In December 2014 I outlined the step-by-step process of creating a random science fiction, fantasy, and horror novel grab bag box, which I hope, like me, you’ve been drawing from for the past almost seven years. Not only have I read some great stuff—all mass market paperbacks I picked up in some cases for a few cents at used bookstores, library sales, and so on over years and years of obsessively buying books based on such a wide range of criteria I couldn’t even tell you—though now that I mention it that might be a fun subject for a post of its own!

Anyway, in my closet is a now much bigger than the original pizza box full of books, and from time to time I pull one out and read it. And sometimes, if the mood strikes me, I write about it here. Let’s do that again this week, with the most recent grab-bag book, a beat up 1950 Bantam Books edition of Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak.

If, also like me, you’re a fan if the great B science fiction movies of the 1950s you’ll probably recognize the title and the concept, known as “the brain in the jar.” But if that sounds like a tired cliché now, keep in mind that every cliché was once original, and Donovan’s Brain is at least among the first to be put in a jar for our entertainment.

I really liked the book—let’s start with that. It was a fun, but most of all surprising read. The short recap:

A scientist named Dr. Patrick Cory lives out in the desert where he pursues weird experiments on the brains of monkeys. When he is called to the scene of a plane crash he recovers the body of a wealthy man named Donovan. Patrick brings the body back to his home laboratory, removes the millionaire’s brain, and manages, via science, to bring the brain back to life—except it’s just a brain in a jar so Donovan can’t experience anything—he has no eyes, ears, etc.

The experiments continue while the increasingly mad scientist further experiments on the disembodied brain until it grows bigger and stronger. It eventually begins telepathically communicating with the doctor, and eventually is able to fully possess him, and move him around in seemingly inexplicable efforts to pay off and manipulate people to some mysterious and, we assume, nefarious purpose. Meanwhile, the mad scientist is dealing with a blackmailer, a close associate who thinks he’s doing the wrong thing, and—what I’d like to focus on myself—a semi-estraged spouse.

Though the book’s “big surprise” is the nature of Donovan’s brain’s goals in controlling the scientist, what I found fascinating, especially for what can so easily be dismissed as an early SF “potboiler” with a goofy idea and this whacked-out cover:

Scan of my copy the book–a fun used bookstore find!

…is a surprisingly complex and nuanced story in which we’re continually forced to ask the question: Who is the hero of this story? Is there one?

There is definitently a protagonist, who is the first person narrator, the mad (?) scientist Patrick Cory. But we see Patrick do some pretty unheroic stuff, like stealing the brain and faking an autopsy, experimenting on what he believes to be a disembodied human consciousness, and so on.

Siodmak has written a fairly common SF hero of the era: a scientist who is smart as all get-out but otherwise an emotionally vacant problem-solving machine. But in the case of Donovan’s Brain, that almost robotic scientist-hero is confronted with not just an external antagonist (Donovan’s psychic brain) but an intimate antagonist: his long-suffering wife Janice.

When we first meet Ddoctor and Mrs. Cory, Janice has been pushed into the background, and Patrick makes it clear that though they might once have had a loving relationship, now she’s basically someone who kinda takes care of the house but is otherwise an annoyance. Patrick is entirely involved in his work, and he’d rather she wasn’t even there.

She cannot bear the climate, the heat of the parched desert, the sudden sandstorms, the stale water that is pumped through miles of hot pipelines. She was withering away slowly, dessicating. I had told her often enough to leave Washington Junction. She should live in New England, where she was born. But she will not leave me.

And later on the same page, when Patrick is about to leave when he’s called to the plane crash site, he’s surprised that she wakes up, ostensibly interested in what’s going on, maybe hoping to help…

I realized I had not talked to her for weeks. Her shadow was always behind me—my food in my room at the right moment, the house cleaned noiselessly, and she never bothered me with questions. She was waiting for me to call her, but I had forgotten her shadowy existence.

What a swell guy, our “hero” is, eh?

Reading this, very early in the book, I started to get nervous for Janice. Is this going to be one of those (and I’ve read more than a few) 194os and 50s era SF novels in which women are either not included at all or are there to be rescued? Is this all going to come down to her screwing things up and making our hero’s life more difficult, as femae charcaters of the era were wont to do?

Spoiler alert… no.

As the story progresses, Patrick becomes more and more obsessed with his experiment, until he becomes a willing participant in Donovan’s possession of his body, paying off shifty people, hiring lawyers, burning dow the blackmailer’s house… and Janice stays a shadow in the background… until Donovan causes Patrick to falter at the wrong moment and he is seriously injured in an accindent. Janice, a trained nurse, visits him in the hospital where Patrick begins to actually recognize her presence:

She looked very well, and I noticed that she was attractive in her nurse’s white uniform. She had lost that anemic look and I was half convinced she had not really been sick at all. It was our unhappy marriage that had broken her down.

And yet she still cares enough to help nurse her asshole husband back to health. Good on him for recognizing that. As Patrick gets more and more overwhelmed by the powerful disembodied brain, Janice takes on a larger role in the story, but more significantly, a larger role in the protagonist’s life. While Donovan is in control of his body, and Patrick can only helplessly watch what’s happenibg, he finally gains a more mature appreciation of a woman who stood by him even while he actively pushed her away then descended into this insane experiment gone terribly out of control:

She has that indefinable intuition which can understand happenings outside everyday reality. surely she would realize that it was not I, Patrick Cory, sitting on this bed, but Warren Horace Donovan.

“Patrick,” she said softly, and her voice was strained with uncertainty. Her eyes grew so dark the pupils were imperceivable.

She stood motionless. Her subconscious fear, which she controlled with singular bravery, gave her an untouchable aloof air. She was not capable of fright. The more horrible the truth, the braver she would be. She stood taller than the mounting danger.

She wore her bravery like an armor, and an air of virginity made her still less conquerable.

This epiphany I found suprisingly affecting, despite the clinkiness of some of the languae (“an air of virginity”? I have no idea what he means by that…). This is a protagonist who has done wrong, and specifically he’s done wrong to a person who has been on his side and who deserved to be treated better.

Now that I was sure she knew, I trusted her implicitly. All these years while she had lived close to me, she knew me so well, reading my thoughts before I was conscious of them myself, being there when I wanted her, and away when I wished to be alone. She was my thinking shadow.

A bond exists between certain people which may bring death when it breaks. Two persons connected by those immaterial links might not be in love with each other, might hate each other even, but still a strange identification which cannot be put down in formulas binds them together. An abstract identification lying outside space and time.

Often these persons are not aware of the bond until a great disaster or a threat of extreme danger breaks down the barriers of their ignorance. In these moments we step over the threshold of the unknown world and use weapons we were not aware of before.

Set aside for a second the gender role aspect here, set aside the values and terminology from a book orginally published in 1943, and think about this in terms of the intimate antagonist. Does this character exist in your stories? Someone who is close to your protagonist, shares their goals and sensibilities, or at the very least wants what’s best for your protagonist, but who’s own goals—especially emotional or psychological needs and expectations—sits in some way in opposition to the protagonist’s. This relationship can be incredibly powerful, and, as in Donovan’s Brain, can transform a “golden age” SF potboiler into a novel worthy of serious consideration in the far-flung future world of 2021.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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