William Hjortsberg's unsung science fiction masterpiece, Gray Matters is a wild trip of a book, and one that is rare in living up to it's many trippy 70's book covers. The unique story takes place in the far future where man has abandoned their bodies, living as cerebremorphs, floating brains trying to reach levels of enlightenment to once again peacefully walk the earth.
Fortunately Hjortsberg knows the enlightened wouldn't make for good reading and we end up following the adventures of a few weakly human minds that can't quite get past their human foibles to reach the next stage of enlightenment.
One character is a former movie star, insanely vain and extravagant when she was living in a body and equally so as a daydreaming brain. She cavorts with other minds in highly charged sexual memories and simulations and would rather be making love on beaches and being pampered on a tiger skin rug than gaining enlightenment.
We also follow Skeets, the world's very first cerebremorph who never managed to get past adolescence. Despite his auditor? attempts to educate him, he still wants to be a cowboy when he grows up. (all cerebremorphs have auditors, who monitor and help them throughout their journey to enlightenment) .
There is also the egomaniac, Obu Itubi, who manages to escape the Depository (where all the brains are kept) and finds the lightly populated world on the surface is not what he expected. Perhaps enlightenment at the cost of individuality is not fair trade.
I won't lie, this is a kind of dense book. Despite it's meager 159 pages it took me longer than usual to read because you can't just skim the pages when you're tired at night without missing lot of good stuff; and the first few pages are particularly tough going. It's hard to jump into a novel that refers to things like Amco-paks and memory files and Mark V's, as if they really existed and you know what they are.
Still, the payoff is a really clever and often funny read that deserves to be far more well known. It's only available used since it's been out of print for many years, but it's worth seeking out–and not just for those the fabulous covers.