Introduction / Multiple Intelligences in “The Little Black Bag”

It’s good to be blogging for Amazing Stories.

What you can expect from this blog:

A post about a classic science fiction short story (probably released from the 1800s-1960, but no guarantee) put into the context of developments that happened after its release

Many SF classics have told us more about the world today than we could have possibly imagined. Books like Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy have astounded readers with the accuracy of their predictions; in that example, a future told from 1887 that includes alarm clocks, credit cards and the United Nations. Others, like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, have explored the depths of human nature to tell us realities we either didn’t know or didn’t want to hear. Huxley’s emphasis on impermeable class divisions and increasing deference to technology may not have resulted in a world exactly like the one he portrays, but rising income inequality and reliance on GPS navigation may be milder versions of what he portends.

I’m not concerned with whether a story I discuss is factually correct in predicting the future. It wouldn’t be fair to judge an author that way. Rather, it’s about what underlying motivations people possess that bring about the utopian, dystopian, or just plain different world the book suggests. For example, a society in which the rich wear golden armour is probably not going to happen in a literal sense, given how cumbersome wearing that much of a heavy material like gold would be. People hiding from society behind their riches, though, is a story many authors have told.

The modern stories I will focus on can be from any discipline, academic or otherwise, but I assure you they will all be readily understandable to a general audience. Today, my entry discusses one particular popularized psychological theory. A different day, I may discuss literary theory, history, economics, current events, or something completely unexpected. To get an idea of what I’ve done in the past, this blog entry on Edward Everett Hale’s “The Brick Moon” should give you a good idea.

These entries will be about 500-1000 words in length. They can be shorter if I think there’s one key point to be addressed and any more would just be padding, or more if the source has a lot to run with. I won’t post book reviews because the classic SF books have so much to discuss I’ve have to write a multiple-part essay to properly address them.

You can expect one of these entries on the 10th of every month, starting with this month, May 2016. (Editors note:  from this point forward….)

A writing prompt based on some scientific, political, economical, legal or other development that should make you rethink the way you see the world

These will be quick to read and easily digestible. I don’t expect them to be more than 100 words each, maybe 200 at the most. You can read them between morning coffees, let alone during one. What they’ll do is pick up on some current event and (hopefully) make you think more critically and analytically about it. If you want to write a story based on one of these prompts, great! I might too but no guarantees. Sometimes imagining what can be is just as fun as fleshing it out.

You can expect one of these entries on the 30th of every month, starting with this month, May 2016. The last day of February will suffice once February rolls around.

Since that introduction ate up some room, I’ll start with a relatively short entry on an author well known in SF circles but not nearly as well known outside them…

Multiple Intelligences in “The Little Black Bag”

May 10, 2016


Cyril Kornbluth’s story “The Little Black Bag” appeared in the July 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction (now called Analog Science Fiction & Fact). My page references are to this edition. You can read more about Kornbluth’s interesting life on Strange Horizons.

“The Little Black Bag” is about a mysterious bag of medical equipment sent back from 2450 to sometime in the 1940s, when a dissolute alcoholic doctor, Bayard Kendrick Full, uses them to his great advantage. The story follows Dr. Full and a plucky 18-year old companion named Angie as she attempts to gain part of his business, seeking financial gain at any cost rather than Dr. Full’s more noble motives. A few scenes take place in 2450, when Dr. Hemingway’s bag is sent back through time by Gillis, an incompetent physicist who nonetheless can send items back in time.

The novelette’s little-expanded underlying premise, “Dogged biometricians had pointed out with irrefutable logic that mental subnormals were outbreeding mental normals and supernormals, and that the process was occurring on an exponential curve” (135) is discussed in more detail in 1951’s The Marching Morons. It is also a spiritual ancestor to the 2006 movie Idiocracy. The segregation of intellectual abilities is reduced to guesswork in “The Little Black Bag”, though, leaving the reader to make his or her own decisions on how intelligent these characters are. A notable exception is when Gillis is about to send the bag back to the ’40s, and no character (except the absent Mike, who has six times Gillis’s IQ) sounds particularly intelligent. Hemingway waxes about Gillis’s time machine, “Time travel. It travels things through time.” Gillis puts Hemingway’s bag on the box without any regard for what it might do or how to bring it back, and had spent much of the last two pages speaking phrases like “I don’t read so good”. (136-137) Thus, we have a plot.

