Brain Wave: A fascinating idea

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Sandy’s new review.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBrain Wave by Poul AndersonBrain Wave by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave has a great premise — for millennia, unknown to scientists, the Earth has been under the influence of some sort of field that dampens the speed of neurons in the cortex. But now the Earth has suddenly passed out of the field and immediately neurons start working faster, making everyone’s IQs (man and animal) escalate dramatically. This sounds like a good thing to me, but perhaps it’s not in Poul Anderson’s mind. In his story, human civilization changes drastically, and mostly not in positive ways.

The story follows several characters: a physicist named Peter Corinth; Sheila, his timid and dull-witted housewife; a mentally-handicapped farmhand named Archie Brock; and an official named Felix Mandelbaum. Each of these characters experiences a large jump in IQ which causes a change in their circumstances. Each of them deals with this change differently as Poul Anderson explores what might happen to a society that is suddenly full of people who are geniuses and animals who are rising up to challenge us.

Actually, though it’s a really cool thought experiment, Poul Anderson’s story is not as interesting as it sounds like it should be. The first problem is the characters — none are likeable or inherently interesting with the possible exception of Archie Brock. Sheila, the vapid housewife, is especially odious (but I tend to bristle at all vapid housewife characters written by old male SF writers — is that really how they thought of women back then?).

Another problem is that I had a hard time believing in the consequences that Anderson foretells for a world with smarter people. He seems to be suggesting that the only people who will be truly happy in their jobs will be scientists and artists for these are the only rewarding jobs for really smart people. Therefore, blue-collar workers who are now suddenly smart will abandon their jobs and society will collapse.

He seems to be suggesting that laborers are not as smart as scientists, which is kind of pretentious and certainly not accurate. There’s a big difference between intelligence and education.

He is also obviously suggesting that a smart person can’t find meaning and reward in a lower status job, something else I don’t believe is true. Surely these more intelligent humans will realize that farming is still a necessary occupation and there will be people who still enjoy farming even if they’re geniuses. (Or, if they don’t enjoy farming, they can express their intelligence and creativity by inventing machines to do the job for them.)

I agreed with Anderson on a couple of important points — a new psychology would be needed for a human race that is smarter than ours. And even though I didn’t believe in Anderson’s story, I still think it’s a great premise and thinking exercise. If the purpose of intelligence is to adapt to the environment, what happens when the environment has to adapt to intelligence? A fascinating idea!

I listened to Tom Weiner narrate Blackstone Audio’s version of Brain Wave. Weiner has a great voice for old science fiction.

~Kat Hooper


Brain Wave by Poul Anderson science fiction book reviewsIt seems as if I have read a lot of articles recently on the so-called “dumbing down” of society, and of U.S. school kids particularly. I’d hate to think that these stories have a basis in reality, but still, consider the facts: In the most recent two-hour PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests, given every three years around the world to determine students’ abilities in reading, math and science, U.S. schoolchildren came in at only the 35th place (among 64 countries) in math skills, and at only the 27th in science (Singapore and Hong Kong came in at No. 1, respectively). A schoolteacher friend of mine was remarking just the other day how poor his grade-school kids are at problem solving; a wave of anti-intellectualism seems to be gaining traction; and I’ve noticed that half the folks during my NYC subway commute are either playing Candy Crush or are engaged in some other video game, rather than reading a book or newspaper, as would have been the case 10 years ago. (And let’s not even discuss those hilarious old Jay Leno “Jaywalking” segments!)

How refreshing for me, then, to come across a book that has, as its central conceit, the notion that mankind might someday grow vastly MORE intelligent… and not just mankind, but all sentient life on Earth, as well. The novel in question, Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave, made its first appearance in book form (a 35-cent Ballantine paperback) in 1954, although its opening chapters had appeared the year before in the eighth and final issue of the short-lived pulp publication Space Science Fiction. In 1997, four years before his death at age 74, Anderson remarked that it is one of the five novels for which he’d like to be remembered, and now that I have finally read Brain Wave, I can see why.

