The Mind Thing, by Fredric Brown: excellent pulp-era science fiction

When I was in junior high school, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. One of the books I got from the club was an anthology that included several stories by Fredric Brown (who was primarily a mystery writer but occasionally delved into science fiction). Some of Brown's stories in the anthology were a mere page or two, and I loved their humor and surprise endings. As soon as I could, I went to the Boulder Public Library to load up on as much Brown as I could find. It turned out the library had just two of his science fiction novels: Martians, Go Home (1955), and What Mad Universe (1949). They were both terrific.

Martians go home freasNewImage
In Martians, Go Home a race of cartoonish little green men invade Earth for the sole purpose of being hideously bothersome pests, behaving very much like Internet trolls and Second Life griefers. (Artist Kelly Freas perfectly captured the personality of the martians in his cover painting for Astounding Science Fiction.) In What Mad Universe a man gets thrown into a parallel universe and has to figure out how to get back home. Both books are semi-parodies of science fiction novels (the protagonists in each novel are science fiction writers), with plenty of Brown's signature wry humor. If you've not read these novels, I highly recommend them both.

The mind thing fredric brownIt wasn't until I was in high school that I scored a copy of The Mind Thing (1961), which is probably my favorite Brown novel, even though it is not as well-known as the other two novels, and could be arguably be classified a horror novel. The Mind Thing is an alien being (which looks like a turtle shell) that has been banished to Earth for committing crimes on its home planet. It is unable to move on its own, but can hijack the nervous system of any sleeping animal within range and take control of its mind and body. To leave the body, it forces the host to commit suicide. The alien goes on a spree, hopping into people's bodies and killing them, as it moves forward with a plan to make the Earth ripe for takeover (in the hope that its fellow creatures will forgive its past crimes and hail it a hero). Eventually, a smart fellow (an MIT professor on vacation) figures out what's going on and takes it upon himself to save the planet from the evil space alien.

Long of of print, The Mind Thing, Martians, Go Home, and What Mad Universe are available in Kindle editions. (I don't recommend Rogue in Space or The Lights in the Sky are Stars because they both stink, unfortunately.)



  1. That Astounding cover was the same image on the paperback version of Martians, Go Home that I found in my Grade 5 classroom. As an SF fan for five or six years at that point, I ate that book up.

  2. Another must-read by Brown is “Madball”, a down-n-dirty noir set amidst circus carnies. A fantastic monologue from the alcoholic main character talking about Lewis Carroll and “eat me” vs. “drink me” springs to mind, but I don’t have the text with me and I won’t do Brown the disservice of misquoting it.

  3. Fred Brown wrote a short story, collected in his Angels and Spaceships, that became the iconic (and never-credited) story about the ultimate supercomputer that’s asked if there’s a god, and it replies, “There is now.” He also wrote a hugely influential story called “The Waverlies,” about electricity being suddenly removed from civilization (the most recent incarnation of which is Abrams’ upcoming “Revolution”).

    He was a really good, fun, and influential writer who deserves more credit.

  4. Fredric Brown’s SF is pretty good but it doesn’t have a tick on his Crime works.  Check out The Far Cry, His Name is Death and the newly printed Miss Darkness which is a gargantuan 700 page collection of his crime short stories.  

  5. When I was in college I took advantage of my school’s Interlibrary Loan program to get every collection of short stories by Brown the librarians could find. And I absolutely loved them. I hated to return the books, and even renewed one three times until the librarian told me I absolutely had to give it back.

    For some reason the only book of Brown’s I could find at the time was a secondhand copy of Rogue in Space. And I agree: it stank. It actually turned me off of pursuing Brown’s novels, which is unfortunate because Martians Go Home sounds brilliant.

    By the way, for those who like hard copies, two books of Brown’s, From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown and Martians and Madness: The Complete SF Novels of Fredric Brown are still in print and available from NESFA Press.

    This time I think I’ll skip Interlibrary Loan.

  6. There’s also a newer collection of his serial detective novels that started with The Fabulous Clipjoint. 

    None of them quite measure up to the opener, which is a terse and hardboiled account of a kid and his uncle investigating the murder of his alky father.  A lot to love in it, carny subplot, freight hopping, and a setting in the skid row past of the Near North Side of Chicago.

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