I have been searching for a short story that I believe was from a paperback collection/anthology I read in the 60's-70's about a time traveler on his first trip, going forward to a futuristic city. The city is highly automated. He wanders around but the first person he talks to that seems to have a clue is a janitor/handyman. As I remember it, the protagonist pulls up to the place where he met the 'janitor' in a vehicle. He questions why a janitor/handyman is needed. It turns out that the 'janitors' run the world.

Was it a fever dream? Does anyone know what this story is?

1 Answer 1


Could this be The Marching Morons by Cyril M. Kornbluth? First published in Galaxy magazine, April 1951, it was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two. In this story, the "time traveler" was a cold sleeper from the 1980's.

In 1988, real estate agent and con artist John Barlow is placed in suspended animation after a freak accident. He is revived in the distant future, in a confusing world filled with hypersexualized advertisements, vapid entertainment, and people who exhibit erratic, nonsensical behavior. Shortly after being revived, Barlow is introduced to two men who tell him that the current state of society is the fault of the "morons," the world's vast population of unintelligent people, who greatly outnumber the much smaller population of intelligent people.

These men explain to Barlow that the most urgent crisis of their time is the population problem ("Poprob"). Historically, people of higher intelligence often chose to have few children (or no children at all) for pragmatic reasons, while people of lower intelligence, compelled by their sex drives, had larger families and reproduced in greater numbers. By the far future era in which Barlow has awakened, this unbalanced trend has been carried to its logical extreme, with a total world population of five billion morons (with an average IQ of 45) living under the supervision of three million members of an elite, intellectual upper-class who secretly govern world affairs.

Project Gutenberg has a copy here.

Together with Frederik Pohl, Kornbluth later used this idea in their 1954 novel Search the Sky. In this story, the intelligent elite hid in plain sight as janitors and bathroom attendants.

Ross fished absently in his pocket. “The thing that bothers me, Doc,” he said, “is that I know there are intelligent people somewhere around. I even know what they’re doing, I bet. They’re doing exactly what I tried to do: acted as stupid as anybody else, or stupider. I’d make a guess,” he said, warming up, “that if we could just make a statistical analysis of the whole planet and find the absolute stupidest-seeming people of the lot, we’d——”

He ran out of breath all at once. His eyes bulged.

He looked at the men’s-room attendant, and at the ten-cent piece in his own hand.

“You!” he breathed.

The attendant’s face suddenly seemed to come to life. In a voice that was abruptly richer and deeper than before, the man said: “Yes. You had to find us yourself, you know.”

Project Gutenberg has a copy here.

  • 6
    You should delete the bit about "The Marching Morons;" it matches none of the details of the question.
    – DavidW
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 17:44
  • 2
    This may be a case of conflation, in which case both sources may be relevant to the poster. Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 17:52
  • 8
    OP said it was a short story (which Marching Morons is), whereas Search the Sky is a novel. OP also said 'he went forward in time to a city', which happens in Marching Morons, whereas Search the Sky involves a trip by FTL ship to various worlds, ending up on Earth. Looks like conflation to me.
    – OmnivoreNZ
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 19:43
  • 3
    Another story about a society secretly controlled by an old "custodian" in a sub-basement is "Dodkin's Job" by Jack Vance but that's not it, no time travel.
    – user14111
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 0:01
  • 4
    Interesting to see the similarities between this story and Idiocracy. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 13:18

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