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Brain in a Box

Entry updated 23 October 2023. Tagged: Theme.

The disembodied brain in a box (or in a jar, a vat, or some more elaborate laboratory apparatus) is a recurring trope, most frequently in the Horror in SF context. Well-known instances are H P Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness" (August 1931 Weird Tales); E E Smith's's Galactic Patrol (September 1937-February 1938 Astounding; 1950), in which through a supreme mental effort the Lensman series hero Kim Kinnison sees the supposedly true form of his Arisian mentor, a giant brain – the detail that this floats in a vat of "pleasantly aromatic liquid" is added in First Lensman (1950); Curt Siodmak's Donovan's Brain (September-November 1942 Black Mask; 1943); and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (1962). Lovecraft's disembodied brain is passive, intended to convey horror by its mere existence ("... and all the time in that fresh, shiny cylinder on the shelf ... poor devil ..."). The others command considerable Psi Powers, Smith's Arisian being benign while Siodmak's titular Brain and L'Engle's "IT" both specialize in enslaving mind-control.

H P Lovecraft was by no means the first to write of disembodied yet living brains. Earlier appearances include Louis Ulbach's "Le Prince Bonifacio" (in L'Isle des Rêves, coll 1860); Gustave Le Rouge's Le Prisonnier de la Planête Mars (1908; rev vt Le Naufrag, de l'espace 1912), featuring a "Great Brain" on Mars; "The Brain in the Jar" (November 1924 Weird Tales) by Norman Elwood Hammerstrom and Richard F Searight; Guy Dent's Emperor of the If (1926), in which the power of such a brain (formerly belonging to a greengrocer) is harnessed to create alternate realities; M H Hasta's "The Talking Brain" (August 1926 Amazing Stories), whose eponym's first Communication in Morse code from the new in vitro existence is an urgent request for death "Now. Now. Now. Now. Now."; Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (April 1931 Wonder Stories), whose protagonist's attempts to speed Evolution via cosmic Rays turns him by stages into a giant disembodied brain in an imprisoning cube, and ultimately into protoplasm; and David H Keller's "The Cerebral Library" (May 1931 Amazing), whose Library consists of jars containing brains whose owners spent five years reading a book a day before being killed for use as an instant reference source.

Among the many post-Lovecraftian examples are Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's "The Time Conqueror" (July 1932 Wonder Stories; vt "The Tyrant of Time" as title story of coll 1955), in which Far Future Earth is ruled by an immortal brain in a jar; Eando Binder's Enslaved Brains (July-September 1934 Wonder Stories; rev Winter 1951 Fantastic Story Quarterly; 1965), with hapless brains used to control automated factories; the 1940-1944 adventures of Captain Future, one of whose sidekicks is a living brain in a transparent case; Frederik Pohl's The Knights of Arthur (January 1958 Galaxy), Arthur being a brain in a suitcase who is capable of running power stations and, ultimately, an ocean liner; Fritz Leiber's Satire on writing and publishing, The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962); Roald Dahl's "William and Mary" (in Kiss Kiss coll 1960); Robert Silverberg's "Nightwings" (September 1968 Galaxy), where the brains are used for data storage; E C Tubb's Dumarest books, beginning with The Winds of Gath (1967 dos US; rev vt Gath 1968), in which the hero's "Cyclan" foes are commanded by an ancient cabal of linked brains in jars; William Hjortsberg's Gray Matters (1971); Michael G Coney's Friends Come in Boxes (fixup 1973; rev 1974), whose boxed brains await life extension in new bodies which are however in short supply; Joseph McElroy's Plus (1977); Daniel C Dennett's "Where Am I?" (in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology coll 1978), using the brain in a box as a Thought Experiment to dramatize issues of Perception and reality; P C Jersild's En levande sjal (1980; trans Rika Lesser as A Living Soul 1988); John Scalzi's Old Man's War sequence, opening with Old Man's War (2005), in which the Colonial Union punishes treason with reduction to brain-in-a-box status; and Brandon Sanderson's Perfect State (2015 dos), which solves the problem of Overpopulation by storing most of the human race as boxed brains enjoying customized Virtual Realities. A bizarre twist is given to brain/body separation in Barrington J Bayley's "Sporting with the Chid" (in The Seed of Evil coll 1979), where capricious Aliens modify humans in such a way that their brains can – involuntarily and distressingly – emerge to crawl around.

In Cinema, a surprising early instance is the virtually irrelevant appearance of a living brain in a jar in the detective thriller Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938). The already-cited Donovan's Brain has been filmed three times, as The Lady and the Monster (1944), Donovan's Brain (1953) and Vengeance (1963; vt The Brain). These are genially spoofed in The Man with Two Brains (1983); another comic treatment is the Brain character in Igor (2008). Nazis turn out to have preserved the Führer's brain for decades in They Saved Hitler's Brain (1968). The already-cited Lovecraft story was filmed as The Whisperer in Darkness (2011) directed by Sean Branney. More tangentially, the invisible energy Monsters in Fiend Without a Face (1957) are eventually revealed as having the form of disembodied brains. In Television, the Villains of the Star Trek segment "The Gamesters of Triskelion" (5 January 1968) prove to be brains in jars, as does Morbius in the Doctor Who serial "The Brain of Morbius" (3-24 January 1978); further examples abound.

One frequent variation on this theme is the disembodied living head, as in the cruel experiment of Alexandr Beliaev's Golova Professora Douelja (June-July 1925 Vsemirnyj Sledopyt nrs 3-4; 1926; exp rev 1937; trans Antonina W Bouis as Professor Dowell's Head 1980). Such heads are not only preserved but induced to grow new bodies (see Regeneration) in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Synthetic Men of Mars (7 January-11 February 1939 Argosy; 1940); the "Head of the N.I.C.E." in C S Lewis's That Hideous Strength (1945; cut 1955; cut version vt The Tortured Planet 1958), a channel for evil supernatural intelligences, is attached to grisly life-support equipment; the hero of Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia (1975) must for security reasons travel to Earth in separate packages containing his full-sized head and shrunken ("scunned") body; living talking heads feature in Orson Scott Card's Wyrms (1987); the titular head-in-a-box of Neal Asher's The Skinner (2002) is cursed with monstrous Immortality and needs no body to survive. In Cryonics, bodiless heads are already being frozen in hope of future revival, but until such restoration becomes possible these heads cannot be securely described as "living"; a tale centred on such cryonic storage is Heads (July-August 1990 Interzone; 1990) by Greg Bear.

Media treatments of disembodied living heads include The Head (1959) and The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1961). The Futurama (1999-2003; 2010-2013; 2023-current) series features many talkative heads in jars – mostly celebrities, ranging from Abraham Lincoln via Orson Welles to William Shatner.

Once a disembodied brain or head is provided with a reasonable measure of physical agency, such as being wired into a Spaceship – as in "Camouflage" (September 1945 Astounding) by Henry Kuttner and C L Moore writing together as Lewis Padgett, and many later stories – this trope crosses over into the realm of Cyborgs (which see). Towards the close of the above-cited The Silver Eggheads, for example, the titular brains in metal eggs acquire manipulators and Antigravity-mediated mobility; the brain-in-a-jar status of the title character of The Colossus of New York (1958) is no more than a transition stage. Tales in which the emphasis is on brain transplants, perhaps requiring but not primarily about some interim storage arrangement, are dealt with under Identity Transfer. [DRL]

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