Brain Wave by Poul Anderson

(discussed August 20, 1998)

On a ten-point scale (1=bad, 10=good), the people who read the book gave the following ratings: 4, 5, 6, 6, 7, 8, 9
Average: 6.4

This book was sponsored by Raja Thiagarajan to mark Poul Anderson's recent Grand Master Nebula award. It was Anderson's first novel, and was initially published in 1954.

Michael Sullivan told Raja earlier that it was a bit like an old computer: At the time, it was great, but now it seems clunky and painful.

Kerrie Gimmler didn't care for the book; she thought the characters were too cardboard, and she didn't feel any sympathy for them.

John Gallman felt that the author had a very good setup, but blew it. The increased IQ was seemingly not used for much, except to slide into anarchy, trigger strikes, etc. John says he's more of an optimist himself.

Gregory Rawlins said that the book reminded him quite a bit of Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon.

Peter Kuchera seemed to like it a lot; one major idea he got from it is that society is fragile: a (relatively) small trauma can lead to disaster. A real-life example, for him, was the Rodney King verdict; he was in Los Angeles when that city erupted into rioting.

Another point Peter brought up was that it might be better to say that the novel was more about "thinking faster" than about "more intelligence" (whatever the latter might mean). One important idea, he thought, was that madness and faster thinking are very similar.

Peter also liked what Anderson did with animals and religion, as did Raja. While acknowledging the crudities in the book, Raja also liked it quite a lot. He thought it had some nice imagery depicting the way a physicist sees the world, and a great image of revolutionnairies in Africa allying themselves with chimpanzees and apes to fight off European colonials. Also, despite John's complaint that the people in the book didn't seem to do much with their increased intelligence, Raja thought it was quite clear that by the end, they were going to go elsewhere and transcend their Earthly limitations, leaving the planet to animals and mental defectives.

It also seemed to Raja, this time rereading the book, that Vernor Vinge's most recent and (justly) praised novel, A Fire Upon the Deep owes quite a bit to this earlier book, especially a scene in which a starship fails when it wanders into a region of the mind-slowing field.

As a closing thought, Gregory said that in spite of some complaints, this was a good book to read, since we got some rather interesting discussion out of it.