Book Review: Brain Wave, Poul Anderson (magazine publication 1953)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1954 edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

I have long been a fan of Poul Anderson’s functionalist yet engaging SF adventures.  He is one of the masters at integrating social commentary (often on the impact of future technology) into the framework of the early Cold War influenced SF story without unduly weighing it down.  Brain Wave (1954) is  a good example of both his virtues and faults.

Brain Wave in a nutshell: a fascinating premise,  a somewhat frustrating ending, dubious social commentary, while the incredibly brief length (even for the 50s)  and uneven pacing suggest heavy cuts by editor…  That said, I suspect other famous works — such as the Daniel Keyes’ Flowers of Algernon (novelette: 1959, novel: 1966) and perhaps even David Brin’s Uplift Trilogy (1980-1987) — were influenced by the core thematic question of Anderson’s work: What would happen if the IQ of both humans and animals rapidly increased?

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

Sometime in the future Earth moves out of a vast field “of partly eloctro-magnetic character, generated by gyomagnetic action within atomic nuclei near the center of the galaxy” (50).  While immersed in this cone-like field, the IQ levels of Earth’s inhabitants remains relatively low — i.e. at what one would consider “normal” levels.  However, as Earth moves from the field the average IQ of both humans and animals increases dramatically with a vast variety of results.  Anderson speculates that the institutions and social structures of society will collapse as new cults, homegrown pseudo-Communists, and the newly intelligent who seek a way out of their drab existence begin to assert themselves.

However, increased intelligence does not mean that humanity will drastically change: “The wild-eyed dreamer simply built higher castles in the clouds; the hard-boiled racketeer had no vocabulary of ideas or concepts to rise above his own language of greed” (75).

Brain Wave follows two main narrative threads with interspersed vignettes that illustrate this evolution of society.  Often the vignettes are incredibly abrupt despite their intriguing subject matter — for example, tribesmen in Africa who, with their increased intelligence, are finally able to effectively escape from their colonial oppressors with the assistance of newly sentient chimpanzees and apes (queue dubious 50s views on race) .  I can imagine that an editor would find portions of them easy to cut out of the published version.

The first narrative thread follows Peter Corinth, a brilliant physicist, and Sheila, his wife who is “nothing of an intellectual” (5).  Corinth, with his increased intelligence, seeks to understand the field and prevent the collapse of society.  Sheila, on the other hand, hates what increased intelligence offers and desires above all else to return to her previous state of being (tending children, cooking, waiting for her husband to get home, etc).

One could argue that Anderson is perpetrating 50s views of the housewife who does not participate in anyway with the intellectual life of the husband.  He does temper this stance by introducing Corinth’s brilliant colleague, Helga, who applies her increased intelligence, in the same manner as Corinth does and as any scientist would, to her fervent drive to learn more about the world.

The second narrative thread follows Archie Brock who most likely has a substantial learning disability — his character might be the inspiration for Charlie in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon.  Brock works for Mr. Roseman on his farms tending animals, chopping wood, etc.  While everyone around him leaves the rural landscape in search of ways to apply their new knowledge, Archie — with his increased intelligence — is content to remain on the farm tending the animals.

The animals too become more intelligent.  Pigs become violent while an elephant, chimpanzee, and dog soon join up with Archie and become his friends (despite their limited ability to vocalize or understand humans).  One of the most emotionally devastating moments of the entire novel occurs when Archie is forced to kill one of the more intelligent sheep (whom he has named and can identify based on their character) in order to feed his friends during the winter…

Final Thoughts

There are multiple issues with the novel.  First, as mentioned above, vexing gender dynamics and racial dynamics (a product of the 50s) exist throughout…  For example, Anderson’s assertion that the tribesmen in Africa can only rise against their oppressors after their intelligence increases smacks of racism rather than an understanding of the vicious ways that Europeans maintained their control (53-55).  Also, Sheila’s characterization, especially her desperation to return to her blissful existence with limited intelligence, could be interpreted as sexist — there are no male characters who want their intelligence removed.

Also, the first half of the work operates on a somewhat fallacious premise — that the majority of humankind will leave their jobs if they were slightly more intelligent.  The idea that intelligence always indicates the type of job ones hold is simply not the case.  Many highly intelligent people — due to extenuating circumstances, the need to support families, or a genuine love of what they do — hold jobs that might not test them intellectually.  Anderson seems to forget that his “average man” examples would have families to support….

