‘EARTH IS BUT A STAR,
THAT ONCE HAD SHONE…’
‘EARTH IS BUT A STAR’
by JOHN BRUNNER
(novelette in ‘Science Fantasy no.29’ June 1959,
republished as ‘The Hundredth Millennium’
Ace Double 1959, revised and extended as
‘Catch A Falling Star’ Ace Books 1968)
‘ISN’T IT A GLORIOUS MADNESS?’
(Chalyth in “Earth Is But A Star”)
Whatever you do, don’t let the wrong dead guy into your head. It begins with a chance encounter in a bar. Lots of good stories begin this way. And this is one of them. Because this one – John Brunner’s “The Last Lonely Man” (in ‘New Worlds no.142’), is a great little story. Later produced as an episode of BBC-TV’s groundbreaking science-fiction series ‘Out Of The Unknown’, it features George Cole – later ‘Arthur Daley’ of ‘The Minder’, in an early role as likeable everyman ‘James Hale’. On the black-and-white small-screen he’s the guy in the Bar, the one who meets ‘Patrick Wilson’, the world’s last lonely man, played by Peter Halliday. Except in the short story he’s called ‘Mack’. Not that the names matter.
The caption in the ‘Radio Times’ announces ‘Time: the future. The government of the day has won many votes with the introduction of the new Contact Service just before the election. Contact banished the fear of death. A man’s body may die, but his mind can now pass into someone still alive – a relative, friend or loved one. But what of the man who is friendless and unloved? He must make Contact with someone – whatever the cost.’ This is where the chance encounter in the Bar happens. James Hale takes pity on Wilson’s hard-luck story. The poor guy, down on his luck. And he does him a favour. He becomes Wilson’s nominated ‘Contact’. Just that there are good reasons why he’s the last isolated friendless lonely man. He’s a paranoid, suspicious and devious. By the time Hale realises his error, it’s too late for him to ‘expunge’ his new contact. Wilson blows his own brains out. And takes up residence in Hale’s head, feeding him his poisonous bile of fears and terrors. It’s a spookily unsettling image. A mad scary presence in the back of his skull subverting sanity and reason…
John Brunner navigated a jagged orbit into the future, but in another short story, called “Fair Warning” (‘Analog’, May 1964), he relates an anecdote about ‘the bird that flew backwards because he liked to see where he’d been’. Science Fiction is supposedly a future-orientated fiction. But sometimes it’s worth following that fabled bird’s example.
‘ONE MAN, ONE WOMAN,
TO DIVERT A STAR’
‘Science Fantasy’ is one of my favourite British genre magazines of the fifties, with a unique fusion of writers working within a blend of strange concepts somewhere slightly off-trail to the SF mainstream. Presided over by editor John Carnell, who was simultaneously responsible for ‘New Worlds’, issue number twenty-nine arrived dated June 1958 with wonderfully evocative cover-art by Brian Lewis. As a teenager I recognised his distinctive style from the ‘Captain Condor’ and ‘Jet-Ace Logan’ space-adventure strips he illustrated in ‘Lion’ and ‘Tiger’. There are surreal elements resembling Yves Tanguy about the beguiling shapes strewn across the ochre landscapes, and the swirl of coloured stones thrown across the sky. There’s a grid of parallel lines receding towards half-glimpsed structures on the far horizon behind the two human figures bottom left. The man wearing the brief cape – presumably Creohan, is pointing, the dark-haired woman, Chalyth, follows the direction indicated by his finger, to where a vast cybernetic hand thrusts up from the plain, its metallic-blue outer skin punctured to reveal the stepladders, gear-wheel arrangements, wiring and other indecipherable mechanisms within. It’s a beautifully evocative image catching the mood of the story-title running across the foot of the page – “Earth Is But A Star” by John Brunner.
There are other short tales within the issue, by EC Tubb, Brian Aldiss, Robert Presslie and the publishing debut by Clifford C Reed. But the first seventy-eight of its 130-pages are devoted to Brunner’s novelette, which takes its title from, and quotes lines from the poem “The Golden Journey To Samarkand” by James Elroy Flecker. To Carnell, ‘every once in a while we receive a story which is so well written that it is difficult to eulogise about it without appearing to be trite. We will content ourselves by saying that not only is this story the finest John Brunner has ever written, but it is the outstanding fantasy story in recent years.’ I needed no such inducement. The theme of the young discontented outsider in a dull conformist society has obvious appeal to the dissatisfied misfit adolescent. Alvin in Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The City And The Stars’ (1956) represents the same thing. Both are rebels who escape their restrictions by exploring a transfigured Earth as mysteriously tantalising as any alien world.
