The Infinite Cage and the Escape from Middle Earth

I had occasion to re-read another book, THE INFINITE CAGE, by Keith Laumer, and again to compare what shallow youth recalled versus what older eyes perceive.

This book was one of those rare cases where not only did I not remember the ending, I misremembered it, thinking some matter of my own unintentional invention was in the text when it was not. Here was my greatest surprise, for normally I have a very crisp and accurate memory of books I’ve read, as accurate as my memory for people I meet is vague, shabby, and neglectful.

A smaller surprise, but one more interesting to comment upon, was the unrelenting grimness, cynicism, and sourness of the tale. This was something which made no impression on my sunny youthful mind, who had neither taste for misanthropic pessimism nor, apparently, any ability to recognize or notice it. At the time, I also thought innocence was the same as naivety. It is not; they are nearly opposites. More on this later.

Laumer is a treat to read. Other writers try to put conflict and tension in their works, but end up lumbering along. Laumer defines conflict and tension. There are no wasted scenes and hardly a wasted word, and some dramatic thing happens each easy-to-turn page. His works written after 1971 might lack this quality; none from before do. I will not say he is in top form, because all his books are written with this same sparse prose, vivid turns of phrase, and lean, fast-paced action.

The novel is short and to the point. It concerns the tragic misadventures of an mind-reading superman with perfect memory, apparently infinite intelligence, but possessing at first no selfhood nor self-awareness, and, later, a simplistic and naïve personality, utterly innocent and trusting.


Having a longer gestation period than homo sapiens, he was kept in an asylum, and beaten whenever he screamed or made noise. Escaping by mistake, a mindless idiot, he wanders until he is caught by police, who, not knowing who he is, sadistically beat him. A blow to the head accidently awakens his mind reading powers, or perhaps (it is not clear) reduces him to the level of a mere superhuman, where he can develop in six months to the level of an adult human. The story opens when the mindless superman stumbles by mistake out of the police station, naked and bruised, is rescued by a grifter.

There are three acts. In the first, the nameless idiot mindreader stumbles from one dark situation to the next, from time to time being possessed by one or more the minds with whom he can make contact across any distance. When he needs to drive a car, for example, the mind of a petty car thief takes over his body (while the car thief’s body sleeps on, perhaps thinking it is dreaming), or when he needs to beat an assailant, the mind of a different and more violent crook takes over. The people occupying his body react with comically exaggerated superstition, fear and horror except for one psychiatrist named Poldak, who is convinced the experience is real, and spends the book seeking the man whose body he so briefly inhabited.

In the second act, the idiot superman, now the ally of an overweight and unpleasant palm-reader and petty chiseler named Sister Louella, tries to find some way to use his powers. She attempts to set him up as a medium, christening him Adam Nova or Mr Adam, but since he tells people the whole truth of what they are thinking, the subjects are merely embarrassed and horrified. Eventually he gets a job, first in a Chinese laundry, next as a bookkeeper in a warehouse, and finally as an auctioneer. He instantly learns any language or any skill he needs by plucking it from the minds of people anywhere in the world, but he has no personality and no personal emotions or motives.

While working as the bookkeeper for a man named Mr Lin, Adam unintentionally discovers the graft and larceny of the owner’s partners, who send hooligans to beat him. He dispatches them easily by summoning up the fighting skills of even more dangerous hooligans, and saves the owner’s beautiful young cousin, Lucy Yang, who rewards him with a kiss. For the first time beset by romantic emotion, Mr Adam expresses his desire to copulate with the surprised and disgusted girl by explaining his craving in a clinical fashion. She reacts with amused contempt, and makes an offhanded comment that being physically fit, dressing nicely, and having a nice sportscar and so on are what attracts a woman, not to mention having a personality. Taking the comment literally, in the inhumanly diligent and unemotional and naively logical way he does everything, Mr Adam exercises without regard to pain or physical limitations, nearly crippling himself, and uses his telepathic ability to find buyers for otherwise unwanted items purchased in an auction house to earn the money to buy new suit and a sportscar. He then returns to the girl and displays his physical fitness, suit, and sportscar and is again rebuffed.

In the third act, the jilted superman, now acquainted with pain and sorrow, attempts to alleviate all human suffering by earning money and giving it all away to people who need it. He merely identifies someone who has a financial need and walks up and tries to hand him money. Everyone reacts with fear and hatred and no one takes the money, except for one bargain-basement Elmer Gantry grifter named Brother Chitwood, who takes the cash and spends it on booze and women. The only character who speaks the name of Christ in this whole story is this sleazy fraud artist.

