on poul anderson’s brain wave

Estimated reading time is 14 minutes.

I FOUND MY AGING COPY of Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave when I discovered Joachim Boaz’s site Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations. I read Joachim’s take on Poul Anderson’s novel—he considered it “vaguely good”—and the comments submitted by his readers and I disagreed with certain observations of theirs. So, I want to address a few of those issues here on my site. 1

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 the review and my determination to reread it and see if my take jibed 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 ship it off to my sister in Pennsylvania for a read. After Berni and I left Jon and Ami, we went to Half Price Books and, as always, I checked for my faves (Spinrad, Ellison, Anderson, and others) to no avail. Finding science fiction paperbacks from the ’50s and ’60s has been difficult for a long time and books from the ’70s are becoming equally hard to find.

Then I walked past one the dollar racks (an old-fashioned metal spinner that stands on the floor independent 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 1973 Ballantine edition of Brain Wave—the same edition that I had bought forty years before and that led to my fascination with Anderson (and discussed briefly below)!


SpaceScienceFiction September1953 600

The 1953 short story “The Escape” as a two-parter in the September and November 1953 issues of Space Science Fiction magazine. The cover art has that certain solid utilitarian look of socialist art of the 1930s. Anderson expanded the story and it was published as the paperback novel Brain Wave by Ballantine the following year. I found this well-used copy of the Hip Comic website.

A plot synopsis (part 1)

“At the end of the Cretaceous period (145,000,000-65,000,000 years ago), Earth moved into an energy-damping field in space. As a result, almost all of the life on Earth with neurons died off, causing the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction of some three-quarters of plant and animal species on Earth, including all non-avian dinosaurs.

The creatures that survived passed on their genes for sufficiently capable neurons to deal with the new circumstance. Now in modern times (the 1950s), Earth moves out of the field. Within weeks, all animal life on Earth becomes about five times as intelligent as they had been.


Suppose something happened that could change you into a genius overnight. Suppose that this quickening of wits affected every animate creature—not just all humans, but bugs, dogs, chimps, even rabbits.


The book opens with a lyrical description of a rabbit stuck inside a trap, becoming able to reason his way out. This is a common theme in the book. Institutions which seemed to be vital to human society—such as a money economy and centralized government—disappear.

As humans develop interstellar travel, they discover no other races are as intelligent as they; other races developed pre-Change intelligence, and there was no environmental pressure to select for higher intelligence after that.

Archie Brock, one of the main characters, is mentally disabled. When Earth moves out of the field, he becomes a genius by pre-Change standards. His character is central to the story. He takes over the farm that he worked on as a common laborer and, with the aid of his dog and some escaped circus animals, successfully run the farm. Even though his intelligence has increased five-fold, so has everyone else’s, so he is still considered a relative simpleton.


PoulAnderson BrainWave 1954 gatefold 900

The first US paperback edition by Ballantine Books (1954) sported this nifty wraparound cover with art by Richard Powers. The back cover teases us with a hypothetical statement: “Suppose something happened that could change you into a genius overnight. Suppose, further, that this quickening of wits affected every animate creature—not just all humans (even down to the moron level)—but bugs, dogs, chimps—even rabbits.”

A plot synopsis (part 2)

Dr. Peter Corinth is a physics researcher is one of the first to understand The Change. He becomes a pilot of the first spaceship able to explore the galaxy, where they accidentally cross back into the energy-damping field. There his mind quickly becomes unable to work the complex controls, and he must wait for the ship to move back out of the field on its own.

Corinth’s wife Sheila is a housewife before The Change who begins to lose her sanity from having to deal daily with the existential crisis. She goes into her husband’s lab to use an electroconvulsive therapy machine to destroy parts of her brain. She brings her IQ down to about 150, with which she is more comfortable.

In the end, when nearly all the humans leave Earth, he decides to stay behind as leader of a colony of now sentient animals and formerly mentally disabled people. Sheila leaves Peter and in the last scene we see her introduced to Archie’s farm, the implication being that the two of the merely normal geniuses will find peace and fulfillment with each other and those humans like them and the more elevated animals.”

