Bedlam Planet

by John Brunner
Reviewed date: 2007 Aug 28
Rating: 2
159 pages
cover art

John Brunner started with an interesting idea: colonists on an Earth-like planet must stop thinking like Earth-men, must break with millions of years of evolution that has shaped them to survive on Earth, and attune themselves to a new planet and a new evolutionary track. The realization of this idea is Bedlam Planet, and it's crummy book.

The planet is Asgard. It is almost perfect. The air is breathable, the climate and weather are welcoming, and natural resources are plentiful. Slight differences in biology make humans immune to local diseases. What more could colonists ask for?

Ascorbic acid. Man must have ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to live, but a local microbe has settled in the intestines of the settlers, absorbing all the ascorbic acid that the people ingest. Only massive doses of vitamin C supplements keep the settlers from dying. Ascorbic acid is not present in the local flora; the colonists' supplements are running out. There is an epidemic of scurvy.

So far so good. This is an interesting book, with a decent science fiction puzzle to solve. But Brunner decides to go the surreal route.

Hoping to stave off scurvy, six volunteers begin to eat a diet of Asgard-grown Earth crops, despite not knowing if these are safe for human consumption. All six go stark raving mad. Brunner spends huge chunks of text describing their feverish visions. It's not pretty.

But they're not really insane, see. They are Asgard-sane. The temporary period of craziness is just their bodies forcing their minds to adjust to the new reality of Asgard.

"Did you ever keep a dog?" she said after a moment for thought. "Did you ever see one drag itself across country when it was so sick it could barely stand, in search of a special kind of grass which would make its belly reject the poison it had swallowed? We've got to be our own dogs, as it were. Our bodies know things which our minds never can. So what we have to do is turn our minds off, and bit by bit we're figuring out how."
Dennis stared in dismay at Dan.... "But if one has to go insane in order to stay alive--" he began, and Parvati cut him short.
"No, Dennis! That's the whole point! Don't think of what's happening to Dan, or what happened to you, as 'going insane.' It's the exact opposite. You went sane--totally and completely sane."

Asgard-sane just happens to look a whole lot like Earth-insane. Since they live on Asgard, they're A-OK. Eventually they force the other settlers to eat the crops and all become Asgard-sane too.

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