Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Donovan's Brain by Curt Siodmak (1942)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 13.)
I'm going to start this post with René Descartes but we won't need him for long. In 1641 Descartes essentially kickstarted modern philosophy by stripping its fundamental assumptions of their surety with Meditations On First Philosophy. Essentially, Descartes began by deciding to accept as true what he could prove beyond all doubt. Which wasn't much. What if the universe didn't exist because of the will of God? What if everything we saw before us wasn't, in fact, what we saw before us? In fact, how do we know it exists at all? Aren't our senses fallible to error? Is there any way to prove that everything we assume to be true is not, in fact, the work of malevolent genius providing the illusion that it's real? A good Christian to the last, Descartes dutifully set about restoring everything he'd broken down, starting with the words "I think, therefore I am." But the damage was done, and we've been left asking variations on the same question ever since. Descartes' evil genius has, thanks to science fiction and a greater understanding of how brain chemistry works, given away in recent years to the "brain in a vat" question. How do I know what I experience is real? Couldn't I just be a brain in a vat being led to believe that all this is real? When philosophy failed to answer the question it was taken up by everyone from Philp K. Dick to The Matrix. I bring this up now not to blow your minds Philosophy 101-style but to point out that this week's Box Of Paperbacks Book Club features, as far as I know, the original brain-in-a-vat. Whose brain, you ask? Donovan's Brain of course. But instead of using Donovan's brain as a chance to explore subjectivity and illusion, author Curt Siodmak offers an uneasy mix of Frankenstein-inspired meditations on the perils of using science to play God and pulpy crime fiction. Our hero, Dr. Cory is a humble Phoenix-based mad scientist who begins the novel frustrated with his inability to keep a monkey brain alive. Telling the story in "dear diary" first person Siodmak opens the novel with a vivid description of Cory winning the little monkey's trust then heartlessly killing it. Siodmak can't quite keep up that level of creepiness, but he keeps the story chugging along when Cory happens on a chance to try his experiment with a human brain. And not just any human brain, mind you. A chance accident gives him access to an unscrupulous businessman's genius gray matter, which he sticks in a jar. Using Morse code Cory begins to communicate with the brain. Then the brain starts to talk back, creeping into his mind when he least expects it and working an agenda all its own. (Siodmak uses science to explain all this, but it's pretty silly.) From there Donovan's Brain essentially turns into a variation on Siodmak's other famous work, the screenplay to The Wolf Man. Cory begins losing control to his alternate personality, but instead of overacting wildly while terrorizing locals (ala Lon Chaney Jr.) he finds himself working to free a convicted killer whom Donovan wants exonerated for convoluted reasons. More crime novel than science fiction, these later chapters can kindly be called serviceable. But, honestly, the book's not particularly innovative or memorable apart from that one indelible bit of imagery: A brain in a vat, plotting and controlling the progress of the flesh around it, not unlike the one in your head right now.
Donovan's Brain has twice been adapted into film, the first time as The Lady And The Monster (1944):
And the second as Donovan's Brain (1953).
I've seen neither, but know that the first features Erich Von Stroheim and the second Nancy Davis (later to be Nancy Reagan). So I'm intrigued. I can highly recommend Orson Welle's 1944 radio adaptation, however. (You can find the first part here and the second here, on a site that features a lot of old time-y radio.) It takes some liberties with its source material, but most of them are improvements and it features a typically grandiose performance from Welles.
Next: Moonraker, by Ian Fleming
Then: The Secret People, by John Beyon Harris
And then: Tales From The White Hart, by Arthur C. Clarke