The Great Brain Robbery by James P. Fisher
Price I paid: 50¢
Dennis Sands was just another college junior. Then, he learned that he had strange psychic powers valuable and needed on another planet. He agreed to travel to Ikonia, even though he didn’t trust Cynnax, disguised as a professor, who revealed his true identity as a being from another world in a distant solar system, a world that was on the brink of extinction. When Dennis got there, he realized why his psychic powers were treasured. And that the evil Cynnax and his perverted band planned to rob him of his brain.
CW: Rape culture
It’s hard these days to find anything that we can all agree on. Everything has shades of nuance, unexplored angles, questions of bias and personal experience. Nothing is absolute, everything is subjective, and we’re going to wipe out life as we know it because of this.
That’s how I felt until I saw the cover of this book. Now I’m pretty sure we can all agree on at least one thing—the title of this book is fucking brilliant. It’s undeniable. It’s also a shame, because it turns out that everything else about this book is hot garbage.
Primus, the cover. Holy hell that cover. Why is the guy naked? Why does he look like Willem Dafoe (heart emoji) decided to get ripped and star in a movie about a naked George Orwell? Why…why does he not have a dick? I know that it’s in shadow, but shadow can only do so much. There’s no shadow dick there. There’s shadow Ken doll. Why is his right arm so much veinier than the left? I’d make a crude joke about how he uses his right hand to jerk it, but we’ve already established he’s got nothing to jerk. And finally, it’s weird that this guy looks so old, because the protagonist of this book is a Junior in college, so 19 or 20. The book constantly refers to him as a teenager, which is weird, and we’ll get back to that, because there’s a lot of weird here.
Secundus, the back jacket copy is bad writing all around. It’s the only thing within reaching distance of my desk that is offline and worse writing than the inside of this book. That middle sentence has too many clauses and it’s confusing and makes it look like Dennis is the one disguised as a professor until the reading part of the brain slowly collapses and cries in never-ending terror.
Tertius et ultimus, this book. Holy bananas. You know what’s the worst thing of all? The book is just sorta bad. It’s bad enough to make me mad that it’s not worse. That might be the worst possible thing for a book to be, because that means I don’t have much in the way of concrete things to complain about.
I’ve still got some, though, so stick with me.
Dennis Sands is a college student whose entire personality consists of the fact that he has nightmares sometimes. To be fair, this is an accurate portrait of most college students. He’s a Junior and he’s starting to get bogged down and it’s depressing him a little bit. He just wants to go have a little fun, forget about his responsibilities, and so forth. He’s not able to do that, because of responsibilities, like I said, but here’s the thing: we never once see him do any work. His entire arc is going to class once, finding out that the lecture is cancelled, getting his brain scanned by some creepo, going to a party, and then going off into space to have an adventure.
Dennis Sands is the first character I’ve met to have a worse sense of responsibility than I do.
Like I said, he goes to class once on page twelve and the professor
…looked slim and desirable in her flower-patterned dress, Dennis thought.
announces that there won’t be a lecture because some other professor wants to experiment on her students by subjecting them to a brain scan without telling them what he’s doing or looking for, merely promising that it won’t hurt. Dennis goes, it hurts like hell, and the professor denies that anything actually happened. He makes up some kind of story about how sometimes the experiment will wipe someone’s memory of the event and then the brain will construct elaborate fake memories to cover the memory loss. Dennis is a little hesitant to accept this, which is a point in his favor. One of very few.
It might be unfair of me to highlight the fact that he thinks his professor is hot. After all, he’s a college student. He’s gonna have that horn on. I get that. There’s no reason to expect that this guy would be any more enlightened than any other Berkeley student in the seventies. And lots of people have had crushes on professors.
The problem is that this is the first instance of a situation that gets worse. It’s not even really a problem with just Dennis. The problem is with the book and how it presents women in general. Dennis’s attitudes and reactions are indicative of that, but not the only examples. They might be the only examples I end up giving, though.
Dennis is also prone to nightmares. It’s always the same nightmare, and he has it roughly once a month. I mention this only because he does once every page or so. Maybe it’s important?
It’s not especially important. It could have been done without!
There’s one thing I’ll say about this book in favor of it. It’s direct and the language isn’t overly flowery. It should have been easy to follow. Any other book of this length (150 pages) and simplicity of prose would have been knocked out over the course of just a few hours. Something about it, though, caused me to fall asleep several times. Perhaps this isn’t the book’s fault. Christmas threw my schedule all out of whack (the rest of my family works nights, so Christmas celebrations this year were strictly a nocturnal affair), but what can’t be attributed to a wonky circadian rhythm is that I would zone out for paragraphs at a time, whereupon something would happen that would cause me to go “what? a crystal? what’s that supposed to do?” and have to backtrack until I found the single line of dialogue that was supposed to tell me what’s going on.
The whole book was like that.
