Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

1967: Out of My Mind (Brunner, John)

Hearty kernels of concept sheathed in occasional chaff (3.5/5)

I believe I’m on my thirty-fourth Brunner book. I’ve only kept 70% of those titles, so while I’m an avid reader of Brunner’s work, it doesn’t always resonate with me. Reading Out of My Mind was spurred by Joachim Boaz’s comment on Brunner short story “Nobody Axed You” (1965). He loved the story and it reminded me how versatile (…or unpredictable) a writer Brunner used to me. He had some obviously brilliant “wheat” but also had the inevitable “chaff” mixed among it all.

Out of My Mind, thankfully, doesn’t contain any of the chaff; nor does it, however, show any great ambition or artistry that Brunner later exhibited along the lines of Stand on Zanzibar (1968) or The Sheep Look Up (1972). The best stories in this collection, comparatively, soar far above such dreck as “No Other Gods But Me” (1966). At the same time, they have an aura of whim exuded by the author—many of them aren’t serious in nature, yet are cleverly based on the kernel of an idea that Brunner ran with. This doesn’t always translate well as it feels just like that: this is my seed of my idea (which may be good or bad, depending on the reader) and this is the roughly textured chaff that surrounds it (sometimes good, sometimes bad, too).

“Orpheus’s Brother” (1965) dips into Brunner’s knowledge of mythology, a subject of which rarely hits me as enlightening, thereby rending it, for me, the weakest of all the stories. In contrast, “Round Trip” (1959), one of Brunner’s early stories, may be simple at first glance but has a few depths of thought: one of science, one of humanity, one of alternative worlds, one of whim, and another of romance. In between these two sides of the spectrum, Brunner pens some stories that either evoke nods, smiles, or the raise of one or both eyebrows.


“Fair Warning” (1964, shortstory) – 3/5
Amid a fleet of naval ships in the middle of the tropical ocean, one island sits beneath the sun, but upon its surface, men are toiling over a structure, and within that structure is a device. Vliesser and Rogan have been charged with setting up the device prior to its test detonation. As they check parts and are about to toast to the first man-made carbon-nitrogen cycle fusion of the bomb, they are suddenly paralyzed as they witness an odd shifting in the air where something materializes. 8 pages

“The Nail in the Middle of the Hand” (1965, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Decius Asculus isn’t just an expert in his trade, but he’s widely known as the Expert, who’s admired by peers and loathed by his subjects. As he proudly prepares his nails in the courtyard, he thinks lecherous thoughts and displays his Herculean physique. His three subjects for the day shoulder their crosses to take to the hill where Decius takes to the stage to perform: nailing hands and feet to the cross. The first two fidget and scream, yet the last fellow looks placidly on Decius’s face. 8 pages

“Orpheus’s Brother” (1965, shortstory) – 2.5/5
In a moment of hysteria, hormones, or hell on earth, the superstar named Rock Careless was mobbed and torn apart by his fans. Rock’s brother knows one more person was involved in the murder—Rock’s own manger—who Laurie has come to confront. Mr. Wise, as he’s known, welcomes him but keeps him at an arm’s-length while he logically states the situation of the so-called murder, and the situation that Rock Careless was actually in. Laurie is unimpressed by the talk and wants some action. 10 pages

“Prerogative” (1960, shortstory) – 4/5
Dr. Welby was found dead in his room after a brief scream. His charred limbs indicate either electrocution or a lightning strike, both of which seeming highly improbable—borderline impossible. As his scientific team gives testimony in court regarding Dr. Welby’s unusual and unnatural death, they hit upon the nature of his investigations, a line of inquiry that fans the flames of the spectators’ anger. All he was trying to do was to create reproductive life in primordial earth-like conditions. 13 pages

“Such Stuff” (1962, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Everyone dreams, but the benefits of dreaming and the  drawbacks of its lack were always murky, so Harry and Daventry began a study to observe the effect on people who are able to sleep yet forbidden from dreaming. All the test subjects, save one, voluntarily quit before two weeks, each citing anger, stress, and borderline insanity; that one man, however, has gone through it for six months: Mr. Starling, “the malleable thing that filled the hole available to it, the thing without will of its own which made the best of what there was” (61)—an aberration. 18 pages