Also be aware, a very 50s terminology of mental disability that will be shocking for some modern readers (for example, terms such as “moron”, “imbecile”, “half-wit” etc) pervades the book…   However, his treatment of Archie’s character is delicately and lovingly done.

Despite the flaws, Brain Wave is recommended for fans of Poul Anderson and 50s science fiction.

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1966 edition)

(Fred Troller’s silly cover for the 1969 edition)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1970 edition)

(Phil Kirkland’s cover for the 1974 edition)

(Tim White’s cover for the 1977 edition)

(Michael Herring’s cover for the 1978 edition)

For more reviews consult the INDEX

29 thoughts on “Book Review: Brain Wave, Poul Anderson (magazine publication 1953)

  1. Nice to find someone who appreciates Brain Wave, in spite of its many flaws. I reread it every few years, and have even thought about taking the basic idea of a sudden increase in IQ across the board, and doing something more believable with it.

    • Thanks for visiting! And your comment!

      I found this book a little unusual for Anderson — he was much more interesting in social commentary than he often is (such commentary always comes up in his stories but not so centrally). But, as a result, he tackled issues such as gender and race in a frustrating way — when he might have simply avoided it altogether in another work.

      So, I have to applaud him for what he tried to do despite not agreeing with how he did it…

      • Agreed. I’m not actually a fan of Anderson. In fact, this is one of the very few things by him that I’ve read. And we have to keep in mind *when* it was written. Our attitude toward gender and racial stereotypes has changed quite a lot in the last 60 years or so.

        • Of course we have to consider when it was written (I’m a historian — I’m all context — haha).

          However, those points were not the only issues with the novel. I didn’t mention his attempt to convey how the “ultra high IQ” individuals speak.

  2. Yeah, there are plenty of stereotypes about intelligence, too. And fantasies about what marvelous realms the mind will eventually attain. It reminds me of a cruder attempt — that movie where John Travolta becomes a genius from brain cancer. That’s the first laugh. Then, that he suddenly starts pulling esoteric knowledge right out of the air. The movie wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but that’s how it worked out for me.

  3. I have that first one with the Powers cover, though my ponderous backlog of to-be-read books keeps interfering with that. I’m a fan of Anderson, much as you say he hybridizes a solid adventure with social commentary that’s engaging at his best and functionally entertaining at his worst. As I recall this was one of his earliest novels, as most of his writing before ’53-’54 was short fiction.

    • Yeah, I think it’s his 4th novel? Or something like that….

      I would suggest that you read this one anyway….. Despite my review. Perhaps I harped a bit too much on his 50s attitudes. This is perhaps his most focused attempt (at least of the ones I’ve read) to explore social issues.

  4. It did seem edited or even cut to me too. As though it had to fit into a certain page length. I read it a few years ago but remember feeling as though some plot threads were cut short. It’s probably unfortunately not popular enough for a unedited version.

      • A number of reviewers have speculated that Brain Wave was heavily edited. Yet when asked in a 1997 Locus interview which five books he’d like to be remembered for, Anderson says Tau Zero, Midsummer Tempest, The Boat of a Million Years, Three Hearts and Three Lions, and The Enemy Stars, and then adds, “Brain Wave, old as it is, could be on that list too.” What I understand him to be saying is that he’s happy enough with Brain Wave in the published version (as edited) for it to replace The Enemy Stars in the #5 spot, but has some doubts that it’s aged well.

  5. I read Brainwave some years ago, I think the New York Public Library had the 2003 ibooks (I guess now owned by Black Tower) edition. I thought it better than average for Anderson; Anderson’s writing style and characters are (to me) generally lame, but the premise of this book was interesting enough, and the book was short enough, that those didn’t cripple the book the way they do much of his later work, like the interminable Harvest of Stars/.

  6. I’m bowled over by the extreme diversity of the covers. (Herring’s monkey with a shotgun cover is… well, I don’t know what it is. 🙂 Glancing through them quickly, one could almost think that several different books were being referenced despite the title. Is there really such a variety of motifs in the novel? UFOs to slurping sea monsters, Sahara scenes to Jetson’s laboratory-ness? Or are those “artistic extrapolation”?

