This week at Motherboard, we've been dissecting the topic of brains from every angle, from the role of brain scans in legal proceedings to their value on the black market. But naturally, the question on everybody's brains is much more basic: Who are the best fictional characters that are literally just brains? No bodies, no bones, just independent brains of various sizes that drive narrative action as confidently as their counterparts housed inside of characters' skulls.
You might be surprised by how many disembodied brains there actually are in the wide world of fiction, and how difficult it is to whittle them down to five choices. Augmented cyberbrains populate the universe of Ghost in the Shell, and isolated brains play supporting roles in the Fallout games. The preserved brain of the Robocop villain Cain is forced to watch on as his body is trashed, and the H.P. Lovecraft's short story "The Whisperer in the Darkness" is all about aliens transferring human brains to vats and shooting them off to Pluto.
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And those are just the honorable mentions in this category. Behold, the real deal; the bare-brained glory of our top five favorite characters that are just straight-up brains.
5. Vagrant from Sergey Snegov's Humans as Gods trilogy
Full disclosure: I haven't read this trilogy myself, but based on the description of it alone, it has earned a place on this list. It stars a disembodied brain character known as Vagrant or Voice, who is one of many super-intelligent Galaxian brains that are harvested by bad guys who are appropriately called the Ruinators.
Vagrant becomes self-aware and successfully rebels against his captors. He then arranges to be transplanted into the body of a dragon, which he enjoys for a few decades before the body deteriorates with old age. Naturally, the new body he picks for himself is a starship. That, my friends, is a brain who has life figured out.
4. Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Krang being Krang. Credit: lilcoffeebandit/YouTube.
Krang is so obnoxious and disgusting that it's impossible not to love him. He is such a massive jerk that his captors took his body as recompense for his misdeeds, leaving only his brain behind. Krang actually gets along pretty well in this neuron-only form, and even develops some bulgy limbs for the purpose of gesticulating wildly. His weird tick of peppering his speech with gross mini-burps is icing on the cake, and he gets a hearty "Cowabunga!" from us.
3. William from Roald Dahl's "William and Mary"
Though he is mostly known for his children's stories, Roald Dahl was also the king of the slow-burn horror for adults. His short story "William and Mary" is up there with the "The Landlady" in terms of perfectly calibrated creepiness. It's about a man who arranges to extend his life by having his conscious brain put into a vat, and bequeathing it to his browbeaten wife to care for. The reversal of power in this story is absolutely delicious, and Dahl milks it for all it's worth. 10 out of 10; would put that brain in a vat again.
2. Mother Brain from Metroid
Call your Mother Brain. Credit: Laviticus/YouTube.
Mother Brain is a boss on so many levels. Not only is she a giant brain with cybernetic spikes sticking out all over the place, she also has megalomaniacal plans about resetting the universe "back to zero," whatever that means. Metroid's protagonist Samus Aran is so badass that she usually just blows through her enemies, but this bizarre spiked brain monster always gives up a good fight, and for that, she has earned her penultimate status on this list.
1. The Big Brain from Futurama
Speaking of diabolical disembodied brains, welcome our top pick: The Big Brain, leader of the Brainspawn. The Brain and its disciples are hellbent on dumbing down every lifeform they meet, enabling them to steal all the universe's data and hoard it in the Infosphere.
Fortunately, Fry lacks a crucial brainwave, so he is the only one who is immune to brainspawn attacks, and he even outwits the Big Brain itself in "The Day the Earth Stood Stupid." There is truly nothing funnier than this megalomaniacal villain reading Fry's attempt at writing at the end of this episode. "The Big Brain am winning again!" it says. "I am the greetest! Now, I am leaving Earth for no raisin!"
For this "raisin" alone, the Big Brain and its host of followers are indisputably the best fictional characters that are literally brains. Braincase closed.
Jacked In is a series about brains and technology. Follow along here.