Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#9: John Brunner

John Brunner's been unlucky in his forty-year writing career. He's frequently written well-accepted novels, but they tend to fall out of favor and out of print. (One might argue that luck has little to do with that.) There are two particularly identifiable phases in his writing career. In the fifties and early sixties, he was turning out numerous competent space adventures. And in the late sixties and early seventies, he was writing near-future socially-oriented fiction. Both these generalizations ignore some of his best work.

"The Traveler in Black" (***+) is a personal favorite. It's a fixup fantasy novel -- a series of stories set in a time when the universe is coming out of an age of chaos and magic into one of order and reason. The Traveler is the being responsible for this transition. His main weapons are the ability to grant wishes, and the dry sense of humor needed to give a wish its most effective literal interpretation. (This can take alarming turns. He might hear someone yelling "I never want to see you again!" and use it as an excuse to strike everyone in the city blind.) A fifth TiB story appeared in Asimov's SF Adventure Magazine (Fall 1979) -- and was added to the first four, to be rereleased as "The Compleat Traveler in Black" -- but I thought it weaker than the others, and unnecessary, as well.

"The Long Result" (***+) is placed on a very placid Earth of the future. Technology is advanced, a couple of experimental colonies have been place in other solar systems -- no rush, as there is no population or resource pressure -- and most of today's social problems have been solved. There are still lunatic fringes, such as the xenophobic Stars Are For Man League, which has suddenly become very visible. Roald Vincent, a senior department head in the Bureau of Cultural Relations is living an equally placid life until everything seems to start happening at once: A new intelligent species is encountered, a rash of too-high-tech sabotage breaks out, and someone tries to murder a representative of a species generally believed to be more advanced than Humanity. Brunner uses this crisis to construct an interesting low-pressure look at a future Earth that might or might not be on the verge of a large step towards maturity.

(This is actually a theme which runs through most of Brunner's novels, the early ones as well as the later ones. His novels tend to be set in societies which are at crossroads, facing a choice -- of which they might not be aware -- between maturation and failure.)

In the late sixties and early-to-mid seventies, Brunner wrote a series of very-well-received novels of near-future sf. I've seen them referred to as dystopias, but in at least some instances this is inaccurate. They are simple projections of social trends which had particularly high profiles at this time -- the population explosion ("Stand on Zanzibar"), future shock ("The Shockwave Rider"), pollution and environmental degradation ("The Sheep Look Up"), violence and race hatred ("The Jagged Orbit"). These trends are projected linearly to the early twenty-first century -- forty to fifty years, at the time. (The linearity is a problem. Each near-future world is a jazzed-up world of the sixties, with just one trend extrapolated. Most of these books, for instance, are clearly written under the shadow of the Viet Nam war.) In some cases, Brunner ends his novels with science-fictional solutions to real problems, and I hate when that happens. By way of analogy, imagine a novel that spends five hundred pages dramatizing the energy crisis, and then ends with one of the characters announcing the invention of a cheap, safe, portable, fusion-from-sea-water device.

"Stand on Zanzibar" (***+) is the best of these novels. The title comes from an observation that, allowing two square feet for each person, "you could stand us all on the six hundred forty square mile surface of the island of Zanzibar." In other words, a population of some eight billion by 2010, which was a reasonable mathematical projection in 1968 and still is today. (Brunner also projects the population of the US at four hundred billion, which is *not* reasonable without major changes which he doesn't show.) The main effect of this population increase -- aside from the fact that the economy can barely sustain it -- is psychological: People have become obssessed with the population control and eugenics. Which means that a third-world country's announcement that it has the ability and the willingness to genetically improve its next generation has the potential to trigger tremendous social upheaval. "Stand on Zanzibar" is the most honest of Brunner's near-future novels, as well. He takes pains to portray a real society, not a one-problem caricature, and the result is worth reading.

"The Jagged Orbit" (**+) is also highly readable, but the society it portrays -- of madness, race hatred, and a gun salesman at every corner -- is a bad caricature of late-sixties fears. "The Shockwave Rider" (**) is also a caricature, and one that, by its limitations, shows the limitations of Toffler's "Future Shock". And some people swear by "The Sheep Look Up"(*), but I gave up after a hundred pages of pollution and starvation and mass extinctions and human deaths.

John Brunner was a prolific writer of space adventure fiction in the fifties and sixties. Much of it was published by Ace (frequently in Ace Doubles), and was ruthlessly trimmed for page count. Brunner used his market clout in the seventies aggressively, to have many of those novels reissued uncut, under new titles, which has the potential to make shopping for his books very aggravating. Virtually all these books were fairly minor efforts that didn't merit the revision. Not that some of them don't still make enjoyable light reads. Most of these are short by today's standards, often falling in the 100-150 page range.

"Born Under Mars" (***) is placed on a backwater Mars: It had been settled as a prelude to starflight, but the development of ftl travel caused it to be bypassed. Since then, the settlers have grown their own isolated way -- until the intrigues of the interstellar unions converge on Mars. A well-written novel, more thoughtful than most of Brunner's earlier works.

Others I enjoyed from this period include "The World Swappers" (**) (a secret association tries to break an interstellar cultural deadlock while handling a first contact); "The Day of the Star Cities" (** -- later expanded to "Age of Miracles") (unknown extra-terrestrials build impregnable 'cities' on Earth, shattering society in the process, the way we might shatter some anthills in the process of building a bus terminal); "Ladder in the Sky" (**), under the pseudonym Keith Woodcott (a gutter-snipe is possessed by a 'demon', as part of a political plot, and then abandoned to deal with the consequences); "The Altar on Asconel" (** -- later appearing as part of "Interstellar Empire") (Asconel is one of the few planets which remained civilized after the collapse of the Empire, but something has mysteriously reduced it to near-barbarism); "Castaways World" (** -- later expanded to "Polymath") (a shipload of refugees from a planet whose star went nova are led by a man whose training would have made him an expert in colonization -- in a couple of decades); and "The Skynappers" (**) (would-be rebels have found the ultimate computer, but can't figure out what questions to ask, so they recruit or kidnap some primitives, including one from Earth). All of these and others are solid books of their kind, though their kind was nothing special even at the time.

"The Crucible of Time" (**+) is a more recent book, about an intelligent alien species on a dying planet: The planet's system is travelling through an overly-dusty region of the galaxy, and its inhabitants must develop the ability to leave it before they are destroyed. This story of an alien species' ascent towards technological civilization has much the same feel as Forward's "Dragon's Egg": It's better written, although the setting is less exotic and interesting. I thought it ambitious, but not equal to its scope. John Brunner is also the author of "A Maze of Stars" (**), for which I didn't much care, and "Muddle Earth", which I'll read when it comes out in second hand.

Dani Zweig