One of the interesting aspects of science fiction is that it is a form sometimes used to criticize science, or more precisely the application of science, rather than glorify it. From Barry Malzberg to J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury to Pat Cadigan, Tom McCarthy to James Morrow—these and other writers in the field have in some way expressed a wariness at technological change and its impact, intended and unintended, on people and society. The quantity of such fiction dropping since the days vast and quick technological change first threatened, change has almost become the norm. Getting more outdated with each day, Eric Frank Russell’s 1965 The Mindwarpers is one such book. Republished as an ebook in 2017 by Dover Publications, the message at its heart, however, transcends time.
Richard Bransome works for one of the most advanced science research laboratories in the country. Consequently, it is one of the most heavily guarded. Multiple layers of security prevent unwanted access from the outside, even as the scientists and researchers internally impose their own unwritten code about secrecy in their work, hierarchy, and work ethic. Bransome is happy in his job, but when people around him start leaving the compound, some even disappearing, things start to get fishy. Paranoia settling in, Bransome soon finds himself in hiding from people who would like to uncover the secrets of his past as well as scientific work from his present. Trouble is, are his fears real or imagined?
There is a strong current of Cold War paranoia running through The Mindwarpers. Several of the spy vs. spy plot machinations revolve around foreigners with Slavic sounding names. That being said, I believe the message of the novel runs a little deeper. As hinted in the intro of this review, the uncertain possibilities of technology developed behind closed doors, not to mention the possibility to put said technology to malevolent use, are fundamental elements of the novel’s theme for as much as a thriller atmosphere dominates the plot.
A balance point The Mindwarpers finds itself at is between satire and realism. At times displaying relevant wit and style to what is commonly recognized as satire, particularly the opening sections, at others it settles into a more routine, story-driven narrative. The resolution of Bransome’s storyline, particularly its bare bones reveal, would seem to keep this unrefined edge, neither fully snarky or overtly emotive, resulting in an indecisive novel that does not have the keenest edge to its blade, but is capable of drawing blood on occasion.
In the end, The Mindwarpers shows its age in dialogue and setting, but retains meaning in theme. Technological change, as well as tight control over proprietary scientific research, are still aspects worth caring about, perhaps even moreso now. Books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast specifically, have taken Russell’s premise and dug even deeper, but the novel can still be appreciated.