Sunday, November 6, 2011

John Brunner (author)

Wikipedia Entry

John BrunnerIn the late 70s, I was growing tired of science fiction.  I had been devouring it since I saw The Space Explorers  when I was seven.  I would occasionally get away from it for a few months, usually during the school year when I didn't have time for non-school books, but always come back in the summer to read anything I could get my hands on.* But I was feeling that the genre was getting stale, with too much of it things I had seen before.  The ideas and sense of wonder were gone.

Then I happened upon The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, and my faith in the genre was restored.

Brunner was an incredibly prolific SF novelist, with well over 100 books to his credit.**  He was born in the UK and published his first novel at age 17, and began to crank out books until he could begin writing full time in 1958.  His earlier works were competent space opera -- good reads and nothing more.  But by the mid-60s, he started adding far more depth of characterization and more intriguing ideas into his novels.***

The turning point was The Whole Man, about a telepathic individual who has to deal with his new power and about how the world looks at him.  It showed a new depth of characterization, and gave Brunner his first Hugo nomination.

By 1970, John Brunner was on the list of the top SF writers.  He reached stardom in the field in 1968 with his classic Stand on Zanzibar, a novel about an overpopulated world that uses a complex structure to not only tell the main story, but to give details about the world by small sections that illuminated particular aspects.****  It won a Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Brunner continued with his complex futures and narrative drive on other of his major works, like The Jagged Orbit and The Sheep Look Up. 

image The Shockwave Rider in 1975 was his last classic novel (though he continued with several very good ones).  It probably impressed me because it was cyberpunk before cyberpunk was invented, the story about a man caught up in a fight against an oppressive US government and surviving because of his computer skills.  The technology is dated (he uses touchtone landline phones), but it was far advanced for the time, and like nothing I had ever read.  Brunner even coined the term "computer worm" for the novel.

I am also a fan of his Total Eclipse, about an attempt to discover why an alien race went extinct, and which has some rather frightening implications for the human race.  In addition, his lighter The Infinitive of Go was a great concept and story using the idea of the transporter that doesn't work quite the way it does in Star Trek.

Brunner died in 1995, suffering a heart attack while attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow.  It was a sad loss to the field and to the cause of imagination.

*I'm perversely proud that, when I took the New York State English Regents (a statewide exam for high school students), I answered one question by using Jack Vance's Emphyrio, which had been serialized but not yet published as a book.  I knew the teachers wouldn't have read the book, but I could always show them a copy if they called me on it.

**Asimov's of course, reached nearly 500 books, but Brunner had far more novels.  Asimov also padded his total by being the editor of a book, where his main contribution was writing an introduction and lending his name.  Brunner tended to repacking his books under different titles, but I'm pretty sure he's still ahead of Asimov.

***In a way, his career path paralleled Robert Silverberg, who had the reputation of being something of a hack in his early days.  At a certain point, Silverberg decided he had made enough on hackwork to live comfortably, and announced he would write more serious sf novels.  Some people in the field thought it a joke, but he quickly became a multiple award winner for some great short stories and novels like "Passengers" and Dying Inside.

****He took the technique from John Dos Passos's USA Trilogy. For those who think that science fiction is about prediction, he predicted that Earth would have a population of 7 billion by 2010 -- only a year off from the actual date.


Francis W. Porretto said...

Unfortunately, Brunner, while a gifted writer, was also a raving socialist, and couldn't keep his politics separate from his fiction. It made for a bitter brew in his novels.

rfb Napa said...

Robert Heinlein was a gifted writer, but unfortunately, he was a raving right-winger, and couldn't keep his politics separate from his fiction. It made for a bitter militeristic brew in his novels.

Peter M. Fitzpatrick said...

Brunner was not so much a socialist, but an avid anti-nuclear weapons activist, which in the light of rational assessment of our probable survival as species, is right up there with recognizing the dangers of global warming. Both have their disbelievers and skeptics, for what ever reason, but that does not make the facts go away or the dangers subside. It is telling that Reagan and Gorbachev eventually realized the danger of mutually assured destruction, and took the high road out of the most dangerous impasse. Atomic weapons in the hands of terrorists continues to be one of the most dangerous possibilities of our time.

pdxrailtransit said...

As opposed to a "raving" facist?