The plot is also simple. Dennis finds out that the professor isn’t really a professor, but is an alien. The alien expositions him about why he is important. Oh, it also turns out that Dennis is psychic. That’s why he’s important. Does that have anything to do with his nightmares? Well, yeah, but the book sure as hell took a long time to make that connection. It’s one more reason I felt that Dennis was…not so smart.
The professor is actually a guy named Cynnax and he’s an Ikonian. The Ikonians need psychics like Dennis to save their world from some unknown threat. Dennis figures this is his big chance for adventure, leaves a note for his roommate saying that he’ll be back in a week or so (there’s no indications as to where he got that idea), and boogies off on a teleporter to…another galaxy.
Dammit, authors, don’t put things in other galaxies unless you’ve got a damn good reason. There’s something about this book that made it feel like the kind of 50s sci-fi movie you’d see on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It used words like “teletransporter,” for one, but it was also completely clueless as to scales. Our galaxy is plenty big enough to tell a story in. Other galaxies are pretty gollyfuckin’ far away. Even with your transteletransporter that can take you anywhere with no lapse in time, there’s no reason for it. It bugs me.
It’s shit like this that makes science fiction a laughing-stock. It’s the kind of thing that people with upturned noses and literary pretensions can point at and declaim the entire genre. Yeah, there’s gonna be bad science fiction one way or the other, and people like that will always find ammunition to demean genre fiction, but dangit, it’s a really low bar to have basic scientific competency in your sci-fi novel. If you can’t manage that, have you considered writing fantasy?
To be fair, all the scientific literacy in the world wouldn’t have saved this book from having flat characterization, a dumb plot, and a protagonist whose first thought on meeting a lady is whether or not he’d be capable of raping her.
I’m not kidding.
The moment doesn’t come long after he teletransportateletranses to the Ikonian homeworld. It turns out he’s not alone in having this psychic gift. He meets some of the other folks that have been brought there. One of them, Cindy, is just his type of lady. He likes ’em skinny and short. Okay, maybe a touch of some creepy stuff there (betcha a dollar Dennis is the sort of guy who’d go It’s not pedophilia it’s ephebophilia get it right without a trace of irony), but I can also accept that some people have tastes that differ from my own, and as long as he’s not actually pursuing underage girls, there’s nothing wrong with it.
But when Dennis first meets Cindy, here’s what he thinks. I quote page 60:
She was small and frail; he could have easily overpowered her if he wanted to. But when he saw the new tautness in her expression, the blinking desperation in her eyes, he knew he could never do such a thing.
So let’s be clear: Dennis’s first thought when he meets this woman is that he would physically be capable of raping her and getting away with it. He’s such a nice guy, though, that he wouldn’t do it. I guess that is supposed to raise him in our estimation.
I’m sure that every woman in the world can name at least one man she’s met who obviously and openly thinks exactly the same way Dennis does in this situation and I hate it. I wish I knew anything I could help to do about it besides try to draw some attention to it.
Also: Men, stop being shitty. Seriously. The bar for that is very low.
One other thing: Dennis consistently refers to Cindy as “child.” That’s all.
Anyway it turns out that the Ikonians are bad guys and they’re trying to use people like Dennis and Cindy for nefarious purposes. They try to escape and become separated. Dennis thinks that Cindy is dead. He meets some other people called the―
I just did my damnedest to figure out what their race was called and I can’t find it anywhere
―somethings. They’re enemies of the Ikonians, and they’re the good guys. We know this because they tell us so. They also tell us that they’re incapable of deception.
You ever notice that whenever a fantasy or sci-fi race tells our heroes that they’re a race incapable of deception, they’re always believed and it turns out they’re telling the truth? What’s the deal with that? Surely the best way to survive being the antagonist in a genre story is to tell the hero that your race (the Hellpustule people of Murderkill V) are incapable of lying or stealing, and then once the heroes believe you, you lie and steal and kill them. Easy peasy.
So these good guys exposition Dennis a whole bunch and then tell him that Cindy is still alive and so he goes and rescues her and it also turns out that the good aliens created the psychic powers so that they could get their planet out of some kind of a micro-universe so Dennis and Cindy do that and the good guys win and Dennis goes back home to Berkeley just in time for finals, but he makes plans to go meet Cindy once he’s on summer vacation.
Oh, also the psychic stuff was the cause of the nightmare. Surprised?
And that’s this stupid book for children, except books for children often have redemptive qualities and don’t use the word goddamn as much as this book does and are not complicit in perpetuating the rape culture (or maybe they are: my privilege is showing). It’s just that this book felt like a children’s book in terms of prose and storytelling.
Its main strength is that it wasn’t much worse. I never raged against this book. I never threatened to throw it into the fireplace. It was just a keen example of some really mediocre writing and some really shitty male attitudes. That’s about all I can say about it.
But holy hell does it have a great title.