“The Totally Rich” (1963, novelette) – 3/5
Derek Cooper is just a man who has ideas, conversations, ambition, and a libido. He’s also a man with a fantastic original idea: “to deduce the individual from the traces he makes” (82). His kernel of an idea comes to fruition when a magnificently wealthy woman hires him to develop the machine for her own benefit, but she’s one step ahead of him: she also wants the machine to reproduce the same person it had deduced. With her life rich yet empty, Derek holds the power over her with a simple affirmation. 28 pages

“See What I Mean” (1964, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Four delegates had arrived to the Foreign Ministers’ Conference on the Resolution of Outstanding International Differences and Disarmament: the US allied with the UK, and Russia allied with China. The future of the world hung in the balance by their whims and tact yet the beautiful Genevan setting can’t compel them to agree, even after the conference’s ninety-third day. Progress is only made when the Chinese delegate has a car crash with Dr. Gerhard Hirnmann. The next day, the American delegate also has a fender-bender with the same doctor. 8 pages

“The Fourth Power” (1960, novelette) – 3.5/5
A curious but worthless and inapplicable effect from an experiment with silver wire has garnered the interest of a renowned Sythesist whose occupation revolved around combining seemingly unrelated areas of science. Smith synthesizes this scientific trial with a neurological one in which he himself is the experiment. Already an autodidactic polymath, Smith sees this experiment as a way to tap the multitudinous synopses of the human brain. The observers, however, weren’t expecting the seeming simultaneous activities at a such a rate of learning, which is only becoming more ludicrous. 29 pages

“The Last Lonely Man” (1964, shortstory) – 4/5
In this day and age, everyone has a Contact. Most have a few Contacts, such a friends, a spouse, or a sibling, but almost no one goes without a Contact—that’d instill a sense of mortality in the person, a surety that death is inevitable. A contact, however, is insurance that the imprint of your persona will live on through someone else when transferred. Hale takes pity on a man who had just lost his only Contact, so he also takes him aboard as a Contact, only later to receive news that the man is a budding burden. 18 pages

“Single-Minded” (1963, shortstory) – 3.5/5
In the remote mountains of the moon, Don Bywater crashlands his ship and holds little hope for rescue until a Soviet moon-walker comes into view aiming for his ship. His rescuer is an enthusiastic Russian woman bent on conversation and showing him around the vehicle that any American bureaucrat would love to get their hands on. Back at the Soviet base, Don understands that the scores of people there have been infected with a resonating virus that enables telepathy, expect for the “cured” woman. Don reflects that he has so much to steal. 21 pages

“A Better Mousetrap” (1963, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Colossal chunks of precious metals and rare gems—the chunks called busters—seem to appear instantaneously in the galaxy. The human crews who find the treasure troves don’t ask questions like, “Where did it come from?” or “What are they for?”; rather, they just rake in the money. Professor Aylward has been thinking about those questions, however. He strings together the dates and ships that find the busters with the same of the disappeared ships and reaches the conclusion that the busters are nothing more than bait. 20 pages

“Eye of the Beholder” (1957, shortstory) – 4/5
With two arms and two legs, Painter thinks himself an average being whose profession is also his name. As a hermit, he paints landscapes of a desolate planet. Nearby, a spaceship crashes and out come a few humans, who happen to also be bipedal. Wanting to help out, Painter begins to walk their way. Meanwhile, the humans discover a trove of painting in a shack and are amazed by the sheer depth that the paintings bring out of the otherwise boring planet. Painter sees their appreciation and approaches with pride. 15 pages

“Round Trip” (1959, shortstory) – 4.5/5
Darak bez Hamath pens a letter to his loving wife explaining his circumstances: He commands a large scientific fleet sent to study the center of all things—the source-point of the Big Bang. When the fleet arrives, they discover a huge reflective orb that oddly has no gravity. As they ponder upon the fate of the universe—ending in a Big Freeze or a Big Crunch—they also consider the object’s usefulness, its makers, and its origin in time. All this gets more complex when they enter under a “Welcome” sign. 11 pages

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