Friday, February 5, 2016

Mind Switch

Damon Knight
Completed 1/11/2016, Reviewed 1/12/2016
4 stars

“Mind Switch” is the first novel I’ve read by Damon Knight, for whom the Grandmaster Award was named.  Previously, I read a collection of his short stories which I really enjoyed.  So when I found this used paperback at the SF convention last November, I had to get it.  And it did not disappoint.  It’s about a journalist and a zoo-kept alien biped whose minds switch bodies.  It’s sort of “Freaky Friday” set in the near future with no teens.  It was well written, fast-paced, and exciting.

What surprised me about the book was that it had several messages.  The most obvious one had to do with the treatment of animals in zoos.  As the human journalist trapped in the alien’s body, he experiences firsthand what it feels like to be kept captive and treated more or less like earth animals.  Even though the bipeds have intelligence and actually do typing from Dictaphones, they are still handled by their trainers as any other animal in the zoo.

Besides this message, it also had a theme of oppression of peoples not considered human.  There are several references to master race and subhuman species when discussing aliens.  The general feeling is that no alien species could ever be as evolved as humans.  So when the journalist tries to convince his captors that he’s really a human inside the alien, there’s almost no hope that they’ll listen.  The action takes place in Germany, which makes it seem like Knight is making a statement about World War II and the Nazi plan to wipe out the Jews and all other undesirables. 

The book is a terrific read.  The parts about Martin Naumchik, the journalist, are just heartbreaking as he tries to convince his captors that he is a human.  The parts about Fritz, the alien biped, are a little more humorous as he tries to navigate through Berlin in his new found human body.  Both weave together to make this relatively short novel a quick page turner. 

Like a good book from the golden age of SF, it has a few nice twists as well.  As is also typical of this era, there are almost no female characters in it.  Well, not exactly.  That’s one of the twists which of course I can’t give away.  And overarching the whole story is an interesting tale of an experiment gone awry that is the cause of the mind switch. 

Sometimes I think most books can be a lot shorter than they are.  Having read so many books in the past few years, I find some of these monstrously sized books overdo the complexity and subplots.  This book at 144 pages was just the perfect size for a tight little novel.  I give it four stars out of five.

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