Visions of Paradise

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Brain Wave

In 1967, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club (for the first time, but definitely not for the last time). My bonus for joining was Anthony Boucher 1000+ page Treasury of Great Science Fiction (in two volumes). In addition to a wealth of short stories and novelettes, the collection contained 4 complete novels (which tells you something about the length of sf novels then as compared to now; in many ways, I still prefer the shorter, punchier novels of that era to the bloated novels of this era), three of which have stayed in my memory over the decades as truly outstanding: John Wyndham’s Rebirth, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and Poul Anderson’s break-through novel Brain Wave.

Recently I decided to go back and reread at least part of those two volumes, and I decided to start with the Anderson and Bester novels in volume 2. Since Brain Wave opened the volume, I would start there. While I recall the book’s premise, I remembered almost none of the book’s actual plot and only one specific scene early in the novel, a memory which might be a result of my having been a math major in college when I first read the novel: in the first few pages, Anderson sets the framework for how the Earth has passed out of a galactic region which inhibited intelligence of all creatures for several million years. In showing the resulting increase in intelligence, he focuses on a pre-teenaged boy who is studying algebra and begins wondering what would happen if the value of x changes from 2 to 3. But he does not change the value abruptly, but rather “sneaks up” on 3. Anderson then goes on to matter-of-factly mention that “he was well on his way to inventing differential calculus when his mother called him down to breakfast.”

That scene excited me again when I read it, and raised my level of anticipation considerably. But any writer can devise a fabulous premise, which Brain Wave definitely has, but it takes an outstanding writer to turn it into an equally thought-provoking novel, and Anderson succeeded totally in that as well. The rest of the relatively-short novel examines the aftereffect of the abrupt tripling of every creature’s intelligence both on people’s lives and on society as a whole. He shows the inevitable breakdown of society as people walk away from tedious jobs, including subsequent riots over the lack of food distribution and other anticipated services. There are civil wars in dictatorships where people rebel against long-time repression.

But, overall, it is an optimistic novel so we see how drastically-increased intelligence overcomes most of those crises relatively quickly. The main focal characters include a business manager who becomes virtual overload of a region stretching from New England to New York City, and a scientist involved in building a faster-than-light spaceship. But the most interesting parts of the novel focus on two other characters:

• Sheila, the wife of the scientist who is unable to adapt to increased intelligence and is diagnosed as “insane,” when all she really wants is to return to her former level of intelligence, which she determines to do;

• Archie Brock, who was a simple-minded farm hand who stays behind on the farm when all the other workers flee out of boredom. Archie develops a new type of communal living structure with a strange group including many of the farm’s animals (who are now intelligent enough to determine their own lives), a group of runaway circus animals (led by an intelligent elephant and monkeys), and other former “morons,” whose increased intelligence surpass what you and I currently have.

As is typical of an Anderson novel, there is the potential for a fast-paced thriller, but he represses that instinct to concentrate on the human element, while never forgetting how important pacing is to a well-told story. I have enjoyed reading Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories recently, but Brain Wave is an entire level higher, ranking among the truly great science fiction novels. It certainly made me glad I decided to reread it, and convinced me to read the rest of the volume as well.


  • Reading Boucher's Treasury was one of the joys of my early sf experience.

    How can you go wrong with Poul Anderson? I am thinking of re-reading his "World Without Stars" in the near future.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 9:23 PM  

  • That is actually one of Anderson's novels that I have never read; he published way too many to keep up with all of them!

    By Blogger adamosf, At 6:06 PM  

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