Phlogiston Forty-Four, 1995
John Brunner died of a stroke on Friday August 25th 1995 at the 53rd World Science Fiction Convention (Intersection) in Glasgow.
He was a prolific writer, mostly of SF though he wrote some thrillers, contemporary novels and poetry. His first novel was published when he was only 17 years old. He was a very productive writer and in the 1950s and 1960s he published a whole string of novels for Ace. Many of these were later re-written and re-published in the 1970s by DAW Books. By and large they were competent and entertaining works (Brunner was never less than competent), but essentially lightweight. However in 1968 he published the first of a series of novels that propelled him to science fiction stardom. Stand on Zanzibar was a stunning dystopian vision of an overpopulated world. The book was told in the style adopted by John Dos Passos for his USA novels and was perfectly suited to the world-wide canvas that Brunner had chosen to paint. It won the Hugo that year, and seldom has an award been more deserved. The book is just as stunning and just as timely today as it was then.
Three further dystopian novels followed, all thematically linked. The Jagged Orbit concerned the medical and industrial complexes of a tightly controlled political future. The Sheep Look Up dealt with the horrors of uncontrolled pollution, and The Shockwave Rider was an astonishingly prescient novel about a computerised world that explored the consequences of a global network. Brunner is generally considered to have been the first to describe (and even name) that very special type of computer program known as a worm. When Robert Morris brought most of the computers in America to their knees by unleashing the internet worm, Brunner was asked what he thought. He felt that Morris had prostituted his knowledge and should be locked up for a long time in total isolation away from contact with any computers at all. "But I want to talk to him first," he added thoughtfully.
The books marked the high point of his career. Though there were many other worthy works (he continued to be quite a prolific writer) none made as much impact as these. Towards the end of his life he became a little bitter about the lack of recognition. He felt that publishers were reluctant to take risks and published only safe, non-controversial works. He felt that as a professional writer he was constrained to "write to order" and that his artistic reputation suffered as a result. Sometimes this caused him to look down on some of his more popular and entertaining works. I feel this was an over-reaction. The novelist Graham Greene divided his books into "novels" and "entertainments" and he valued them both for what they were. Brunner's novels can also be divided between these categories and they deserve to be appreciated for exactly what they are -- superbly crafted works of fiction; some with a sub-text and some without. But it seems to me that all of them are worthy of respect.
Recently Brunner became somewhat reconciled to this point of view and declared his ambition to write and publish the best "light" science fiction of which he was capable. And indeed works such as Muddle Earth and The Tides of Time and The Shift Key are enormous fun. But even in these later stages of his career he produced books that were more than simple entertainments. Both The Crucible of Time which is concerned with a global catastrophe (and which has a cast of characters that contains not one single human being!) and Children of the Thunder which is about drug addiction and the decay of society are works as worthy as anything he was writing in his heyday twenty years ago.
Outside of science fiction, Brunner was a passionate advocate of nuclear disarmament. He was heavily involved with the early days of CND and wrote the so-called national anthem of the British peace movement The H-Bombs Thunder. He even wrote a mainstream novel about the Aldermaston marches (The Days of March) but I sometimes think I am the only person in the world who has read it.
He had a delightful wit and a wicked sense of humour which is seldom seen in his novels -- though Timescoop is a hilarious romp through history culminating in a party in the Grand Canyon. He often indulged his sense of humour in his short stories and his collections (few though they are) are worth searching out because of it. He is also the only person in the entire universe to have written a limerick about the Scottish town of Kirkudbright (pronounced, approximately, K'coo-brih). You try it and see how far you get!
John was possessed of a posh, plummy British accent and a supercilious air which he deliberately cultivated. His public talks could often provoke his audiences to fury as he milked them for all he was worth. He enjoyed this enormously. In private though he was a sensitive, polite and charming man. I shared several drinks and conversations with him at British SF conventions in the early seventies and I enjoyed his company. I am saddened by his death.