Seeking "Hyperbrain" Books/Films: Chiang's "Understand", Lucy, Limitless
September 20, 2015 11:32 AM   Subscribe

If I greatly enjoyed Ted Chiang's "Understand", Lucy, Flowers for Algernon and Limitless, what other works along the same "superintelligence", "hyperbrain" or "gifted with superhuman intelligence amongst a world of normal people" theme would I enjoy?

I've always loved that theme, ever since I was a kid and read Philip Curtis' Invasion of the Brain Sharpeners. Would greatly appreciate some pointers.

(Yes, I know the 10% of our brain thing's a myth.)
posted by WCityMike to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know that they're making a show based on Limitless that premieres this week?
posted by rubster at 11:51 AM on September 20, 2015

Also, it is hard to not enjoy Matilda and I believe it's on Netflix these days.
posted by rubster at 11:52 AM on September 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sherlock Holmes, though he is not the POV character of his books, which were Watson's accounts of Holmes, and only somewhat is he POV character of the TV and movie adaptations. Holmes is a kind of high-functioning encyclopedic sort, as is his occasionally-appearing brother Mycroft. But he's probably not quite what you're looking for. There are other such advanced-cogitation detectives, like Nero Wolfe.

More on point: The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Nth Degree" (late season 4) featured the meek engineer Reg "Broccoli" Barkley (Dwight Schultz) having an encounter with an alien probe which massively amplifies his intelligence.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:53 AM on September 20, 2015

As far as printed sci-fi goes, I'd suggest checking out "True Names" by Vernor Vinge and Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress.
posted by teraflop at 11:56 AM on September 20, 2015

Was just coming in to suggest Beggars In Spain. Such a great book. (I hatttteeeddd the followup, though. YMMV)
posted by bibliogrrl at 12:15 PM on September 20, 2015

I'm not actually recommending this movie: Phenomenon with John Travolta
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:23 PM on September 20, 2015

It is not a cheery tale - but Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch is worth your while.
posted by jammy at 12:29 PM on September 20, 2015

This is frequent topic for Vernor Vinge; it's also an element in his novel A Fire upon the Deep, and its sequel A Deepness in the Sky, in his unrelated earlier novel The Peace War, and in his short story "Bookworm, Run!".

Super Intelligence at TV Tropes has many other examples.
posted by stebulus at 1:25 PM on September 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Vinge's novel Tatja Grimm's World.
posted by stebulus at 1:38 PM on September 20, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (1953) is an oldie but enjoyable. It must've been something in the air because Arthur C. Clarke published Childhood's End that year, which is a different spin on the theme.

In different ways, John Wyndham's The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos look at the theme.

If you like dogs, Olaf Stapledon did a superintelligent dog story you might check out.
posted by zadcat at 2:13 PM on September 20, 2015

"Ender's Shadow" is a companion book to Ender's game that looks at the events of Ender's game from the perspective of a hyper intelligent secondary character (Bean) and involves how he deals with his hyper intelligence and also the physical difficulties he has that stem from the same root cause, which I believe was a mutation.
posted by permiechickie at 3:45 PM on September 20, 2015

Blood Music by Greg Bear kinda fits. One of my favourite sci-fi books of forever.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:14 PM on September 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fringe episode "The Plateau" has a Flowers for Algernon-like plot, but the character becomes a killer who acts by predicting (and then inducing) a chain of events (in the vein of Final Destination) which results in an accidental death.

The Bourne Legacy is about an enhanced soldier from the same sort of program that developed Jason Bourne (Matt Damon's character from the first 3 movies), but the Jason Bourne movies never explored much about the program except the psychological manipulation and top-tier military training. Legacy shows that much of the soldiers' enhanced ability to adapt, hide, and fight are coming from a pair of drugs they must keep taking. We don't see the enhancement come about in the character, but we do see evidence of who he was before his enhancement: a young man with an IQ so low that he shouldn't have been in the Army in the first place.

