Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Book Review: "Magnetic Brain" by Volsted Gridban

Magnetic Brain by Volsted Gridban (Scion, 1953)

Inspired by an interview with Philip Harbottle in Justin E.A. Busch’s wonderful sercon fanzine Far Journeys and subsequently reading Harbottle’s book on the early history of sf publishing in England, Vultures of the Void: The Legacy (Cosmos, 2011), I picked up several examples of early British paperbacks and sf magazines, including this 1953 novel. Written by John Russell Fearn using the, oh, so awesome pseudonym Volsted Gridban, the 128-page book was published by Scion Ltd. The book’s cover painted by Ron Turner is absolutely beautiful and starkly colored but has little to do with the story—other than the image’s portrayal of how a reader might imagine the titular magnetic brain.

Hearn was a very prolific writer, publishing no fewer than 19 novels in 1953 alone. In that year, he wrote five novels as Gridban, with the bulk of his output credited to Vargo Statten. So the book was quickly written and inexpensively printed. Regardless, Magnetic Brain is a fun, brief read—I read it in two sittings—and includes several interesting science fictional ideas.

After crash landing on Mars and suffering a head injury, the protagonist, Timothy Arnside, receives medical care from a noted experimental Martian surgeon, who implants a device in his brain. Upon returning home on Earth, Arnside realizes that he is now able to read the minds of humans—but not Martians or Venusians—within a six-foot radius. The newfound ability plays helpful havoc with his marriage and affects his friendships and business prospects. (A relatively unsuccessful salesman, Arnside was fired shortly after his return home.)

Arnside becomes embroiled in industrial espionage, as well as governmental intervention in some Venusian fifth column activity initially led by a charismatic orator calling for armed defense of the planet Earth. That leads to the Venusians targeting the protagonist to remove the threat to their sleeper agents living on Earth. But Arnside’s decaying moral fabric—caused by his falling prey to the temptations offered by his telepathy—and side effects of the surgical implant lead to a problematic end.

Other than the magnetic brain itself, the book also includes elements of anti-gravity flight—which could inspire a sequel, were one so moved—and a fictional wonder metal, niridium. The book isn’t the best sf novel by any stretch of the imagination, but Hearn’s authorship and Scion’s publication are of historical importance. It offers an interesting look at the early state of mass-market sf publishing in post-war England.

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