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In Which We Remember John Brunner

John Brunner was an incredibly prolific British SF author who will probably be remembered for writing the four classic novels Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider. He was always to be found at British SF conventions, and I came across him several times over the years at this or that convention or other. His books were reasonably popular with the fans, but he himself was cordially disliked, and the convention goers tended to shun him. Not that Brunner seemed to care – he was usually accompanied by some extremely dolly bird or other and he seemed to be very happy with that. Well, who wouldn't be? Perhaps there was an element of jealousy in the reactions of the fans...

Brunner had a supercilious, sneering manner, and in his talks and panel discussions he could usually be relied upon to say something controversial or insulting in his fruity, upper class, glass-etching, incredibly annoying, fingernails-on-a-blackboard accent. He was a master of the arcane art of driving his more sensitive audience members to near apoplexy. Nevertheless he was clearly erudite, witty and knowledgeable. His opinions didn't come out of nowhere, and he was always prepared to back them up. He was alarmingly well read, and something of a linguist as well – he was fluent in both French and German (he translated several novels from those tongues) and he could make himself understood in many other languages. He was once a guest of honour at a Swedish convention. Naturally he read the convention booklet from cover to cover, as one does, and he noticed that some less than flattering things had been said about him in its pages. Perhaps the convention organisers thought that they were quite safe by writing the booklet in Swedish and not providing a translation. Brunner quickly disabused them of that notion...

I had very little to do with John Brunner at British conventions. Like most people, I tended to try and keep out of his way. But we did have a small interaction at one convention when he walked past me dressed in what, for want of a better word, I suppose I ought to call a suit. This was no ordinary suit – it was made of black velvet and it had glittering sequins sewn into the seams. As Brunner strode past me I said, "John, I hate to think what that suit is doing to my eyes!"

He turned round to look at me, his face flushed with anger. His fists were clenched and for one small, scary moment I honestly thought he was going to hit me. He took a deep breath and somehow regained control of himself, then he turned around and walked away.

I will agree that what I said was perhaps a little rude, but his reaction to it was completely inappropriate and quite over the top, though perhaps not untypical. Brunner had a fierce temper which he could, and often did, lose at the drop of a very tiny hat.

When I knew him, he was happily married to Marjorie, who was his business manager as well as his wife. But they considered their marriage to be an open one, which certainly explains the dolly birds that were always hanging on to Brunner's arm. Marjorie herself was also a bit of a sexual predator on the side and, long after both of them were safely dead, much scandalous material about this aspect of their lives was published in Peter Weston's fanzine Prolapse (later retitled Relapse).

In his younger days, Brunner had been an amazingly prolific writer, churning out reasonably high quality stories for Ace books at a phenomenal rate (he claimed that was the only way he could make a living from his writing). In later years he revealed that many of his manuscripts had been seriously cut by the Ace editors in order to make them fit the Ace Double format. Brunner was quite scathing about the editorial changes made by Ace and so in the 1960s he began revising (and in some cases re-writing) many of those Ace stories in order to put them back into their proper shape. These revised stories, which Brunner regarded as the authoritative texts, were published by DAW books, and that was where I first came across them. Sometimes it seemed that there was a new(ish) Brunner novel on the bookshop shelves pretty much every single week or so! I bought them all and, mostly, I enjoyed them all. Ironically, DAW books was owned by Donald A. Wolheim who had once been an editor at Ace books and who had largely been responsible for much of the original trimming down of Brunner's stories in the first place. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut once said about something completely different...

After his four great blockbuster novels were published, Brunner's productivity seemed to slow down a bit. There were longer and longer intervals between the appearances of new novels in the bookshops. There were several reasons for this – one was that he had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and he claimed that the medication he was taking for it made his brain feel foggy and sapped his creativity. At one point it was rumoured that his blood pressure reached a massive 200/120. I myself have been treated for high blood pressure, but the highest mine ever got to was 160/90, which is absolutely nothing compared to what Brunner had to put up with. It also didn't help Brunner's state of mind that around this time his wife Marjorie died. He missed her business acumen a lot, and his always precarious financial situation quickly got very much worse without her guiding hand to point him in the right direction. He also missed her love and her companionship (despite their odd marriage, there was no doubt that they loved each other deeply) and, to quote Marvin the Paranoid Android, he went into a bit of a decline and his depression, in the clinical sense of the word, deepened. It's not really surprising that he was finding it harder and harder to put words down on paper.

Five years after Marjorie died, Brunner married a Chinese national called Li Yi Tan, for no very good reason that anyone who knew him could see. Their fierce arguments were legendary, and that can't have helped either his peace of mind or his creativity. Nevertheless, despite all these problems, Brunner kept on writing, albeit very slowly.

One quite practical reason for his slow rate of production was that he was concentrating on writing a massive historical novel called The Great Steamboat Race, a story about nineteenth century Mississippi steamboats. I heard him talk about this project on several occasions and it was clear that he regarded the book as his magnum opus, the novel he really wanted to be remembered by. He had very high hopes for it and he worked on it for years, polishing and revising it so as to get it just right. Perhaps he revised it too much – when it was eventually published it received very bad reviews. It sold poorly, and it vanished without trace. For Brunner this was a bitter blow.

In an attempt to regain some of his lost creativity, he deliberately stopped taking his blood pressure medication. This certainly helped with his writing in the short term, and he published some excellent stories during this period in his life – novels such as The Crucible of Time, and A Maze of Stars. But ultimately, stopping his medication turned out to have been a poor decision. His blood pressure soared out of control again, and he died of a massive stroke in August 1995. Ironically he was attending the World Science Fiction Convention at the time of his death.

He was only a month away from his 61st birthday when he died. It pains me to think that my own 61st birthday was a great many years ago...


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