The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell
Magnum Science Fiction, 1965
Price I paid: 75¢
Richard Bransome worked in the government’s most vital scientific laboratory, under the ultimate security. Nothing—living or inanimate—could crack the security barriers that guarded Bransome and his fellow workers. Nothing known to man…
But something was making key scientists give up their lives’ careers, sometimes to just drift away, other times to die. Then Bransome began to remember a past he had completely forgotten—a past in which he had been a cold-blooded murderer! To discover the truth about himself, he would set out on a solitary mission that would lead him against the most incredible enemy ever known to the people of Earth!
This cover! Holy crap the cover of this book! I love it! What is going on there? Is that a space ship? A station? How big is it? What is it for? Will we find out?
Seriously, this is the most egregious misuse of a fantastic cover I believe I have ever encountered. This book had nothing, nothing, to do with space ships/stations/boats/whatever. In fact, it had nothing to do with space. The setting of this novel was entirely and completely on the Earth. Somewhere in America. Which is weird because Eric Frank Russell was British. His books just take place in America a lot, apparently. I guess that’s not so weird, really, but this book was so thoroughly de-Anglicized that I would never have guessed that the author was from anywhere but the Midwest or somewhere like that. Pro/con? Who cares?
The synopsis really makes this book out to be something it’s not (DRINK!). I expected an alien menace, or a villain with world-domination schemes, or a malevolent lizard person from within the bowels of the planet, or shoggoths, or anything really. Something scary, something big. Anything.
What we got was a villain that was barely there and when revealed, just turned out to be some dudes? Dudes who might have been Russians, I guess? That’s what it seemed like to me. They ended up having accents and Eastern European-type names.
But here’s the thing: the book was pretty good! It was a really tight psychological thriller with some science fiction elements that—in 1965 anyway—were pretty weird and out there. Nowadays it came off as a little trite, but with the right historical perspective it was great. It read like a less-psychedelic Philip K. Dick novel, at least insofar as it regards the question of memory and personality. It also struck me in a similar vein to Arthur Sellings’s The Uncensored Man, but mainly on the grounds that it largely concerned a hypersecure government research installation.
What is it with British science fiction and that type of scientific research installation? The kind that doubles as a town where our hero and his family live? Admittedly this makes two novels where I’ve read of such a thing, but that’s still a ratio of 2-0 British vs. American. And the thing is, the two actual examples of such a thing that I can think of off the top of my head are, in fact, American ones. Namely Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. I’m sure there are more on both sides of the Atlantic that I either don’t know about or am forgetting, but it’s something that struck me as I was reading this book.
Our hero is this guy:
Not really! He has a really similar name, though, and that counts for something. I swear I pictured Richard Bransome as Richard Branson for the majority of the book and that made it a lot better. The accent! The derring-do! The hair! I love everything about that man.
Richard Bransome lives in an unnamed research facility with his wife, two children, and dog. It’s the American dream come to life, up to and including developing weapons to destroy the global Communist threat. Bransome is some kind of metallurgist. It doesn’t ever say specifically what he does, but that’s okay because it’s not the point of the book.
The point of the book comes into play when we hear that a large number of scientists are leaving the facility one way or another. Some of them are going off and finding jobs in hardware stores and the like. Others have committed suicide. In all the years this facility has been operational, there’s never been any kind of mass exodus like this.
And since the pay is great and there’s a sizable government pension, it just doesn’t make any sense. They even treat people okay, to a certain point.
What kind of bugged me was that Bransome’s plot came in after mentioning the people leaving and I think I was supposed to think that the two were unconnected. Maybe it’s because I read so many of this type of book that I caught on immediately and I shouldn’t fault the author, but there it is.
See, one day while walking down some stairs, Bransome trips and falls. He doesn’t think anything of it. Later that day, though, he’s walking down the street and he hears two truck drivers talking about some big news story in a nearby town named Burleston. According to this local wag (I love that term and should use it more often), a tree was uprooted over there and the workmen found, of all things, a skeleton!
A human one!
All at once, Bransome’s life starts to go to pieces. He remembers a murder he committed about twenty years ago, and he knows that they finally found the victim, Arline. It’s just a matter of time before the investigation leads to him and then, boom, it’s the electric chair.
This development in the story was very sudden and equally well-done. I was just as confused as Bransome, and in that good intentional way that helps to mirror the feelings of the audience with those of the characters. I was like “whuh?” and the book was like “stick with me a bit here.”
Bransome bails as quick as possible. He tells his boss that he needs a vacation and then tells his wife that he’s leaving on business. He makes a beeline for Burleston in the hopes that he can figure out just how close to getting caught he is.
He’s being tailed by a few people, including a dude named Reardon from the Department of Justice. Bransome figures that Reardon suspects him of doing the murder. Reardon is just playing it cool.
A large part of this book is, in fact, Bransome panicking about something and being hasty and dumb while Reardon uses the fallout to carry out his own investigation. It made for an entertaining read once I caught on.
I can summarize the bulk of Bransome’s investigation by saying that he finds a clue which leads him to another clue which leads him to another clue and so on until the end. But the thing is, the clues lead him in a particularly weird direction.
