Brainwave - Poul Anderson

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Poul Anderson
ISBN: 0743474864 (Amazon link)

This is one of the novels that the prolific Anderson said he would like to be remembered for, and one for which he does indeed seem to be famous. It's classic hard SF in that he says, "What if ... everything with a brain became more intelligent?"

The handwavium required for this is the eventual passing of the Earth out from the region of space containing a vast force field which inhibits certain electromagnetic and electrochemical reactions in certain type of synapses. Wisely, Anderson chooses not to speculate too far on what reactions these are, or how this force field has been generated - basically, it's a ridiculous premise, but given that premise, what would happen?

This is an ensemble novel, featuring several nicely drawn characters whom we follow as their intelligence increases sharply. These range from the hard-working but slow farmhand Archie Brock to the physicist Peter Corinth, but my favourite is the character in the opening scene. This features a trapped rabbit who suddenly becomes aware of the passage of time, and is thus equipped to realise that the door which closed on the trap was once open, and can therefore open again...

This is typical of the first half of the novel, as the story is laid out slowly, with the reader getting the full picture only as certain characters, mainly Corinth and his scientific chums, figure out what is going on. It's very well done, with the slow dawning of new ideas best reflected in the likes of Archie; I love the scene where he suddenly connects what he's been told about the stars and sun, and realises "Jesus God! How far up the stars were!" Of course, Archie soon has other, less abstract problems as the various live-stock on the farm decide they don't particularly want to live or work there anymore.

However, Brainwave has aged badly for all the technical skill shown in the writing. Not only is the central premise coldly mechanical, but the treatment is a bit odd to modern eyes. You don't tend to hear terms like 'idiot' and 'moron' used in a medical sense anymore, and there is a whiff of social Darwinism, just a whiff, in proceedings. Equally curious is the world in which Corinth operates, one in which science proceeds in well funded labs, full of genial types puttering about free from commercial and legal concerns.

Of course, becoming brighter doesn't make you happier, in fact the opposite is true and most people, including Corinth's wife Sheila, find that increased intelligence goes hand in hand with a formless fears and neuroses. Worse, many of society's most basic functions rely on a ready supply of labourers content with a repetitive job - and while I sympathise with the plight of factory owners and the management of the food chain, it's been a very long time since I saw anyone manning a lift!

Anderson uses the fear and social breakdown engendered by the increase in intelligence to suggest another very 50s idea; that what Mankind now needs in a new focus - space travel! Once everyone is focused on the brave new worlds in front of them society will stabilise again, with many opting to start afresh in a ideal injection-moulded frontier; quite the opposite from how we view the future nowadays.

Brainwave then is a surprisingly dated period piece, but an exceptionally well-written one. Recommended.

Posted: Thu - January 1, 2004 at 11:23 PM