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The Parody of Mad Scientists in Alfred Bester's “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”


The literary caricature of “mad scientist” (also “mad professor” or “mad doctor”) can be traced back to Jonathan Swift's witty parody of contemporary travel literature, Gulliver's Travels (first published in 1726). Swift's world-famous satirical masterpiece describes, inter alia, the fictional Flying (or Floating) Island of Laputa populated by very well-educated, super-intelligent, and scientifically-minded men who are comically reminiscent of Gulliver's fellow members of Britain's Academy of the Royal Society. Although living in the Age of Reason (or the Enlightenment), the Laputan scientists are all engaged in absurd, crazy or completely useless projects and experiments such as building houses by beginning at the roof and working downwards to the foundation, producing silk by using spiders instead of imported silk worms, extracting sun-beams from cucumbers and hermetically sealing them in vials to be used for warming up the cold air, or attempting to “calcine” frozen ice into dry gun-powder (Swift 197-200). Alfred Bester's time-travel short story is written in the same satirical tradition as Gulliver's Travels, as it pokes merciless fun at the crazy scientists of his day. “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” parodies such absurd and phantasmagorical speculations as time travel, time machines, “grandfather paradoxes,” and other fashionable fantasies so beloved by the theoretical physicists and science-fiction writers of today.

Bester's narrative is as amusingly sarcastic and paradoxical as Kurt Vonnegut's black-humor parody “Harrison Bergeron.” It opens as a satirical action/adventure in the style of Stanley Weinbaum's “A Martian Odyssey” but ends up as a maniacal slapstick farce very similar in mood and tone to Woody Allen's sci-fi film-comedy Sleeper. The story's introduction discusses several famous anecdotes about “real mad professors” who did rather weird things in their time: “Now, these men weren’t idiots. They were geniuses who paid a high price for their genius because the rest of their thinking was other-world” (Bester 275). These introductory paragraphs set the stage for the whimsical and hectic plot: Unknown University Professor of Applied Compulsion Henry Hassel comes home to catch his young redheaded wife committing adultery with another man, but decides that killing her on the spot is not worth the legal trouble.

Being a “conventional mad professor” and an evil genius, Dr. Hassel quickly builds a time machine (like the one in H.G. Wells' sci-fi novel The Time Machine) and goes back in time to prevent his wife's birth by killing her grandparents before they could meet each other. But when he returns to the present, Hassel discovers that nothing has changed and his wife Greta is still in the arms of his colleague Wiley Murphy. Next, he time-travels to murder his philandering colleague's ancestors in their youth so that Murphy will have never existed, but once again absolutely nothing changes. Finally, Hassel vents his growing frustration with his failure to alter the past by shooting a young George Washington, Muslim prophet Mohammed (hence the short story's satirical title), Columbus, Napoleon, Enrico Fermi, and a dozen other celebrities in a futile attempt to change history (or “futurity,” as he calls it). Much to his astonishment, the present still remains completely unaffected.

Bester's funny tale has mad scientists, time travel, and time machines as its main theme. There is also a related sub-theme of the so-called “grandfather paradox”—a logical inconsistency in theoretical physics about what could possibly happen if you travel back in time and kill your own grandfather (or your unfaithful wife's grandparents, as in this story). However, the protagonist's devious plan to eliminate Mrs. Hassel is doomed to failure because he is supposedly misinterpreting the fundamentally subjective nature of time, which makes it impossible for him to alter the immutable past of anyone else but himself. Having destroyed his own past during his homicidal time travels, Prof. Hassel becomes a “ghost”—exactly like his former colleague and fellow time-traveler Israel Lennox, who informs him that “[w]hen a man changes the past he affects only his own past” (Bester 283). The crackpot scientist finally realizes that there is something awfully wrong with him when he loses the ability to change even the past as his bullets fail to kill Italian nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi. The explanation for his repeated failures offered by Lennox (and the author) is that “time is entirely subjective. It's a private matter…a personal experience. There is no such thing as objective time, just as there is no such thing as objective love, or an objective soul” (Bester 283). Having “inadvertently trampled and killed a small Pleistocene insect” during one of his many time travels, Lennox was understandably “terrified” that he had thus changed the entire history of the world.... Obviously, he should not have worried so much about such a remote possibility: “Imagine my surprise when I returned to my world to find that nothing has changed” (Bester 282).

Lennox's line of thinking is in harmony with Albert Einstein's observation that “Time has no independent existence apart from the order of events by which we measure it” (Giorbran). The “time is a human construct” theorists reportedly argue that the concept of time was invented by mankind to analyze, understand, measure, and deal with very complex and confusing realities, thus making it possible for humans to organize and structure their chaotic lives:

"Surprising as it may be to most non-scientists and even to some scientists, Albert Einstein concluded in his later years that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously.... Einstein's belief in an undivided solid reality was clear to him, so much so that he completely rejected the separation we experience as the moment of now. He believed there is no true division between past and future, there is rather a single existence. His most descriptive testimony to this faith came when his lifelong friend Besso died. Einstein wrote a letter to Besso's family, saying that although Besso had preceded him in death it was of no consequence, '...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.'” (Giorbran)


Bester's humorous tale is a fast-paced, breezy, and sardonic dark comedy. “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed” ridicules what its author must have seen as bizarre speculations about time travel, time machines, “grandfather paradoxes,” and other trendy absurdities embraced by the theoretical physicists and sci-fi writers of his day. In fact, Einstein's theory of relativity does not allow traveling back in time (though it does not preclude the theoretical possibility of time-travel into the Earth's future by someone who could travel in space at or near the speed of light). The legendary cosmologist Stephen Hawking has also questioned the idea of time travel and time machines: “If time travel existed...then we would have been visited by tourists from the future” (Kaku). Bester's time-travel genre classic is a warning against far-fetched and outlandish daydreaming when even the smartest (or the craziest) among us become carried away by senseless and useless sci-fi chimeras and utopias.

Works Cited

Bester, Alfred. “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” Science Fiction: The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology. Eds. Patricia S. Warrick et al. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 274-284. Print.

Giorbran, Gevin. “Albert Einstein and The Fabric of Time.” Everything Forever: Learning to See the Timelessness of the Universe. 10 Apr. 2007. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Kaku, Michio. “The Physics of Time Travel: Is It Real, or Is It Fable?” Official website of Dr. Michio Kaku. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Mattituck, NY: Amereon, 1984 (1726). Print.