Stanley Weinbaum’s The Adaptive Ultimate (1935) is a monster story, but a thoughtful one, filled with interesting speculation about the possibilities of human evolution. Two scientists inject an impoverished young woman with an experimental serum derived from fruit flies, of all things. Dr. Scott, the younger and more impetuous of the two, has observed that fruit flies are capable of producing a higher frequency of genetic mutations than other organisms. If the active principle that allows fruit flies this adaptive edge can be isolated, it might lead to a cure for the illnesses that afflict humankind. An effective serum would allow human beings to adapt rapidly to disease and prevail against it.
There is some poignancy here; at the time The Adaptive Ultimate was published, Weinbaum knew he was dying of cancer. In the stories he produced in the mid-1930s there is frequent mention of discovering some near miraculous and universal cure for human ailments.
Against the warnings of Dr. Bach, his older and wiser colleague, Scott administers the serum to Kyra Zelas, who is dying of tuberculosis. The results are instantaneous and remarkable. Her health and vitality return, and she becomes beautiful, charismatic, physically strong and highly intelligent. The two scientists figure out that the serum has caused “hypertrophy of the pineal”, that is, excessive development of the master gland, which allows extraordinary physical adaptation by way of hormonal changes.
In only a few weeks Kyra becomes a celebrity, and influential in political circles. However, the two scientists soon realize to their horror that Kyra is also a sociopathic murderess, whose only interest is acquiring ever greater power over those around her. Suspense builds as the two nearly impotent scientists contrive a way to surgically destroy the source of her power. The image is a disturbing one: Kyra’s pineal gland must be savaged while she is unconscious. And there is some ambivalence on the part of the younger Dr. Scott, for he has fallen in love with the “goddess”.
Weinberg uses the dialogue between the two scientists to speculate about the consequences of rapid human evolution. Not only is Kyra rapidly developing greater power as a human organism, she is gaining the ability to change and control her environment at will. It is interesting that Kyra is a woman who is now unstoppable and no longer subservient nor financially dependent. This “monster” allows Weinstein to explore male anxieties about the changing roles of women in early twentieth century America.
The Adaptive Ultimate is comparable in some respects to a story published a couple of decades later, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, (1959). In that story, the character of Charlie Gordon, a developmentally disabled young man, is turned into a genius following an experimental surgery. As his knowledge and awareness expand, relationships with his co-workers and family members become problematic. But Charlie is not a monster like Kyra. The author’s focus is on the social cost of rapid and intense change in human intelligence and potential. Unfortunately for Charlie, the beneficial effects of the surgery are only temporary, and he regresses to a level of intellect beneath what he possessed originally.
The theme of a cure that turns out to be worse than the disease is often found in horror and science fiction. A more recent example is an episode from the first season of The Outer Limits (1995, not the original series from the early 1960s). In “The New Breed”, Weinbaum’s original idea is recapitulated, but instead of “pineal hypertrophy” the engine of physical change and adaptation is nanobot micro technology.
After he learns that he has pelvic cancer and only a year to live, Dr. Andy Groenig injects himself with nanobots developed by his scientist friend. His cancer swiftly goes into remission, and Groenig develops a remarkable ability to heal quickly from almost any injury. But his body also becomes highly adaptable to any stressor. Subsequent changes make him increasingly less human and more monstrous. At one point he even develops eyes in the back of his head.
Killing Groenig by electrocution is the only way to stop the nanobots from continuing to “improve” him. However, after his death, his fiancé discovers that she has been infected with the nanobots, presumably from sexual contact with Groenig. It is interesting that in The Adaptive Ultimate and Flowers for Algernon the experiment only affects an individual, and produces in Kyra and in Charlie an exaggerated, idealized form of the human being. In The Outer Limits episode, the experiment eventually causes a perversion of the human form, (as in H.P. Lovecraft’s hybrid humanoids), and the horror spreads to others as a contagion.
Stanley Weinbaum’s small but intense body of work is indispensable for understanding and appreciating the development of modern science fiction. His original and prescient ideas show up again and again as the decades role by. The field owes much to his vivid imagination and skill as an author.