    • Well, it is a scene from the book but they are not in that environment — they are somewhere in the US… On a farm…. And, there are no UFOs — well, the humans go to another planet to look for intelligent life but it’s a human spaceship. So yeah, clearly some artistic laxity OR some old canvas the editor applied to a random book.

  7. I feel all kinds of love for Phil Kirkland’s art. The covers he did for Ballantine in the early ’70s are among my favorites, especially those he did for the uniform reissue of three Silverbergs – Thorns, Up the Line, and The Masks of Time (which accompanied the first edition of Dying Inside, which also had a Kirkland cover). Indeed, after Lehr and Powers, all of Ballantine’s “artsy” covers of the late ’60s / early ’70s are among my favorites. Those by Kirkland, Jacques Wyrs, and Mati Klarwein. Also Robert Foster. Also Stephen Miller, who did the covers for the ’68 uniform edition of William Tenn. (Did he also do the cover for Hayden Howard’s The Eskimo Invasion, 1968?) What a shame that after the sale of Ballantine to Random House was completed in ’75, their art direction regressed, and traditional illustration became the norm (marked by a new colophon of concentric circles for the SF line). The new stable of artists – Sweet, Herring, Whelan, et al. – were technically excellent, but conceptually rather pedestrian. Even pulpish at times (which of course can be fun). And it only got worse with the Del Rey imprint that began in ’77.

    Not that anyone should think I have an opinion about these things. 😀


    I have just finished reading Brain Wave, a book that I hadn’t read in years. I was motivated to dig up my old copy when I recently discivered Joachim Boaz’s (JB) site (I commented on his review of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream). I read Joachim’s take on the Anderson book and the comments submitted by his readers and I disagree with certain observations of theirs. So, I want to address a few of those issues here.

    But first, an anecdote: my copy of Brain Wave is buried in a box somewhere and I wasn’t sure that I would find it. Then, last Saturday, having coffee with Jon and Ami, I mentioned the book and (JB’s review and my determination to reread it and see if my take jibes with theirs. Jon reads a lot of fantasy and some SF and I thought he might enjoy the book’s premise. He was, in fact, intrigued.

    I assured him that when I found my copy, I would lend it to him—and then shipp it off to my sister in Pennsylvania for a read. The bern and I left Jon and Ami and went into the adjoining Half Price Books and, as always, I checked out the Spinrads, the Ellisons, and the Andersons, to no avail.

    Then I walked past one of Half Price’s dollar racks (an old-fashioned metal spinner that stands on the floor indepoendent of any shelving) and an old Anderson title caught my eye. Flipping through the books I found six older Anderson titles for a buck apiece, and lo and behold, one of them was a like-new copy of the 1974 Ballantine edition of Brain Wave!

    And my response to my rereading the book? I guess I am in the minority here: while agreeing with the general opinion that the book is a good read, I disagree with most of the criticisms that you and everyone else wrote above. (And my use of ‘you’ from this point on is plural.) I see nothing sexist (“prejudice or discrimination based on sex” – Merriam-Webster Online) about the characterization Sheila: she’s a character unhappy and unfit for the changes brought about by the planet leaving the ejnergy field in which it had been passing fomillions of years.

    Your “50s view of the housewife” may or may not be an accurate assessment of Anderson’s intentions, but, well, millions of [white] American women in the ’50s, not only fit that ‘stereotype,’ but they believed they wanted that status. To call Sheila or any other fictional character of the ra who refleceted the cultural norms of that era “sexist” is misleading: June Cleaver may appear a cipher, a joke, to us today but she was an accurately depicted all-Ameerican [white] Mom, if ovely idealized.

    Just as so many [white] American men believed they wanted to be “the man in the gray flannel suit.” June’s hubby Ward was a far more idealized father-figure who only escaped stereotype beecause nobody nowhjere knows anybodyt that had a ftaher that wise understanding tolerant aware etc.!

    Without these modest, “mainstream” people with their modest, “mainstream” goals, there would have been no need for first beatniks, then hippies and, now, whatever one wishes to label the contemporary offshoot of bohemianism, etc.

