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.
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.