For millions of years, the part of the galaxy containing our solar system has been moving through a vast force field that has been inhibiting certain electromagnetic and electrochemical processes and, thus, certain neurotic functions. When Earth escapes the inhibiting field, synapse speed immediately increases, causing a rise in intelligence, which results in a transfigured humanity reaching for the stars, leaving behind our earth to the less intelligent humans and animal life-forms.
This is a transcendent look at the possible effects of enhanced intelligence on our planet.
©1954 Poul Anderson (P)2011 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“A masterpiece.” (Larry Niven)
This is an interesting speculative work about "what if...humans suddenly became much, much smarter all at once?" It takes us some pretty interesting places, although I'm not sure I agree with all of the author's conclusions.
The plot is pretty simple: One day, something happens to the laws of physics and nerve cells suddenly become more efficient. Humans (and, as we see, other animals as well) become much more quick-witted and intelligent. What happens to society? There are several parallel threads, the main ones being the story of Dr. Peter Corinth, physicist and that of Archie Brock, farm-hand.
It was written in the 1950's and there are some attitudes about the role of women in society (especially Peter Corinth's wife) and how some of our society is based around the idea that very smart people are unwilling to do some menial and tedious (but essential) jobs. (This concept is also explored in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.) It also examines what it means to be "human" and what happens when not only the people but the animals become brainier.
Bottom line, and interesting thought piece.
Oh, and I like Tom Weiner's narration....he does a good job with this.
I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave has a great premise — for millennia, unknown to scientists, the Earth has been under the influence of some sort of field that dampens the speed of neurons in the cortex. But now the Earth has suddenly passed out of the field and immediately neurons start working faster, making everyone’s IQs (man and animal) escalate dramatically. This sounds like a good thing to me, but perhaps it’s not in Poul Anderson’s mind. In his story, human civilization changes drastically, and mostly not in positive ways.
The story follows several characters: a physicist named Peter Corinth; Sheila, his timid and dull-witted housewife; a mentally-handicapped farmhand named Archie Brock; and an official named Felix Mandelbaum. Each of these characters experiences a large jump in IQ which causes a change in their circumstances. Each of them deals with this change differently as Poul Anderson explores what might happen to a society that is suddenly full of people who are geniuses and animals who are rising up to challenge us.
Actually, though it’s a really cool thought experiment, Poul Anderson’s story is not as interesting as it sounds like it should be. The first problem is the characters — none are likeable or inherently interesting with the possible exception of Archie Brock. Sheila, the vapid housewife, is especially odious (but I tend to bristle at all vapid housewife characters written by old male SF writers — is that really how they thought of women back then?).
Another problem is that I had a hard time believing in the consequences that Anderson foretells for a world with smarter people. He seems to be suggesting that the only people who will be truly happy in their jobs will be scientists and artists for these are the only rewarding jobs for really smart people. Therefore, blue-collar workers who are now suddenly smart will abandon their jobs and society will collapse. He seems to be suggesting that laborers are not as smart as scientists, which is kind of pretentious and certainly not accurate. There’s a big difference between intelligence and education. He is also obviously suggesting that a smart person can’t find meaning and reward in a lower status job, something else I don’t believe is true. Surely these more intelligent humans will realize that farming is still a necessary occupation and there will be people who still enjoy farming even if they’re geniuses. (Or, if not, they can invent machines to do it for them.)
I agreed with Anderson on a couple of important points — a new psychology would be needed for a human race that is smarter than ours. And even though I didn’t believe in Anderson’s story, I still think it’s a great premise and thinking exercise. If the purpose of intelligence is to adapt to the environment, what happens when the environment has to adapt to intelligence? A fascinating idea.
I listened to Tom Weiner narrate Blackstone Audio’s version of Brain Wave. Weiner has a great voice for old science fiction.
I will listen to NO boring book. Old Fav's,Card, King , Hobb. New Fav's, Hill, Scalzi, Sawyer, Interested in Lansdale, Crouch, Konrath
Written in 1954 this book is very dated. Everyone, human and animal gets smarter. One poor housewife who was pretty but stupid, gets smarter, but the poor thing just was not built to be smart and she goes crazy. A guy who is almost a Moron, gets smarter and he becomes a great leader. There is one woman who has a job, she is handsome not pretty and she is an office manager, certainly not a scientist. PA tries to speak out against the atrocities against black, but in so doing, kind of admits that he thinks blacks are not as smart as whites.
PA also believes that when people get smart they leave the cities. There is the usual 50's bitch about using atomic bombs. People who drive trucks, work on assembly lines or do manual labor are stupid and when they get smarter they rather starve to death then do these jobs.
They story does move along very quick and there is some interesting talk about intelligence and what is it really. A like all the farm scenes and how the animals reacted to be smarter. An updated version by Robert Sawyer would be good.
I love Anderson, and the premise is great, but this book is just awful. This book has none of the standard fiction elements like tension, conflict, character development, and so on. Instead it's one of those scifi books where the author had an idea and then just uses fiction to tell us about what he thinks about it. (Characters sit around and expound their philosophies to each other, etc.) Also, at times the book seems to be premised on the odd idea that anyone who does manual labor for a living must not be very intelligent, and that intelligent people would refuse to do that sort of work. That's factually incorrect (didn't Anderson know that large numbers of people work for money?) and on the verge of being offensive.
Poul Anderson is one of my favorite SF writers from the Golden Age. I loved his stories of David Falkayn, Chee Lan, Ensign Flandry and a host of other larger than life heroes that inhabited the Polesotechnic League Universe and the future human empire. And even when I first read Brainwave back in the seventies, I loved it. There was something there that made it fresh, original, full of promise and certainly expansive. This reading, however, stole that away from the story. Several times I almost concluded that since I had already read the story and knew the ending, I could give it up and go to my next book, but loyalty to the author and a desire to see how the narrator completed that final scene generated in me a hard-nosed forbearance. I have not decided whether it was a wise choice.
I can only marginally recommend this narration. It has its good points but it also moves along a bit lifelessly. If you are so much in love with Science Fiction that missing even one novel is unacceptable, then pick this one up. If Science Fiction is not your passion, then it would be best if you moved on to something a little more mainstream and comprehensible or you, too, may find yourself wondering whether you should finish this narration.
Say something about yourself!
Although written decades ago, this is a remarkably fresh story with wonderful speculations about how the world would change if everything with a nervous system suddenly started getting a lot smarter. The idea shows up a few decades later, highly modified, in Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep, but there it plays out on a more galactic scale. In Anderson's version we get a more intimately human look at what our intelligence means to us. Well narrated too boot.
This book was really original. I can't remember reading (or hearing) a book that played along similar lines.
"Fantastic idea but poorly executed"
The idea for this book is brilliant but I don't really feel that Poul Anderson did the idea justice, the story seemed to skip along the surface of some really intriguing ideas without ever really delving into them. I'd love to see what someone like Peter Hamilton could do with this idea, it just didn't seem very well explored.
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