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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Newton's Brain

Jakub Arbes

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To purchase Newton's Brain

Title: Newton's Brain
Author: Jakub Arbes
Genre: Novel
Written: 1877 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 137 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Newton's Brain - US
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from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • A Romanetto
  • Translated and with 'A postscript of the toponymy of Newton's Brain' by David Short
  • Previously translated by Josef Jiří Král, in Clever Tales, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke (1897)
  • With an Introduction by Peter Zusi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neat little science fiction fantasy

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Jakub Arbes' romanetto -- a variation on the novella, and a term coined by Arbes and Jan Neruda (and never quite catching on beyond a small, Czech circle) -- neatly straddles the rich Gothic-inflected fantasy literature of the earlier nineteenth century, from E.T.A.Hoffmann to Poe, and the burgeoning field of science fiction à la Jules Verne -- with someone in the novel even observing (to one of the other protagonists, not the author) that: "Jules Verne beat you to it". (Poe is also name-checked in the novel.)
       The novel would seem to have a sensational premise, suggested in the promising-sounding title -- and, indeed, the friend whose story the narrator chronicles eventually reveals, rather dramatically: "I replaced my own brain with Newton's". That's quite the hook for a novel -- but, in fact, this medical achievement is largely incidental to the story, and there's little explanation of any science behind it, its basic purpose being instead to allow Arbes (via the narrator's friend) to make a number of points about mankind and minds and intellect. But Newton's Brain does also take science fiction-flight then, as the narrator joins his friend in traveling in a kind of time machine -- the true conceptual highlight of the novel.
       Arbes takes his time in getting to the more fantastical parts of the story, with the revelation about the brain only coming midway through the novel. The narrator begins by reminiscing about his longtime friend who fell at the Battle of Sadowa (Königgrätz) in 1866. The two had been friends since childhood, and both had long dabbled in scientific study -- though the narrator admits: "any strictly scientific leanings eluded us by such a distance that I really don't know whether to treat what we studied back then as pointless or merely quirk"". Indeed, his friend applied most of what he learned to his hobby of doing magic tricks, which he became very good at.
       Both did poorly at university and his friend's family eventually decided it would be best for him to join the army -- leading him also to the battlefield, where he apparently died. A few months later, however, he reäppeared in the narrator's life -- with a plausible-sounding explanation as to why he was still alive, and an invitation to a grand banquet his father was holding to celebrate his return, promising there to put: "on the greatest trick show ever".
       The narrator makes his way to the chateau, and the banquet -- itself not as straightforward a journey as one might imagine -- and, along with a huge crowd that includes the Archbishop of Prague, Prince Schwarzenberg, and Jan Neruda, is then treated to quite the spectacle. The revelation about Newton's brain is already quite dramatic, but the friend has more up his sleeve -- a kind of time machine. Here Arbes does explain a bit more of the science to it -- the device allowing one to see the past, if not actually re-immerse oneself in it -- and this basic idea of how one might be able to witness past events is actually reasonably well-founded.
       The narrator then travels with his friend -- going back in time and seeing battle after battle, as well as, for example, "horrendous images from the French Revolution". The friend sums up their tour:

And all you have seen from start to finish has been constant strife, the mutual elimination and butchery of the most perfect of God's creatures ...
       Arbes utilizes the science-fiction premises of his story to allow for commentary and observation on mankind and its failures. The idea of Newton's brain allows for reflection on intellect and opportunity (and criticism of: "the ridiculous cult of so-called great minds"), and on mankind's failure to do good with all its 'thinking', progress in many ways superficial while the fundamentals remain unchanged, including, for example:
     Isn't the modern worker operating some machine still the same slave as he ever was ? Is life any more pleasant, more secure, more filled with joy than before ?
       The time-travel, showing the narrator the mass-slaughter of battle after battle, shows an even clearer human failing, and: "The only way to undermine this god's throne is by the principles of humanism ..." is the narrator's friend's clarion call -- dangled there, near the story's conclusion.
       The friend's parting words -- sacrificing himself, as the time-travel appliance begins to wobble out of control -- reveal the name and secret of the device, "familiar to the entire world", making for a turn towards realism in the short concluding chapter -- a slight let-down, in a way, but reasonable enough: Arbes seems to have believed that true science fiction was too great a stretch to present to his readers, and so he frames his story in a more plausible way.
       Conceptually, Newton's Brain is very impressive, both in its two fantastical premises, of the brain transplant and time travel, as well as the use to which he puts these in making his novel also one which diagnoses and reflects on civilization, progress, technology, and ideology and their failures (or rather: mankind's failures with them).
       The technical aspects are not particularly fully-fleshed out, particularly the brain-transplant idea, giving the novel a different feel than modern science fiction (with its fetishization of the technical), but for its times -- 1877 ! -- Newton's Brain is quite remarkable. It is also, quite simply, an impressive little work of fiction -- clearly with a didactic purpose, but that very creatively spun into the story itself. While there is rather much preamble, given how short the work is, and while much of the story, not just the technical aspects, would seem to warrant considerably greater exposition, it certainly is, ultimately, a successful and very well-turned piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 December 2023

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Newton's Brain: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Jakub Arbes lived 1840 to 1914.

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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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