I Speak for Earth, by John Brunner

During the early phase of his career, SF author John Brunner produced a large number of manuscripts to be published as Ace paperbacks. He gained a reputation for giving life to new and futuristic ideas during the early 1960s, before switching to the larger, socially-focused novels that made him famous.

Long before Stand on Zanzibar, however, Brunner demonstrated a tendency to cast his eye on the psychological consequences of progress, rather than the progress itself. His obscure 1961 novel I Speak For Earth embodies this with an interesting take on the “first contact” trope.

WTIISFE1961

Ed Emshwiller cover for Ace. isfdb.org

I Speak For Earth was published as half of an Ace Double under the pseudonym Keith Woodcott, but it can also be found today as an e-book (as by John Brunner). Brunner reworked many of his early manuscripts for reprinting in the 1970s and 1980s, but not ISFE.

ISFE is a better showcase of ideas than of characters, but it does get the point across that progress is increasingly the outcome of collaboration, rather than individual effort. The blending of identities and personalities into a single central nervous system is a theme visited by many SF books, ranging in quality from Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil (at the bottom) to Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (at the very top). Here, Brunner combines the idea with a first-contact story of the “uplift” variety.

Near-future Earth, struggling with political and cultural differences between its borders, is being visited by a representative of an alien race. In a nod to middle 20th-Century ideals of sophistication, the alien emissary Gyul Kodran speaks to the entirety of humankind in Esperanto, televised inside the hall of the United Nations:

At last all was ready. The tension could be felt all over Earth. Almost the heart of the world had ceased to beat; they estimated that an unprecedented sixty-one per cent of the entire human population was concentrated now on watching and listening. Every available channel was turned over to this momentous broadcast. Every TV repeater-satellite was carrying it on all its channels. In the night hemisphere of Earth, people were sitting up, or had risen before dawn, to watch, listen, and find out.

Gyul relates “his” discussion of humans with his own “league of nations,” the so-called Federation of Worlds, comprised of hundreds of intelligent spacefaring species. They have been evaluating Earth is a candidate member, soon capable of travel to other worlds. If the Federation approves, the humans would be the first-ever race to be permitted interstellar transport without first achieving the end of international disputes on its own planet.

However, our history–and evidently, future history–is filled with incidences of war and near-annihilation, giving our race a troubling record of persistent intolerance. Gyul informs the world that the Federation cannot allow Earth’s admission into the Federation without further evidence (this, after Gyul and his kind have been “inspecting” the planet for six months already). In one calendar year, Gyul will take a single representative person of Earth’s choosing on board his ship. There, he/she will spend 30 days:

“…That you shall be allowed to affiliate with the Federation if your representative can survive and can demonstrate his ability to exist in a civilized society with creatures whose outward appearance and manner of thinking differ from his or her own.”

Selecting the representative and preparing that individual for this trial, is a process mediated by Briaros, the secretary-general of the U.N. In a surprisingly productive meeting with the various heads of state, he finds that the representative will need to have the combination of tolerance, ability to learn new languages, an understanding of advanced mathematics and other qualities to have a chance at impressing the superior aliens. The prospect of finding all of these attributes in a single individual is adjudged as impossible, but there is a shared knowledge of secret military research in the superpower nations: scientists have been developing a method to combine the minds of multiple individuals into a single person.

The prospect of all major cultures having a representative inside a shared physical person is an appealing compromise to the members of the U.N. Ultimately, the American astronaut Joe Morea is called down from his engineering mission on a space station to be the host. He is recruited by Dr. Maggie Reynolds, a young assistant working inside a laboratory headed by a psychologist named Fritz Schneider.

Maggie is introduced in ISFE as a casual, between-missions fling for Joe, who quickly develops deeper feelings for her. She isn’t quite the stereotypical deceptive female of pulp fiction, however–she’s working for Schneider with the help of some kind of conditioning:

“He’ll do,” said Maggie, dropping into a chair beside Schneider’s desk and sliding her brief case on to its polished top.

“Are you sure?” Schneider came forward, opened a box on the desk, and took out a cigar which he clamped between his teeth.

“As sure as I’ll ever be. We’ve lived practically in each other’s pockets for the past ten days; I’ve seen him in just about every conceivable circumstance. He’s the one.”

Schneider, having lit his cigar, sat down chuckling behind the desk. “You enjoyed yourself?”

“That too, that too. In fact, if it wasn’t for the way you armored me up to here with post-hypnotics, I could see myself getting very fond of him. He’s a nice guy, Fritz. Extremely well-adjusted socially, sexually, every way. And bright.”

In Brunner’s future, scientific progress has not been slowed by medical ethics. Schneider is more than a bit deceptive himself when he gives Maggie assurances about the mind-transplant procedure:

Schneider scribbled a note, using the hand that held his cigar and spilling ash all over the paper with the rapidity of his movements. He didn’t look up as he said, “And that is why you are disturbed at the idea of what may happen to him—out there?”

“Not so much about that. I think he’d probably make out pretty well just as he is—but maybe I’ve got prejudices now. I realize that’s unreasonable. No, it’s more the problem of what effect the—the treatment will have.”

