The Best Science Fiction Writer You Didn't Know You'd Read, Part 2

Last month, we took a look at the comic novels of Fredric Brown — the greatest science fiction writer that everybody's read without realizing it. Now, let's take a look at his three more serious novels.

In between his classic comic SF novels What Mad Universe and Martians Go Home!, Fredric Brown came out with something completely different: 1953's The Lights in the Sky are Stars. Where WMU and MGH definitely play up to SF fandom, TLITSAS is set in a veritable fan's dystopia: a world where most people don't give a damn about space travel, where the real roadblocks on the road to the stars are political, not technical, and where the "heroes" aren't brilliant scientists, noble engineers, or daring spacemen, but a dishonest crippled rocket mechanic and a freshman woman senator.

For 1950s fans raised on a steady diet of Heinlein and Asimov, this must have been a bewildering concoction indeed. TLITSAS reads more like a mainstream novel about a science fiction theme than a regular science fiction novel. But that's a good thing.

The Best Science Fiction Writer You Didn't Know You'd Read, Part 2

The year is 1997. Rocket travel to Mars and Venus is a reality, but further progress is stymied by "conservationists" who consider space travel to be a gigantic waste of Their Tax Dollars. (As critic Patrick Adkins wrote, "Brown foresaw the politics of space with eerie accuracy.") On the other hand, one legged rocket mechanic Max Andrews is a "starduster" who will do anything to get one step closer to the stars. He hooks up with newly elected Senator Ellen Gallagher, and they drive through funding for a Jupiter rocket. Ultimately, Andrew's dreams of managing the project and secret scheme to hi-jack the rocket are derailed by his confabulated resume. But in language often as poetic as its title (what SF fan can mist up over lines like "there was stardust in what they wrote, and it got into my eyes?"), TLITSAS is a moving chronicle of one man sacrificing his small dream on the altar of Man's Big Dream.

Proving that he was human, Brown's fourth SF novel, 1955's Rogue in Space, is abysmal by his standards, and pretty mediocre by anyone else's. Hastily cobbled together from two magazine novelettes, the first half a readable bit of pulp fluff about some interstellar space bum/misanthrope/bad boy named Crag hired by a corrupt politician to steal a weapon capable of destroying a planet by remote control. Cue the monomaniacal laughter! It's a typical bit of rock 'em sock 'em late 40s pulp fiction, short on ideas, long on action. But things pretty much go down the toilet in the second half of the novel. A mysterious alien intelligence named "Charg" brings Crag back from the dead to create a planet free from decadence and corruption. For reasons known only to the boobs in marketing, it is one of Brown's most reprinted (and common) books.

It's too bad the evil publishers didn't pay more attention to Brown's final SF novel, The Mind Thing. Although it doesn't reach the heights of Brown's first three novels, it's a fun little monster novel that would have made an equally great little 1950s SF movie. Reportedly, it was optioned by the great Hitchcock himself — but to no avail.

The Best Science Fiction Writer You Didn't Know You'd Read, Part 2

What makes TMT special is that a big chunk of the novel is told from the point of view of the monster, the Mind Thing. Not that the Mind Thing is one bit sympathetic; its goal is (what else?) the subjugation and enslavement of all mankind. Completely physically helpless (it resembles a turtle without legs), the Mind Thing power lies in its ability to take complete mental control of animals. However, has limitations. It can only take over sleeping animals, it can only control one animal at a time, it can only leave an animal when the animal kills itself, and it can only take over humans when it is in close physical proximity.

The Best Science Fiction Writer You Didn't Know You'd Read, Part 2

Eventually, the Mind Thing targets Doc Staunton, a MIT physics professor, as the ideal vessel to launch his campaign for world domination. However, Staunton deduces from the long string of unusual animal suicides just how the Mind Thing operates. The novel climaxes in an amazing scene with Staunton desperately fighting to stay awake in a rural farmhouse, trapped by an endless series of kamikaze animals controlled by the Mind Thing. All monster books and movies should be this good!

Sadly, Brown would never write another science fiction novel. Fortunately, this slender canon is supplemented by lots of great short stories.