Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mindwarpers

© 1965 by Eric Frank Russell

Oh, the early sixties! When men wore hats and ate at luncheonettes and took the train to the city to do great work against unnamed communist aggressors! I’m not being facetious or sarcastic. Russell’s short novel effectively and completely transports you a half-century back in time. When scientists duked it out if they needed to, and brought home the bacon to their wives and kids back in the ’burbs.

I swear, I visualized the entire novel, as I read it, in black-and-white.

Anyway, it’s a Cold War tale, more a noir-ish inverted whodunnit than a ray-gun-and-Martian space opera. In fact, the only real element of SF comes when the tell is revealed, in the last five pages, though I kinda guessed it a third of the way in. Still, it was entertaining, a fast read, with believable characters provided you’re acquainted with Turner Classic Movies.

Richard Bransome, mid-thirties, is a metallurgist working for the Department of Defense on various newfangled weaponry to defeat the reds. He’s happy with his home life, with wife Dorothy and his two children, he’s happy at his high-security work. Though there is the odd rash of fellow scientists deciding to cash in and disappear. Then, one day getting a coffee before the 8:05 rumbles into the station, Bransome overhears two mugs talking about the cops discovering some old bones under a tree. And his whole world turns upside down.

Now, Bransome is the one cashing in and disappearing – only he has to find a way to clear himself of a cold-blooded murder he committed twenty years ago.

Soon he’s dodging federal agents and shady foreign characters, jumping out of trains like Cary Grant and impersonating detectives like Jimmy Stewart. One by one pieces of the puzzle fall into place, only to lead to new questions and new dangers and our patriotic hero questioning his very sanity.

I kinda knew what was going on about fifty or sixty pages in, but it was one of those things where you know A was happening, but the reason A was happening could be anything from B to C to D or even E. That made it an enjoyable read, that plus the crazy nostalgia from a crazy period in our nation’s history.

Should you ever pick up and read the novel, I’m curious: who do you see as Richard Bransome, our intrepid scientist? Initially, thinking it would more of a hard SF novel, I envisioned Kenneth Tobey from The Thing or Hugh Marlowe from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. However, as the work took a darker tone than I expected, I was seeing Fred MacMurray from Double Indemnity and even those gray, behatted men in the Dallas Police Department basement the morning they transported Oswald out of his cell.

Anyway, I read it in my current fascination with The Mind Parasites, thinking it would be a different treatment of a similar theme. Not quite, but well worth a read if you like period SF. I’m not too familiar with Eric Frank Russell or his work, but I understand he did write some groundbreaking stories of alien civilizations and – wow! – conspiracy theory type fiction in the Golden Age of SF. That’s something to check out and put on my acquisitions list …

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