The Mind Master

And we’re back to more James Gunn while I work on more new stuff.

Remember, with Raw Feeds, you’re getting my thoughts on a work at a specific point in time. Since Raw Feeds are there for quick posts, I don’t often do corrections and updates. However, I will note that the idea of RNA memory transfer turned out to be based on bad lab work.

Raw Feed (2003): The Mind Master, James Gunn, 1981.Mind Master

This novel’s original title was The Dreamers.

Like most of Gunn’s novels, it is a fixup, here three stories. It also has, as it’s scientific point of takeoff, an idea popular in 1970s sf: chemically coded memories which can be transferred between people. (To be fair, I did a quick Internet search and RNA is still thought to be involved in memory though there is mixed opinion, most of it against, the notion that RNA-coded memories can be transferred between planarians much less rats. Still, at the time Gunn was writing, his speculations, with real scientists quoted on the matter, were certainly legitimate.)

The first story has little or no changes that I detected since I read it as “Among the Beautiful Bright Children” in the Gunn collection Human Voices though this time I didn’t think that its protagonist was writing under the influence of a capsule persona. The second story involves a doctor betrayed by a woman who leaves him. He bitterly enters a poppet world of dreaming vengeance against women in many historical forms. The third story involves one of those who creates the capsule entertainments much loved by the novel’s poppets. He becomes ensnared when he tries to dream the Trojan War, and the plot seems inevitable no matter what he does.

This novel’s theme of the corrosive powers of contentment and seeking that contentment in fantasies is closely related to Gunn’s The Joy Makers. This novel also features a society (rather like that of E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” — which must have been some influence on sf critic and historian Gunn), like that story, where people have largely retreated into self-contained apartments of solitary pleasure. Indeed, it is only in the adolescent phase that people group together to build their identity. The world of large urban centers with robotically and cybernetically managed fields and manufacturing centers surrounding them, where people rarely leave their city and mostly live in dream worlds is simply not as far down the path as the end of The Joy Makers where humanity exists as “fetal gnomes” in cubicles of bliss provided by “hedonics” technology.

Both novels question the value of happiness and come down, less strongly here, on some unhappiness to be necessary for man to engage with the universe and advance. Here people are lulled into living false lives recorded in RNA and proteins injected into their bodies. Gunn makes the wise (and, from a strategic sense, obvious) decision to describe the world through those somehow outside it.

The first story centers around an historian who doesn’t, through most of the story, pop capsules of memories, though his work provides the grist for the dreamers work. (Indeed, Samuel, the eponymous character in the last section, “The Dreamer”, meets “The Historian”.). “The Volunteer” is a surgeon who is one of those who must perform a job, one he likes, that has not been recorded into a chemical form to be transferred to others. (The ability to chemically encode knowledge and experiences has revolutionized society by revolutionizing economics, education, and entertainment.). Samuel the Dreamer rarely “pops” himself. The narrative glue that welds through these three stories together is “The Mnemonist”, a figure who is cybernetically linked to the city’s automated administrative and control features. While not a dreamer, he is not exactly engaged in the real world. Rather he exists in a river of information which he controls for society’s benefit, but it is the constant access to information (something of a precursor to some cyberpunk characters) that he enjoys. The novel’s plot involves him finding a replacement since he is dying.

The seductive power of dreams is the novel’s theme. The Historian, the Volunteer, and the Dreamer prove unable to resist the power of illusion. The Historian eventually succumbs, after being abandoned by his lover, to the lure of capsules. (He choses one built around a medieval figure.) The Volunteer, after he is rescued from his dreams of vengeance, again returns to it after finding out the woman who rescued him simply wants his surgical skills to revive an old lover in stasis, both people being part of a movement to deny the use of capsules and advance people the old way. The Dreamer succumbs to the lure of the Trojan War and his beloved Helen even though he finds the progression of events guided by history and the input of a spurned lover. The Mnemonist ultimately decides that, like those three, he has succumbed to dream and illusion. His is the illusion that his indispensability though he really just likes living in the flow of information.

Needless to say, another theme running through the book is the difficulties between a man and a woman. Each of the main stories features sexual and romantic love spurned or betrayed and the, always male, protagonist retreating to a world of illusion. With the Historian, his original wife left him and a newer lover just takes up with him as a novelty. When she leaves, he starts taking capsules. The Volunteer is embittered when his lover tells him she is entering the world of capsule dreams — not because he is a bad person but because no human can compete with the fulfillment and satisfaction they offer. He takes vengeance on women in his permanent dream state. When Sara turns out to be using him to revive her old lover, he returns, with additional frigidity, to those dreams of vengeance (tainted with worship since one dream of adultery avenged is terminated by a manifestation of the Virgin Mary — it’s a medieval dream). The Dreamer becomes fascinated by his own creation of Helen and, when he won’t leave her for a real world lover, she taints his dream with the inevitability of Helen’s “real” history.

An interesting novel with, as is often the case with Gunn, some passages of prose poetry.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

3 thoughts on “The Mind Master

  1. Tim Cumming January 7, 2017 / 8:22 pm

    A book I read as a teen – thanks for sharing.

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