Book Review: The Bright Phoenix, Harold Mead (1955)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1956 edition)

3/5 (Average)

Harold Mead’s The Bright Phoenix is a readable future ultra-regulated “perfect” State themed science fiction novel with a time-worn but proven plot. Unfortunately, the end product, despite moments of intriguing characterization and oppressive gloom, sinks into forgettable melodrama and the conclusion resorts to frustratingly obvious references to a “second coming” (of sorts).  Mead is less interested in describing the mechanisms of the “perfect” state and more interested in the slow evolution of a character coming to grips with the deficiencies of the system.  This is an admirable program that falls woefully short in part due to the paltry descriptions of the before mentioned system.  This causes our hero’s evolution to occasionally ring hollow.  The primitive but somehow “truer” pseudo-Christian civilization contacted by our hero, the fulcrum of his transformation, lacks any seductive qualities that would facilitate such a character shift.

Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

The Bright Phoenix takes the form of a diary of our hero John Waterville, an explorer and eventually the leader of an expedition to settle an untrammeled island and perpetuate the “perfect” state.  The novel starts with Waterville’s return from his first expedition to the island.  The experience in the wilderness has a peculiar effect on him and he’s compelled to begin to question the nature of the “spirit of man.”  This dictum sums up the official purpose of the state — man is the universe’s highest achievement.  This political mantra governs post-apocalyptical society in a highly structured way.  All the normal trappings are present including permits for short relationships and marriages and “reconditioning” for those who have dangerous thoughts.  All is done without violence…  How reconditioning isn’t conceived of as non-violent is illogical.

Waterville soon falls in love with Jenny, an worker at the communal dinning facilities.  They take out an A permit (for a two week relationship) with the knowledge that he’ll soon be heading on an expedition to settle the island he recently explored.  Eventually, she’s reconditioned for dangerous throughs — i.e. not only memory wiped but purged of more than simple thoughts and the ability to answer to commands.

Waterville leads the preliminary settlement on the island and observes growing conflict between the colonists (breed specifically for the task) and regular government officials like himself.  In the silliest moment of the novel, Jenny (the reconditioned version) is assigned to his expedition.  Also, the longer the reconditioned workers are on the island the more they change…  Waterville comes into contact with a pseudo-Christian “primitive” society who lives by the sword — protecting their families from outsiders, etc.  The new environment of the island, the presence of the natives, the growing hatred and violence of the colonists despite the State’s laws against violence, and the horrible state endorsed reconditioning of Jenny compel Waterville to reconsider his role.

Final Thoughts

On the whole, despite silly melodramatic interludes, Mead is adept at portraying Waterville’s character arc.  What is lacking are adequate descriptions of the society which would make the evolution all the more convincing. The biggest flaw relating to his evolution is the influence of the pseudo-Christian primitive tribe which practices daily brutality against their captives.  There’s nothing redeemable about them and the fact that they would cause Waterville to question his own society’s treatment of enemies is far fetched.

The work is readable and contains a few moments of poignant introspection and pervasive gloom.  Recommended for only the most diehard fans of 50s dystopic science fiction.  Nowhere near as masterful as Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) and more along the lines (not as bad) of Rena Vale’s cringeworthy Beyond the Sealed World (published 1965 but written in the mid-50s).

An of course, the Richard Powers’ cover for the 1956 edition (above) is almost work the cost of the book…

(John Richards’ cover for the 1960 edition)

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7 Replies to “Book Review: The Bright Phoenix, Harold Mead (1955)”

  1. If we’re going to survive at all, we all need to read some of these 50s dystopian epics. Some of the characters, some of the situations – such as being ‘reconditioned’ for dangerous thoughts, are closer to home than a lot of people realize.
    On another note, as someone who reads a lot but doesn’t take a lot of reading risks, I find it very commendable that you tackle these potential bombs and stick to them all the way through. Thanks!

      1. I wouldn’t call myself an expert,but ‘The Chrysalids’, ‘Starship Troopers’, ‘I Am Legend’, and ‘Day of the Triffids’ are the ones I’ve liked.
        Wow, half my list is Heinlein.

      2. You mean half John Wyndham? I’m generally not a fan of Heinlein although Starship Troopers is probably one of his best. I haven’t got around to reading any of Wyndham — shocker, I know…

  2. Just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover…

    I do enjoy a good dystopian novel, but they’re often formulaic or frustratingly preachy. If I stumbled on this one in good condition, I’d pick it up for the cover… Powers seals many deals.

    Good review as always.

    1. The book was readable — just not a masterpiece along the lines of the Powers’ cover… hehe.

      I thought the romance between the main character and Jenny was pretty well-drawn — and yes, it all came off as formulaic (this one wasn’t the preachy sort at least) — but the whole bit about her being reconditioned and then assigned to his mission etc was lame.

      Thanks for the kind words.

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