The Cybernetic Brains by Raymond F Jones, 1969, Paperback Library, was originally published as a novella in Startling Stories Sept. 1950. The ISFDB database (see Handy Resources) mentions that the cover is attributed to Richard Powers in The Art of Richard Powers, however ISFDB attributes it to Jerome Podwell. It certainly does not scream Powers to me.
I began reading this book after seeing the cover on the unsubscribedblog (see Blogs I follow). I was intrigued by the rather vicious looking frog on the cover and showed it to my wife, who asked if the frog was really an important plot element. I randomly opened to page 48 and read "We'll have the frogs" he said "They can give us sight and sound and companionship. We have each other." and I was hooked.
Jones gives us a future world in which the majority of mankind are considered non-workers supported by a welfare state in which all production is created in automated factories. Initially the factories were computerized, however, "Computers that did man's thinking had become unwieldy cubes a thousand feet on a side, filled with millions of vacuum tubes relaying countless orders." (p 21). Rather than invent the microprocessor, Jones turns to cybernetics and the use of neurons from dead human brains to replace those pesky vacuum tubes. These cybernetic brains have been in use for 75 year, and currently 2 million brains are involved in the production of goods to support the worldwide welfare state. It is at this point that Dr. Albert Demming, the noted cyberneticist, is called upon to integrate a pair of brains in tandem using his new procedures in an attempt to circumvent a problem called adjustment collapse that occurs when new brains are brought online. Demming balks when he realizes the brains in question are those of his sister Martha and her husband John Wilkins, tragically killed in a car accident on their honeymoon. Demming's research has lead him to the conclusion that the brains are not actually dead. And of course they aren't. What follows is a fairly standard SF story concerning the efforts of a small handful of individuals, or parts thereof, to overcome a corrupt state
However Jones does mix it up enough that I was kept guessing as the plot unfolded and the conclusion of the novel was not in my mind trite or predictable. That is not to say that the novel was without problems. It showed some of the typical flaws of SF appearing in pulp magazines in the 1940's and 1950's; hasty writing, logical gaps, poor characterization and almost comedic resolutions to some of the most dramatic encounters.
Demming is murdered and his brain harvested when he threatens to announce that the brains were still fully conscious. The bulk of the novel concerns the efforts of John Wilkins assisted by Martha, Demming and his wife Kit, to tell the world of a conspiracy by the ruling elite.The elite not only know the brains are still conscious, but actually have people murdered for their brains.
I will mention a couple of problems I feel Jones could have avoided with better plotting/editing. John and Martha are killed when their car is forced off a cliff. Jones may have staged it this way because when John is initially revived he believes his death was accidental only later coming to realize, as the extent of the conspiracy is revealed, that it was murder. However the idea that you would jeopardise the brains you want to harvest this way is problematic. Indeed a character involved in harvesting the brains mentions, unfortunately for him, that it is amazing the bodies they receive are so battered but the brains intact. Another problem I had was with the frogs themselves. Due to Demming new procedure John, Martha, and Deeming all have paranormal powers and the ability to act independently of the factory control programs. John uses this power to create small creatures to act as his eyes and ears. He settles on one eyed frogs with very vicious teeth (remember where I started). When he uses a frog to dispatch the thug who menaces Kit, the scene, for me, is more comedic than suspenseful. But when the frogs are used to attack and destroy the 20 to 30 members of the Society of Artificial Dangers, an armed anarchist group, who have attacked Kit it borders on the absurd. I wish Jones had simply introduced some larger more seemingly lethal tools as the tension and menace in the story ramped up, wombats with unicorn horns perhaps?
Despite this I did enjoy the book, the conspiracy involves enough plot twists to keep me guessing and Jones avoids the typical Deus ex machina ending of so much SF of the period.