I returned to reread “Earth Is But A Star” several times across a number of years, fascinated and swept up in its eerily far-future atmosphere. There are elements of Jack Vance’s ‘The Dying Earth’ stories, Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Dancers At The End Of Time’, Brian Aldiss’ ‘Hothouse’, and the weird tales of Clark Ashton Smith. Yet unlike any of them. Is such vast futurity a valid subject for speculation? Brunner’s tale is fantastical, but it is not generic fantasy. There is no magic-that-works, even disguised as forgotten technology, there are no dragons, not even as the result of lost genetic tampering. Science has demonstrated the immense prehistory of the world, and projected that time-span out to an equally lengthy time-period ahead, until the Sun cools terminally. Whether human profligacy destroys us first, or if human ingenuity ensures that we, or something very like us, survives beyond what Brunner calls ‘the pulse and surge of the pattern of history’, surely it’s an irresistible challenge to the imagination to conjecture such a future?
Following that first magazine incarnation, things get increasingly complex. Creohan’s wanderings were adapted into ‘The Hundredth Millennium’, issued as one-half of a 1959 ‘Ace Double’ paperback, bound in back-to-back with ‘Edge Of Time’ by ‘David Grinnell’ (aka Donald A Wollheim). Its ‘cast of characters’ lists Creohan himself, who ‘knew that the past would provide the answers to the future’. Chalyth who ‘found friends at the bottom of the sea’. Madal who ‘loved security more than she loved life’. Vence who ‘got himself hopelessly lost just a few miles from home’. Hoo who ‘existed to provide food to a deserted city’. And Paro-mni who ‘managed to be discontented with the perfect society’. Even these thumbnail descriptions run like a poem. But there were further developments. In 1968 there was ‘Catch A Falling Star’, also from Ace books, which included the cautionary note that ‘a much shorter and substantially different version of this novel appeared under the title ‘The Hundredth Millennium’. Except by now the cover was blurbed to reflect Brunner’s new global reputation as ‘The Hugo Award Winning Author Of ‘Stand On Zanzibar’’. To compare and contrast the three versions of the same, or essentially similar tale, is informative.
The setting is the unspecified very far future, although there may be a clue in the title ‘the hundredth millennium’. Civilisations and empires beyond number have flourished and died, the Lymarian Empire fourteen-thousand years before, the Gerynts, or the Minogovaristo, and the time of the Mending of Men a scant ten centuries before. Imagination and curiosity has long since dulled. Creohan is the sole discontent. Through his telescope he observes the rogue star approaching the solar system that, within three-hundred years, will pass close enough to destroy all life on Earth, yet no-one but him seems remotely concerned. Absorbed in their aimless play, with all of history to plunder for novelty ‘far out of reach behind the veil of time’, this future doom is of no interest. In ‘Catch A Falling Star’ he asks a poet to write ‘a powerful and affecting ballad on the end of the world.’ The poet declines so tedious a subject. ‘Have we grown foolish in our decline’ Creohan ponders, ‘are we as a species bordering on senility, so that the doom of the approaching star will offer merciful euthanasia?’ Until, on the beach he meets the beautiful Chalyth who not only shares something of his unease, but challenges his passive response. The world is wide and unknown, an unmapped strangeness. If he truly seeks answers he must leave the safe comfort of the city, and travel. ‘Isn’t it a glorious madness?’ she urges, wearing nothing but a cloak.
‘GO AND CATCH A FALLING STAR’
To an impressionable adolescent reader, the casual incidental nudity adds a further enticing buzz. Later, with their boat is upturned by Chalyth’s sea-friend, and they are pitched into the water, the party discard their clothing the better to swim, so emerging through the surf up the sandy beach naked. Later still, with Creohan wounded by a flying spear, Kiong-la offers her shift to provide bandages. Leaving her naked. Less prurient, more in a kind of prelapsarian innocence. But first, as they leave the city, the two are joined by golden girl Madal, who is dressed only in garlands of flowers when they first meet her. She is seeking the lover who wandered out into the endless plain, never to return. Together they follow the tracks of the ‘meat-creatures’, the giant mutated human sub-species that each morning laughs its way to its rendezvous with death to feed the city. The travellers soon encounter the Gollum-like Vence, lost in the vastness beyond the city, who preys upon the quasi-human herds. It turns out he is the lover whose memory Madal has been faithful to. In the initial story he merely sits beside a fire, roasting a severed arm on a spit. In the novel he occupies a shelter constructed of bones. The meat-creatures are ‘near enough human. For me’ he explains in the original text – adding the more explicit sexual overtone that the females ‘can be made to serve a man’s desire’ in the revision. Again there’s a narrative fork. Originally it’s a disgusted Creohan who attacks him and breaks his jaw. This later becomes an outraged Madal who beats him with a huge bone.
Either way, he’s induced to guide them further towards the meat-creature’s breeding ground, which turns out to be an immense crater from some long-forgotten asteroidal impact. In the novel they first pass over the remains of an ancient city sewn with menacing puffball fungus. Detained briefly by the inbred cave-dwelling family of meat-herders, they reluctantly bid farewell to Madal who prefers to remain within the kin-security of these people, but pick up Hoo, who instructs them how to ride the meat-creatures on to their next destination. Which turns out to be another dead city. ‘Our planet is littered ankle-deep with the relics of vanished peoples’ muses Creohan disconsolately amid the desolation of skulls and ‘all-embracing decay’. Is the world dead? Is theirs the last living human city?
