Unpulped #7: Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak

How Not to Be Married

Donovan’s Brain

I knew of Donovan’s Brain because it was made into a pulpy sci-fi movie in the fifties. A brain divorced from body that can control other people with the power of thought alone! The hideous ability of a mind separate from the morality that the flesh engenders in the living! Because a brain apart can’t possibly be counted as alive, or so is one of the preconceptions of the novel.

The book is written by Curt Siodmak, a name I recognize though I haven’t read anything of his before. He was a popular screenwriter, having penned The Wolf Man—the one that starred Lon Chaney, Jr.—and so that may have been how his name entered my (as yet skull-housed) brain.

The novel is not as pulp-oriented as I expected. The central scientist is definitely mad, and despite a last-minute change at the end of the book, he’s so obsessed by science, by a single theory, that he’s virtually inhuman, no more than an ambulatory brain himself. And I guess that’s what surprised me about the book—along with being a tale of science gone mad—is that it’s a careful dissection of how obsession can destroy a person’s humanity.

See, the main storyline involves the scientist (Dr. Patrick Cory) who is convinced that he can coerce the brain into living past the demise of the body. His wife (Janice) is so tangential to the main thrust of the novel that you aren’t even told she’s his wife until a good twenty to thirty pages into the book. They live in a small town, have no social life, and don’t even leave the house (or he his laboratory) except for necessities. He has no concern for food or pleasure or anything except for the quest to prove his theory.

The brain he ends up proving his theory with is that of W. H. Donovan, a multi-billionaire, and a man who has ruined his own life with his obsession with money and control. As a result of Patrick’s experiment, Donovan’s brain gains telepathic control over the good doctor so that Patrick is able to see, from the inside, the hollow shell of a life Donovan made for himself, and how he’s driven (now from beyond the grave (sort of)) to make things right, though even his reparations are hamstringed by his inability to understand human nature.

They are parallels, and though Patrick ends up surviving with the help of a good woman (in a completely unconvincing change of heart re: science and discovery and the importance of other people as people) they are both really the same cautionary tale. Siodmak dresses the moral side, the side that treasures people instead of ideas, with faith and God, though the fact that the “good” side is put forward by a drunk and a self-negating suffering martyr of a woman doesn’t really let the novel prioritize one way of living over the other.

Two things struck me about the novel, other than it’s less than pulpy (for the most part) nature. The first is that it’s told in a diary form, harkening back to horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein. The second thing, closely related to the first, is that the main character is so reprehensible and that isn’t a barrier to identifying with him (unlike the sexist jerk who fronts The Path Beyond the Stars). I think it’s because of the diary form that he’s tolerable—we’re in his head, and he doesn’t see himself as evil or jerkish or bigoted, so we can get his viewpoint completely and understand it even as we’re horrified by his actions.

Is Donovan’s Brain a good novel? The prose is uninspired, written in the dry factual manner of a journalist or (dare I say) a scientist. There’s virtually no imagery in the entire book. The novel is fascinating, though, especially after an opening that surprises the reader with Patrick’s cruelty, and his utter dedication to science, a surprise that works because it plays the reader’s natural sense of compassion against them.

Patrick buys a monkey from a traveling organ grinder, a monkey who is flea-bitten, half-starved, and has clearly never seen much love in its life. He feeds the monkey, gets rid of its fleas, suffers its bites as he tries to give it warmth, to befriend it. Then, when it is completely at ease and trusts him implicitly as its caretaker, he kills it with a single stab to the spinal cord. Negative emotions, of course, will influence the brain chemistry, which will taint his experiment. Just as the negative emotions engendered by that act influence the reading of Patrick’s character throughout the novel, and make his actions and thoughts endlessly intriguing.

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Monthly Music Monday: “Stress” by Justice

I want to point out that this video is a mini-movie, and one that I find very, very disturbing. The first dozen times I watched it I found myself crying–it’s such a perfect distillation of people’s inhumanity to one another, made especially poignant because the victimizers clearly have nothing themselves (not to mention they are so young). (Though I guess I just mentioned it. Is that part of the pathos of the piece, seeing kids on the verge of switching from innocent to experienced (i.e., becoming teenagers) being utter demons?)

