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art by Melissa Mead

Geniuses

Christopher Kastensmidt was born and raised in Texas but has resided in Porto Alegre, Brazil for over a decade. He was a Nebula Award finalist and winner of the Realms of Fantasy Readers' Choice Award for his novelette "The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara," the first in a fantasy series entitled The Elephant and Macaw Banner. The series features a Dutch explorer and Yoruban slave who meet in sixteenth-century Brazil and begin a series of adventures together. More on that series can be found at the website www.eamb.org. Christopher has published fiction in eight countries, participated in the production of thirty internationally-published video games, and was at one time Creative Director of Ubisoft Brazil. He currently works as a professor, lecturing at three universities, and as an independent consultant.
"Excuse me," said the man sitting beside me at the bar.
"Yes?" I replied.
I welcomed the interruption. I'd spent most of the evening sipping a stout and staring at the Sox game on the hotel bar TV.
"Please pardon my intrusion," he said, "but I attended your lecture at the conference today, the one about genius, and I wanted to ask you a question."
"Ask away." I took a quick look at the guy. From the sprinkling of gray in his hair I guessed he was probably in his forties or fifties, but his face was covered with wrinkles more appropriate for a man of seventy. I didn't recognize him from the lecture, but it had been a full house. I did notice that his beer lay untouched in front of him, the head long since fizzled away.
"It appears you know quite a bit about geniuses," he said. I could sense a challenge in his voice that made me want to snap back a reply, but I took it in stride.
"It's a subject I've studied for years," I responded. "Back since I first earned my Ph.D. in psychology. So what's your question?"
"Perhaps you could call it more of a wager than a question. I'll buy you a beer if you can name any three of the ten greatest geniuses of the twentieth century. Take as many guesses as you like."
His proposition didn't surprise me, but I found it a bit na´ve for someone attending an academic conference. Asking about the world's greatest geniuses was the kind of fluff question I received from magazine reporters who couldn't comprehend my research enough to ask something intelligent about it.
"Any list like that is flawed," I replied. "There are many different kinds of genius."
"What if we restrict our definition to the people who had the mental capacity to most radically alter the understanding of the human race?"
Out of sheer boredom, I decided to play along. "I'll take that bet," I replied with a smile. "First up: Einstein."
"Correct." He nodded, expressionless.
"Hawking."
"Wrong," he replied without hesitation.
"You seem quite sure of yourself," I replied, trying not to sound too snappy.
"Don't worry, you can guess all night if you'd like."
"Gould."
"Wrong."
"Freud."
"Close, but no."
I frowned. "Perhaps you're thinking artistically," I said. "Picasso, Olivier, Stravinsky, Lennon."
He shook his head. "Not even close."
"Fermi, Heisenberg, von Braun," I said, returning to some of the more classical geniuses.
"No. And you're getting colder."
He seemed so confident in his act. I grinned and responded amicably, "You must be thinking along other lines: perhaps Gandhi, King, Mother Teresa."
"Great geniuses," he said, "but not the ones best suited for our definition."
"I've got it, you're a businessman. How about Walton, Schwab, Gates?"
He snickered in response.
"All right then," I continued, "You must be a revolutionary. Guevara, Lenin, Mandela."
He shook his head and stared down at his beer.
His condescension irritated me. "Please!" I snapped. "Are you telling me no one I've mentioned is among the top ten? I'd love to hear your list."
He took a deep breath and sighed. "Well, one of them was Rana Hejazi."
"Who? I've never heard of her."
"Not many have. She grew up in a country which represses women. She lived her entire life without ever reading a book. Another one was Gebre-Selassie Kidanu. He was born with AIDS and died at the age of six."
I snickered at him. "You've made your point," I said. "We'll never know if some genius was born in the third world."
"I do know," he said, turning to look at me. His stare was icy. "And they weren't all from the third world. Damian Johnson was one of them, and he was killed in a gang fight in the slums of this very city."
I frowned. "I've heard enough of made-up geniuses for one night," I said, pushing myself up from the stool. "Bet's off and I'm going to bed."
He grabbed my arm and jerked me toward him. His gaze was that of a madman. "Would you watch someone throw the Mona Lisa into the ocean and shrug off the loss?" he asked. "The loss of these was infinitely greater. If they had been treated decently, cancer would be no more, world hunger would be a distant memory, and the human race would be on its way to the stars. Yet they were not, and the pleas of billions continue unanswered."
"It's not my problem!" I shouted.
He released his grip and shook his head sadly. For an instant, the thought passed through my mind that the entire history of the human race reflected from his eyes.
"Someday," he said, "it will be."
His words made me shudder. I turned toward the baseball game again, trying to clear my thoughts. I couldn't believe I had let the lunatic get under my skin. As a psychologist, I wasn't an easy person to fluster with mind games.
I turned back and began to say, "Now what do you mean by..." but he was gone. I could spot no trace of him, not even a ring of condensation where the beer had rested. Queasiness tingled from my stomach through the rest of my body.
After a few moments, I shook my head and snapped out of it. I laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. "Maybe I've had one too many tonight," I said to myself. With a shaky hand, I retrieved my wallet and tossed a few bills on the bar for the tip. Then I headed for the elevators, trying to forget the unpleasant man and his condescending conversation.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 7th, 2011


I wrote the first version of this story back in 2005, made a revision in 2007, then left it untouched for four more years before giving it a massive overhaul and sending it to Daily Science Fiction. To create these story notes, I went back and reread that first draft. The difference is shocking. The basic idea is still the same, but the two versions read like two different people telling the same story. And the truth is, they are two different people. One of them is young and cocky, writing without craft and making his point with a hammer to the reader's head. The other is older, has spent years trying to learn a bit about writing, and understands that the telling is as important as the content. One is recently married, the other the father of a two-year old boy. One is undeservedly proud of his work, the other proud of his progress--but feeling a bit old and embarassed seeing the proof like a blazing beacon on the page before him. Writing is a long, hard road, but rewarding. The writer uses all the tools at his disposal to touch the reader, all the while not realizing how much he changes himself.

- Christopher Kastensmidt

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