Caught up in such dark reflections, they are surprised by a tribe of aggressive brown dwarfs engaged in seeking cities to conquer, but finding only endless ruins. They are impressed by Creohan’s boast that ‘we – who are done with cities, seek to conquer a star’, and take the three wanderers on board their fleet of boats. At Creohan’s suggestion they follow the migration path of insect-lights on an epic voyage across the sea, stopping off at the lone knob of an island where Chalyth befriends a helpful sea-creature that might be a dolphin. They eventually reach the far shore, where a cultured oriental-style city easily scares the dwarfs off with an elaborate display of smoke and puppetry. Although sympathetic to Creohan’s quest these Golden People are too concerned with its own history-documenting project to assist, even when faced with the threat of the planet’s imminent extinction. Except for Paro-mni, another malcontent who opts to join them.
As the cover-blurb of ‘The Hundredth Millennium’ explains, ‘they searched the past to escape the future’, using the city’s history-tree to scry back through ancient times seeking evidence of a past-culture that possessed a technology sufficient to turn a star from its course. Brunner’s descriptive ingenuity in devising the cycles of bizarre civilisations is fascinating, including the floating cities of the Lucothids. Others long-lost cultures had been space-faring, such as the Chatrik who once seeded the long-lost Moon with rudimentary forests of mutated lichen, and built pyramids on Mars. Others had simply specialised in genetic modifications, leaving their weird miscegenations to populate Creohan’s world.
The only lead they can divine is the persistent folk-tale of ‘a mountain around which legends clustered thick as ripe fruit on a tree’, and – expanded to five, they set out westwards to reach it. At this point there’s a clear plot-divergence. In the original version Kiong-La simply becomes lost in a belt of dense forest. In the later version the group are captured by a deaf nocturnal ape-oid species of tree-folk, only to be rescued by an airship crewed by Roff and Zayla, who carry them over the impenetrable forest to the city on the far side. Hoo and Paro-mni decide to stay in their city, which has rediscovered electrical power, and – guided by the clues they’ve extracted from past cultures, may evolve the ingenuity to meet ‘the celestial challenge’ of turning the onrushing star aside. So only the original pair opt to continue their trek across freezing deserts on the brink of starvation and death, until the mountain rises out of the landscape ahead of them.
Again, Brunner’s prose assumes epic proportions as the truth of the death-star is revealed to them, and their quest reaches its end. As in AC Clarke’s ‘The City And The Stars’ where Alvin’s ancestors possessed the science to rearrange the constellations, back beyond the hundredth millennium, before the scope of their most exhaustive histories, the Earth had conquered the solar system, and looked out towards the distant inaccessible stars, forever out of reach. And devised a way of the bridging the interstellar gulf by inducing, not only a world-ship, but an entire planetary-system to move according to their design. This is the star that is now returning, non-threatening, with its attendant human-occupied worlds. But have those worlds also devolved to the dull decadence afflicting Earth? No. As Creohan and Chalyth watch, they see a spacecraft cutting down through the sky towards them. And they wait to greet it, in that strangest of reuniting of the two long-separated strands of humanity.
‘SO WHAT SHAPE WAS THE
WORLD IN THIS MORNING?’
(‘The Jagged Orbit’)
There’s no such thing as the regular John Brunner story. The biographical data for the Ace edition begins ‘Born, I believe’. And yes, John Kilian Brunner was born – on 14 September 1934 in Preston Crowmarsh in Oxfordshire, to became a lonely child, something of a protégé, and a one-man text-industry. He recalled how ‘someone misguidedly left a copy of ‘The War Of The Worlds’ in the nursery’. He expanded details in an interview for the ‘Zimri’ fanzine, about how ‘it was a Heinemann first edition that belonged to my grandfather, and I drew Martian fighting machines all over the endpapers’. So ‘I’ve been reading science-fiction since I was seven and writing it since I was nine’. Science Fiction was ‘my preferred entertainment when I was a kid, so when I set out to become a writer, it was perfectly natural that I should write the sort of stories that I used to enjoy reading’ (to Charles Platt). ‘I didn’t actually collect my first rejection slip till I was thirteen…’ Nevertheless, he did publish his first novel – ‘Galactic Storm’ (Curtis Warren Books, November 1951), around the time he dropped out of school at the age of seventeen, through the ‘House’ pseudonym ‘Gill Hunt’. The book carries typically garish Ray Theobald cover-art depicting two spaceships about to engage in cosmic battle around the blue-green curve of a ringed Saturn-style planet.
