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

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

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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.)

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Big, Ambitious and Experimental: BBC Culture on John Brunner

Thursday, June 13th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

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John Brunner was one of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th Century. Unlike many of his peers, however — like Philip K. Dick. Ursula K. Le Guin, Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein — his star has dimmed considerably since his death in 1996, and virtually all of his fiction is now out of print. So I was very pleased to see this May 10th feature story on Brunner at the BBC Culture site, focusing on his uncannily on-target predictions, especially those in his brilliant novel Stand on Zanzibar.

If some of his predictions now read like wacky sci-fi clichés, others have proven spot on. For instance, in his 1962 novella Listen! The Stars! he conjured up the ‘stardropper’, an addictive portable-media-player-like gizmo. In 1972, he published one of his most pessimistic novels, The Sheep Look Up, which prophesies a future blighted by extreme pollution and environmental catastrophe. And his 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, created a computer hacker hero before the world knew what one was. It also envisaged the emergence of computer viruses, something that early computer scientists dismissed as impossible. He even coined the use of the word ‘worm’ to describe them…

[Brunner] won, too, almost every sci-fi prize worth winning, including the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel, which had never before gone to a Brit. Nevertheless, Brunner’s gripes about heavy-handed editing and in-fighting within the claustrophobic sci-fi scene gave him a prickly reputation. By middle-age, much of his work had fallen out of print in the UK, and he’d been forced to sell his London home and move to Somerset… Today, his name is little known beyond sci-fi aficionados, and he’s chiefly remembered for Stand on Zanzibar. Big, ambitious and formally experimental, it’s a science-fiction thriller that depicts a world confronting population control. By 2010, Brunner declared, the world’s population would top seven billion (he was a year out – this actually happened in 2011).

In his June 2 article on classic dystopias here at Black Gate, Joe Bonadonna made some similar observations.

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A Desperate Battle Against an Alien Enemy: Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner and Damien Broderick

Thursday, March 14th, 2019 | Posted by Rich Horton

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Phoenix Pick (236 pages, $14.99 trade paperback/$3.99 digital, November 2017)

A couple of years ago I read an early John Brunner novel called Threshold of Eternity, published as half an Ace Double. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about that:

Threshold of Eternity was first published in New Worlds, December 1957 through February 1958. The Ace Double version came out in 1959.

It opens in California in 1957 or so, as one-legged Red Hawkins encounters a French-speaking girl who couldn’t possibly be there — and, indeed, it turns out that Chantal Vareze was just in London. What’s stranger is the other person they soon encounter, a man named Burma who turns out to be from thousands of years in the future.

We jump, then, to the future, where one Magwareet is helping to coordinate humanity’s desperate war against mysterious aliens called The Enemy. One of the side effects of their battles, and also of a strange entity called The Being, is temporal surges, which can throw people into the far past. And Magwareet has just realized that his friend Burma has been flung into the past …

Cool stuff, eh? And things continue as Red and Chantal are carried into the far future, where the two eventually agree to help with the war against the Enemy, help which involves more trips to the past, a weird situation where multiple copies of the main characters coexist uneasily, and a wild and transcendent ending concerning the true nature of The Being, leading to an unexpected and not quite successful ending. Here’s how my review closed.

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Temporal Surges and Shapeshifting Invaders: Rich Horton on Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner and The War of Two Worlds by Poul Anderson

Monday, April 16th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

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One of the reasons I collect Ace Doubles — aside from the great cover art, and their historical significance — is that they frequently featured early work by some of my favorite authors. That’s definitely the case with Double D-335, which paired very early novels from two of the greatest SF writers of the late 20th Century, John Brunner’s Threshold of Eternity and Poul Anderson’s The War of Two Worlds.

Neither volume was reprinted in a standandalone edition after their original back-to-back appearance in 1959, so you can be forgiven if you’re unfamiliar with them. At his website Strange at Ecbatan, interplanetary paperback expert Rich Horton admits he was unaware of them until recently as well. Why review yet another obscure Ace Double?

