I read it a long, long time ago, I think it was just a short story.

The plot was that society had lost it's way, accepting that everyone was equal, and therefore no advances were being made, as smart people just 'pretended' to align with the mediocre.

One guy decided this was not good, and fashioned himself into the ultimate bad guy, triggering society to change to recognise greatness/intelligence where it arose. Eventually society recognised that some people were better than others, in some ways, and scientific advances were made.

In the end I think he climbed into an engine nozzle, so he'd be entirely destroyed and no one would know what happened to him.

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    ""I am the Emperor!" cried Harrison. "Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!" He stamped his foot and the studio shook. "Even as I stand here" he bellowed, "crippled, hobbled, sickened - I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become !" - archive.org/stream/HarrisonBergeron/…
    – Valorum
    Feb 4, 2017 at 11:16
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    I agree with Valorum. Sounds a lot like the Harrison Bergeron story. But the ending is quite different than what you noted.
    – beichst
    Feb 4, 2017 at 15:36
  • The title of the question makes me think of "Dune", which it is clearly not after reading the question. I wanted to add this comment in case others are in search of similar themed works. Feb 4, 2017 at 23:07
  • A long, long time ago in galaxy far, far away ... Hmm... Must be Darth Vader!
    – RichS
    Feb 4, 2017 at 23:23

1 Answer 1


You're thinking of "The Highest Treason," a novella by Randall Garrett. (First published in Analog -- January, 1961). It turns out that Garrett never renewed the copyright, and thus the full story is now archived, in several formats, on Project Gutenberg.

Your summary from memory was good enough to let me recognize the story right away. But it's worth mentioning that the human "traitor" actually went the Benedict Arnold route by becoming a commissioned officer in the armed forces of a militaristic alien race that wanted to conquer us all. He encouraged them to slaughter the entire population of one colony world (about 150,000,000 people) as a show of force to terrify the billions of other humans into meekly submitting to superior military force so the same thing wouldn't happen to them.

What the protagonist knew perfectly well, but the aliens didn't, was that such terror tactics could easily backfire. And the repercussions could cause some drastic changes in a society which he felt could not be forced to change by any lesser stimulus than the shock of knowing that a planetary population had just been annihilated and some new ideas were needed in a hurry!

Here are a few quotes from the story to illustrate that it's the one you had in mind. The first passage quotes a portion of an explanation (offered not by the protagonist, but by an omniscent narrator, apparently) of how and why human society has become obsessed with "equality."

Society had decided that intolerance and hatred were caused by inequality. The jealousy of the inferior toward his superior; the scorn of the superior toward his inferior. The Have-not envies the Have, and the Have looks down upon the Have-not.

Then let us eliminate the Have-not. Let us make sure that everyone is a Have.

Raise the standard of living. Make sure that every human being has the necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter, proper medical care, and proper education. More, give them the luxuries, too—let no man be without anything that is poorer in quality or less in quantity than the possessions of any other. There was no longer any middle class simply because there were no other classes for it to be in the middle of.

This next passage is found much later in the story. Sebastian MacMaine (the protagonist) is explaining, as best he can, what he felt was terribly wrong with his native culture (which was essentially the same culture for all human beings, on Earth or any of its colonized planets):

"Earth was stagnating," MacMaine said, surprised at the sound of his own voice. He hadn't intended to go on. But he couldn't stop now. "You saw how it was. Every standard had become meaningless because no standard was held to be better than any other standard. There was no beauty because beauty was superior to ugliness and we couldn't allow superiority or inferiority. There was no love because in order to love someone or something you must feel that it is in some way superior to that which is not loved. I'm not even sure I know what those terms mean, because I'm not sure I ever thought anything was beautiful, I'm not sure I ever loved anything. I only read about such things in books. But I know I felt the emptiness inside me where those things should have been.

"There was no morality, either. People did not refrain from stealing because it was wrong, but simply because it was pointless to steal what would be given to you if you asked for it. There was no right or wrong.

"We had a form of social contract that we called 'marriage,' but it wasn't the same thing as marriage was in the old days. There was no love. There used to be a crime called 'adultery,' but even the word had gone out of use on the Earth I knew. Instead, it was considered antisocial for a woman to refuse to give herself to other men; to do so might indicate that she thought herself superior or thought her husband to be superior to other men. The same thing applied to men in their relationships with women other than their wives. Marriage was a social contract that could be made or broken at the whim of the individual. It served no purpose because it meant nothing, neither party gained anything by the contract that they couldn't have had without it. But a wedding was an excuse for a gala party at which the couple were the center of attention. So the contract was entered into lightly for the sake of a gay time for a while, then broken again so that the game could be played with someone else—the game of Musical Bedrooms."

I have serious doubts about whether the entire human race, while inhabiting many separate planets (even if they all had a common governing structure that tried to dictate educational policy for the children) would ever embrace the mindset and lifestyle that MacMaine is describing. But Garrett makes it seem plausible (or nearly so) to the reader at the moment he or she is first reading it, and I remind myself that he was deliberately taking certain ideas to extremes for dramatic effect.

  • That's definitely it. I've thought about this story many times over the years, and have unsuccessfully tried to Google it many times. Thanks for your help.
    – Brock
    Feb 5, 2017 at 21:20
  • I finally got around to reading the story. It's definitely the story I remember, but it's amazing how unfamiliar it was to me. Aside from the description I originally wrote on here, almost nothing in the book was familiar.
    – Brock
    Jun 2, 2017 at 6:05

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