“The effect will be far graver on those who go with him,” said Schneider soberly. “I know. I am myself still disturbed from my original trials, although I understood perfectly everything that happened.”

Maggie nodded. A faraway look came into her eyes. She said, “I wonder how it feels to see another face than one’s own come back from the mirror.”

“Disturbing,” said Schneider. He thrust his cigar back between his teeth. “Very much disturbing!”

At first glance, Schneider appears to be giving Maggie the straight story, but he’s repressing a lot of uncertainty. It turns out that Schneider’s experiences only goes as far back as experiments performed on himself and his wife. He had himself transplanted into his wife’s body, and has only hinted at the psychological consequences.

When Joe gets Schneider’s official recruitment letter at her apartment, she talks him out of his suspicions and encourages him to report to the lab. Joe’s a special engineering talent, but very naïve with people. Schneider is filling in his intellectual gaps with the minds of seven other recruits.

The story is less interesting after Joe gets implanted with the other recruits–there are a few chapters describing the other individuals, and the way they are acclimated to each other–and sent off to Gyul’s ship. He and the others in his head have a rather absurd adventure exploring an alien city, and uncover Gyul’s true motives.

More important is Brunner’s treatment of this transplantation experiment, done at the risk of the subjects’ existence as individuals. As they meld inside Joe’s brain, they attain an awareness as a new being, an Übermensch of sorts–capable of turning the tables on Gyul and setting new bounds for mankind’s domain. Only Maggie and Schneider seem acutely aware of the costs involved: we see Maggie at the end of the novel, but Schneider has volunteered himself in the experiment.

ISFE is an example of Brunner’s era of frequent publications featuring a high density of ideas. Many of the characters are sketchily portrayed, although Brunner does not cut them from popular stereotypes. As the figures of power, Gyul and Briaros also lacked depth, but Schneider and Maggie each show a character arc as they bear the accountability of their actions. 6/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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10 Responses to I Speak for Earth, by John Brunner

  1. fredfitch says:

    Evailable for $2.99, so I think I’ll reserve my comment this time for after I’ve read it. Half an Ace Double won’t take long. This sounds like a good entry point for Brunner.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    Well, there’s a lot of things I might say–first of all, it must have been pretty upsetting to a lot of authors who put the USSR in their futuristic fables, when that ill-conceived entity collapsed under its own weight in 1991. Full points to any who said it would become a rightist dictatorship heavily influenced by the orthodox nationalism of Solzhenitsyn, and would propel a nutty ersatz billionaire to the U.S. Presidency. But who’d ever buy that? (PKD, possibly. Or Donald Westlake.)

    There’s another skein of SF stories you didn’t mention directly–the idea that there’s some Federation out there which might or might not have us as members, and we’ve got to pass some kind of test, and a lot of earthers are ambivalent about it, if not outright hostile. Contact is an obvious example, and there was a Star Trek movie, but my personal fave is Gordon R. Dickson’s Alien From Arcturus. (Which was also originally an Ace Double). There the only test was for humans to develop their own FTL drive without assistance, and there’s a genius whiz kid, and the titular alien, who is very bright, incredibly strong, and comically hot tempered.

    This isn’t really about aliens, of course. Most SF stories about aliens are about us, and while I did think maybe this would be an exception, Brunner ultimately just passes on showing us alien cultures–the section on the Federation planet takes up a relatively small part of the book, and he basically passes on showing us their cultures in any depth (there’s none to show, as it turns out).

    The idea of sublimating individualism into some kind of gestalt being is the main thrust, as you said, and there are many examples. I’d also include Octavia Butler’s Patternist stories, which are all about it to some extent (even Clay’s Ark). We achieve more when we pool our talents, but some sense of personal identity is lost in the process. I would imagine SF’s fascination with this is one of the things that made Westlake turn away from SF, hardcore individualist that he was. If you’re not yourself, you’re nothing. Yes, collaboration is vital, but collaboration as individuals. Otherwise the price is too high.

    It’s too short a work for the idea to be fully developed, but for what it is, and when it was written, not bad. I didn’t think Maggie was much of a character, and Schneider–well, I won’t give any spoilers. The bits where the gestalt protagonist is trying to figure out its capacities, solve the puzzles presented to it, is genuinely interesting. And the way Brunner makes each of them represent a different culture and skill (even a novelist!) is so good, you regret there’s so little time for it.

    However, I think Westlake did a better job showing us a group of talented individuals from all over the world confront an insoluble puzzle in Humans–which is a problematic piece of work, as I detailed in my review, but it doesn’t read like a thought experiment–which SF of this period tends to do, which is one reason Westlake got out of that genre. Brunner and others found ways to make it more than that. (Sometimes.) But that they did so as individuals would seem to undercut the basis premise of this story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I may have shortchanged Brunner’s mind-meld chapters, true. I suppose I paid more attention to the signs of the major SF writer Brunner was going to be, concentrating on the social and psychological consequences of the leap forward–rather than the leap itself. I tend to do that when I go back and look at the early work of an interesting author: PKD and Jack Vance also come to mind.