Mr Adam buys the auction house, using his telepathy to find sellers and buyers, and is successful enough to come to the attention of the Mafia, who send mooks to extort protection money from him. Mr Adam defeats them handily. Mr Adam is arrested and beaten by crooked and sadistic cops (the second set we’ve met in the book) but he uses his mind powers to cure them of the evil inside them, and they free him. Earlier, Mr Adam cured the insanity of a miser whose money he had innocently discovered in a stash.

In his attempt to make money, Mr Adam makes increasingly larger bets with a high-stakes gambler named Welkert. Mr Adam technically is cheating, since he can read the minds of the people involved in the wagers, but he is too innocent to understand the difference between fair and foul, legal and illegal. Welkert, rather than pay, sends his thugs to beat him. For no particular reason, after summarily decking any brute that crossed his path, Mr Adam not only loses this fray, he is maimed, run over by a truck, hospitalized, amputated; and the hospital staff, when they discover Mr Adam has no money, summarily throw him into the street, hopping on one leg in the snow.

In rapid succession, he contacts Mr Lin, Sister Louella, Brother Chitwood. None of former friends or acquaintances will help him, or he refuses their help. He crawls off to die.

At this point he is found by Poldak, the one psychiatrist who previously had been in mental contact with him, and Poldak advises him to use his mind powers on himself to remove any mental damage or amnesia that seems to be afflicting him. It works, the superhuman cures himself (and, by the way, the psychiatrist, who was a hunchback), then sheds his human form, and enters into a higher plane of existence, expanding outward at the square of the speed of light, leaving behind mankind forever.

Before he goes, he explains that living on a greater plateau of existence is of no benefit, because every consciousness by definition is bound by the limits of that consciousness, so that even an infinite mind is bound by the limits of its own selfhood, the infinite cage of the title.

In one confusing bit in the last paragraph, Adam, the flesh and blood version of him, is left behind on Earth, now an ordinary human being, while the superhuman version of Adam flies off to heaven in a higher dimension. It was this that confounded me in my youth: I thought the superhuman version was a disembodied mind of some superior star-voyaging race that had attempted to enter a human host when it encountered Earth, becoming trapped in the body of someone with a brain defect, and who forgot himself until he used his powers to cure the brain defect.

While that makes more sense than what is in the text, that is not what is in the text. Adam is a being produced by the mass mental emanations of the human race, a higher stage of evolution, who entered a mindless husk for a time. But he is also the physical version of Adam, who was reduced by a blow to the head to a low enough level to be able to learn how to be human in preparation for becoming superhuman. (I have reread the last chapter three times now, and explanation for how Adam is both one person and two persons remains a mystery, at least to me.)

But the theme of the book is clear enough. Ever since Darwin, men have been fascinated by the speculation that, even as we arose from apelike ancestors, our descendents will be something higher and wiser and more magnificent, behind human limitations. Keith Laumer makes two very penetrating and very cynical observations: First, that a human living among apes would not be a superape but a failed ape, since he could not do the things apes do as well as apes do them. By analogy, a superman among men would be a failed man, unable to cope with human life, unable to fit in, and even unable to live. This theme turns on its head the theme of stories about Tarzan and Mowgli and Romulus and Remus, but also the daydreams of Nietzsche or Shaw or A.E. van Vogt about life above and beyond human life. The superman cannot even get a date.

The second observation is that, while the life of man does not suffer the limitations of ape life, but it does indeed suffer the limitations and sorrows of human life. These sorrows some say are greater than apish sorrows, burdened as we are with knowledge of our coming death, and tormented by dreams and desires beyond the simple instinctive wants of apes.  So a higher being would no doubt suffer higher limitations or higher sorrows—this is the infinite cage.

When Poldak says an infinite cage is for all practical purposes not a cage because a man can move freely inside it, Adam calls this a sophistry, a bitter joke.  No matter how far he flies, he cannot escape the prison of his humanity, because he cannot flee himself. The superhuman only exchanges human woes for superhuman ones.

