Friday, August 29, 2008

36. Brain Wave by Poul Anderson

Brain Wave pictureAll this classic science fiction reading going on over at Buzby's Life got me motivated to pick up this old paperback I've had sitting on my on-deck shelf for quite some time. Brain Wave is classic golden age science fiction in the most speculative vein. What would happen if everybody in the world suddenly became super-intelligent? This question is answered in an interesting and entertaining manner, for the most part. It is burdened slightly by some of the psychological assumptions of the period and some stilted overly theoretical dialogue (external and internal)

"God!" Corinth's fists doubled. (If we could only learn more about ourselves! If we had a workable psychiatry!)

but those are classical tropes of the genre and did not overwhelm the book. As a bonus, on the plus side, there also was a really great animal-oriented side story that really pushed my buttons.

There are a few stories going on, but the principal narrative follows a young physicist and his happily homey wife. When the intelligence hits, which is the result of the earth passing out of a neuron-suppressing field it had been in for millenia, the world goes through a tremendous upheaval. Though people become more intelligent, they don't get any wiser and the same prejudices and fears that dominate their personalities remain intact. Ultimately, however, reason bears out. But the process to get there involves uprisings, a breakdown of the economic and political system, a lot of people going insane and all kinds of other mayhem that is quite fun to read about.

After the survivors manage to get past all this, we move into the more speculative part, where the humans reach for the stars and start figuring out how they are going to live. The human part of the story concerns the physicist and his wife. She can't handle the new intelligence and starts becoming more and more neurotic and depressive. A certain part of our humanity is lost with the intelligence and some people, Poul posits, can't handle this. Those who are used to looking outward and thinking hard and deeply about external subjects, e.g. scientists, were better equipped seems to be his argument. The dated part is that the latter group in the book is almost all men and the former represented by the wife. It's still an interesting idea and he does a good job of postulating what might happen.

The really cool side story, though, for me is about a simpleton farmhand. At the beginning of the book, he is mentally deficient, but strong and kept on the farm and basically adopted by its kindly owner. He's not allowed to drive, for instance. But when the change comes, he too starts to become intelligent. Only because he was behind to begin with, he only reaches up to a normal IQ. Everybody else is in super brain world and basically bail on the farm. He is left with the animals, who have also become more intelligent and thus extremely dangerous. Fortunately, he has an awesome dog with him, who remains man's best friend. The pigs cause the first problems, escaping and then hiding in the forest making attacks on the grain. Then the bull. It finally reaches a crisis point when he returns from town (the first time he'd left the farm since the change) and gets ambushed. Another bull takes the truck out and his faithful dog is trapped, wounded, on the roof.

All seems lost when there is suddenly a shotgun rings out. It's the calvary. In the form of two chimpanzees riding an elephant who had escaped from the zoo! (He'd been warned about the zoo breakout when he went to town.) After the chimps and the elephant take out the bull and chase away the pigs, there is a nervous moment when the farmhand isn't sure about their intentions. Then the chimp approaches him and tugs on his jacket. The chimps can't handle the northeasterly climate and need his help to survive outside the protected environment of the zoo. An alliance is made and the chimps and the elephant join him to run the farm! Most awesome. I love shit like that.

His farm ends becoming what is one of many "moron communes" (really, that's what they call them), places for the non-super brainy humans to live. This is an important part of the speculation, actually, as the two societies ultimately separate, with the smart ones heading off planet to become custodians of the universe.


Buzby said...

It is awesome that we read the same book at the same time without even knowing that we were doing that. I enjoyed this book as well and really dug the farmer side story too.

meezly said...

yeah talk about serendipitous! it's like you two are soulmates :-)

Buzby said...

Not sure about soulmates! One thing I wanted to add to my review but forgot is that the book struck me as Marxist science fiction in the way that people doing menial jobs decided to quit based on their new found intelligence which brought the means of production to a halt and crippled society.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Yeah, that sounds a bit too gay. Beemused loves that kind of thing, though, don't know why.

Interesting that you saw it as Marxist, because there was one point where it seemed very conservative, but now I can't remember what it was.

Jason L said...

Wild! How much of that story was the stuff about the farmer and the animals? Right out of Animal Day!

OlmanFeelyus said...

Not enough, unfortunately. Probably around 10-15% of the book.