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5 of the best: John Brunner

By / April 4, 2017 / no comments

Time is not kind to science fiction. Yesterday’s novelty can quickly become today’s commonplace, so we can rapidly lose track of which writers were innovative or daring or worth watching. Particularly after the writer has died and their books may no longer be in print. But there are any number of writers who made an impact on science fiction and whose work is still worth revisiting today.

So every now and again in this blog we’re going to draw attention to a writer who may exactly be forgotten or under-appreciated, but who has certainly drifted away from the eminence they once enjoyed.

John Brunner is a prime example. He was a prolific writer, and much of what he wrote is not worth recalling now. But at his best he was one of the genre’s great originals, a Hugo and BSFA Award winner, whose work was emblematic of the New Wave, a precursor of cyberpunk, and vividly inventive.

We’ve chosen just five of his books that are worth re-reading today, but these are books that belong in the library of every serious sf fan.

The Squares of the City

The Squares of the CityMost of Brunner’s early work was hackneyed pulp fiction, crude space operas and adventure stories churned out at extraordinary speed for the money, but every so often he would show signs of wanting to be more ambitious, more experimental. This was one of the more successful of those early attempts to break out of the straitjacket he’d got himself into as a writer. It’s a story of political intrigue and revolution set in a fictional South American city, but what is particularly unusual about it is that the plot replicates a famous chess game. The moves of the two sides in the conflict are modelled on the moves in the game, characters are killed when their piece is taken, and so on. And this structure is also integrally important to the plot. As a novel it’s not a complete success, but it is still holds the attention, and its inventiveness presages the more successful works that would come just a few years later.

Buy this book on Amazon.

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on ZanzibarLate in the 1960s, Brunner briefly felt financially secure enough to embark on some longer, more complex, more daring work. The first fruit of this endeavour was Stand on Zanzibar, which went on to be the first book by a British writer to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, as well as winning the BSFA Award and the French Prix Apollo, it was also a novel that has gone on to be recognised as the finest exemplar of the British new wave. At the time, overpopulation was one of the major political and social concerns across the world. In the early 20th century, one writer had estimated that the entire population of the world could stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the Isle of Wight; and Brunner estimated that in his overcrowded world of the near future (it is actually set in 2010) the world’s population would need a much larger island, Zanzibar. But what is particularly eye-catching about the book is that Brunner modelled his novel on John Dos Passos’s modernist classic, USA, in which narrative sections are broken up by stream of consciousness passages following secondary characters, collage-like descriptions of scenes all around the world, and extracts from newspapers, advertisements and non-fiction books that provide an extraordinarily sense of the reality of this future. It was a technique that Kim Stanley Robinson would also employ in 2312.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The Jagged Orbit

The Jagged OrbitThe second of Brunner’s quartet of major works is perhaps the weakest of them, in part because the structure of exactly 100 chapters and multiple narrative strands is too reminiscent of Stand on Zanzibar. But it still went on to win a BSFA Award and to be shortlisted for a Nebula Award. As with the previous novel, Brunner took a major political tension of the moment and projected it half a century into the future. In this case, the issue at the heart of the novel is racial division, and it is set in 2014 when Brunner foresaw racial tensions breaking into outright warfare. The story concerns a powerful cartel that is encouraging the tensions so they can exploit the situation by selling weapons to both sides.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The Sheep Look Up

The Sheep Look UpThe third of this quartet of novels projecting social and political issues into the future, in this case environmental degradation, is in some ways the most prescient and the most disturbing, though at the time it was not as well received as the others. It went out of print very quickly, and it was only later that it was recognised by writers as diverse as David Brin and William Gibson as one of the most significant environmental novels in science fiction. Like the other novels here, it employs multiple narrative strands and a huge cast of characters as big business controls the American government, leading to unfettered pollution which in turn causes poor health, lack of food, worsening services, and a breakdown of social order. As the government becomes steadily more oppressive, so rioting increases, and environmental activists engage in acts of sabotage and subversion.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The Shockwave Rider

The Shockwave RiderThe final volume in this loose quartet is considered by some to be the best; it is also regarded as one of the key precursor texts of cyberpunk, a frighteningly prescient view of a world controlled by computers. And just as the environmental activists in The Sheep Look Up inspired real world activism, so The Shockwave Rider had real world effects; notably Brunner here came up with the idea of a “computer worm”, something that we now encounter in our actual connected world. Based on ideas first laid out in Alvin Toffler’s Future ShockThe Shockwave Rider describes a dystopian future where power is in the hands of the businesses that control the computers, and society is fragmenting as the need for an ever more flexible workforce encourages rootlessness and those with no access to data are economically disadvantaged. In this world one man uses his ability to generate new IDs to escape from ever-present government surveillance, and so becomes a threat to their control.

Buy this book on Amazon.

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