[May 3, 1960] Sharpening Up (Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave)

It’s tough to be a smart person in a dumb world. 

When I was in 4th grade, I had a miserable, mean teacher named Mrs. Middleton.  She was the sort of lady who wore a smile on her face that had a depth of about a micron—she certainly didn’t have a pleasant soul.  I remember many incidents that caused her to rank in the lower tiers of my instructors, but the one that sticks out the most went as follows:

I had done or said something that displayed my somewhat above-average intelligence, and Mrs. Middleton took umbrage.  She sneeringly asked me, “You think you’re so smart!  How would you like it if everyone was as smart as you?”

I answered, quite innocently, “I would love it.  Then I’d have people to talk to.”

Perhaps this is why Poul Anderson’s 1954 novel, Brain Wave, which explores the aftermath of an event that causes every living thing with a brain to become about four times smarter, resonates so strongly with me. 

I recently saw a reprint of this masterpiece at the local bookseller, so now is a good time to take a second look.

Brain Wave opens with the change already in progress.  It occurs quickly and universally.  Within a week, normal folks have IQs in the 300s, and the world begins to fall apart.  After all, who wants to do the menial jobs that society requires to keep functioning?  In the meantime, every animal with an intelligence above that possessed by, say, a goat, develops full sapience.  Many remain docile creatures; others become a menace.

There are really two parallel stories.  One involves a physicist who is captivated by his new talents and applies them to building an interstellar spacecraft (once automation allows humanity to apply itself solely to intellectual pursuits).  His is not an entirely happy story; his wife finds her new brilliance difficult to handle, and their marriage suffers for it.

The other thread, and perhaps the better one, involves a mentally handicapped man who develops a (by pre-change standards) a supergenius IQ.  He forms a sort of commune with a pair of chimpanzees, an elephant, and a dog.  Perhaps the most affecting scene in the book comes when the man must slaughter a sheep, now nearly human in intelligence, to survive the winter. 

The latter plot is more approachable as it features characters whose thought processes are not too unlike our own.  On the other hand, Anderson manages to portray super-intelligence in a plausible and engaging manner.  The newly brilliant communicate in an almost telepathic shorthand.  After the initial anarchy, world peace is achieved since humans are now better able to understand each other.  Wishful thinking?  Maybe, but I happen to like my stories upbeat, and I can certainly subscribe to the idea that the world could do with a bit more smarts to go around.

I understand that the book started out as a magazine serial.  This makese sense–there is a change in tone about halfway through, right around the time a team of astronauts head into space.  The highlight of this section is their first starship voyage, wherein the cause and galactic ramifications of the change are discovered. 

I shan’t spoil the rest.  Go ye and purchase a copy.  After reading it, you will understand why I stuck with Anderson for so long even though most of what he wrote in the mid-’50s was comparatively lousy.

And then send me a letter or two–so I have people to talk to!

3 thoughts on “[May 3, 1960] Sharpening Up (Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave)”

  1. I answered, quite innocently, “I would love it.  Then I’d have people to talk to.”

    How true! While I don’t pretend that universal intelligence would solve all the world’s problems — after all, it’s as easy for a smart person to delude themselves as for a stupid one — it would certainly cut down on a lot of the things we’re having to deal with in our current society.  And a lot of the con-games, both social and political, which rely on people being too dumb to see the holes in the story, would fall apart.

  2. I thought this was a very good novel, too.

    Don’t give up on Anderson just yet.  Among his many stories, a few are truly excellent:

    “Call Me Joe”

    “The Man Who Came Early”

    “Journeys End”

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