The book’s fascinating central premise is this: For the last several hundred million years, Earth’s solar system had been passing through an area of space that contained an inhibitory field of sorts; a field that slowed down the neurons of all living things. As Brain Wave begins, Earth is finally emerging from this light-years-wide field, with the result that the IQs of most human beings quadruple, to around 500, and even the animals of the field become vastly more intelligent. Anderson’s book tracks the progression of this new era by focusing on a few central characters: Peter Corinth, a physicist at the NYC-based Rossman Institute, a think tank that is one of the first to discover the reason for humanity’s great change; Sheila Corinth, Peter’s wife, who cannot adapt to her newfound brain power and suffers a literal mental breakdown as a result; Felix Mandelbaum, a labor organizer who rises to prominence after the great change engenders a host of world-altering dilemmas; Nat Lewis, a Rossman biologist; and finally, Archie Brock, a mental simpleton before the change, but now left in charge of millionaire Rossman’s upstate NY farm, seeing to the suddenly rebellious pigs and cows (for some reason, those attacking farm animals brought to my mind the similar ferocious domestic critters in the 1956 sci-fi film Beast With a Million Eyes) with the assistance of some escaped circus animals — an elephant and two chimpanzees!

Long considered a classic of sorts, today, Brain Wave seems to enjoy a mixed reputation. Writing of the novel in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, Scottish critic David Pringle tells us the book is “fondly remembered” but that “it has not worn well, and the writing now seems thin and clichéd.” On the other hand, The Science Fiction Encyclopedia has called it Anderson’s “most famous single novel, and possibly his finest.” Personally, I tend to agree more with the latter statement, and despite my respect for Pringle’s opinions (I have cited him often in my reviews before), must confess that I have no idea what the heck he is talking about here. “Thin and clichéd”? Is he serious? I found Anderson’s writing to be almost poetically beautiful in spots (“How heavily the sea rolled! Even indoors, he could hear it grinding against the shore, tumbling rocks, grinding away the world like the teeth of time. It was gray and white to the edge of the world, white-maned horses stamping and galloping, how terribly loud they neighed…”), and found his thoughts on the ramifications of a suddenly brilliant humankind very insightful. In Brain Wave, humanity initially breaks down after the change due to panicky fear, an upsurge in crackpot religions (such as the hedonistic rage called the Third Ba’al), and the refusal of a suddenly hyper-intelligent populace to perform menial labor. I did not find this last plot point as implausible as Kat, above, apparently did, and indeed, can well identify with a worker who feels that he/she is droning away in a job for which he/she feels overqualified. For me, Anderson’s prose was highly moving and convincing on this score; to wit:

You take a typical human, a worker in factory or office, his mind dulled to a collection of verbal reflexes, his future a day-to-day plodding which offered him no more than a chance to fill his belly and be anesthetized by a movie or his television — more and bigger automobiles, more and brighter plastics, onward and upward with the American Way of Life. Even before the change, there had been an inward hollowness in Western civilization, an unconscious realization that there ought to be more in life than one’s own ephemeral self — and the ideal had not been forthcoming.

 

 

Then suddenly, almost overnight, human intelligence had exploded toward fantastic heights. An entire new cosmos opened before this man, visions, realizations, thought boiling unbidden within him. He saw the miserable inadequacy of his life, the triviality of his work, the narrow and meaningless limits of his beliefs and conventions — and he resigned…

Anderson fills his novel with many surprising twists, including the construction of mankind’s first faster-than-light starship, and the subsequent shakedown tour of the nearby galaxy that Peter and Nat engage in; a budding romance between Peter and his fellow Institute coworker Helga; and a secret cabal planning to construct a device to revert mankind back to its pre-change intelligence levels. Curiously, mankind even manages to invent a new shorthand language for itself after the change, incorporating gestures and other visual cues, and Anderson repeatedly lets us see this new language at work, employing words in parentheses to indicate what is unspoken, and words in italics to indicate what is merely thought. I know that a lot of readers here prefer to listen to audiobooks rather than to read in the traditional sense, but feel that Brain Wave, for this very reason, simply could not work as an audiobook. I just can’t see how any narrator could possibly communicate these parenthetical and italicized elements. (Similarly, I don’t believe that Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, with their various fonts and illustrative typography, or H. Rider Haggard’s She, with its reams of Greek, Latin, Old English, black letter and uncial lettering, could ever be conveyed via audiobook, either.)

Good as it is, Brain Wave yet comes to us today with some minor problems. The mention of “Idlewild” Airport and the “Belgian Congo” inevitably date the book a little, and several plot points (a native revolution in Africa being abetted by super-intelligent apes; a Russian revolution being abetted by telepathic “Sensitives”; a Chinese philosopher who walks the land, training the people in the power of the mind) are raised over the course of a few pages, only to peter out and never be addressed again. I am hardly the first reader to acknowledge that the book is a little on the short side, especially for a story so universal in scope and far reaching in consequence. Anderson’s book could easily have been twice as long, or — as mankind prepares to leave Earth and reach for the stars — merely the opening salvo in a GREAT CHANGE series. Still, what we have here is fairly dynamite: beautifully written, well thought out, involving, and ultimately, quite touching. Indeed, the final chapter even left me a little misty eyed. Thus, I do highly recommend Brain Wave to all readers. You will surely find it more edifying than a game of Angry Birds, that’s for certain!