I realized that it comprised two novels by writers I always enjoy that I was completely unaware of… I figured Anderson and Brunner are always worth a try, and anyway I have a certain quasi-completist attitude towards both of them.

Fair enough. Rich usually does his homework on the background for each book, often digging up some fascinating tidbits, and as usual he doesn’t disappoint.

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Disasterville U.S.A. :The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

If there is such a phenomenon as absolute evil, it consists in treating another human being as a thing.

Nick Halflinger in The Shockwave Rider


oie_1023133dHcFYNm5Cyberpunk appeared as a description of a sub-genre in the early eighties. The word first appeared in print in 1983 as the title of a story by Bruce Bethke and it was quickly adopted to cover the works of near-future science fiction by William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, and others. The general connection between books like Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash (1992) was the depiction of high technology mixed into a crumbling, corrupt society.

Cyberpunk as a named thing might date to only 1983 or so, but as a movement in science fiction its roots are deeper. For years prior to the appearance of Neuromancer, usually thought of as the first cyberpunk novel, sci-fi authors had been writing about the dangerous effects — on society and individuals — of computers, communications, cybernetics, and related fields. In the UK, J.G.Ballard, and in the US, Philip K. Dick, laid a lot of the groundwork for the genre in books featuring rebels, man-machine interfaces, often lots of psychoactive drugs, and a general dystopian atmosphere. It’s little wonder that Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, should become the basis for the film Blade Runner, easily one of the first cyberpunk movies.

English author John Brunner (discussed at great length here at Black Gate) started his writing career creating fairly standard space opera. In the mid-sixties he began writing stories in more contemporary settings, such as the 1965 novel, The Squares of the City. In it, a traffic engineer is hired to work in the newly-built capital of a South American nation (echoes of Brasilia). While there he becomes a piece, quite literally, in game of chess being played between two of the country’s power brokers.

This move to contemporary and near-future sci-fi culminated in the appearance of Stand on Zanzibar in 1968. Its portrayal of a wildly over-populated Earth, conveyed in the snapshot style of Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, won Brunner the Hugo award for best novel. It also marks the start of what’s been called his Catastrophe Quartet.

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Vintage Treasures: The Best of John Brunner

Saturday, November 5th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

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In 1974 Lester Del Rey hit on the idea for a series of collections showcasing the best early SF writers in the field — especially those who had a publishing contract with his Del Rey imprint, naturally enough. The Classic Science Fiction line grew to roughly two dozen volumes, creating an essential library of early science fiction. It became one of the seminal SF series of my childhood, introducing me to such writers as C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, John W. Campbell, Philip K. Dick, Fredric Brown, Murray Leinster, Robert Bloch, Jack Williamson, and many others. James McGlothlin has been reviewing them at Black Gate. So far he’s covered The Best of Stanley Weinbaum and The Best of Frederik Pohl, two of the finest books in the set.

I always thought I had a complete collection, but just a few months ago I discovered there was a late entry — The Best of John Brunner, published fourteen years after the first volume in the series. How the heck did that manage to elude me for nearly 30 years? I scrambed to find one, and soon enough located a virtually new copy on eBay for just $4 — just five cents more than the 1988 cover price. It arrived a few weeks ago.

It has been a genuine treat. Brunner is one of science fiction’s finest 20th Century practitioners, and while I’m well familiar with his novels, I’ve discovered that I’m much less knowledgeable regarding his short fiction. In fact, while I haven’t finished reading it, I’m pretty sure I’ve never read any of these stories before.

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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

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

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After a series of duds, our intrepid retro-reviewer Rich Horton turns to the always-reliable John Brunner.

I’ve read some weak Ace Doubles lately, so I tried to improve my fortunes by picking one with a John Brunner half. I can almost always count on Brunner for entertainment with a thoughtful edge. Brunner (1934-1995) of course was one of the field’s greats, a Hugo winner for Stand on Zanzibar (1968). He had a bifurcated career a bit like Robert Silverberg’s: beginning around the same time as Silverberg he was extremely prolific early in his career, publishing a lot of quickly executed and competent work; and then sometime in the early to mid ’60s seems to have consciously raised his level of ambition, beginning with novels like The Whole Man and The Squares of the City, and continuing to his famous quartet of long novels, beginning with Stand on Zanzibar, then The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider.

