Book Review: Brain Wave, Poul Anderson (magazine publication 1953)
July 26, 2013 § 28 Comments
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1954 edition)
3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
I have long been a fan of Poul Anderson’s functionalist yet engaging SF adventures. He is one of the masters at integrating social commentary (often on the impact of future technology) into the framework of the early Cold War influenced SF story without unduly weighing it down. Brain Wave (1954) is a good example of both his virtues and faults.
Brain Wave in a nutshell: a fascinating premise, a somewhat frustrating ending, dubious social commentary, while the incredibly brief length (even for the 50s) and uneven pacing suggest heavy cuts by editor… That said, I suspect other famous works — such as the Daniel Keyes’ Flowers of Algernon (novelette: 1959, novel: 1966) and perhaps even David Brin’s Uplift Trilogy (1980-1987) – were influenced by the core thematic question of Anderson’s work: What would happen if the IQ of both humans and animals rapidly increased?
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
Sometime in the future Earth moves out of a vast field “of partly eloctro-magnetic character, generated by gyomagnetic action within atomic nuclei near the center of the galaxy” (50). While immersed in this cone-like field, the IQ levels of Earth’s inhabitants remains relatively low — i.e. at what one would consider “normal” levels. However, as Earth moves from the field the average IQ of both humans and animals increases dramatically with a vast variety of results. Anderson speculates that the institutions and social structures of society will collapse as new cults, homegrown pseudo-Communists, and the newly intelligent who seek a way out of their drab existence begin to assert themselves.
However, increased intelligence does not mean that humanity will drastically change: “The wild-eyed dreamer simply built higher castles in the clouds; the hard-boiled racketeer had no vocabulary of ideas or concepts to rise above his own language of greed” (75).
Brain Wave follows two main narrative threads with interspersed vignettes that illustrate this evolution of society. Often the vignettes are incredibly abrupt despite their intriguing subject matter — for example, tribesmen in Africa who, with their increased intelligence, are finally able to effectively escape from their colonial oppressors with the assistance of newly sentient chimpanzees and apes (queue dubious 50s views on race) . I can imagine that an editor would find portions of them easy to cut out of the published version.
The first narrative thread follows Peter Corinth, a brilliant physicist, and Sheila, his wife who is “nothing of an intellectual” (5). Corinth, with his increased intelligence, seeks to understand the field and prevent the collapse of society. Sheila, on the other hand, hates what increased intelligence offers and desires above all else to return to her previous state of being (tending children, cooking, waiting for her husband to get home, etc).
One could argue that Anderson is perpetrating 50s views of the housewife who does not participate in anyway with the intellectual life of the husband. He does temper this stance by introducing Corinth’s brilliant colleague, Helga, who applies her increased intelligence, in the same manner as Corinth does and as any scientist would, to her fervent drive to learn more about the world.
The second narrative thread follows Archie Brock who most likely has a substantial learning disability — his character might be the inspiration for Charlie in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. Brock works for Mr. Roseman on his farms tending animals, chopping wood, etc. While everyone around him leaves the rural landscape in search of ways to apply their new knowledge, Archie — with his increased intelligence — is content to remain on the farm tending the animals.
The animals too become more intelligent. Pigs become violent while an elephant, chimpanzee, and dog soon join up with Archie and become his friends (despite their limited ability to vocalize or understand humans). One of the most emotionally devastating moments of the entire novel occurs when Archie is forced to kill one of the more intelligent sheep (whom he has named and can identify based on their character) in order to feed his friends during the winter…
There are multiple issues with the novel. First, as mentioned above, vexing gender dynamics and racial dynamics (a product of the 50s) exist throughout… For example, Anderson’s assertion that the tribesmen in Africa can only rise against their oppressors after their intelligence increases smacks of racism rather than an understanding of the vicious ways that Europeans maintained their control (53-55). Also, Sheila’s characterization, especially her desperation to return to her blissful existence with limited intelligence, could be interpreted as sexist — there are no male characters who want their intelligence removed.
Also, the first half of the work operates on a somewhat fallacious premise — that the majority of humankind will leave their jobs if they were slightly more intelligent. The idea that intelligence always indicates the type of job ones hold is simply not the case. Many highly intelligent people — due to extenuating circumstances, the need to support families, or a genuine love of what they do — hold jobs that might not test them intellectually. Anderson seems to forget that his “average man” examples would have families to support….
Also be aware, a very 50s terminology of mental disability that will be shocking for some modern readers (for example, terms such as “moron”, “imbecile”, “half-wit” etc) pervades the book… However, his treatment of Archie’s character is delicately and lovingly done.
Despite the flaws, Brain Wave is recommended for fans of Poul Anderson and 50s science fiction.
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1966 edition)
(Fred Troller’s silly cover for the 1969 edition)
(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1970 edition)
(Phil Kirkland’s cover for the 1974 edition)
(Tim White’s cover for the 1977 edition)
(Michael Herring’s cover for the 1978 edition)
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