The music drives the movie, underscoring both the despair and the desperation in the video, the utter nihilism that, at the end, causes the film to eat itself, the mini-documentary combusting with the main actors turning on those who’ve been filming them this entire time.

What gets me every time in the video is those moments when people are being terrorized, and other people just sit back and watch–they don’t try and stop what’s going on, or help those in danger: they don’t want to be involved, which allows what we’re watching to continue, unabated.

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Unpulped #6: The Path Beyond the Stars by Emil Petaja (DNF)

Misogyny Incorporated!

The Path Beyond the Stars

What do you do about racism or sexism or otherwise (what I see as) hideous views from books written long ago, when such things were seen to be the norm, accepted, the commonly-held opinion? Shove it from your mind? Look past it? Stop reading

Take The Path Beyond the Stars, published in 1969, and try to separate the book from the long-storied history of Emil Petaja in science fiction. (I say that latter because, even though I’ve never heard of him before, he was named as the first Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which means he must have been a household name (or the SF&F equivalent) at one time.) Its sexism is forefront and contains liberal dashes of misogyny as well. The main character is presented as so unpleasant in the first few pages that I can’t see how I’m supposed to identify with him except that the book clearly seems to want me to.

All of that, unpleasant as it is to read, I find somewhat fascinating the same way I find a bad movie fascinating. How did this get made? What was this person thinking? But what killed this book for me was the fact I found it boring. The War with the Newts presented every character in an equally unsympathetic light. Donovan’s Brain (which I’m reading for the next Unpulped) has a main character who is pretty thoroughly reprehensible, and his disdain for others (including his wife) is his central, highlighted flaw. He’s an ass, but the story surrounding him is gripping.

In The Path Beyond the Stars, characters talk in paragraphs, taking turns to give us all the exposition we need, explicating entire swaths of scientific discovery and argument in a single breath. When he’s not thinking about how special he is, Jon Wood is an utter dick concerning women:

“Her doll-size replica was pretty, and that helped.”

“She didn’t smile at all, though her mouth was made for it; nor did she bat her long lashes or exercise any of the presumed feminine pererogatives.”

“At work, he had no time for female wiles.”

His attitude might also be genetic, since his father treated his wife the same way. The prologue consists of Jon’s parents shooting their child off in an escape pod as they are about to fall into a star. (Which is just one of the parallels between this story and Superman.) As you might expect, the father is eager to get their son to safety, but the mother keeps trying to get her son back, to keep her with him, even though that means certain death for him. Because mothers (and women in general) are irrational creatures, ruled by emotion, driven towards relationships above all, and whose main tool for getting through life is their sexuality.

At this time I should admit two things. The first is that the views I’m talking about seem that of Petaja, not of the characters in the book—there is no narrator filtering the prologue (a possible excuse for Wood’s views). The second is that I did not finish the book (hence the DNF in the post’s title). Boring is the death of reading.

Another excuse for the way Petaja presents the story, sexism and all is that maybe this novel is following the patter of noir detectives, the most cliché of which are male power fantasies. The private dick sits in his office drinking whiskey straight from the bottle to try and kill the hangover of the night before when a femme fatale sways in to invite him to deadly, exciting adventure.

Key word: exciting. I’ll leave you with this illustrative example of the lack of excitement. Two contradictory sentences, contradicting each other, in contradiction.

“There was no time for questions or explanations. Eventually their huge, slimy pipeway assumed a straightness, which assured Jon they were almost home.”

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Monthly Music Monday: “Secular Haze” by Ghost B.C.

One of the posters on Absolute Write has a picture of Ghost B.C.’s lead singer as their avatar, and eventually I tracked down who the crazy guy dressed in bishop robes was.

I have to say, I love all things about what you will see below: the pageantry, the lo-fi video like something you’d find on public access late at night, and the music. It reminds me of the heavy metal of my childhood, but the organ lifts it up into something like aural camp (for me–others are free to take this completely and utterly seriously). I don’t mean that it’s funny to me, exactly, but that the pleasure centers this song hits aren’t, necessarily, what I think the band are going for.