There was short fiction too – beginning with “Brainpower” as by K Houston Brunner in ‘Nebula no.2’ (February 1953). A giant mega-computer constructed on the moon Iapetus by the Federation of Outer Worlds as a secret weapon in its dispute with Terran President Kenedy, assumes its own intolerant agenda. It was followed by his first sale to a US magazine before his eighteenth birthday, “Thou Good And Faithful” in ‘Astounding SF’ (March 1953), and they were soon appearing with increasing regularity. Following his call-up stint with the RAF he worked as a Technical Abstractor (for CS Youd’s ‘Industrial Diamond Information Bureau’) and Publishers Editor (for the ‘Books For Pleasure’ group), before turning freelance writer in 1958.
As with ‘Catch A Falling Star’, his 1974 alternate-history novel ‘Times Without Number’ started out as linked tales in three successive issues of ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ – the third title from Nova publications. First collected with amends by Ace in 1962, it was then expanded and revised yet again into its completed state. Opener “Spoil Of Yesterday” (from no.25, March 1962) is set during the future-1988 quattrocentennial celebrations of the Spanish Armada’s mighty victory, with a junior officer in the Society of Time, tasked with tracking the provenance of a golden Aztec mask smuggled through time – again, cover-illustrated by Brian Lewis. Structured as a crime-detection thriller, it’s also a hugely inventive exploration of this parallel-Earth. Hobbled by repressive religion it’s a socially and technologically-backward slave-owning culture, which yet possesses time-travel and has document-archives teasing out the impossible equations of speculative alternate-timestreams.
In “The Word Not Written” (no.26, May 1962) – ‘another Society of Time story, dealing with Don Miguel Navarro and the strange present-day world of Spanish-dominate England’, he’s forced to face his doubts about female emancipation when an aggressive band of women gladiators from the court of ‘King Mahendra the White Elephant’ erupt into Londres via trans-temporal interference. Finally, “The Fullness Of Time” (no.27, July 1962) is set in a Californian wilderness administered by the Mohawk Nation, where Navarro ‘has a terrible Time-problem to unravel’ when he discovers potentially treaty-busting evidence of thousand-year-old time-incursions. In keeping with the intricacies of temporal conundrums, none of the resolutions are quite what the reader expects, with narrative dénouements depending more on clever sleight of hand than on shoot-‘em-up action. A technique Charles Platt describes as ‘via discussion and diplomacy, rather than by wading in and knocking heads together’.
Despite which there’s still a pursuit through time to track a renegade Mohawk intent on altering history so the Armada is defeated. And contrary to expectations, Navarro fails. In the day after the end of time he is expelled into a transfigured present. If the fugitive Two Dogs had hoped to rearrange time towards a better outcome for his Native American peoples, the results – our world, represents an even greater unmitigated disaster for them. Time Travel, Brunner seems to be suggesting, is far too dangerous a technology for disputatious humanity ever to come to terms with, despite the most careful Papal controls exerted over its use.
As this indicates, there’s no such thing as the regular John Brunner story. But he was a poet and a political activist too – contributing poems “To Myself, On The Occasion Of My 21st Century” and “Citizen Bacillus” to Edward Lucie-Smith’s groundbreaking ‘Holding Your Eight Hands’ genre-poetry anthology (Rapp and Whiting/Doubleday, 1969). He was also mid-fifties London correspondent for the US Folk-music magazine ‘Caravan’, and wrote agit-prop marching song “The H-Bomb’s Thunder” for the CND ‘Ban The Bomb’ campaign (‘don’t you hear the H-bomb’s thunder, echo like the crack of doom?’). Describing himself as a ‘fellow-travelling idealistic anarchist’ he was a very active anti-nukes participant, with his story “Fair Warning” (‘Analog’, May 1964) revealing a detailed familiarity with US Pacific nuclear-testing. Or “See What I Mean” (‘Analog’, January 1964) which applies psychological techniques to delegates at a superpower conference between Cold War China, Russia, the USA… and British delegates. While what seems to be a straightforward Space exploit – “Singleminded” (‘Worlds Of If’, May 1963) is actually another Cold War story of a doomed US astronaut who crashes in the lunar Urals, only to be rescued by a female Soviet cosmonaut in a high-tech ‘Moon-walker’. He’s taken to a secret base quarantining those infected by a telepathic-virus. Through his deeply ingrained fear of Russia he betrays Olga, his rescuer, and unwittingly contrives to infect the world.
Much of his earliest work is imaginative but regulation high-action Space Opera – what he termed his ‘bread-and-butter’ novels, often issued through Ace, typified by Alex Schomburg’s shock cover-art for Brunner’s “Bridge To Azrael” for ‘Amazing Stories’ (February 1964), a ‘Planet Of The Apes’ scenario in which UFO-pilots discover a Statue of Liberty partly submerged in a bleak arid plain. And there are stories of pipe-smoking scientists in labs filled with esoteric technology, such as “The Fourth Power” (‘New Worlds no.93’, April 1960) involving an interdisciplinary synthesist who interrelates isolated discoveries from different fields together into a useful whole, and the accelerating effects the ‘fourth power’ has on him. Then there’s “A Better Mousetrap” (‘If’, edited by Frederik Pohl, November 1963), an end-of-the-world story hinging on a Charles Fort ‘we are property’ idea, in which immensely mineral-wealthy unstable asteroid ‘busters’ are planted as the lure to draw the human race into an extermination trap.
