Six months ago, I wrote about an unusual find I made online: The Great Steamboat Race, an enormous and ambitious historical novel written by none other than John Brunner. Brunner, of course, was a highly regarded SF and fantasy writer, beloved even today for Stand on Zanzibar, The Complete Traveller in Black, and many other novels. He died in 1995, at the World Science Fiction convention.
The Great Steamboat Race was an enigma. I’d never seen a copy before, never run across one in dozens of years of haunting bookstores. The copy I found online was very inexpensive — less than the $7.95 cover price for a brand new copy, for a book published over 30 years ago — so I bought it. I wrote it up as a Vintage Treasures curiosity, and then more or less forgot about it.
At least until this week, when I was browsing through a collection of Asimov’s SF magazines from the late 90s I recently acquired. Before I packed it away in the Cave of Wonders (i.e. the basement), I plucked one out of the box at random, and settled back in my big green chair to read it.
It was the March 1996 issue, with stories by Tony Daniel, Suzy McKee Charnas, Steven Utley, and the late John Brunner. I always take the time to read Robert Silverberg’s Reflections column, and I flipped to that first. The title was “Roger and John,” and it was a tribute to two recent deaths that had shaken the SF community: Roger Zelazny and John Brunner. Silverberg had been friends with both men for decades and said “Their deaths, for me, illustrate the difference between a tragedy and a damn shame. Let me try to explain.”
Silverberg portrays Zelazny’s death as a damn shame, saying “Roger was the happy man who led a happy life… By the time he was twenty-five he had begun what was to be a dazzling career in science fiction.” Zelazny’s career, Silverberg observes, had been filled with a series of triumphs, and his death by cancer at the age of 58 had robbed the field of future great work from a master.
Brunner, Silverberg observes, was a tragic figure. And central to the tragedy was the novel The Great Steamboat Race.
He rightly notes that John Brunner produced “a string of significant books like Squares of the City and The Whole Man, and then in 1969 the huge and masterly Stand on Zanzibar.” Brunner won a Hugo for Stand on Zanzibar and he followed it with a series of highly regarded and successful novels, including The Jagged Orbit and The Sheep Look Up.
Brunner stood on the threshold of greatness. As Silverberg comments:
He was still only in his mid-thirties; and it appeared that he was staking a claim for himself in the science fiction world as a natural successor to the aging titans, Heinlen, Asimov, Clarke.
It was not the be. Something went wrong in John’s life.
Perhaps the critical moment of transition for John from successful writer to tragic figure — the true tragic overreaching that ultimately shattered him — was his decision, about 1975, to write a massive historical novel set in nineteenth century America, a book called The Great Steamboat Race. It was a book of a type remote from anything he had done before and very much unlike anything that John’s readers… were expecting. He worked on it for five terrible years, from 1976 to 1981, during which time the editor who had purchased the book and the agent who had arranged its sale both died. The effort cost John a prodigious amount of energy and undoubtedly weakened his health; and, because he did no other work during the time he was writing it, it became an enormous drain on his finances. Then the massive thing finally appeared, in February of 1983, and it failed utterly. It sank from sight and left no trace. He was never the same again.
According to Silverberg, a series of tragedies followed — the death of his wife, declining health, a troubled second marriage, and finally medications that greatly interfered with Brunner’s ability to write. Things became so dire that Brunner visibly despaired.
He began to seem like a lost soul, haunted, despondent. In an astonishingly sad convention speech a couple of years ago, he spoke openly of the collapse of his career and expressed the hope that some publisher might offer him proofreading work to do to as a way of paying his bills… And yet — it was the final tragic twist — I understand that not long before he died John had resolved to embark on a major new novel, one that he hoped would restore his position in our field and replenish his depleted savings. In order to write with a clear head, though, he had to stop taking the medicine that controlled his blood pressure — a decision that surely must have been a contributing factor to his fatal stroke.
I have no way to definitively confirm Silverberg’s observations, but I have no reason to doubt them. Also, his conclusions are borne out by even a casual study of Brunner’s career. Here’s a list of his published novels from 1970 until 1975, the year before Silverberg claims he began work on The Great Steamboat Race (taken from his listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database):
The Gaudy Shadows (1970)
The Wrong End of Time (1971)
The Dramaturges of Yan (1972)
The Sheep Look Up (1972)
The Stone That Never Came Down (1973)
Total Eclipse (1974)
Web of Everywhere (1974)
Give Warning to the World (1974)
The Shockwave Rider (1975)
At least one novel a year, like clockwork. And here’s every novel he published from 1976, the year Silverberg says he began writing The Great Steamboat Race, until his death 20 years later:
The Infinitive of Go (1980)
Players at the Game of People (1980)
The Great Steamboat Race (1983)
The Crucible of Time (1983)
The Tides of Time (1984)
The Shift Key (1987)
Children of the Thunder (1989)
A Maze of Stars (1991)
Muddle Earth (1993)
Ten novels in 20 years, and only four in the last decade. It’s very clear that something profoundly disrupted Brunner’s writing, starting in 1975.
What motivated Brunner to try his hand in a genre so far afield from his fan base? As I noted in my original Vintage Treasures piece on The Great Steamboat Race, John Jakes had escaped midlist obscurity by turning from sword and sorcery to historical fiction with The Bastard in 1974. That single novel made Jakes one of the most popular writers in America and his series The Kent Family Chronicles eventually sold 55 million copies. Jakes’s example inspired several of his fellow SF writers to make the same leap — but with little success.
Brunner left behind a rich legacy of SF and fantasy that is still read today. By most measures, he had a tremendously successful SF career, especially when compared to the struggles (and truncated careers) many midlist writers experience today.