“Hands-down the most enjoyable Poul Anderson [novels] and one of the most classic extrapolations of the mind in science fiction—it is also the most unusual apocalypse for the human race: gradual increase in IQ world-wide, total genius epidemic. What the people would do when they realize the ultimate futility of most of our conventional tasks, goals, and aspirations?

Not to mention the downfall spiral, when they begin to lose the heightened intelligence and return to the previous dumbed-down state. Sort of like Flowers For Algernon, but on the global scale. Plus has the signature poetic prose of vintage Anderson.”

This synopsis above was taken from Wikipedia and edited with a few words added by me. The mini-review that follows it is taken from the most excellent Sci Fi at the Dark Roasted Blend website.


PoulAnderson BrainWave Heinemann 600

The first hardcover edition of Brain wave was published in the UK in 1955 by William Heinemann Ltd (Melbourne, London, Toronto). It featured nice if uninspired artwork on the dust-jacket. I found this clean copy (but not near mint) on the L.W. Curry bookseller site for a mere $750.

I reread the book and I don’t agree

And my response to my rereading the book? I enjoyed as much today as I did then and was moved to respond to Joachim’s review, and that is the bulk of what follows. I wrote the response and sent it to Joachim, who published it on his site. Now my readers can see it here. Before reading any further, I urge you to click on over to Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations and read Joachim’s (addressed as “you” below) review.

While agreeing with the general opinion that the book is a good read, I disagree with most of the criticisms that you and your commenters wrote. You wrote, “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.”


Their big white-winged canoes stopped only a few times at this island, which was not an important one, but nonetheless faithfully discharged their usual cargo of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis.


I see nothing sexist (“prejudice or discrimination based on sex” – Merriam-Webster Online) about the characterization of Sheila: she is unhappy and unfit for the changes, that’s all. It can be argued that Archie is equally unfit and unhappy, hence his decision to not follow the humans and remain on Earth among the former dumb animals.

You wrote, “One could argue that Anderson is perpetrating ’50s views of the housewife who does not participate in any way with the intellectual life of the husband.” That 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.


JuneWardCleaver 500 1

Leave it to June and Ward

To call a description of any fictional character of the era who reflected the cultural norms of that era “sexist” is misleading. For example, June Cleaver may appear a cipher, even a joke to us today but she was an accurately depicted all-American [white] Mom, if overly 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 because nobody nowhere knows anybody that had a father that wise understanding tolerant aware!

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.


Ward Cleaver was an idealized father-figure who only escaped stereotype because nobody knows anybody that had a father that was as wise, as understanding, as tolerant, and as aware!


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 an imbecile.

(And why no accusations of sexism here: the woman who is afraid internalizes the fear and 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 ‘ravished’ their homeland!

I am not saying that you have got it all wrong, not that I am simply correct, just that inferring attitudes into a work of pop fiction decades after the fact is dangerous and can lead one afield from the actual story being told or the lesson being taught. And it can actually hinder the enjoyment of reading the narrative and grokking the wholeness of the book. 2


PoulAnderson BrainWave UK MayflowerDell 600

The first UK paperback edition from Mayflower-Dell wasn’t published until 1965. It features cool art by Jacks that captures a certain kind of science-fiction illustration style popular in the 1950s and ’60s.

Poul Anderson as the Old Wave

I have been reading science fiction for fifty years, and I suppose that I am what younger people consider an old hippie. My favorite genre of science fiction 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’ his mainstream science fiction until ten years or so ago, and what a discovery! 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 Rep*blican 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 a mixture of progressivism and what I dare to call compassionate Libertarianism3

On page 144 of the 1974 Ballantine edition, Anderson writes of the ‘discovery’ of a Polynesian island in the past:

“Their [white Europeans] big white-winged canoes stopped only a few times at this island, which was not an important one, 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 people in Dances With Wolves, a movie that contemporary American conservatives tend to hate for its less-than-complimentary take on the white man.