Illuminated by effectively abstract Richard Powers cover-art, Brunner’s collection ‘Out Of My Mind’ (Ballantine Books, February 1967), provides a useful route-map by thematically plundering his ‘Past, Present And Future’. The past is represented by “The Nail In The Middle Of The Hand” (from ‘The Saint Mystery Magazine’, 1965), about how even executioners take pride in their skills, by focusing on the historically-neglected Decius Asculus who crucified Jesus. Or moving into the present with “Orpheus’s Brother” (from ‘The Magazine Of Horror’ edited by Robert AW Lowndes, April 1965), the story of Pop Singer Rock Careless torn apart by his adoring fans, seen as a re-enactment of the Orpheus myth. Elsewhere, “Prerogative” (‘New Worlds’, 1960) is a mild satire on religious gullibility in a courtroom setting, while “Such Stuff” (‘Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, 1962) takes the subject of a Sleep Research programme. A man denied dreamtime projects his dreams outwards, to others. Finally, forward into the future of “The Totally Rich” (‘Worlds Of Tomorrow’, 1963, collected into Mike Ashley’s ‘Best Of British SF’, Orbit) in which a secret cabal of mega-wealthy are capable of buying anything. A woman can even buy the science sufficient to reconstruct her dead lover. The story is spiced with the vague eroticism of an artificially youthful Naomi in a Spanish mock-village that recalls the setting of TV’s ‘The Prisoner’. Yet these are mostly single-idea stories, long on detailed conversational exposition, short on action.
By July 1979 when Charles Platt sought Bruner out for an interview, he was a successful writer living ‘in a quiet, old-fashioned village in the southwest corner of England (The Square House, Palmer Street, South Petherton in Somerset), surrounded by acres of farmland. When he takes the dogs out for a walk, or goes shopping, he greets other village residents in the street by name. No crises, here – the nearest thing to excitement is the annual Folk-music festival created by his wife, Marjorie.’ Despite some health scares ‘it’s a peaceful, genteel retreat’. John Brunner died 25 August 1995. After “Earth Is But A Star” he’d gone on to write more critically-acclaimed novels, more accessible and acceptable to the literary mindset, rising to meet and surpass the challenge of the SF New Wave. Leaving “Earth Is But A Star” as a kind of mildly embarrassing adolescent flourish. But for me, its vast future-scape and limitless horizons still captures something of the vital energies that sets SF apart from the mainstream. Which earns it the derision of outsiders, but provides the head-spinning sense of centuries-spanning intoxication that infects those attuned to it.
In his story “Eye Of The Beholder” (‘Fantastic Universe’, January 1957), three people stranded on the superhot planet of a B-type sun, find a cache of beautiful paintings, then – unwittingly kill the ‘monster’ they assume must have devoured the genius painter, without realising that the monster was the painter. Appearances are deceptive.
MORE JOHN BRUNNER…
‘John Brunner puts his finger crusadingly
on the pulse of the future...’
Ian Watson in ‘The Observer’ 16 April 1989
‘GALACTIC STORM’ (Curtis Warren Books, November 1951), debut novel published through the ‘House’ pseudonym ‘Gill Hunt’. Typically garish Ray Theobald cover-art. Brunner was paid £27/10s for it which ‘paid for my first typewriter’. Brunner subsequently refused to acknowledge authorship until archivist Robert Reginald positively identified it in 1979
‘THE NUMBER OF MY DAYS’ (in ‘Nebula no.19’, December 1956) Bolivian Jorge Higgins on his fourth trip as XTE for Interplanetary Construction Company to build the first domed-base on Venus with a team including 18-year-old first-timer Rory Green. They smoke Lunar cigarillos, and a computer-based ‘death call’ estimates projected casualties. A ‘strikingly true-to-life science fiction story concerning the opening up of a new planet’ according to editor Peter Hamilton, and one of the first uses of the term ‘greenhouse effect’ to describe Venusian surface-conditions. The ‘death call’ is wrong, and Green is killed in a freak storm days before their return home
‘THE HUNDREDTH MILLENNIUM’ (first published as “Earth Is But A Star”, a novelette in ‘Science Fantasy no.29’ June 1959, republished as ‘The Hundredth Millennium’ Ace Double 1959, revised and extended as ‘Catch A Falling Star’ Ace Books 1968)
‘THE WORLD SWAPPERS’ (1959, Ace) Earth’s resilient colony on freezing inhospitable Ymir picks up evidence of the presence of alien ‘Others’, while two men – Counce and Bassnett compete for power within the expanding planets of mankind. There’s the prospect of instantaneous ‘transfax’ travel, with the bonus of longevity. And after an initial lethal misunderstanding, Ymir is world-swapped to the aliens as a gesture of conciliation
‘LISTEN! THE STARS!’ (1963, later revised as ‘The Stardroppers’ by DAW SF, 1972) blurbed ‘When the stars are calling, answer at your own peril!’
