“Professor Dowell’s Head” (novelette) by Valery Bryusov
English Publication History: Professor Dowell’s Head (Macmillan, 1980), Professor Dowell’s Head (Collier Books, 1981), Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)
Original: Russian (Голова профессора Доуэля), 1926
Translated by Muireann Maguire, 2015
Note: The version from 1926 is a novelette while the 1937 version is the novel. The Macmillan and Collier editions are both novels; however, the Russian Life Books version is the novelette, which his reviewed here.
Synopsis: Miss Adams took an unusual job under the supervision of Professor Kern, even with his threats and temper. She soon meets the subject of her time while under employment: the detached yet still living head of Professor Dowell. Disregarding Kern’s threat, Miss Adams secretly opens an innocuous valve, which allows the head to speak and confess. She soon alliances herself with the head prior to beheading two other corpses for a scientific exhibition, where Miss Adams takes the soapbox for a hysterical rant.
The Author’s Work: Belyaev is one of most accomplished SF writers from Russia with eight novels and nine short stories having been translated and published in English. His work began to be published in 1926, so considering that he died in 1942, he was quite productive and, posthumously, has been a shining example of Russian and Soviet SF literature.
Pre-analysis: You may never read such a tragic biography as the one of Belaev. After birth (1884), his father forced him to take a religions path in his life and entered him into a seminary, but, not feeling particulary religious, declared himself an atheist in a seminary. After his success as a lawyer, he became a writer, but during this time (1814) he contracted tuberculosis, which spread to his spine and paralyzed his legs. Not wanting for care for a crippled, his wife him. He convalesceced in Yalta with his mother a nanny, took a few odd jobs in Yalta, but eventually found himself back in Moscow as a law consultant. He had two daughters, one which died in 1930, and lived until 1942, when he died of starvation after he refused to evacuate the town as he was recovering from an operation. The Nazis gave him an Orthodox ceremony or his interment, the exact place of which is not known. His wife and remaining daughter were sent a Nazi camp yet later returned to Russia only to be suspected of collaboration with the Nazis, thus being exiled to Siberia.
Analysis: The most pivotally traumatic point in Belyaev’s life came when his wife left his as he lay diseased, defenseless, and unable to care for himself. He must have hated his body for the state he was in, the hatred of which must have been a double-edged sword whose two edges were honed to lethal lines that attacked his body and mind. Surely, a better life could be had in the future, if not in reality than at least in fiction. Perhaps this is where Belyaev’s motivation came for some of this SF themes: organ and brain transplants, a procedure of which that only became reality in 1954 with the world’s first kidney transplant.
Belyaev’s 1928 novel The Amphibian revolves around the transplantation of gills, while his 1930 novella is about a brain transplantation from a man to an elephant. Prior to these two stories is “Professor Dowell’s Head”, which doesn’t feature a transplantation, as such, but the revival and sustainment of a detached, bodyless head. Perhaps in Belayaev’s grieving for the abandonment of his wife and the dereliction of his body, being a healthy living head would be preferable to having an ill body.
Professor Dowell actually headed (oops, a pun) the research that allowed him to have a detached the living head; his co-researcher—Professor Kern—is exclusively using his ideas to further his career and gain fame from the success. If Dowell doesn’t agree, what’s Dowell going to do—violently blink at Kern? With a good mind, Dowell concedes in doing to literature review for Kern, but he oddly doesn’t become morose with his stationary state. When Kern brings in two more victims for their bodyless experiment, the duo don’t fair as well.
Tom and Miss Watson are the next two heads, but their occupations don’t involve the use of their mind: Tom is a physical laborer while Miss Watson used to occupy her time with another physical use of her body. Now bodyless, the two don’t adjust as well to their state as Dowell. The rigors of occupying one’s mind doesn’t suit all walks of life, so only Dowell is able to withstand the hours of by using his mind. Here, Belyaev may be simplifying and exploring social class in that the intelligentsia is fine being secluded to their whims while the common laborers aren’t suited for a similar life.
Review: Not only is this story compelling from start to finish, but it also has some social overtones as mentioned above. Take these two perspectives in parallel with Belyaev’s personal history and the story suddenly becomes intensely personal. This doesn’t necessarily make the story better, per se, but it does bring it sharply into a contextual focus. Admittedly, the idea sounds corny from the 1920s, but Belyaev masterfully carries the idea through its plausibilities and social perspectives. This is much better that “Hoity-Toity”, which I didn’t care for at all.