It's in TV Tropes, but I should've thought of it before I read it: Paul Atreides in Dune has been trained in his youth to be both a mentat (human calculator) and also secretly trained with the prana-bindu (hyper-aware self-control) of the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, in the hopes that he would be a kind of superbeing, the Kwisatz Haderach. When he encounters the life-extending, mind-altering Spice, his perception and abilities are expanded massively. In the third book, one of his offspring will go through an even more profound transformation into a godlike entity.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:20 PM on September 20, 2015

Lisbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (now quadrilogy) is high-functioning to begin with, maybe (it is suggested perhaps) spurred by her mother's drug use and lots of childhood abuse. I forget which part of the second or third book she does briefly become hyperintelligent, but that intelligence is taken from her shortly thereafter, though she remains high-functioning.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:39 PM on September 20, 2015

Ahhh, I also love stories about this. Two that come to mind are Cory Doctorow's 0wnz0red (which, when I first read it, seemed like an updated Understand, though now I'm not sure) and Michael Swanwick's idea-packed novella Griffin's Egg.

Also +1 to Camp Concentration.
posted by gold-in-green at 6:09 PM on September 20, 2015

The Long Mars, the third book in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's Long Earth series delves into this idea. They have a superintelligent race of evolved humans.
posted by irisclara at 6:56 PM on September 20, 2015

Brain Wave by Poul Anderson.
When Earth moves out of an energy dampening field all animal life becomes 5 times more intelligent.
posted by Sophont at 7:49 PM on September 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm awfully fond of the Simpsons episode "HOMR." Is there no place for the man with the 105 IQ?
posted by thetortoise at 11:19 PM on September 20, 2015

Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone.
posted by tangerine at 11:56 PM on September 20, 2015

Oh yeah, another short story just came to mind: "Desertion" by Clifford Simak.

It's about a mission to explore the surface of Jupiter (yeah, yeah, but it was written in 1944) by transforming the explorers' bodies into a native life form that can survive in the open. The transformation seems to work, but none of the explorers ever return to base, and nobody can figure out why... until the protagonist undergoes the process himself, and discovers that it has extreme mind-altering side effects.
posted by teraflop at 12:13 AM on September 21, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. Your recommendations are deeply appreciated!
posted by WCityMike at 9:05 AM on September 25, 2015

Response by poster: A summary of the recommendations, with one or two added items from the tropes page.

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes
The Dark Fields, Alan Glynn
Invasion of the Brain Sharpeners, Philip Curtis
True Names, Vernor Vinge
Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (seconded)
Camp Concentration, Thomas Disch (seconded)
A Fire upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge
The Peace War, Vernor Vinge
Tatja Grimm's World, Vernor Vinge
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham
Sirius, Olaf Stapledon
Ender's Shadow, Orson Scott Card
Blood Music, Greg Bear
Dune, Frank Herbert (Paul Atreides post-Spice)
Children of Dune, Frank Herbert (“one of his offspring will go through an even more profound transformation into a godlike entity”)
Girl Who Played with Fire or Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, Stieg Larsson
Griffin's Egg, Michael Swanwick
The Long Mars, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Brain Wave, Poul Anderson
The Philosopher's Stone, Colin Wilson
The Hampdenshire Wonder, Victor Stott
Artemis Fowl series
The Chosen, Chaim Potok

The Bourne Legacy
Charly (1968) and Flowers for Algernon (2000)


“The Nth Degree,” ST:TNG
“The Plateau,” Fringe
"HOMR,” Simpsons

”Understand”, Ted Chiang
"Bookworm, Run!", Vernor Vinge
“0wnz0red”, Cory Doctorow
"Desertion," Clifford Simak
posted by WCityMike at 2:04 PM on September 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Ted Chiang story "Understand" is available as a four-part reading on BBC Radio 4 Extra at this entry, with 23 days remaining for the first episode.
posted by zadcat at 7:47 PM on October 11, 2015

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