“The Last Lonely Man” (‘New Worlds no.142’, May/June 1964), later adapted by Jeremy Paul from Brunner’s original text and produced as an episode of BBC-TV’s science-fiction series ‘Out Of The Unknown’ (Series Three, 21st January 1969)
‘TELEPATHIST’ (August 1964, Ballantine. UK 1964, Fontana, 190pp. aka ‘The Whole Man’, 1965, Faber and Faber) fix-up of three novellas – “Curative Telepath” (from ‘Fantastic Universe’, December 1959), “The Whole Man” (‘Science Fantasy’, April 1959) and “City Of The Tiger” (‘Science Fantasy no.32’, December 1958). According to Charles Platt it ‘attempts a psychological portrait of a malformed human being with telepathic powers’, in which crippled dwarf Gerald Howson is the world’s most powerful telepathist with curative abilities. The book’s first part tells his early painful history and the discovery of his ability, the second how he comes to terms with his terrifying gift, and finally how he comes to terms with himself, his insight into the minds of others serving to emphasise his own physical and emotional isolation. To Brunner himself this is one of his ‘more ambitious undertakings’ set in ‘a society where telepaths were functional members rather than outcasts, or ‘Slans’ or whatever’
“Repairmen Of Cyclops” in ‘Fantastic’ (January 1965) later part of ‘Victims Of The Nova’ (1989, Arrow, Venture SF 22) omnibus with ‘Polymath’ and ‘Secret Agent Of Terra’ as The Zarathustra Trilogy
‘THE LONG RESULT’ (1965, Penguin, then Fontana SF 1979) ‘It sounds ideal, Americans, Eskimos, Rumanians and Spaniards working side-by-side, sharing a common language and purpose – cosmic civilisation. But there’s still room for racists, even if it means killing, The Stars Are For Man League is determined to keep mankind supreme among the alien lifeforms’ The adventures of Roald Vincent, a small cog in the Bureau of Cultural Relations, and his struggles to keep peace in space between Earth’s two colonies – the artistic Viridis community and the technocrat Starhome, but he soon gets caught up with the increasingly important alien cultures too. Micky Torres plays a minor part as an expert on the extinct SF-genre
‘THE SQUARES OF THE CITY’ (1965, Penguin, Fontana 1977, 311pp) New York Times calls it ‘a first-class fantasy thriller that will hold the reader through to its disturbing climax, a climax that poses serious questions about how and to what degree man is to be governed and whether potentially bloody conflict can be resolved by subterfuge without morally denigrating all mankind’. In ‘Vector no.83’ reviewer Chris Morgan says ‘this is one of those borderline novels which helps to render a definition of science fiction well-nigh impossible, it’s as much a political thriller as SF’. The newish capital city Vados of an imaginary South American state Argazul has a traffic problem and hires expert Boyd Hakluyt to resolve it. But the problem is wider than it seems, involving every aspect of the city and resulting in a wide-spread political maelstrom of murder and revolution. Based on a classic chess-game Bruner supplies a list of the pieces the characters represent, but not the actual moves! (the author-notes at the back of the book are dated May 1960)
‘BORN UNDER MARS’ (1967, Ace) originally published in two parts in ‘Amazing Stories’ (December 1966 and February 1967)
‘THE PRODUCTIONS OF TIME’ (1967) originally published in two parts in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ (August and September 1966)
‘THE TERRORNAUTS’ (Amicus Productions Film, 1967) Horror-SF film scripted by John Brunner from the Murray Leinster story “The Wailing Asteroid”. Dr Joe Burke (played by Simon Oates) heads ‘Project Star Talk’ – tasked with making SETI-style radio-telescope contact with other planets, but they pick up signals from an airless asteroid instead. Once there they find a caretaker robot, ‘knowledge cubes’, and instantaneous ‘trasposer plates’ that transit Dr Burke and Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall) to a savage alien planet threatened by a hostile fleet which is also approaching the solar system. They are able to defeat the invaders using the alien cube weaponry on the asteroid. The film also features comedy stars Charles Hawtrey (as ‘Joshua Yellowlees’) and Patricia Hayes (as ‘Mrs Jones’) plus Stanley Meadows (as ‘Ben Keller’). The blurb on the DVD announces ‘The Virgin Sacrifice To The Gods Of A Ghastly Galaxy’. A Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky directed by Montgomery Tully
‘STAND ON ZANZIBAR’ (1968, Arrow) ‘They’ll tell you that the whole human race could be put on the 147-square-mile Isle of Wight. They couldn’t move, of course, just stand there. True? Maybe in 1918. Now you’d need the 221-square-mile Isle of Man. By 2010, something larger, something like 640-square mile Zanzibar. By 2010 there are more that seven-billion people crowding the world. A world of acceleratubes, Moonbase Zero, intelligent computers and mass-marketed psychedelics. A world where a quiet man can be turned into a human machine, programmed to kill’. A massive labour, daring and effectively experimental, with a narrative structure based on ‘U.S.A’ by John Dos Passos. A ‘scrapbook of future scenes and images, described in various styles and formats’ according to Charles Platt. It opens with a quote from Marshall McMuhan’s ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’, which determines that the novel ‘is structured like a newspaper, not a novel. One routinely reads about ten or a dozen different subjects – if one takes a paper like the ‘Times’, ‘Guardian’ or ‘Telegraph’, on the first page of the paper before turning to the back page or page two, or wherever, and continuing the story’ (Brunner to Peter Linnett in ‘Zimri’). Wins 1969 Hugo Award