There are no particular flaws or glaring errors in this book, but there is nothing very memorable about it either.  Myself, the only things I remembered from my first readings of the book in my youth were these three: the girl Lucy telling him to improve his physique and get a sportscar, and him taking the idea literally; Mr Lin never throwing away accounting records because of a Chinese reverence for the written word; and the freed alien mind in the last sentence of the book expanded outward into space at the square of the speed of light. (and even this last was a mis-memory. He is not an alien but a product of the human racial consciousness, and he is not flying into space but into a higher dimension or realm of experience.)

Also unclear is why the telepath is unable or unwilling to get the information he needs from the minds of the people around him. He is able to find advice from a Air Force physical fitness expert everything he needs to know to undergo a program of exercise when trying to win the affection of the beautiful Lucy, but Mr Adam makes no attempt to discover from expert Lotharios, Romance novelists, Lonely Hearts columnists, psychiatrists, grandmothers, clergymen, or even the ordinary happily married man what to say to a girl to win her heart. Mr Adam can reach into the minds of the evil and insane and cure them, but he never thinks to use this power to help the suffering once he decides to help alleviate the pain of mankind. He can read the minds of charity cases all over the city (and world) but cannot discover from any church or soup kitchen worker’s mind how charitable giving is done, nor can be detect the low and deceitful intentions of Brother Chitwood. Mr Adam is able to find Welkert the gambler where he is holed up when that wight owes him money, but is oddly unable to detect the murderous intent issuing from the gambler and his lurking goon platoon.

I should mention that a similar unclearness surrounded the climactic scene in Dan Simmon’s thriller THE HOLLOW MAN, where the telepath was surprised and chased through a meatlocker by a madwoman with steel teeth. The problem with any Slan character, a superhuman mindreader, is that you have to present him with problems where reading someone’s mind won’t help. Being tied to a stake blindfolded is a case where reading the minds of the firing squad does not help you; and likewise is the case where you are discovering from the mind of Dr Hans Zarkov (whom no one will believe but you) that the entire Earth is about to be struck by the rogue planet Mongo and obliterated; and I am not sure that reading the mind of Bobby Fischer while playing a chessgame with him would help you that much. But being ambushed or chased or any situation that involves maneuver or hiding or bluff is not such a case.

Of course, a book where the Slan is competent has been done before, and the whole point of THE INFINITE CAGE was to defy that idea. Mr Adam is only a few months old by the end of the book, a super-infant but still mentally an infant. He has all knowledge of language and learning, but no ability to understand even the simplest human emotion, love or fear or hate or pride. Mr Adam is supposed to be like Adam before the fall, or, at least, a cynical author’s idea of Adam, a man so innocent that he has no defenses.

I call it cynical because in reality an innocent man is one who is not guilty, not one who is trusting and naïve. Jesus of Nazareth was innocent of any wrongdoing, but he certainly knew what evil men could do.

I call it cynical because the equation of innocence with naivety allows one both to dismiss the innocent as babes-in-the-woods and dismiss the wise as worldly. If Adam before his fall was naïve, then his expulsion from Eden was a monstrous injustice.  If Adam before his fall was innocent, that is, guilty of no wrong, and therefore his intellect was not darkened with those self-serving falsehoods the guilty tell themselves to hide their crimes from their consciences, then Adam knew exactly what he was doing and knew it was forbidden, and went and did it anyway. If Adam was not naïve, but, due to his innocence, was particularly clear-minded, then his act of disobedience was a monstrous crime. The question turns on whether one has a clear-eyed view of the nature of innocence or a cynical view.

Cynicism is a way to pat yourself on the back for being superior both to the yahoos you detest and the Pollyannaish do-gooders who see the good in the yahoos.  (No doubt it is hard for the cynic to get his Houeyhnhnm hoof around to his spine to give himself that pat, but he can also pat himself on the back for being superior to the pointy-headed intellectuals of Laputa and, for that matter, Houeyhnhnmland).

The clear-eyed man and the cynic can both agree that the estate of man is wretched indeed, but the difference is that the clear-eyed looks at the ruin men make of their lives, the self destructive behavior, the blind folly, the addictions, the sins, and see the glorious cathedral as it was before the ruin. He can see the image of God. He sees clearly precisely because that image is there. The clear-eyed man sees the foulest wretch is worth saving. The cynic is secretly hoping the wretch is as damned to hell as is he.

The clear-eyed man can see that the man cannot save himself by his own powers, and that his struggle to do so is in vain. In this way, he is more cynical than the cynic, and his darker condemnations are as dark as hell, for he condemns not the wretch, but the sin that made him wretched. But he can never condemn the man, for that is condemning the image of God, and hence is blasphemy.

