The New Adam: Of mice and mentation

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe New Adam by Stanley G. Weinbaum science fiction book reviewsThe New Adam by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Stanley G. Weinbaum was one of the great “what if…” authors in sci-fi history. Perhaps no other writer before or since has been so influential, and shown so much early promise, only to have that budding career cut tragically short. The Kentucky-born author caused a sensation when his very first tale, “A Martian Odyssey,” appeared in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, and its ostrichlike central alien, the unforgettable Tweel, was a true original of its kind. In a flurry of activity, Weinbaum went on to create some two dozen more short stories, plus three novels, before succumbing to lung cancer in December ’35, at the age of 33. (Robert Bloch, a friend of Weinbaum’s, has since written that he actually died of throat cancer; don’t ask me.) It had been many years since I’d read the classic Ballantine edition The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum, which collects 12 of these wonderful stories and is preceded by some gushing words of praise from Isaac Asimov, so on a whim, I picked up Weinbaum’s posthumous novel The New Adam. This book, which was first released in 1939, has been called by The Science Fiction Encyclopedia Weinbaum’s “most important sf work… one of the most careful and analytical works produced by an sf writer in the pre-War period…”

The New Adam tells the life story of Edmond Hall, who is born in Chicago near the beginning of the 20th century with an odd physical deformity: an extra joint on each of his fingers. As Hall grows up, he discovers that his brain is capable of thinking along two different tracks simultaneously; indeed, it is as if his brain were divided into two discrete halves, each capable of independent thought and of engaging in conversation with the other. As it turns out, Edmond is nothing less than a biological sport, a mutant, the next step in mankind’s evolution, and undoubtedly some kind of maladapted, antisocial genius. A friendless loner, he tries to figure out what to do with his life after graduating from college. He decides that the pursuit of knowledge is a dead end — “intellectual masturbation” — after constructing a limitless source of energy, an atom smasher, for fun. The idea of the pursuit of personal power is quickly rejected, when he decides that, as regards human beings, “He did not hate them enough to oppress, nor love them well enough to guide.” Thus, Hall determines that his only hope for future happiness lies in the pursuit of pleasure. He tracks down an ex-schoolmate, a flapper-like beauty named Vanny Marten, and uses his powers of brain control and mental manipulation to coerce her into marriage, much to the dismay of her suitor, the poet Paul Varney. But trouble arises when Hall meets a plain-Jane female mutant like himself, Sarah Maddox, who alone can give him the intellectual stimulation that no other human can, including Vanny…

I’m not going to lie to you: The New Adam is a very strange book. The reader is given access to Edmond’s cerebration processes, and that mind is a very dark and daunting area to explore. The man is given to constant philosophizing on the human condition, and is prone to both speak AND think in perfectly metered poetry that he concocts on the spot. He dwells on art, beauty, intelligence, the nature of time, Einsteinian physics and other recondite matters incessantly, the two halves of his brain batting speculations back and forth. Weinbaum emphasizes repeatedly how truly alien Hall is, and Edmond even reflects at one point that he could pass for “a changeling, a Martian smuggled here by some inconceivable art.” The book’s sense of strangeness is heightened by Weinbaum’s deliberate blurring of the fine line between fantasy and reality at times. The honeymoon that Hall and Vanny take is indeed so dreamlike that the reader must wonder if perhaps the whole thing is another hypnotic suggestion placed into the young bride’s mind. Likewise, Hall is so capable of creating realistic figments in his own noggin that it is often unclear if Sarah is actually visiting him or not.

Strangeness aside, Weinbaum’s book is undoubtedly very much a triumph; a highly ambitious, beautifully written affair that aspires to the realms of the great American novel. Though now almost universally lauded as one of sci-fi’s most seminal creators, the author here has created a book that is only marginally science fiction. If it weren’t for some of Hall’s futuristic inventions — that atom smasher, a gravity neutralizer — the book could almost be regarded as an impressively literate love story. The book is at times sexually frank, too, especially for its day (Edmond notes, with his two minds, Vanny’s “Cheyne-Stokes breathing” during intercourse), and Weinbaum plays a risky game by  making his central character unlikable; a user and manipulator of everyone around him, as well as a haughty, cold fish. And yet, the reader does somehow feel some sympathy for Edmond, lonely social misfit that he is; “I suspect the inflicting of intelligence is the greatest injury Fate can do to any being, for it is literally to thrust that being into Hell,” he ponders at one point. And like the title character of the 1933 film King Kong, which Weinbaum had to have seen, Edmond is very much a creature of whom it can be fairly said “Beauty killed the beast,” and the poor wretch essentially destroys himself by trying to choose between intellectual and physical attraction. He is like a mutant egghead version of TV’s Dobie Gillis, drawn to the beautiful Thalia Menninger type while knowing that he is more suited to the homely Zelda Gilroy. Unlike the other superman who first appeared in the late ‘30s (you know … the Clark Kent/Kryptonian fella), Edmond is never able to fit in anywhere, to his eternal undoing, and the reader does feel his pain.

The New Adam is wide ranging in its literary references (James Branch Cabell, Camille Flammarion, Tristam Shandy) and is often heavily symbolic; its lead characters are likened to mythological and Biblical characters (Eve, Lilith, Iblis) on occasion. Oddly enough, Edmond, it is revealed, is the possessor of a rare copy of The Necronomicon, the evil tome that figured so prominently in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories; the two authors, it turns out, were indeed mutual fans! And Weinbaum is even a tad prophetic in his book; at one point, Hall ponders “Let the beasts outside once learn the secret of the atom and the next little war will tumble civilization into the abyss.”

The New Adam is a classic of the period,” The Science Fiction Encyclopedia tells us, and indeed, I cannot say that I have ever read a book quite like it. “I have always found difficulty in discriminating between what you term great and mediocre literature,” Edmond says toward the end of this impressive novel, but no such problem arose for this reader as regards The New Adam. This is undeniably great literature…


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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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2 comments

  1. Wonderful review Sandy! I’ve got The new Adam somewhere on the shelves : I’m going to dig it out as soon as I finished typing this. Thanks!

  2. sandy ferber /

    Thanks for the kind words, Helene. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, despite the strangeness….

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