That movie depicts ‘the white man’ as ferocious, uneducated, and mean-spirited, especially towards ‘inferior’ people he meets during his God-blessed march westward (and taking anything and everything in his way) (or destroying it) in realizing his 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 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!

So ends my sorta rebuttal of Mr. Boaz’s review of Brain Wave


PoulAnderson BrainWave 1973 500

Another US paperback edition with cover art by Phil Kirkland from 1973. (See Featured Image below.)

An obituary for Poul Anderson 

“Poul Anderson, who was born on November 25, 1926, died of prostate cancer on July 31, 2001. He published his first short story in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1947 and went on to produce more than 100 books, most of them novels. One of the last writers from science fiction’s ‘golden age,’ he was in the generation that followed authors like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Frederik Pohl.

James Blish called Anderson ‘the enduring explosion’ because of his seemingly endless productivity, and described his 1970 novel Tau Zero as the ‘ultimate hard science-fiction novel.’

Born to Danish parents in Bristol, Pennsylvania, Anderson graduated in physics from the University of Minnesota in 1948. His Scandinavian heritage and scientific training are evident throughout his work.

In a 1997 interview with the magazine Locus, Anderson said, ‘So much American science fiction is parochial—not as true now as it was years ago—but the assumption is of one culture in the future, more or less like ours, with the same ideals and the same notions of how to do things, just bigger and flashier technology. Well, you know darn well it doesn’t work that way.’ 4

For Sir Arthur C Clarke, Anderson was one of science fiction’s giants, though he was as well known for his fantasy novels and his rewritings of myth as for his sometimes outrageous humour.

Sometimes criticised as rightwing, he described himself as an ‘18th century liberal’ in the American libertarian sense: ‘As for the value of the individual, I’m quite consciously in the Heinleinian tradition there. It’s partly an emotional matter—a libertarian predilection, a prejudice in favour of individual freedom—and partly an intellectual distrust based on looking at the historical record . . . a distrust of large, encompassing systems.’

His many science fiction awards included seven Hugo Awards and three Nebula Awards. President of the Science Fiction Writers of America (1972-73), he won the SFWA’s Grandmaster Award in 1997, and was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2000.” (David Barrett, for The Guardian)


PoulAnderson BrainWave Kirkland 1000

FEATURED IMAGE: Kirkland is one of my faveravest artists of the past fifty years. His playful and magical combination of surrealism, psychedelicism, and children’s art was unmistakable on every jacket he did. It was the delightful painting above that made me buy Brain Wave in 1974, despite not being much of a fan of Anderson at the time. It was one of the best book buys of my life as I rank Anderson among my favorite authors and among the very best fantasy writers of the 20th century.





1   This article was originally published on this site on August 7, 2013 under the absurd title of “Catch A Wave And You’re Sitting On Top Of The World,” a play on words and a Beach Boys allusion. I have greatly expanded the piece and added all of the images. 

2   An extreme example of one generation reading one kind of prejudice (personal or social) into a work of fiction decades later is the fact that all of the cartoons that Warner Bros did during the WWII years that depicted Japanese soldiers as short yellow men with slits for eyes and teeth so bucked that beavers must have drooled with envy was totally appropriate to a depiction of a brutal enemy at the time.

It was understandable propaganda for the war years and is not a depiction of general cultural prejudice fifty years later. But we still can’t see Bugs and Daffy take on those Nips, er, Jappos, ahem, members of Dai-Nippon Teikoku Rikugun (the Army of the Greater Japanese Empire).

3  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. Like all others considered conservative, Libertarians have taken a hard right turn since the Reagan years and while the term may have been applicable to Anderson in the ’50s, it seems wrong today when his attitudes are compared to the beliefs, speeches, and actions of modern Libs.

4   Here Anderson means parochial not in its primary sense—“of or relating to a church parish”—but to its secondary meaning: “having a limited or narrow outlook or scope.”




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