Thirty-three years after “The Little Black Bag” was first published, Howard Gardner coined the term “multiple intelligences”. To that point, standard IQ tests like Stanford-Binet had dominated intelligence research, which organized more, less and averagely intelligent people on a continuum. IQ was the leading theory at the time Kornbluth lived. Multiple intelligences challenged this research by dividing IQ into two types of intelligence (verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical) and then presenting seven others. Of these seven, two lead directly to the main characters’ downfalls in a way advanced IQ can’t prevent: interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence. Gardner describes interpersonal intelligence as “capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others” and intrapersonal intelligence as “capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes”. For all Full’s medical ability, reborn with the discovery of the bag, it is his lack of ability to sense other peoples’ motives that allows Angie to betray him. For all Angie’s cleverness advances her, it is her lack of self-perception that leads her to slit her own throat at the end of the story.

Angie’s superior interpersonal intelligence to Dr. Full’s is evident after their first meeting. When Angie asks Dr. Full where he procured the titular little black bag, Dr. Full says he is taking it “to a colleague as a favor.” The following exchange ensues: “‘You stole it,’ the girl said flatly. He sputtered.” (142) Dr. Full had merely found it, not stolen it, yet had no way to communicate his finding to Angie. Angie’s assumption that he had stolen shows her own tendency to resort to crime.

Dr. Full’s insistence that other people will be as other-regarding as he is finds itself wasted on Angie. Dr. Full unilaterally decides to grant the bag to the College of Surgeons, suspecting Angie would approve: “And so, having seen the logic of it, Angie would yield; she would assent to his turning over the little black bag to all humanity.” (152) This is despite Angie’s frequent mentioning of herself as his “partner” and discussing money for the majority of the story. He then goes on to think of her as “a goodhearted girl” (152), which borders on nonsensical in light of Angie’s claim, upon meeting him, that she should take 50-60% of his earnings “or I go to the cops.” (143)

Their combined lack of awareness can be summed up when Angie lets the bag fall open. Dr. Full calls out Angie, and Kornbluth does an author insert to call out Dr. Full in return: “‘Now see what you’ve done!’ roared the doctor, unreasonably. …’unreasonable girl!'” (157) That Dr. Full keeps thinking, and yelling, about Angie’s supposed unreasonableness even when the knife is between his shoulder blades is the ultimate expression of his interpersonal weakness. That she says “I didn’t mean to do that” (158) so soon after, the rest of the paragraph focusing on her fear of getting caught rather than any remorse, belies the slippery nature she had demonstrated to the reader throughout the story.

Angie’s intrapersonal deficiency is never clearer than at the end of the story. She’s smart – either normal-smart or very-smart, and unlike with probably very-smart Dr. Full, the reader can never be sure which. She has an inability to plan, though, and an accompanied inability to know this about herself. That she attempts to perform surgery by herself despite no medical training That she responds to the woman she had just miraculously cured’s statement that, “You’d fool around with my neck, but you wouldn’t risk your own with that thing!” with “serene confidence” (160) shows that Angie can fail to read others too. As someone who is so used to manipulating and threatening others, though, it is impossible for her to see that “knowing the blade would cut only… epidermis and… dermis” (161) is a severe underestimation of her adopted power. Just as Dr. Full can’t fathom that Angie might be unreasonable, Angie can’t fathom something as blatantly reasonable as refusing to cut one’s own neck.

Although characters are never branded by their IQ levels, “The Little Black Bag” keeps intelligence constantly in the background. Dr. Full is smart but can’t read others. Angie is smart enough but doesn’t know her own erratic nature. Hemingway is of questionable intellect, and Gillis is almost certainly of very little. That Angie dies because of a decision made in the year 2450 – the pulling of a plug – is a fitting end to a story in which for all the technological development and street smarts there are, no one really knows what’s going on.

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