The Mind Net
Reviewed date: 2018 May 27
Translated from the German by Christine Priest
German title Das Gedankennetz
The back cover of this 1974 Daw paperback calls Herbert W. Franke "one of the four best science fiction writers of modern Europe." I presume that means continental Europe, because I could come up with a lot of British authors off the top of my head. Arthur Clarke, Brian Aldiss. H. G. Wells probably doesn't count as modern. George Orwell. John Brunner.
In any case, I've never heard of Herbert W. Franke, so he must not have made a big impression in the English-language market. Das Gedankennetz was originally published in 1961, and got an English translation in 1974. But is it any good?
Chapter 1: Awakening
Vries, Ebb, and Koute explore a newly-discovered planet full of ancient alien ruins. They find no life, but do find some perfectly-preserved alien brains. They take three specimens back to the ship for further study.
Vries hooks one of the brains up to a resonance-synthesizer and an amplifier, and connects it to the ship's central computer. If it works, the memory-pattern containing the alien thoughts and knowledge will be transfered into the computer's memory banks, where Vries can query it and learn about the extinct civilization. They are all so busy trying to see if they can bring an ancient alien consciousness back to life, they forget to ask whether they should.
Actually that's not true. Orch, the "leader of the safety- and defense-group," has the good sense to ask "are you sure there is no danger to the rest of the crew?" And ship commander Rety has the same question. Vries dismisses their concerns with evident irritation. Rety gives the go-ahead.
The alien consciousness seizes control of critical ship functions. Ebb tries to shut the experiment off manually, but the alien has already gained control of the ship's autorep repair robot. The autorep blocks their access to the shutdown lever. In a matter of minutes, the alien consciousness takes full control of the ship, forces the crew into the lifeboats, jettisons them, and blasts off into deep space.
They should have listened to Orch.
Chapter 2: White Foaming Water, Black Branches
Eric Frost and Sid Rosselino are stationed on Heyse II, where they are observing an alien coral growth that is enveloping the entire planet. Their observation station is in the last coral-free zone on the planet. Eric approaches the coral, explores the inside of the alien growth through a series of tunnels. He senses...something. An intelligence. An awareness. The coral tries to communicate with him by creating familiar things for him to encounter, such as a small human child. Eric follows orders: he uses his blaster to destroy the ersatz child.
Eric makes his final report to Earth. Then he and Sid blast off and escape from Heyse II moments before the coral overruns the observation station. Eric explains why he thinks the coral is peaceful, but tells Sid he thinks the Earth government is unlikely to take a chance. Most likely, the government will destroy the entire Heyse solar system with anti-hydrogen.
Chapter 3: An Idea: Lovis/A Longing: Ruth
Lovis is the petty little dictator of the dome-city of Holder on the planet Amaryllis. He is being deposed in a coup, so he and his right-hand-man Eric put their escape plans in motion. But there's a wrinkle: Lovis decides to bring Ruth along too. Eric objects that their plans only allow for two. But Lovis insists.
Eric is loyal to a fault. He lets Lovis bring Ruth along, even when he realizes that Ruth is sabotaging their escape. At the end, everything comes to a head. There is only room for two in the aircraft. Lovis takes Ruth. Eric acts, pulling Ruth from the plane and taking her place. Together he and Lovis fight off the enemy aircraft and make their escape. But instead of retiring somewhere to enjoy their embezzled wealth, Eric drops Lovis off at a faraway dome, gives him a set of fake ID, and tells him "Work."
It was in this chapter that I started to have doubts. Was this really a novel? None of the stories are connected. Eric is in two of them, but not in the first. Is he the connection?
Chapter 4: The Tribunal
Eric is the connection. He's a mental deviant, and he's been put under the Mind Net and immersed in fictional scenarios to test his reactions. Now the panel is meeting to discuss his performance. Czerny, Bell, and Graudenz give negative assessments. Farmer seems inclined to give Eric the benefit of the doubt, but Czerny bullies him into agreeing with the verdict. Eric is to be lobotomized.
Chapter 5: Black Schemes, and a Starless Night
Farmer isn't the only one with reservations about the lobotomy. Janet Trombe had no say in the tribunal, but she enacts a crazy plan to rescue Eric. As the lobotomy is about to start, Janet opens a can of anesthesia gas. The whole room passes out--except for her, as she has filters in her nose. She cuts off Bell's thumb to use for the fingerprint readers, then drags Eric out of the room. She revives him, gives him the thumb, and tells him how to escape, and where to meet her later. Then she sneaks back into the facility, lies down in the operating room, and pretends to have passed out along with the rest.
Czerny figures out the whole thing, but instead of turning Janet in, he uses it as an opportunity to frame Farmer. Janet and Eric escape into the waterways below the city. These subterranean catacombs stretch beneath the city for miles, and--as Eric and Janet discover--are populated by desperate criminals. The only food is whatever refuse is dumped through garbage-chutes. Eric gets hurt and needs medical attention, so Janet takes a risk in returning to the surface to request help. But when she returns, she is met by Bell, Farmer, Czerny, and Graudenz. It is she, not Eric, who is on trial now. She helped Eric escape, which is a crime, and for that she is judged guilty and abnormal. She is scheduled for lobotomy.
And in a twist that didn't surprise me at all, Bell's thumb is intact. The whole escape and subterranean adventure was a Mind Net scenario that Janet went through. Eric never escaped at all.
Eric and Janet are both lobotomized.
Chapter 6: Awakening
Eric wakes up. He has a machine body. It's a spaceship. There are humanoid aliens inside the spaceship, trying to communicate with him. Eric is the alien consciousness from Chapter 1. He forces the little aliens into the lifeboats, then heads off into deep space.
I'm not sure what the point of all that was. I admit the final chapter surprised me, more than it should have. But the surprise twist ending didn't make the rest of the book worth it.