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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