A clear-eyed man can enjoy a cynical book, if he reads it right, but a cynic can never read a clear-eyed book without vomiting. For example: when Michael Moorcock, very much a cynic, reads ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy by Tolkien, very much a clear-eyed man (perhaps the most clear eyed to take pen to paper in the last century) Moorcock’s reaction is visceral disgust. Moorcock vomits. The matter runs deeper than anything Moorcock perhaps could put into words, and the reason for the visceral nature of the disgust comes from that deep place. It is the place at the core of the soul where men sit in judgment over themselves, what is sometimes lightheartedly called the self image.

The cynic sees himself as a small and comic thing occupying and small and dreary world filled with men smaller and less serious than himself.

The world of Middle Earth was certainly no less filled with treason and trouble and turmoil than the world of Melnibone. Boromir attempting to seize the ring from Frodo was just as treacherous and wretched as Elric stabbing Moonglum with the vampire-sword Stormbringer. And the escapism of fleeing to Tanelorn (which, like Solla Sollew has no troubles at all, or at least very few) seems no different than Frodo sailing on the last white ship out of the Gray Havens to the elfin land of Valinor in the Uttermost West no man can reach.

The difference is that the Lords of Tanelorn serve a pagan compromise between the doom of law and the doom of chaos, both equally fatal to man. There is no right answer in Elric’s universe, and no final good. The cynic can safely sneer down his nose at every soul in creation, because it was not a creation.

But the Valar of Valinor are archangels of the Lord. The shadow is explicitly a small and passing thing, even if it is a shadow that conquers all the lands of Middle Earth for all the ages the wise can foresee. The cynic is no longer safe in Middle Earth, because now there are saints and martyrs and men who serve that higher light, even at the loss of their lives, and there is wisdom deeper than the world knows, and in a world where the deeper magic runs, the magic from before the dawn of time, the cynic must see himself as a small but serious thing, even a holy thing, a holy soul who has been ruined but who must somehow, beyond hope, be saved by a salvation from beyond the shores of the world.

For the cynic to see himself as small and worthless and comical is a comfort to his self esteem. For him to see himself as small and sacred, worth infinite treasure but corrupted and self-betrayed, for him to see himself as Gollum, for him to see himself, in other words, in a true light, that will make him curse the sun and blaspheme the light and say We hates it.

The right way to read a cynical book is to see that what is says condemns the way men act when men act as their natures prompt them—their fallen nature, I mean. The right way to read a cynical book is to see that this is indeed what the world would be like if there were nothing but darkness in the world, and no lantern of hope for anything beyond the world.

THE INFINITE CAGE is a perfect example of a enjoyable if not very memorable cynical little book. It looks with clear eyed cynicism at the daydreams of a superman, and says what it would really be like to be superhuman in this world. The world crucifies anyone from heaven foolish enough to come here.

But it is also an unintentional example of the unclearness of cynicism. If Mr Adam is correct, then the woe of the world cannot be solved by anything in this world, no, not even by the superhuman created from the mass emanations of the human race, a man possessed of perfect knowledge, even able to read the minds of men and cure their evils with a thought. The superhuman cannot escape himself, that is, his own fallen human nature.

This is a science fiction book and a bit of make belief but it is also a thought experiment. Is the portrayal of Adam Nova as the failed and suicidal superman more or less realistic than the portrayal of Jommy Cross from A.E. van Vogt’s seminal novel SLAN? I suggest it is more realistic, on an emotional level, at least, because of its cynical ending.

The fact that the superhuman is as sad with superhuman sorrow as a man is sad with the sorrows of man shows that man cannot by himself free himself from the infinite cage of his own nature. Keith Laumer was insightful enough of an author to see this: evolving to the transhuman level of posthumanity may include some posthuman joys, but surely also it introduces posthuman shortcomings, woes, and sins.

What Laumer was not wise enough to put into the book was the escape from the infinite cage. Only a being who was at once infinite and pure actuality, perfect and hence without any potential, a being who exists necessarily and not contingently, not dependent on anything else, only He does not suffer from being trapped in the infinite cage of His own nature, because He is the source of nature. Only He can free us from our infinite cage.

A clear eyed man can read a cynical book because the cynic can see the problem clearly. The cynic is a cynic only because he cannot see the solution. The light would blind him.