest were assured an awareness of the stereotypical image of future man.
The ideas and images of the Wellsian devolutionary man of deep time and space had something that made it a survivor. That something might be usefulness, value as a moral signifier of the dangers of civilization, emotional power, an interesting colour of villainy, or mythic horror. Whatever you decide it is, it was something that put it apart from the giant lobsters, lion men, talking trees, bounding ostriches, mechanical beetles, and myriad other creative attempts to envision the alien that had brief or sporadic life in the pages of the pulps. The class of entities that would eventually be called Grays were walking and floating through the nightmares of humanity for the better part of a half-century.
And the flying saucers had not even landed yet.

Continue to Part Three

  1. Bleiler, Everett F. Science Fiction: The Early Years Kent State University, 1990, entry #775
  2. p. 248.
  3. Flammarion, Camille. Urania. Estes and Lauriat, 1890, p. 37.
  4. Flammarion, Camille. Omega. University of Nebraska Press, 1999 reprint, pp. 198-9.
  5. Ibid., pp. 199-201.
  6. Ibid., p. 218.
  7. Ibid., p. 231.
  8. Ibid., p. 231, 241.
  9. Ibid., p. 218.
  10. Bleiler, op. cit., entry #246, p. 77.
  11. Fowler, Raymond. The Andreasson Affair. Prentice-Hall, 1979, pp. 174-5.
  12. Locke, George. Voyages in Space: A Bibliography of Interplanetary Fiction. Ferret Fantasy, 1975, entry 92, & Bleiler, op. cit., entry #938, p. 306.
  13. Stabledon, Brian. Scientific Romance in Britain: 1890-1950. St. Martin’s, 1985, pp. 52-3.
  14. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 1776b, p. 596.
  15. Wells, H.G. The First Men in the Moon Donning Company, 1989, pp. 144, 152.
  16. Bleieler, op. cit., entry 1823, p. 610. & Locke, op. cit., entry #168.
  17. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 31, p. 8.
  18. Morgan, Chris Future Man? Irvington, 1980, p. 37.
  19. Stableford, op. cit., pp. 103-4. & Bleiler, entry #182, p. 58.
  20. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 922, p. 299
  21. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 1211, p. 401.
  22. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 156, pp. 47-8
  23. Jacobs, David The Threat Simon & Schuster, 1998, pp. 83-5.
  25. Burroughs, Edgar Rice The Mastermind of Mars Ace Science Fiction F-181, pp. 8, 93
  26. Hardy, Phil. The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction Movies. Woodbury, 1984, p. 69.
  27. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 2157, pp.731-2.
  28. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 749, p. 243.
  29. Kyle, David. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction. Hamlyn, 1976, pp. 76-7.
  30. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 2299, p. 788.
  31. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 531, p. 176.
  32. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 1006, pp. 333-4.
  33. Bowler, Peter. Theories of Human Evolution: A Century of Debate, 1844-1944. Johns Hopkins, 1986, pp. 198-209.
  34. Bowler, Peter. The Non-Darwinian Revolution. Johns Hopkins, 1988, p. 122.
  35. Weart, Spencer R. Nuclear Fear:A History. Harvard U., 1988, pp. 48-9.
  36. Brackett, Leigh. The Best of Edmond Hamilton. Del Rey, 1977, pp. 17-36.
  37. Panshin, Alexi and Cori . The World Beyond the Hill. Jeremy Tarcher, 1989, p. 218.
  38. Brackett, op. cit.,, pp. 36-69.
  39. Brackett, op. cit., pp. 207-8
  40. Bova, Ben, ed., Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume IIB. Avon, 1974, pp. 248-79.
  41. Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men and Star-Maker. Dover, 1968, pp. 100-4
  42. Ibid., pp. 104-5.
  43. Ibid., pp. 157-66.
  44. Shelton, Robert “The Mars-Begotten Men of Olaf Stapledon and H.G. Wells”. Science Fiction Studies no. 32 (volume 11, #1) pp. 1-14.
  45. Panshins, op. cit., pp. 228-9.
  46. Williams, Lorraine Dille. Buck Rogers: The First 60 Years in the 25th Century. TSR, 1988, pp. 93-4.
  47. Kyle, op. cit., p. 88.
  48. Asimov, Isaac. Before the Golden Age: Book 1. Fawcett Crest, 1974, pp. 323-80.
  49. Ibid., p.355.
  50. Ibid., pp. 369, 370.
  51. Ackerman, Forest J. Gosh! Wow! (Sense of Wonder) Science Fiction. Bantam, 1981, p. 542.
  52. Del Rey, Lester. The Best of John W. Campbell. Ballantine, 1976, pp. 22-45.
  53. Asimov, Isaac. Before the Golden Age: Book 3. Fawcett Crest, 1975, pp. 333-58.
  54. Rovin, Jeff. Encyclopedia of Monsters. Facts on File, 1989, pp. 314-5.
  55. Crossen, Kendall Foster. Adventures in Tomorrow. Belmont, 1951, pp. 193-207.
  56. Panshins, op. cit., p. 439.
  57. Stableford, op. cit., p. 238.
  58. Panshins, op. cit., p. 346.
  59. Aldiss, Brian. Trillion Year Spree. Avon, 1988, p. 217.
  60. Panshins, op. cit.. p. 218.
  61. Carter, Paul. The Creation of Tomorrow. Columbia U. Press, 1977, p. 162.
  62. Kottmeyer, Martin “Ishtar Descendant” The Skeptic, 9, #3 (1995) p. 13.
  63. Bleiler, op. cit., entry 04, p. 32.
  64. La Barre, Weston. Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition about Sexuality. Columbia University Press, 1984, pp. 122-7.
  65. Dijkstra, Bram. Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood. Alfred Knopf, 1996, p. 76.
  66. Howells, William “The Shape of Men to Come”. Science Digest, 21, 1, January 1947.