Saturday, November 22, 2014

1. When Brains Are All You Have Left

The image of a disembodied brain is a familiar staple of science fiction and horror.  One assumption is that if a brain can be kept alive outside of its body, it will become more powerful, but also less compassionate, being devoid of human emotions and sensations.  Our bodies humanize us, but a disembodied brain is all intellect and will, preoccupied with power and control.  Typically, such a brain must use others as agents to accomplish its ends, because it lacks mobility and appendages with which to grasp and manipulate.  Disembodied human brains require the weird and artificial melding of brain tissue with experimental technology—often a glorified aquarium tank with aerator and glowing amber light.    

Another premise is that a disembodied brain represents the pinnacle of evolution, as if the eventual product of natural selection is a limbless thinking organism that is served by its inferiors.  This is the category that “brains from outer space” fall into.  Ironically, such highly advanced creatures enjoy the physical lifestyle of a much lower organism, namely that of a parasite.  One can see a reflection of this in ordinary extraterrestrial physiology even today, which nearly always features an enlarged, brain-like cranium,  whether disembodied or not.  Which cranium is often divided hemi-spherically, as our own brain is.

Donald Wandrei’s The Red Brain (1927) is a wonderful example of this second type of bodiless brain.  The story was the first of fifteen that Wandrei published in Weird Tales.  Wandrei was a well-known correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft, who with August Derleth established Arkham House Publishers in the early 1940s.  Arkham House was instrumental in preserving Lovecraft’s work not long after the author’s death.

The Red Brain describes the end of the entire universe and its last life forms—a race of highly evolved brains.  There are several pages detailing the smoldering and winking out of star systems and the growing presence of inert Cosmic Dust.  Finally, out near the giant star of Antares, the Great Brain calls a council of fellow brains to review what they have tried to do about the gathering Cosmic Dust.  The history and evolution of these beings is quite long, and Wandrei takes his time in describing it.  We learn that:

The minds of the people of Antares became bigger and bigger, their bodies proportionately smaller, until the cycle eventually was completed.  Every being in front of the speaker was a monstrous heap of black viscidity, each mass an enormous brain, a sexless thing that lived for Thought.  Long ago it had been discovered that life could be created artificially in tissue formed in the laboratories of the chemists.  Sex was thus destroyed, and the inhabitants no longer spent their time in taking care of families.  Nearly all the countless hours that were saved were put into scientific advance, with the result that the star leaped forward in an age of progress never paralleled.

Yet nothing the alien brains have attempted has worked to halt the advancing Cosmic Dust.  They have

1.      Aimed vast sheets of lightening into the void in hopes of fusing the dust into new planets,
2.      Placed enormous magnets in various locations in space to attract and centralize the dust,
3.      Exploded their most powerful chemical compounds inside of dust clouds,
4.      Blasted billion mile long paths through the dust using their rays of annihilation, and even
5.      “destroyed the life on Betelgeuse and rooted there titanic developers of vacua, sprawling, whirring machines to suck the dust from Space…”

It is all for naught, and at the conference on Antares a rogue brain, the titular ‘red brain’, goes crazy and destroys them all, sparing them another aeon or two of misery.  The Red Brain shows many of the typical weaknesses of pulp science fiction of the time period.  The story is long—very long—on concept, but devoid of elements that make for a memorable story, such as characters, plot, conflict, dialogue, or action.  However, Wandrei definitely laid some important groundwork on the natural history of extraterrestrial brain creatures.


Donald Wandrei has been discussed in several earlier posts; see also

An ‘Astounding Story’ by Wandrei (Raiders of the Universes)
Aliēnus ex machina (Something From Above)

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