      Maybe it’s because I’ve only read Mind of My Mind, but the Butler version of many-minds-into-one seemed to be an Ur-human using the brains of others as an energy source, without incorporating their personalities. More of a parasitic relationship than a collaborative one. That really was an interesting read, and maybe one day I’ll revisit it in more depth.

      I might have to check out Alien From Arcturus; Dickson can be rather good in the shorter format.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        They don’t become one personality, and yes there has to be a master, but there’s no way they can avoid affecting each other. It’s a different take. And much better developed than here, where we never even see the collective being in its finished form–talked about in absentia. The truth is, in becoming something new and remarkable, a great deal that is valuable is lost. And that was the real story, which I felt Brunner shortchanged, but you can’t put a lot of story into half an Ace Double.

        There’s always an element of parasitism in Butler’s work–she was fascinated by it, and there’s several kinds on display in that novel–but remember, the people in question are mainly unstable human wreckage, leading miserable destructive lives before incorporated into the Pattern–and without the Pattern, as the previous novel shows, humankind would have succumbed entirely to the Clayark virus. We’re supposed to see how exploitative it all is, but we’re also supposed to see the purpose it ultimately serves.

        Butler always insisted she wasn’t writing about American Slavery in her SF (except for Kindred, which I think is the best novel ever written about American Slavery), but as an end result of that system–knowing she wouldn’t be there, living her life, writing her books, without it–there’s always that ambivalence. There is morality in her work, but it’s never simple. Right and Wrong are as interconnected as Black and White.

        Over and over, Butler takes a biological relationship most of us regard with disgust, and shows us there’s another side to it. Fact is, there are parasites without which we could not survive. The line beween parasitism and symbiosis is often thin. But you know, we really should be having this discussion in a review of her fiction, not Brunner’s. Ahem! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. fredfitch says:

    Incidentally, that’s not a bad bit of cover art for the period, but whoever wrote that caption never learned how to count.

    Like

  4. fredfitch says:

    A bit more might be said about the way Brunner approaches an old theme in SF, that was often not carried out very well in this era–multiculturalism. Star Trek certainly aspired to this, but of course Chekhov, Sulu, Uhura–all played by Americans (while the American captain is played by a Canadian, as is the Vulcan). It’s one thing to aspire to write about people from different backgrounds, but how effectively do you get inside their heads, see things from their POV? How much do you actually know about how such people would react to each new situation?

    Brunner, an Englishman reportedly accused of being too ‘American’ in his approach by other Brit SF authors, is actively working at it–really, he’s getting them inside HIS head, via Joe, who starts out as the central protagonist, and ends up as an oddly peripheral figure–even his love interest is eclipsed by the newfound joys of collectivism. Usurped inside his own body, and pleased as punch about it.

    A Chinese woman, biologist and artist. An Indian woman, mathematician and poet (sometimes dancer). A black African man, anthropologist, linguist, novelist. A Russian man, physicist and athlete. The American, by contrast, is the standard whiz kid engineer/astronaut we normally meet in this type of story. A very Heinlein sort of guy. Maybe more open-minded. Less certain that everything revolves around him. But it’s all happening inside his head, all the same.

    The non-westerners are the most interesting characters to me (the true aliens of the book), and I suspect to Brunner as well. More of a challenge. How to make them more than merely exotic. How to show why their skill sets and life experiences make them necessary to the project at hand.

    The African, a novelist (a fine point of connection between himself and his creator) sees motives more clearly, has the best language skills, and is able to look past the outward trappings of their relationship with these aliens and see a form of colonialism at work, look for self-serving hidden agendas behind seeming superiors, who underneath are no better than they should be. Who better than an African to see that? The other three non-westerners have similarly crucial moments of insight.

    They are not mere PC window dressing. They are all uniquely valuable. But again, underdeveloped. Brunner needs more room to run with to get his points across. He’d get it, eventually.

    And what is the point? That this is the future of our species? I doubt Brunner really believed this mind-transfer technology was feasible (he talks as little as possible about it). But SF isn’t about “This will happen” nearly so much as it is about “What if it did?”

    It’s about friendship. He makes that clear at the end. How do we really learn about another person, except through a deep sense of connection and sharing? And from what kind of friendships do we learn the most? The kind we have with people who are different from us, even if there are points of commonality.

    The aliens don’t have this concept. They are so alike, the concept of bridging gaps, forming gestalts, never occurred to them. They live through consensus. We live through friction, striking sparks off each other. The best friends ARGUE, often across decades, and perhaps over time achieve a form of synthesis. This process just speeds that up. That’s what he’s writing about. If only there were world enough and time for each of us to truly know each other.

    So that’s why poor Maggie gets dumped at the end. Bros before Hos. Even though two of the Bros are Hos. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Joachim Boaz says:

    A Brunner I’ve missed… I had a lot of trouble with his early work — this seems to be better than most of them….

    Have you read his novella Lungfish (1959)? I was pleasantly surprised…. But then again, I’m always partial to generation ship tales.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Strangers from Earth, by Poul Anderson (part 3) | gaping blackbird

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