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Giving People What They Want: James Nicoll on The Traveler in Black by John Brunner

Thursday, October 10th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

The Traveler in Black John Brunner-small The Traveler in Black John Brunner-back-small

The Traveler in Black (Ace Books, 1971). Cover by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon

Outside of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock, the 20th Century didn’t produce a great many enduring Sword and Sorcery series. Which is why we cherish those we have, like John Brunner’s The Traveler in Black.

The Traveler in Black first appeared in a short story in Science Fantasy in 1960. He was a captivating and enigmatic figure, and he proved popular enough that Brunner returned to his creation four more times in the next two decades. The first four tales were collected in The Traveler in Black, a 1971 paperback original from Ace Books, part of Terry Carr’s famed Ace SF Special series. James Nicoll turned a fresh eye to them this summer, saying:

Chaos is losing its grip on reality. The Traveller in Black does his humble best to accelerate the process. In most cases he does this by using his power to warp reality to give people what they want — at which point they find they didn’t really want it after all…

There are parallels between the Traveller stories and Tanith Lee’s later Flat Earth books. While Brunner might have influenced Lee, I think it more likely that both are playing in a sub-genre of fantasy now unfashionable, in which fantastic worlds evolve towards the mundane.

Where Lee’s Flat Earth revels in decadence, the world of the Traveller in Black is one in which one finds a sardonic pleasure in watching people get their just desserts. The delight is redoubled in that one can predict a catastrophe, but one cannot predict just HOW foolish choices will backfire. If that’s the way your sense of humour rolls, you’ll enjoy this book.

It’s always great to read a thoughtful review of a nearly 50-year old S&S vintage paperback (and it’s especially great that we’re not the only ones writing them.)

The 1971 Ace edition contained four stories, including the 1972 Hugo Best Novella nominee “Dread Empire.”

“Imprint of Chaos” (Science Fantasy, #42, August 1960)
“Break the Door of Hell” (Impulse, April 1966)
“The Wager Lost by Winning” (Fantastic, April 1970)
“Dread Empire” (Fantastic, April 1971)

A few years after the book appeared, Brunner produced one final long tale in the series:

“The Things That Are Gods” (Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine, Fall 1979)

The Traveler in Black Magnum UK-small The Compleat Traveller in Black Bluejay-small The Compleat Traveller in Black

Magnum UK (1978, cover by Bob Fowke), Bluejay Books (1986, Martin Springett), Mandarin (1989, Patrick Mortemore)

The appearance of a 5th story gave Bluejay Books an opportunity to produce a complete version, and that’s exactly what it did in 1986 with The Compleat Traveller in Black (above middle). It was reprinted with the same title in the UK by Methuen, and Mandarin (above right), and in the US by Collier Books. Beware the 2011 reprint from Gateway / Orion, which does not contain the final story, even though it still bears the title The (Compleat) Traveller in Black.

The Traveler in Black is fondly remembered by S&S and Brunner fans alike. It has been out of print in the US since 1989, but Open Road Integrated Media did release a digital edition in 2014.

Our previous coverage of John Brunner includes:

Robert Silverberg on the Tragic Death of John Brunner
A Desperate Battle Against an Alien Enemy: Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner and Damien Broderick
Temporal Surges and Shapeshifting Invaders: Rich Horton on Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner and The War of Two Worlds by Poul Anderson
Disasterville U.S.A. : The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Space Stations With Secret Passages, and Snow White in Space: Rich Horton on Sanctuary in the Sky by John Brunner/The Secret Martians by John Sharkey
A Tale of Two Covers: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Aztec Empires, Amazons, and the Spanish Armada: Rich Horton on John Brunner’s Times Without Number
Martian Pirates, Brain Creatures, and Hive Minds: Rich Horton on Ray Cummings and John Brunner
Vintage Treasures: The Best of John Brunner
Vintage Treasures: Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick/ The Skynappers by John Brunner
Vintage Treasures: The Great Steamboat Race by John Brunner
Big, Ambitious and Experimental: BBC Culture on John Brunner

The Traveler in Black was first published as a paperback original by Ace Books in January 1971. It is 222 pages, priced at $0.75. The cover is by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

8 Comments »

  1. I’m a big fan of Brunner’s 60’s stuff and I’ve always wanted to read this one, but I’ve never managed to lay my hands on a copy. Tim to stop fooling around!

    But…75 cents?! Stop it! You’re killin’ me!

    Comment by Thomas Parker - October 10, 2019 9:23 am

  2. You can still find a dozen copies on eBay for less than 5 bucks, and some as low as $2…. Can’t complain about that!

    https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=p2380057.m570.l1312.R1.TR10.TRC1.A0.H0.XTraveler+in+.TRS1&_nkw=Traveler+in+Black+Brunner&_sacat=0

    Comment by John ONeill - October 10, 2019 9:50 am

  3. I thank you! My wife, on the other hand…

    Comment by Thomas Parker - October 10, 2019 11:11 am

  4. I think this is the only Brunner I’ve actually read, but it’s a great one and probably warrants a revisit one of these days.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 10, 2019 4:46 pm

  5. I might be insufficiently purist, but I tend to think of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth/Cugel stories, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Joanna Russ’s Alyx, (I think too few are aware of) Janet Fox’s Arcana (albeit three stories is not a series one can build too much cult following from), Phyllis Eisenstein’s Alaric, and work of at least a handful of others is of similar quality. But it’s a matter of taste, no argument.

    Comment by Todd Mason - October 11, 2019 7:09 pm

  6. Todd,

    That’s a great list. If we’re going to list brilliant S&S series from the 20th Century, I’d want to add Charles Saunders’ Imaro, and Robert Lynn Asprin’s Thieves’ World.

    But all of those are out of print (and most have been out of print for 30+ years). That’s what I meant by enduring. Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock have survived long into the 21st Century, and are still winning new readers today. I don’t believe that’s true of the others you mentioned.

    Comment by John ONeill - October 12, 2019 10:37 am

  7. Alyx is Usually in print, as is Vance…if they aren’t now, they will be soon…and given the busy beavers of our on-demand imprints, I suspect they and Saunders and all might well be soon.

    They certainly should be!

    Comment by Todd Mason - October 12, 2019 4:18 pm

  8. “The Things That Are Gods” was the first Traveler In Black story (and the first Brunner tale) that I ever read. It’s also one of the best titles in the history of fantasy fiction. It’s one of those titles that’s so good I wish I’d thought of it. If they ever make a Traveler In Black movie it really should be called “The Things That Are Gods.” THE COMPLEAT TRAVELER IN BLACK is one of the genre’s crown jewels.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - October 13, 2019 4:16 am


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