The book under consideration this time is the 1960 Ace Double Sanctuary in the Sky by John Brunner, paired with The Secret Martians by the far less well known John Sharkey.

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A Tale of Two Covers: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Thursday, March 24th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

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For this installment of A Tale of Two Covers, we look at my favorite book by one of my favorite writers: John Brunner’s Hugo Award-winning Stand on Zanzibar.

Stand on Zanzibar was published in 1969. I read it about a decade later, when I was in my mid-teens, and it pretty much blew my mind. It’s set in the far-distant future of 2010, when the Earth groans under the weight of a staggering seven billion souls, terrorists are the major threat facing America, China is a new economic superpower, erectile dysfunction and depression are treated with pills, and the head of state is President Obomi.

Pretty clear-eyed predictions (over the years, in fact, Brunner has been lauded for his amazing forecasting). But it wasn’t his predictive skills that drew me to the book — it was the brilliant structure. Brunner painted an astonishingly vivid picture of the future of our planet by interspersing his chapters with numerous brief vignettes, news items, book quotes, and snapshots of life all over the world. It was the most believable and compelling rendition of the future I’d ever encountered, and it has stayed with me for decades.

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Aztec Empires, Amazons, and the Spanish Armada: Rich Horton on John Brunner’s Times Without Number

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

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In addition to his reviews here at Black Gate, Rich Horton has been quietly reviewing neglected SF and fantasy classics on his own blog, Strange at Ecbatan, to great effect for the past few years. We recently highlighted one of his more intriguing choices, the 1961 Ace Double Wandl the Invader/I Speak For Earth.

This month he turns his attention to another neglected John Brunner masterwork, the 1962 fix-up novel Times Without Number, originally published as an Ace Double in 1962 (cover here).

This is one of my favorite time travel/alternate history novels, and it’s a novel that to my mind does not get the notice it deserves… This book is about Don Miguel Navarro of the Society of Time. It is set in an alternate 1988/1989 in which the Spanish Armada succeeded, and established an Empire. The Moors reconquered Spain, but much of Western Europe, including England, remained under Spanish rule, and the independent Mohawk nation in North America was also allied to the Empire. In 1892 the secret of time travel was discovered, and under the auspices of the Pope the Society of Time was established…

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Martian Pirates, Brain Creatures, and Hive Minds: Rich Horton on Ray Cummings and John Brunner

Saturday, August 8th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

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Brigands of the Moon-smallRich Horton’s personal blog, Strange at Ecbatan, is a great place to hang out if (like us) you love vintage paperbacks and magazines. In addition to his reviews here at Black Gate (not to mention his editing duties for The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, the 2015 Volume of which just arrived last month), Rich also reviews forgotten bestsellers, neglected classics, and obscure books by writers who later became highly regarded. This week he takes a look at an Ace Double from 1961.

This week’s Old Bestseller post is on a book that was by no means a bestseller — it’s another Ace Double review, this time a new one (for me) — the 1961 pairing of a rather dreadful 1932 pulp serial by Ray Cummings (Wandl the Invader) with one of John Brunner’s better early short novels (I Speak For Earth), written as by “Keith Woodcott.”

Wandl the Invader was serialized in Astounding in 1932. It was a sequel to Brigands of the Moon, which began its serialization in the third issue of Astounding, in 1930. It is set in a future in which space travel is well-established within the Solar System, and essentially human civilizations have been discovered on both Venus and Mars. (Interbreeding is possible, for instance.) A small planet called Wandl has appeared in the Solar System, and Gregg Haljan (hero of Brigands of the Moon) is recruited to captain a spaceship to resist the evil intentions of the planet’s inhabitants.

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