He can’t find any trace of the uprooted tree he heard about. In fact, that part of town doesn’t even exist. The newspapers don’t say anything. Nobody on the street is talking about it. Bransome eventually just up and calls the police asking about “a rumor he heard” and they tell him that it was just that, a rumor. No skeletons have been found in Burleston in, well, forever.
Bransome starts to consider the fact that somebody implanted these memories into his mind. As to who, or why, he has no idea. So he seeks out some of the other people who left the facility in similar circumstances. After a bit of doing, he manages to get one of them to admit that yes, he did in fact murder somebody a long time ago and was afraid of being caught. Except he didn’t. How weird is that?
The book starts to come to a conclusion a little bit after the ad for Newport cigarettes (Alive with Pleasure!). Actually it seems that there are two cigarette ads in this book. The other is for Kents, which I’ve seen a lot of in pulp paperbacks. This time they’re using the fantastic advertising slogan of “C’mon.”
I wonder how well that one worked.
Bransome’s investigation basically hinges upon a guy he saw a lot recently. No, not Reardon, the other one.
What other one?
He was barely mentioned up to this point, guys. I’d forgotten all about him.
Basically, looking back I think I pictured this guy as Oddjob but white. He was dressed in black and large. The book didn’t mention a bowler hat but we’re allowed to help the author with the things he missed.
Bransome asks a guy who tells him to ask a guy who tells him to ask a guy until he finds out who this large guy in black with an Eastern European name is. So he goes to where Kostavik was last seen and then gets his ass beaten.
Enter Reardon, who was using Bransome to solve the mystery for him. He and some dudes clear the place out and make some arrests, although on what charges I’m not entirely sure. Mind control? False memory implantation?
Hey, twenty years after this book was written that latter one was a pretty lucrative and legal trade for less scrupulous members of the psychiatric profession. Remember the Satanism Scare and all those “uncovered suppressed memories?” But I digress.
Once Bransome wakes up Reardon shows him the method that these guys were using to implant false memories of committing murders. He also knows why. Reardon knows everything. Why wasn’t he the protagonist?
So the way they do it is through a really, really good 3D movie projector. I’m serious, that’s about it. It’s got a really high framerate and even other little tricks that make the optic nerve go “No, that is not a movie, it is in fact happening right now.” There may have also been drugs involved, I’m not sure on that measure.
I’m a little disappointed, honestly. I thought there’d be more to it than that. The back of the book talked about a terrifying menace. Surely a terrifying menace would use a method a little more advanced than IMAX.
Oh, and that time Bransome fell down the stairs? That was where they got him. In case you were wondering.
The reason for this scheme was even more dull. Once again suggesting this was the Russians, although Reardon straight up says that he’s not revealing who these people are, it seems that the plan was, well, make scientists not do science anymore. It’s an arms race, right? I guess if one side of the arms race has fewer scientists, that’s good for the other side. That’s really about all there was to it.
Man, that sucks! I didn’t think all that hard about it while I was reading. In fact, while the book was open and in front of me I was like “Oh, okay. That makes sense.” But in retrospect, no, that’s stupid. Overcomplicated and stupid. Why do it that way? If you have the ability to kidnap people and put them in front of Amityville 3D and convince them they did it, you have a lot more things you could do. Surely you could use that power to convert them to Communism, or make them take a gun to work and shoot some other scientists (it would be a lot more efficient), or just KIDNAP THEM AND KILL THEM AND SKIP THE MOVIE THING ALTOGETHER.
Bransome goes home and everybody is happy again knowing that he will continue researching weapons that can conceivably destroy the world.
Okay so we’ve got a lot of Cold War in this book, although it’s really just sort of taken for granted. Which I think might be the scariest thing about that whole time in history. We just sort of got used to having the Russians with their finger on the trigger, insofar as we kept our own finger on the trigger. I’m really glad I did not live through those times.
Apart from the crappy villain and ending, this book was still pretty good. I knocked it out in about two hours without even trying because it managed to grab my attention with a good mystery and keep it. Even figuring out early that the whole murder thing was some kind of mind-screw didn’t take too much away from it because it left the mystery of who did it and to what purpose. I was genuinely curious throughout the whole of the book, and that’s what makes the ending so much more crappy is because it was such a letdown. I expected aliens or something. Even Russians with some kind of ray gun would have been preferable to something that was so…mundane. I think it’s the everyday nature of the brainwashing that really took away from the experience. I found this in the science fiction section. It has some kind of spaceship on the front for some damn reason. And yet what it turned out to be was a pretty standard psychological thriller with nary an alien or a spaceship in it. It wouldn’t have been out of place for a Tom Clancy book or an episode of CSI.
Eric Frank Russell wrote a pretty good amount of science fiction for a while and was apparently talented at it. What I get the feeling is that, knowing that, his publisher figured that people would more likely than not want more science fiction from him, not some kind of memory-futzing mystery. It’s an odd thing, though, because while that would normally bother me, this time it bothers me in a different way. I was distinctly let down by the packaging of this book. I was led to believe that certain things were possible in this plot and it turned out that they were not. I kept my mind open throughout the whole book, expecting something neat and interesting, and what I got was a Russian who didn’t even have a bowler hat.