I’ve completed two challenges on my Book Bingo card, and thought that makes a good excuse for some reviews. What was interesting about both these books is that they’ve been on my To Read list for a while, but I didn’t anticipate that they’d tick off challenges until I started.
Get ready for reviews of Vaneglory by George Turner and Brain Wave by Poul Anderson. Mostly Brain Wave, because I just don’t have much to say about Vaneglory.
Vaneglory – George Turner
Tile: Has Immortality
The sequel (Kinda) to Turner’s Beloved Son. I should have read Beloved Son first, as there were characters returning and references to previous events in the second part, but the book still stands alone and I wasn’t lost or confused.
Turner’s writing style is really nice and he comes out with a lot of highly quotable lines (“As surely as humanity’s middle name is cruelty” really appealed to me.) This book also presents fairly unique immortal mutants, with some interesting powers and a unique perspective on life. Basically, they’ve been around so long that they’re sick of each other, and normal humans are so ephemeral that few immortals bother with them.
I liked the plot, which was about a man named Will being targeted by this mutant company, teaming up with Donald, who had also been dragged into the Company, and then escaping Glasgow just as nuclear dust destroys the city. The two of them then end up going into suspended animation and waking up in a future Melbourne. Their knowledge of immortal people reaches the powerful men of the day and starts a scramble to protect or exploit the mutants. Interesting, but could have been done better. Also, I wasn’t a fan of the ending.
I was quite surprised to find out this book was written in 1983. Whilst it’s not outdated or pulpy, it still had the feel of a much earlier story.
Brain Wave – Poul Anderson
Tile: Uplifted Chimpanzees or Dolphins
The idea behind this story is that for millions of years the solar system was travelling in an energy field that slowed down electrical reactions, including the ones occurring in our brains. When Earth leaves this field, everything with a brain gets around five times smarter, and this has a lot of consequences.
Anderson does a great job exploring the consequences of this change, writing little snippets showing things like a Congolese chief enlisting and arming Chimpanzee communities to aid in a rebellion, and other glimpses of people around the world doing new things with their increased intelligence or discovering new mental powers.
There are two main plots. The first follows scientist Peter Corinth, his wife Sheila, and other scientists and union organisers he knows as they come to terms with the change, try to guide humanity through the upheavals it causes, and then build a spaceship. The second follows Archie Brock, an illiterate autistic man who works as a farmhand, as he deals with his exciting new capabilities, the frustration at realising that he is still “feeble-minded” compared to neurotypical humans, and trying to run the farm with it’s newly rebellious animals with the help of his dog, an elephant and two chimpanzees who escaped from a nearby circus.
I enjoyed Archie’s story the most, however it is clear that this was the B story, with all the rebuilding humanity and going to space stuff being the primary focus. That and Sheila’s inability to cope with the change. The Peter/Sheila A-story is interesting. It’s not like I can read a 1950s science fiction story and then complain about them building a spaceship and having an adventure. That’d be strange. What I’m saying is a I really enjoyed every time the narrative went back to Archie on the farm. There were funny moments, like the plowhorses deciding they were done with working and kicking over the plow, or the first time we see Joe the dog nodding after Archie tells him something. There were also absolutely devastating moments, like when Archie had to pick which one of the very smart, very individual sheep to slaughter in order to boost his and the chimpanzee’s megre diet. We could have seen a lot more of Archie and his “moron” colony and this book would have been better for it. Especially if that escaped tiger that was mentioned early in the story had shown up.
This is getting a bit long, so I’m just going to point out the thing that hit me the most with the main storyline. There were a lot of interesting parts for Peter and friends, but one aspect of this story really resonated with me. That was the realisation that whilst people are a lot smarter, individual personalities and prejudices haven’t changed. Arseholes are still arseholes, and people who believe in bullshit are able to use their new mental power to invent better justifications for their bullshit. At one point Peter and his workmate Helga get cornered by a mob chanting ‘kill the scientists!’.
It’s been about seventy years since this book was written, and just before I picked it up the Australian bushfires were at their worst. (for more context, I am Australian) All over Facebook and in the news I’ve seen people double down on the climate change denial. There were even people in government blaming the Greens for the bushfires. To say nothing of the whole ‘Global Warming is a Conspiracy’ or ‘Dumb Scientists Can’t Even Predict the Weather’ type of comments. I am living in a Western country amongst one of the most educated populations in history, with access to more information than anyone at any time in history has had, and people cling to stupid, harmful, easily debunked ideas. Despite us supposedly knowing better, anti-intellectualism is a powerful thing.
Poul Anderson called it seventy years ago; you can’t fix stupid. Not even by literally fixing the stupid. You have to build a spaceship to do that. Spaceships fix everything.
Okay, semi-political rant over. Let’s talk about how well this book has aged. For something written in the fifties and dealing with human intelligence, it hasn’t aged too badly. I’d say it is progressive by 1950s standards. The big issue is about how mental disability is presented in this book. Terms like moron and imbecile are used a lot, as these were actual clinical terms at the time of both the book being written and it’s setting. There are issues with Anderson’s description of mental disability, but for the time I feel this is a fair representation. Also, Archie’s desire to struggle to work the farm by himself rather than be ‘looked after’ by the super-smart community is very understandable.
I haven’t read a huge amount of Poul Anderson’s work, but I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve read by him so far, and Brain Wave continues that trend.