~Sandy Ferber

Brain Wave  — (1954) A fascinating ‘what if’ novel, Brainwave is an exploration into the ways human society is organized and the assumptions that are made about how life is valued. It is also a novel about equality and what happens when the hierarchical structures by which we arrange our daily lives disappear.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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9 comments

  1. Apparently it’s Brain Week here at FanLit!

    After reading Sandy’s review, with an excerpt,as well as Kat’s, I wonder if Anderson’s meditation on the dryness of “menial” work was a personal reflection of a time in his life when he hated his day-job. To equate all manual blue-collar work with low intelligence (or low-set goals) is a bit shallow. Anderson apparently never tried to build a house, rebuild a car engine, create a musical instrument or plant and harvest a crop, or he would have known better. Is he talking about boring office jobs? It seems so. He clearly didn’t talk to nurses’ aides or orderlies either or he might have figured out that there are various kinds of intelligence, and low-paying jobs require plenty of smarts.

    Of course, it was 1954, so I guess he can be forgiven for having a snobbish view of intelligence.

    I love the idea of Russian “Sensitives!” That’s part of our whole fictional conspiracy theory of those hidden Russian bases studying telepathy, mind control, telekinesis… I just love it!

  2. I’m glad you reviewed this book, Sandy. I found it fascinating!

    Agreeing with Marion, I bristled at the generalization that people who do blue collar jobs are not as intelligent as scientists. I AM a scientist and know that, while intelligence and hard work was necessary, much of my success can be attributed to the advantages I had that many others didn’t — parents who valued education and told me I could do anything and pushed me to excel, excellent schools, money to go to school (parents who paid for it). Just because I’m a scientist doesn’t mean I’m smarter than the guy who picks up my garbage every week. Maybe his mother never told him he could be a scientist. Or maybe he didn’t have the money to go to college.

    It’s true that people who are not smart are more likely to end up doing menial labor, but it’s also true that people often end up there (at least initially) because they lacked opportunities and funds to elevate themselves.

    I think it’s also true that some smart people choose to do blue-collar work (some of it pays very well) because they actually enjoy it. Maybe the guy who picks up my garbage likes having a job that is over at the end of the day so he can go bowling or spend more time with his kids while I think about my job constantly and am defined by it.

    Related to this, the other aspect of the novel that bothered me was the idea that blue collar work is not intelligent or creative. In Anderson’s story, I could imagine these super human farmers using their new intelligence to figure out how to farm more more efficiently. In other words, intelligence and creativity aren’t just the realms of scientists and artists, but farmers need to be smart and creative, too.

    But still, I loved Anderson’s idea. I just was annoyed at some of the elitism expressed.

    • I think the educational-elitism is very much a product of that time. Wasn’t college suddenly opened up to many more people because of the G.I. Bill? Maybe that colored Anderson’s thinking.

  3. Oh, and thank you for the thoughts about the audiobook. Narrators often have a way of indicating parenthetical and italics type (a different more intimate sounding voice, perhaps a whisper, something that’s been run through a synthesizer or given an echo to make it sound like it’s in the head), but I can not remember how these were handled in this book.

  4. sandy ferber /

    Well, I get the feeling that Anderson was trying to demonstrate here how a worker–be it blue-collar or white-collar–could suddenly discover that the occupation he/she was routinely engaged in was, abruptly, far beneath his 500 IQ, compelling the person to leave that job by dint of being overqualified…and then some. Of course, a “500 IQ” is almost impossible for any reader to fathom–it’s like trying to picture 15 octillion miles–so I just took Anderson at his word that these superbrainy folks WOULD indeed suddenly be discontented with their previous lot and would want to move on to other things. A file clerk or gas station attendant might indeed be intelligent, but might find his/her interests changed after being made trebly brainy. Surely, food for thought. As for the audiobooks, since I have never listened to one, I will have to take your word on this, Kat. I’d still hate to be the narrator who has to verbalize the nuances in italicized and parenthetical type….

  5. RedEyedGhost /

    I have a cousin who got his degree in nuclear engineering, worked at a power plant for about 6 months. Hated working inside, in front of a computer all day, and went back to work on the family farm.

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