Gray Matters

by William Hjortsberg
Reviewed date: 2007 Jul 15
Rating: 2
159 pages
cover art

The back cover of Gray Matters says it won the Playboy fiction award. I'm not familiar with the Playboy fiction award, but I do know that at one time, Playboy published a lot of first-rate science fiction stories. They were regular science fiction stories, not pornographic. I think even Asimov sold some stories to Playboy.

But if Gray Matters won an award from Playboy, then Playboy's standards must be falling. It's a tiresome, un-engaging story about a world where humanity has given up their physical bodies. The entire human race exists as cerebromorphs, brains in jars, in a giant underground complex called the Depository. The cerebromorphs are connected to a central computer, which guides them in their quest for enlightenment. Those few people who achieve enlightenment are given new bodies and sent to live on the surface.

In the Depository, the computers are concerned at a certain cerebromorph's lack of progress towards enlightenment. Denton "Skeets" Kalbfleischer has been in the Depository for 200 years, since he was 12 years old. He is still mentally 12 years old, and has not progressed beyond Level I. The computers decide that Skeets will never mature and gain enlightenment unless he experiences a sexual awakening. So they arrange for him to meet someone in a lucid dream sequence.

While the computers are messing with Skeets's head, another resident of Level I decides to take a shortcut to enlightenment: Obu Itubi tricks the computers into giving him access to a maintenance robot. Itubi disconnects his brain from the computer, installs it into a new body, and escapes the Depository.

The world Itubi discovers is dismal. A few thousand Enlightened people live on the surface and consider themselves the Guardians of the world. Unfortunately, the program of enlightenment involves the complete suppression and loss of one's previous identity, even one's gender identity. The enlightened cerebromorphs are installed into male and female bodies at random. They are asexual beings.

Itubi, however, discovers one human woman who never became a cerebromorph. Oona has been living on the surface, alone among the Enlightened humans, for years. She and Itubi are a sort of Adam and Eve, the only natural humans left to repopulate the world.

But Itubi is recaptured and sent back to the Depository. It is a sad ending. Except Oona is pregnant. Maybe there is hope for humanity after all.

With all this focus on sex as essential to the human experience, and Playboy's mark of approval, you might expect this book to be graphic. Well, it's not as tame as Asimov, that's for sure. It's not as graphic as Norman Spinrad. It's closest to Robert Silverberg.

Notes on the cover: The hardback cover features a big brain and a small Adam and Eve. When it came time to for the paperback, someone realized that brains are boring. The brain is smaller, and Adam and Eve are the focus of the picture.

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