Saturday, December 16, 2006

Careers: John Brunner

One of the real pleasures of my teenage years was reading the space operas of John Brunner, which mostly appeared in Ace Double Book form, sometimes taking up both sides.
Except for Leigh Brackett and some of Edmond Hamilton, I couldn't handle most space opera after I reached about age fifteen. But Brunner was both a superb writer of swift colorful action stories and a true citizen of the world, this last lending his tales a real sense of history which he projected into the future.
His characters were never standard pulp issue, either. They usually had problems unrelated to the plot some of which, realistically, were never resolved even as the curtain fell. He also had a somewhat baroque sense of humor. I recall one of his Ace novels opening with a parody of a very sophisticated party. I appreciated it even more when I saw the same thing a few years later in the then-shocking movie "Darling." Brunner had tucked his swipe at pre-Euro-trash into space opera. He got an early start on his action tales, selling his first novel at 17 as by Gil Hunt.
This was all in the Sixties. Came the Seventies and Brunner received the Hugo award, the British Science Fiction award and the French Prix Apollo. You don't get those babies writing space opera. From the Daily Telegraph, UK: "The Squares of the City (1965) was a study in mathematical psychology in which two ruthless politicians manipulate people in a real-life chess match. Brunner's more pessimistic stories included The Sheep Look Up (1972), a depressing look forward to the horrors of pollution; and The Shockwave Rider (1975), in which computers spread viruses and other evils. In this he was to prove wrong those experts who at the time dismissed the possibility of electronic viruses." These are his acknowledged masterpieces.
There were few science fiction writers as popular or influential as Brunner during the Seventies, especially after the appearance of The Shockwave Rider. He'd gone rather quickly from competent paperback man to bestselling genre master with a worldwide following.
What happened next has never been clear to me. Though I've heard various explanations, the one given most often is that he put several years research and writing into a historical novel called The Great Steamboat Race and that it flopped badly, shaking the confidence of author and publisher alike.
Something sure happened because when you look at the books he wrote in the Eighties, you see a writer essentially reverting to the work of his early days. Not outright space opera but definitely work far less ambitious than the novels that brought him awards and acclaim. His health got bad. His wife died. I'm told that at one convention he announced from the dais that he needed work and to please put him on their list. Any writer who pitches himself like that may get a contract but he sure isn't going to get much money.
He died at a convention, too. Heart attack.
As much as some readers admire The Traveler in Black, I think the better seldom-mentioned Brunner book is The Whole Man. Brunner creates not only a bleak future society unlike any I've ever encountered in sf but he also gives us a mutant-freak as a protagonist, a bitter, angry confused man who defies all the conventions of the form. A number of writers tried something like this previously--notably A.E. Van Vogt with Slan--but nobody brought the passion or dystopic poetry Brunner did to the theme.
Six months or so before his death I wrote a long retro review of The Whole Man for a sf magazine and sent a copy to Bluejay editor Jim Frenkel who was then republishing a few Brunner titles. He sent it on to Brunner and told me that Brunner was greatly pleased with it. I'm glad he got to see it. He deserved a lot more praise than my little review could give him.


Graham Powell said...

I've only read BUG JACK BARRON but it was interesting and different. I have STAND ON ZANZIBAR around somewhere but have never read it.

Anonymous said...

BUG JACK BARRON is a Norman Spinrad novel; you still have John Brunner awaiting you. Some impressive work, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Brunner also wrote a mainsteream novel that was sure to make his literary reputation in England, much like Lucky Jim did for Amis. Unfortunately, the book was also very time sensitive and his publishers screwed him over. The book was never published and the time for the book had passed.

He also had a great action series about a Black spy; the series died when his publisher outlined the plot they wanted for the next book and Brunner tried to convince the publilsher that he had used it in the second book of the series. One book in the series, Honky in the Woodpile, was never published here; I don't think the others made it past on paperback reprinting here.

I've read most of his books and enjoyed them. (His Steamboat book was very good.) Although he published until the end, his career -- like many others -- was destroyed by the vagarities of the publishing industry. His work deserves to be reprinted.

-- Jerry House

mybillcrider said...

One Brunner spy novel I remember fondly, having read it more than 40 years ago, is Wear the Butcher's Medal. This isn't part of the series mentioned by Jerry.