Friday, September 14, 2007

Eric Frank Russell's "Mindwarpers" aka "With a Strange Device" (novel): Cold War spy thriller

Quote from the novel titled With a Strange Device aka Mindwarpers by Eric Frank RussellThis is not quite a typical Russell - at least when compared to his other stories I have read.

It has a somewhat tedious beginning; I actually used to avoid picking it up - though when in hand, it was easy enough to read. Story really picks up about half way through, & the rest is unputdownable. But even the later half is not very original - at least not now. You must have read innumerable spy stories of the ilk.

This story also has a lot in common with Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged": men of brains keep retiring or vanishing, making authorities nervous. There is a man named Reardon. The hero of the story is a metallurgist. Though the government is good here, unlike in Rand's. Note that Rand's book came a decade before Russell's.

Story summary.
I don't recall the countries named, but it's obvious the story is US vs USSR. And especially near end, it is obvious that US is good & USSR is bad!

Story begins in a US government weapons research facility. Russell must be a prophet - for I see some of the most annoying parts of this establishment in some modern software companies in Bangalore: color coded interiors (though they don't convey status or access control hierarchy in software companies); heavily segmented interiors with strict access barriers for employees (in software companies, barriors usually are to meet intellectual property protection needs when the same company services multiple clients - but they always tend to annoy employees).

Anyway, one fine day, an otherwise stable employee quits for no reason. He has no alternate job, & doesn't have a plan. He refuses to give any reasons.

Soon, there is a flood. From this facility, as well as many others across the country. Usually, the quitters are highly skilled & emotionally stable specialists. Some simply fail to turn up, others formally quit. Most soon leave the country; some start a new life in isolated small towns doing inconspicuous things like running a hardware store or tending to land.

Government is worried, & is convinced their is a plan behind this: "there are two ways of weakening the enemy. You can acquire his brains for your own use or, if that proves impossible, you can deprive him of the use of them."

That is when Richard Bransome, a metallurgist at the facility, with a wife & kids, begins to behave oddly. Government puts an agent on his tail - one Joseph Reardon, of Military Intelligence.

Richard has been having nightmares. After overhearing a conversation of two men in a coffee shop, he remembers a crime he committed 2 decades ago; he had ruthlessly killed a woman named Arline Lafarge in a tiny town called Burleston - though he will recall the details over a period of time. The overheard conversation conveyed a piece of gossip that the bones of the woman had been accidentally discovered recently at the place Richard had buried her.

Richard has a feeling he will soon be arrested as investigation proceeds. Other odd events have been happening around him - like a man who looks like plainclothes cop tailing him.

Eventually, he cannot take it anymore. Gives a story to office, another at home, & vanishes. Only, Reardon is still on his tail.

He spends a while in Burleston trying to discretely dig the level of police investigation. Over a large part of the story, he will discover that there was no murder, nor any bones discovered. He has been chasing ghosts of his own mind.

Anger makes him go for some amateur sleuthing - to discover the culprits who planted the ghosts in his mind. He will eventually lead the tailing Reardon to enemy spy ring & their ingenious weapon - a hypnosis machine that can plant chosen memories in the brain of a doped man. Turns out, Burleston was kidnapped, drugged, & given the treatment in a way he could discover only much later - even now, he has his memory blank for some 2 hours on a particular day.

Fact sheet.
"With a Strange Device" aka "Mindwarpers", novel, review
First published: 1965
Rating: A
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.