Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Frankenstein, Lex Luthor and the Hobbled Genius in Fiction
I dig me some supervillains, but of all their tropes and flavors I have a special place (an especially black pit) in my heart for mad scientists or –to make it larger– the ‘Hobbled Genius.’ These brilliant, tragically flawed individuals who can fall on any any portion of the morality spectrum. Which is nice for me, since never before has the trope of the Hobbled Genius been more prominent. Basically, when it comes to ‘genius’ characters in popular fiction, we tend to get stories about Robert Nash (an asocial autistic whose models shape modern economic theory but never held true about experimentally except amongst other economists), not about Richard Feynman (physicist/adventurer with a sense of fun and a gift for communication).
This ‘hobbling’ that the genius has to contend with can range from a fixation on ‘besting’ a certain individual (Lex Luthor to Superman, Dr. Doom to Reed Richards, at times Moriarity to Holmes… although this oftentimes comes with a side of megalomania and a pinch of homoeroticism) all the way to a complete inability to navigate the mundane world. Hobbled Geniuses tend to be ‘good’ insofar as they support police investigations; like the protagonists from Monk, Elementary, Sherlock (which is technically the same character as Elementary but not), Criminal Minds, NUMB3RS, The Unusuals, Probe, Jonathan Creek, Bones, Raines, and many, many more (see TV Tropes ’the Defective Detective).
When the hobbled genius is tasked with police or general scientific inquiries they are presented as tragic heroes; their deficiencies something to sympathize with or provide comic relief. If a hobbled genius works for themselves, a corporation, or the military they are at best presented as misguided, coopted, or ignored; incapable of effecting positive change except to prevent some horrible disaster at the last possible moment. At worst, these characters are presented as out and out evil.
Alternately, when the hobbled genius creates something new and potentially world changing (filling the traditional role of the ‘Mad Scientist’ but which might be more aptly described as a mad engineer) they are almost invariably presented as a menace (intentional or not) and dealing with their creations is the primary basis for the story. Essentially, if an individual with exceptional intellectual gifts innovates, such creation will either be shortly required to counteract the effect of another (malicious) creation or an extranormal threat or it is doomed to become that threat itself. In story terms, if you ever develop superpowers, you better hope some supervillians show up because, if not, you’ll become the monster of the week. In order for a creator to remain ‘good,’ a threat must immediately present itself to justify the negative potential of their invention. Dr. Frankenstein didn’t lead to a new form of sentience that would teach us more about ourselves and advance medical technology a thousand-fold; he created a monster. The only way that such a creation could have been ‘good’ is if there were instantly a terrifying monster to fight (which would have had to be at least double Frankenstein’s monster’s size).
Early on, these hobbled geniuses were probably representative of individuals somewhere along the autism spectrum who couldn’t be diagnosed. Nowadays, deciding a character is neuroatypical can be an easy excuse as to why they never develop, never grow, and are never ever able to change the system.
At their best, stories like remind us that we all have our own advantages, our own special skills. What may seem utterly mundane to us can seem superhuman to someone else. At worst, they reinforce the notion that to be great in intellectual pursuits is to be isolated. More to the point, these stories teach that we need to suppress (or at least discourage) too much change too fast; they excuse us any notion of reach for intellectual development as the necessary ‘cost’ is to be insane, lonely, and ineffective. The irony is that such characters are played by actors, or created by writers who are oftentimes both social and brilliant.
These are cautionary tales for people who would become ‘too smart;’ that is to say, have the potential to screw with the entrenched stupidity of the status quo. Which isn’t a false lesson. Historically, being intelligent and being right didn’t protect anyone from those powerful forces that had a material interest (or even perhaps just insensate nostalgia) for a set world view.
In stories, geniuses don’t win because they are fatally flawed (unless they are triumphing over other evil geniuses). In reality, revolutionary thinkers tend not to win (in their own lifetime anyway) because a change necessitates all the reactionary entrenched men and women with power to die of old age. The truth is like water, it will win out in the end. But ‘being right’ makes poor armor in the short term, especially when you’re right about things that will weaken someone’s power or make somebody rethink their decisions.
So if you find yourself in a story, don’t figure out how to revive dead flesh, it will only end up destroying your life. And don’t invent a cure for cancer, less a cancer monster suddenly appear. The cops might call you in to help solve a crime once in a while, but they’ll never retrain and improve the police force based on your innovations.
But it’s a good thing we all don’t live in a story, right?