Of the six or so science fiction novels I’ve read for my 100 novels reading project, at least three — Ender’s Game, The Wave, and now Gray Matters by William Hjorstberg (Simon and Schuster, 1971) — have dealt in part with the protagonists confronting quasi-totalitarian elements of government, or agencies that want to hide something from the governed, restricting knowledge for safety’s sake.
In Gray Matters, humanity has been reduced to its essence — brains suspended in a material, reminiscent of TV’s Futurama and its heads in jars. Life in this future is lived virtually through memory tapes, is maintained by machines, and controlled by a bureaucratic government of cerebromorphs (as the brains are known). At the highest levels of this government, such as it is, are the cerebromorphs who have achieved a transcendental enlightenment, something on the order of Buddha; below them are various levels of auditors monitoring the progress of the lowest levels of unenlightened minds.
Among the cerebromorphs who need monitoring is Obu Itubi. He eludes his auditor, steals a service machine, and runs amok through the upper levels, until he finds the final level, a hatchery in which human bodies are designed with the purpose of having the most enlightened brains surgically inserted in them. The humans then head out into the outside world, a new Eden. Hooked up to the service machine, Itubi escapes into the outside world, but not before blowing up many of the human bodies, and damaging large portions of the complex that houses the cerebromorphs.
His escape, which challenges and perplexes the enlightened rulers, also sets the stage for the central question Hjorstberg seems to be asking: What does it mean to be human? Itubi, though not enlightened, receives a body, but once outside, discovers that most of the other humans in the outside world only seem concerned with further enlightenment. There’s hardly anything on the outside resembling the freedom and humanity Itubi yearns for.
On the other hand, the rest of the cerebromorphs live in their containers, experiencing life only through memory tapes, which allow for only a virtual reality to be experienced. Until Itubi goes on his rampage, the cerebromorphs are essentially immortal, and even when one of the brains — that of the first cerebromorph Skeets Kalbfleischer —gets destroyed, the cerebromorphs still have their memory tapes, which can go into another brain. And yet, all are controlled by the enlightened cerebromorphs, who continually monitor the lowest levels, pushing them toward enlightment.
To me, this novel is stronger than Hjorstsberg’s mystery Nevermore, which I read a few weeks ago, and despite some problems that only science fiction novels can experience — the future as seen from the perspective of 1971, for instance, allows only 25 years before a full-out nuclear war destroys a large part of human population — it reads as if it were written now. Some updates and it could have been.