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Unpulped #5: War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

The cover is no more fragmented than the story is, FYI.

War With the Newts

In 1920 Karel Čapek invented the word robot in his play R.U.R. That’s all I vaguely knew about him as an author until I read War with the Newts, a novel about how humanoid newts from the ocean end up taking over the world. Beware!

The novel was written in 1936, but my expectations for the book were based on pulp novels where grand ecological disasters wipe out the world or aliens on a power trip beat-down humanity with a galactic stick. (Yes, there are also the “humanity on a power trip” novels where Earth beats down aliens, expertly done with righteousness, paternalism, and colonialism as its main components.)

But War with the Newts is not that. I’m not sure if because it falls into the very strong line of Eastern European Science Fiction as Social Criticism, or if it’s simply that Čapek is an innovative writer whose novels would seem on the outskirts of fashion no matter what or when he wrote. War with the Newts is not a typical novel. The major thread throughout the book is the newts, chronicling from the point when they were discovered to the end of humanity, when the newts are dismantling the continents to expand their own living area under the ocean. It’s the story of how the “innocent” newts (One strong thread of the novel is how the newts are presented as essentially unknowable—the only way the reader understands them is through the prejudices and assumptions of the human characters) are corrupted by humanity’s influence and learn how to be, basically, human in their assumptions about the world.

Specifically, the newts are treated as animals. They are used as forced labor to extend the continents and build new land areas for humanity to colonize. They are experimented on and vivisected and, in some cases, even eaten (though their meat has to be cooked delicately to make it palatable). When they destroy the continents with explosives, they apologize for the carnage, making it clear they don’t want anyone to be hurt, but that they have to take the land in order to fit their growing population. It’s the worst, most banal, unselfaware explanation since, for example, the taking of Native American lands by the U.S. And perhaps that’s why no one in the book is really horrified, even through their anger: the newts are simply being more effective people than they are.

The book is a history, mostly, told through found documents, interviews, and small scenes that give clear pictures of how newts are treated and how people see them. There are no heroes, and there are no villains, and there isn’t even a single continuous character, really, from beginning to end. This makes War with the Newts hard to get lost in, though it also makes it intensely fascinating to me as I wait to see what Čapek comes up with next.

I’m not sure it’s a recommendation (the book is pretty good, however) but I can’t imagine this book or anything much like it being published today (in the U.S. at least).

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite parts of the book, and most emotionally affecting. This is the final section of a scientist’s self-description of his investigation into Newt physiology:

[The newt Hans] was an able and intelligent animal with a special bent for scientific work; he was employed in Dr. Pinkel’s department as his assistant, and even refined chemical analysis could be entrusted to him. We used to have long conversations with him in the evenings, amusing ourselves with his insatiable thirst for knowledge. With deep regret we had to put Hans to death, because my experiments on trepanning him made him blind. His meat was dark and spongy, but did not cause any unpleasant effects. It is clear that in case of war Newt flesh could form a welcome and cheap substitute for beef.

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Monthly Music Monday: “Reagan” by Killer Mike

I don’t remember where I found this, but what captured my mind was the combination of the music and the animation. It’s a beautiful, disturbing video even without the rap laying out a horrifying view of the world. The quotes from Reagan, especially, are intensely disturbing, how words can be spun so far out of what we think of as “meaning.”

Why is it that artists dealing with politics interest me so much? I was going to say recently, but it feels like forever, long before I read The Gulag Archipelago, back when I was simply trying to decide how my own art (poetry/fiction/plays/essays) could and/or should try to influence the world. I’m still floundering. I wonder if it ever stops.

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Monthly Music Monday: “Guillotine” by The Coup

Tracy Jo Barnwell introduced me to this video, though I’d already heard of The Coup and been entranced by Boots Riley’s lyrics and the music infusing them. The social consciousness of the lyrics appeals to me–artists making political statements–though of course that would mean nothing if the music was simply window dressing.

Here, witness beautiful music and an inventive video all honed with righteous anger (well, righteous to me because I see truth in it).

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