What if we were all designed to be smarter than we actually are? That is the premise of master science fiction novelist Poul Anderson’s 1954 debut work, Brain Wave. Unbeknown to its inhabitants, the solar system has for millions of years been caught in a force field that has had the effect of supressing intelligence. When in the course of normal galactic movement the solar system breaks free of the force field that has held it in its sway for so long, gone are the inhibiting effects and a remarkable change begins to sweep across the earth.
In fact, the entire world is turned upside-down and Anderson’s novel is devoted to detailing the sometimes surprising, sometimes chilling aftereffects of this watershed event. In one of the novel’s opening scenes, Archie Brock, a mentally disabled man, finds himself suddenly awash in new kinds of thought as he ponders the night sky. In another scene, a young boy on a summer break works out the basic fundamental foundations of calculus before breakfast. Human life is dramatically transformed, as people with IQs of 400 find themselves living within social structures and institutions designed for people of considerably lower intelligence. There are others who refuse to accept what has happened and instead band together in a rebellion against the new order.
Brain Wave is a fascinating “what if” novel and an exploration into the ways in which human society is organized and the assumptions that are made about how we value life. It is also a novel about equality and what happens when the hierarchical structures that we know and arrange our lives by finally disappear.