The narrator of "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" is a psychology professor who first learned about Professor Arthur Barnhouse's discovery of mental power. The story is presented as an article for the general public, to advise them about the "Barnhouse Effect," a powerful new force. He had been Barnhouse's advisee at the Wyandotte Graduate School (also the institution of higher learning in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" and "EPICAC").
The narrator points out that Barnhouse called his discovery "dynamopsychism" or "force of the mind," rather than using the term "Barnhouse Effect" (173). We learn right away that the discovery - which is simply that "luck" is a measurable force that can be harnessed and used - has had obvious, destructive consequences in every country in the world (174). Barnhouse has managed to direct "dynamopsychic" radiations toward specific targets, like individual people or objects, and nobody has found a way to block his radiations.
The narrator mentions that "dynamopsychism" became politically significant on the day of what has been termed Operation Brainstorm, a year and a half earlier. Since that time, Barnhouse himself has gone into hiding; by the time he disappeared, he had become "about fifty-five times more powerful than a Nagasaki-type atomic bomb," according to the narrator's calculations (174).
The narrator then provides a history. The Barnhouse Effect was discovered accidentally in May, 1942, when Professor Barnhouse was serving as an artillery private during World War II. One day, he shot ten sevens in a row during a game of craps, and realized that he was controlling his luck through a certain train of thought. Over time, he honed his ability, and discovered that the strength of "dynamopsychism" increased with use. After the war, Barnhouse resumed work as a professor at the Wyandotte Graduate School, where the narrator was assigned as his advisee.
The narrator initially viewed Barnhouse as a useless eccentric, as did most others at the school. But then one day, Barnhouse modeled his telepathic ability by causing an inkwell to vibrate and explode. He then showed the narrator a letter he had written to the Secretary of State, explaining his power and offering to share it.
Five days after sending the letter, Barnhouse was whisked away to a mansion in Virginia, where he was kept along with the narrator, General Honus Barker, and William K. Cuthrell of the State Department.
Under immense pressure to use his ability for war, Barnhouse changed his mind about sharing it, and claimed he would need twenty years to appropriately record it. Unfortunately, preparations for Operation Brainstorm were already underway: the following Wednesday, Professor Barnhouse was expected to sink a set of target ships in a mock attack. Barnhouse appealed to the general and Cuthrell, claiming this operation was "childish and insanely expensive," and offering to do something more productive and positive (182). The officials refused his request.
On the day of Operation Brainstorm, Barnhouse seemed cheerful. He followed the general's instructions - closing his eyes, stroking his temples, and concentrating - and then the video signals were interrupted as he used his power. When the signal returned, the audience saw that the planes had indeed been shot down, and that the fleet's guns had not been used.
They then realized that Barnhouse had fled the compound in a stolen vehicle, blowing up every other vehicle in the area to protect his flight. He left a note behind, saying that he is "the first superweapon with a conscience," and as such, has decided not to act as an arm of the national defense (185).
Returning to the present, the narrator explains that Barnhouse has since that day used his power to destroy the world's armaments. Ironically, his actions have triggered a war in which countries report on each other's stockpiles so that the professor will then destroy them. Despite a half dozen reports of Barnhouse's death, weapons continue to be destroyed, and radios regularly record static like that which is caused by Barnhouse's mind waves.
The narrator knows that a world war will surely ensue after Barnhouse's death. He then admits that Barnhouse left him a letter on Christmas Eve, containing scrambled instructions. Realizing these detailed the thought train that helped Barnhouse control his luck, the narrator has been practicing, and growing more capable. He announces that he will disappear soon after mailing this report, prepared to continue his adviser's mission.
"Report on the Barnhouse Effect," published in 1950 as Vonnegut's first published work, is a commentary on the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The Soviets had just detonated their first atomic bomb in August of 1949, which helps frame the question that Barnhouse asks the narrator: "Think we should have dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? Think every new piece of scientific information is a good thing for humanity?" (178-79). The story's answer is not subtle - at one point, Cuthrell asks the professor, "Who's going to be in charge of the world, our kind of people or theirs?" (182). Vonnegut means us to realize that this type of 'us or them' mentality will necessarily lead to unending wars and aggression.
War is an important theme in the story, especially as a potential catalyst to peace. It is telling that Barnhouse discovers his ability while enlisted in World War II. Being around so much state-mandated destruction prompts him to unconsciously develop his own weapon, but recognizing the horrors of that destruction inspires him to use his weapon for peace. Arguably, this is the contradiction behind the creation of many weapons. For instance, the atomic bomb was meant to end WWII quickly and save both American and Japanese lives, and yet it only ushered in the potential for a new type of deadlier warfare.
Barnhouse originally has lofty goals for his discovery: he tells the narrator that he suspects he might be able to save the world, ending war and easily building infrastructure for developing nations. But once he reveals his secret to the State Department, the United States government takes over his power. Not only do they want to use it for destruction, but they moreover organize Operationg Brainstorm, which is useless and expensive. The point seems to be that once created, weapons are used for their own sake, and not for any greater good.
The narrator here is an example of a convenient narrator, or a character who is conveniently around to comment objectively on an interesting situation. In this case, the narrator is a psychology instructor who quickly became Barnhouse's de facto assistant. Outside of the professor's eccentricity, he provides a voice of reason and common sense, which both helps contextualize the bizarre aspects of the story, as well as add an air of verisimilitude to them. By being part of our world, it makes the story read less as an otherworldly science fiction tale.
Vonnegut's form further feeds the verisimilitude. The story is styled as a report, meant to be published. The narrator assumes we have knowledge of the Barnhouse Effect, as though it is a ubiquitous global phenomenon (sort of like the atomic bomb). Again, this creates the sense that the story takes place in our world, making it both more relatable and more horrific.
Significantly, as with many of Vonnegut's short fiction stories, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" has a twist ending. The convenient narrator turns out to be unreliable - throughout the article, he has withheld the information that he now knows the secret thought train that offers control of the Barnhouse Effect. Rather than being an objective observer, he is actually poised to be an involved proponent of it. What this means is that his purpose has always been to demean the governments that would exploit the power, and to present the power as a potential salvation, if only it can be protected.
Finally, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" also deals with the relationship between religion and science. The narrator addresses what he calls an "understandable tendency" to think of Barnhouse as a god due to his great power (174). But the narrator insists that the Barnhouse effect is understandable within the scientific realm. Vonnegut's irony is that humans have actually already achieved some level of this god-like power through the atomic bomb. To think of great power as remote from scientific ability is to ignore the horrific ability for death that we have amassed. Only when we realize that we (and not a remote power) are responsible for our own world can we potentially save it.