This story pivots on the
assumption that for millions (or billions) of years our solar system has been
in some kind of electromagnetic field that does not affect most of the galaxy and
universe. While within this field, certain electromagnetic properties are
different. And for some reason the most noteworthy consequence of this
has been less efficient functioning of neurons than would have been the case
outside the field. Earth life has evolved to compensate for this, so
animal and human brains are capable of carrying out necessary animal and human
activities under these unusual conditions.
Then one day, the Earth
reaches the edge of this field and goes beyond the range of its effects.
Over a brief period of time the brains of people and animals start working
unshackled. The IQ's of people like scientists rise to over 400.
The average person is able to think the way the intellectually gifted used to,
and those who had previously had rather simple minds are now what used to be
average or better.
Although this offers
opportunities for some, it also means problems. Factory and construction
workers now find their jobs stifling because they now have the minds of people
in more mentally-intensive jobs. School teachers now have the minds of
physicists. And so on.
Not everyone can deal with
the abrupt change. There are anti-scientific movements, people going
insane in response to the changes to their own brains or to society, there is
political instability, and uncertainty where the human race is headed.
The traditional social structures are not appropriate for super-intelligent
citizens. People’s old hobbies seem dull. People’s relationships
The book follows a few characters
through about a year and a half following the change. There’s a scientist
working at a research institute and his wife who is a bit below average
intellectually. There's a man whose fairly simple mind had put him in a
life of farm labor. And there's a labor leader who probably has above
average intelligence, but more importantly has a strong personality and a
talent for understanding other people's agendas and maneuvering to keep society
functioning as much as possible.
At least as far as my preferences
go, the telling of this initial period of this change had a limited story
potential. That's not to say it's a bad story idea - just that some story
ideas will take you as far as a short story, some a book, some a trilogy.
Brain Wave is a rather short book (about 160 pages). This is a reasonable
length for Anderson's angle on the story.
The book was written in such
a way to keep my interest, at least within its short length. I guess my
reaction looking back at the book is that most of the consequences of the
changes described were relatively mundane considering the relatively
far-fetched nature of the premise. Things weren't "mundane" as
if describing a society not in crisis, but much was what one could expect from
a crisis with a less bizarre cause. I would have appreciated a book about
a crisis of this extraordinary nature spending a greater part of its time on
the consequences that would not be equally applicable to an
"ordinary" crisis. "What would happen if all humans had an
abrupt and tremendous leap in intelligence?" is by no means an over-worked
scenario in SF. Stories in which crises cause society to fall or
reorganize are a reasonably common theme (although it may not have been as
common a theme when Brain Wave was written).
Anderson wrote the book in 1954. At that time our
society was much less dependent on electronics. Perhaps this change in
electromagnetic properties that occurred should have had more of an impact on
radio broadcasting and home radio receivers (and the relatively small number of
other electronic devices). One can imagine the consequences would be much
greater today with our use of electronics in all sorts of products and
industries. But I suppose the “electronics stop working” theme has been
used enough already.