‘TIMESCOOP’ (1969, Sidgwick and Jackson, 156pp, DAW) a smooth, deftly-executed comic time-travel novel about a would-be dictator from the future who tries to enlist malcontents from the past
‘A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR CAUSES’ (1969, non-genre aka ‘Backlash’) first Max Curlew thriller, with its bright Jamaican espionage-man of independent temperament giving lessons on how the world really runs
‘THE JAGGED ORBIT’ (1969), and Arrow 1970, 397pp ‘by the standards of the 21st-century, it was a pretty ordinary sort of day. The black-power city council of Washington DC refused to remove the paint from the façade of the Black House. Matthew Flamen, the last of the spool-pigeons, realised at last that nobody gave a damn any more about the corruption in the government. At the Ginsberg Mental Hospital, not only patients but staff learnt things about themselves that were quite new. Lyla Clay, the pythoness, told them. And also that day, the Gottschalks weaponry combine – ‘suppliers of small arms and fortifications for the suburban home and apartment’, managed to get the revolutionary, Morton Lenigo, into the US. An ordinary, terrifying, horribly-believable day in 2014’ A ‘non-linear future extrapolation’ with Brunner inserts newspaper clippings to indicate the tendencies he’s working from, such as the Kerner Report recommendations
‘TRAVELLER IN BLACK’ (1971, Magnum, 181pp) Four journeys originally published separately, now united in a single whimsical fantasy volume. The traveller is a small man in black carrying a staff of ‘curdled light’. His domain is wherever Chaos rules, and whenever a certain conjunction of four planets occurs he sets out on journey of inspection. Primarily he observes, checking the imprisoned elementals or watching the free ones and occasionally taking a hand in the long process by which Reason is established and part of his domain vanishes from ‘chaos’ into ‘time’. At the beginning, magic – which feeds on chaos, is rampant and the traveller’s own powers go unnoticed. But his power arises from his singular nature, in a universe where everything has many natures. He uses it to grant requests, sometimes in a very liberal spirit, in order to expose the fraudulent, to remove the undesirable and to correct the stupid or thoughtless. The powers of Chaos test him for any sign of weakness. Eventually when magic seems about to loose chaos on the world again, he uses his power to grant wishes to win the final battle
‘THE WRONG END OF TIME’ (1971, Eyre Methuen, 185pp) within a super-Cold War America precariously isolated behind the ‘greatest defence system in the world’, a Soviet spy searches for a solution to the threat of an alien ship ‘as far out as Pluto, is it bent on the destruction of life on Earth?’ Danty Ward is the ‘one who knows’. Sharply plotted, with neat phraseology, clever insight and some overtones of Heinlein’s ‘brainwashed’ masses from ‘Revolt In 2100’
‘THE SHEEP LOOK UP’ (1972, Dent, then Orbit 1974, 461pp) billed as ‘this long-awaited follow-up to ‘Stand On Zanzibar’ John Brunner here portrays a chilling future where short-sighted greed’ has planet Earth suffocating to death in its own pollution, where law and order hardly exist and people die by the million through their own, and other’s stupidity. A massive, chaotic, jangling cautionary non-linear hotch-potch documenting twelve months in the death of this polluted and anarchical hell. ‘A gloomy examination of ecological doom, coupled with a deep suspicion of the motives of politicians and other figures of power’ according to Charles Platt. To Brunner himself ‘it looks at the moment as if we are putting ourselves in danger from two opposite ends of the scale, both with a bang and with a whimper, as by blowing ourselves up in a nuclear war or by poisoning ourselves back to the subhuman condition’ (in ‘Zimri’). ‘An American university has recently devoted a course solely to his (Brunner’s) speculations’ cracks the blurb
‘HONKY IN THE WOODPILE’ (Sphere, 1973, 222pp) the third Hax Curfew thriller, with its negro hero offering ample opportunity for entertaining social comment. A liberation movement against a sub-tropical Haiti-style dictatorship
‘AGE OF MIRACLES’ (1973, Sidgwick And Jackson) revised version of 1965 Ace ‘The Day Of The Star Cities’. One reviewer says ‘here is a fairly representative paragraph quoted entire – ‘Dark – night – dark – night’. Hardly enough to keep the mind alive, is it? A veteran SF writer, Mr Brunner ought to know that noisiness is for beginners and staccato poetese for non-starters. Maddeningly, the story does get going and some unusual themes are efficiently dispatched, but few will make the effort to get gripped by it’
‘TOTAL ECLIPSE’ (1974, DAW) a young genius joins the relief-team to Sigma Draconis for archaeological studies of a race that destroyed itself. With the effects of security and totalitarianism on Earth there are political threats to close down prohibitively expensive space travel – only one ship still exists, all of which throws the aliens’ self-destruction into sharper relief. The peculiarity is that the archaeologists find only one example of each alien artefact, one crashed plane, one sunken ship etc.