    You state there are no male counterparts for her: absolutely not so! One of the minor subplots is an international group secretly building a machine that they attempt to launch into orbit that will douse the planet with a wave similar to the energy cone that had dampened the race’s intellectual progress. That is, they were SO unhappy with the ‘new man,’ they were prepared to halt ‘progress’ and return all men to the old ‘normal’—which would be the level of intelligence that the new men refer to as imbecile.

    (And why no accusations of sexism here: the woman who is afraid internalizes the fear andf the changes and the challenges while the men externalize and attempt to impose their minority will on the apparently jubilant majority?)

    I dunno, but it seems like most of you are inferring a helluva lot: you read racism into the Africans bonding with the apes. I read interspecies cooperation between two oppressed ‘peoples’—and apparently against white Europeans who had ‘colonized’ and ‘raavished’ their homeland!

    I have been reading science fiction for fifty years, I am what younger people consider an ‘old hippie’ and my favorite genre of the form is the ‘New Wave’ of the second half of the ’60s and the first half of the ’70s. I like the experimentation, the excesses, the joie de vivre of so many of the young writers (at least, young then) who entered the fray and brought so much of the ‘spirit of the Sixties’ to their work.

    I always saw Poul Anderson as stodgy—an ‘old guy.’ I did not ‘discover’ him until ten years or so ago, and what a discovery! I rarely find his characters “lame” and I tend to get taken along with his flights of more or less ‘hardish’ science fiction fantasy (Tau Zero, The Boat Of A Million Miles, etc.) and his usually sympathetic characters.

    Oddly, my previous view of Anderson as an aging Republican was somewhat tempered by Brain Wave: his views—if, in fact, the book in any way reflects his personal take on what little politics and culture that one can read in the book (versus read into the book)–seems an mixture of progressivism and what I dare to call ‘compassionate Libertarianism.’ (The term Libertarian as it applied to someone like Anderson in the ’50s and ’60s is almost completely corrupted and useless in today’s political climate, where the bulk of the Libertarians have been pulled ever rightward since at least the ‘Reagan revolution.’) (And no Ayn Rand nonsense allowed!)

    On page 144 of the 1974 Ballantine edition (with the Phil Kirkland cover), Anderson writes of the ‘discovery’ of a Polynesian island in the past that “Their [white Europeans] big white-winged canoes stopped only a few times at this island, which was not an important oner, but nonetheless faithfully discharged their usual cargo of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis, so there were not many of the brown folk left. Afterward some resistance was built up, aided by Caucasian blood, and it was time for copra planters, religion, Mother Hubbards, and international conferences to determine whether this atoll, among others, belonged to London, Paris, Berlin, or Washington . . . ”

    Pretty heady stuff for a supposed conservative in the 1950s. An observation like this would not have been out of place in the musings of First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar as he considered the plight of the Lakota peoples in Dances With Wolves, a movie that contemporary American ‘conservatives’ tend to hate for its less-than-complimentary take on white man and his ferocious, mean-spirited, uneducated behavior towards ‘inferior’ peoples during his God-blessed march westward (and taking anything and everything in his way) (or destroying it) Manifest Destiny.

    Okay, I am being a little harsh. My apologies: yes, despite the flaws you perceive in the story and the writing, many of you like Brain Wave. I, like Mr. Anderson, have a MUCH higher opinion of the book: I buy every used copy that I find and hand them out to non-science fiction readers and have yet to be disappointed with the response. That said, I am off to some adventures with Ensign Dominic Flandry, the James Bond of the Technic Civilization in its waning days in the 31st century . . .

    PS: I am posting my reply above on my blog with a link to this page and the suggestion that my readers click on over here and read the review and the comments that precede my dithering!

      • JB I forgot to mention that I like your choice of themes and how you are using it. You have a good looking site. As my blog is my first ever (and since I am computerically challenged), I opted for the WordPress default theme, with which I am fairly pleased. I will be setting up other sites and intend to explore the three-column theme; perhaps I will ape yours . . . NU

  9. I found the ’54 edition in a bargain bin. I was sold on the Richard Powers cover as it’s quite powerful…a bit more so than the story, but I still enjoyed reading it! Thanks for the flashback.

  10. I’ve never read much of Anderson.I did read “Brain Wave”,which I have to say wasn’t bad,but I think that’s all I can say of it.I preferred Heinlein,which might or might not be saying something,but he had a more powerful storytelling style.

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