‘WEB OF EVERYWHERE’ (Bantam, June 1974, 148pp) instantaneous transportation system provides setting for two outsiders seeking location-codes for abandoned dwellings, until they disagree
‘GIVE WARNING TO THE WORLD’ (DAW no.112, July 1974, 158pp) extended version of a 1959 story. An invasion by hidden monsters along the lines of Heinlein’s ‘Puppet Master’, but with more psychological than physical action
‘SHOCKWAVE RIDER’ (1975, Harper and Row, 246pp) Brunner says it was ‘based on some themes that I drew from Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’’, portraying a 21st-century modified through Brunner’s pessimistic vision of a totalitarian authoritarian Amerika, through which the hyper-intelligent product of a genetic superman experiment seeks his own like beneath a bewildering variety of identities, due to his abilities to subvert the master-computers that hold all data on everyone. The framing device is that Nickie Haflinger has been caught and is undergoing drug and electronic interrogation at Tarnover, with his life displayed as a bunch of isolated incidents excavated from his memories. ‘Shockwave Rider’ was the last novel he ‘wrapped and mailed’ for five years, due to health problems.
‘EXPLORATIONS OF THE MARVELLOUS’ edited by Peter Nicholls (1976, Fontana) Book made up of transcripts from nine contributors to the Science Fiction Foundation’s lecture series at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in early 1975. Brunner provides a hilarious expose of some of the weirder offshoots of SF and the crasser idiocies within it
‘WHO WRITES SCIENCE FICTION?’ by Charles Platt (1980, Savoy Books) a themed collection of writer-interviews with a revealing portrait of John Brunner. ‘Many of John Brunner’s near-future novels are set in America. They have an American tone, they describe crises in urban life, and they explore the future of high-level technological society. Paradoxically, Brunner is British’
‘THE INFINITIVE OF GO’ (February 1980, Del Rey/Ballantine) As with Larry Niven’s ‘All The Myriad Ways’, there are infinite alternative universes based on mathematician Georg Cantor’s transfinite number-theory, and using teleportation Dr Justin Williams ‘posts’ himself to various ‘congruent’ alternate worlds
‘DOUBLE, DOUBLE’ (1981, Sidgwick and Jackson) slip-cover says ‘John Brunner, master of intrigue and fantasy, has surpassed himself in this extraordinary tale. Inkosi, the magnificent Ridgeback, Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (a Pop group), Dr Tom Reedwall of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Miss Felicia Beeding, Sergeant Branksome of the local constabulary, and many other disparate and eccentric characters are tied together by a weird invisibility which threatens to reduce them to the same norm. They themselves are unaware of their fate and perhaps will never know. John Brunner has woven a compulsive plot around the intriguing theme of ‘now you see me, now you don’t’. ‘The Science Fiction Review’ writes ‘Brunner has taken the oldest of hats and beribboned it so gaudily that, although recognisable, it just doesn’t look at all like it once did… a lot of fun’
‘THE DRAMATURGES OF YAN’ (Ballantine, November 1982) Gregory Chant attempts to stage a play based on the ancient myths of the planet Yan in hopes of discovering that world’s mysterious secret
‘THE CRUCIBLE OF TIME’ (1983) Growth is difficult to sustain as the planet is continually beset by natural disasters. Some scientists come to the conclusion that the only way to progress is to leave the planet. A big story that has a lot of obvious parallels with our own world
“The Day The Magic Mushrooms Took Effect” (in ‘Omni UK no.1’, Autumn 1984) ‘I say what is needed to make the universe closed is the will. The will to go back, and down, and return inward upon ourselves’
‘THE TIDES OF TIME’ (1984, Del Rey) Experimental new direction, ‘a man and a woman are escaping a future experimental scientific program in a sentient boat which creates food to order but is low on fuel, so they seek refuge on an island. Once there they apparently shift through time to various periods of history, each time living the same roles on the island, learning lessons from each encounter. Inscrutible chapter-headings run:
is small and weak and ignorant and helpless…
but alive. It’s you, and me,
and everyone as we once were
is an name
is its mother’s, and
your mother’s and mine too’
“A Glimpse Of Tomorrow” (in ‘Fear no.4’, January/February 1989) ‘gently poking fun at our human (time-)tunnel-vision, our narrow point of view limited by time and understanding despite our so-called advanced sciences’
‘MUDDLE EARTH’ (1993, Ballantine Del Rey Books) a man wakes from cryogenic suspension into a bizarre 24th-century where Earth is a tourist attraction