Right now, at this moment, as I’m writing this—write now– I find myself on one of the most thrilling intellectual journeys I’ve ever taken, and it began with randomly picking an old, unread book from many on my shelf.
The book forced me to confront many mysteries.
Why did the world ignore John Brunner?
He seemed cocksure of what was ailing mankind, and how to fix it. It was like he knew exactly what was going to happen and why. It seems he was a kind of prophet.
Nobody in power seemed to pay much attention. Though Brunner has his hardcore fans, there aren’t enough of them to make a cultural impact. He’s got considerably more genuine, though less devoted, admirers, but nowhere near enough of either to wield widescale influence. It shouldn’t have been so surprising, even in retrospect. The world has always ignored important, prophetic messages. Yet, there remained an even deeper mystery I found even more perplexing.
Why had I ignored John Brunner?
His were the type of books I generally loved since my mid-teens onward– sophisticated space operas, futuristic philosophical thrillers, hallucinogenic darkly funny social commentaries, filled with unbounded flights of imagination, coupled with eclectic literary experimentation, and served up in a pulpy brew. Over the years, I bought lots of John Brunner books, mostly cheap second-hand copies, sometimes just for the covers from great artists like Richard Powers, Kelly Freas, or Catherine Jeffrey Jones. There are far too many books I buy like that, saving them for some unspecified future when they might hypothetically catch my interest. There were dozens of Brunner’s books accumulating dust on my shelves, or tucked away in boxes, some of them for over half a century. Until a few months ago, every time I started to read any of his books, I would shortly lose interest. His writing seemed too remote, cerebral, too disconnected from reality. An intimidating number of his books were squeezed into the science fiction sections in used book stores. The sheer quantity of his output put me off. I have a bias against writers who were that prolific. I used to look down on Phillip K. Dick for much the same reason, and his amphetamine driven prose didn’t help; but then I’d later spend a full year reading no one else. Phillip K. Dick is one of the reasons I’ll cling to books even after I’ve dismissed the writers.
Around Walpurgis Nacht, 2022, by seeming random chance, I plucked Brunner’s “The Jagged Orbit” off the shelf. It was a whim, or an intuition. The cover was a thing of beauty, done by Leo and Diane Dillon, one of the reasons I kept the book since 1969. Enticing back-cover blurbs from Phillip K. Dick, Robert Bloch, and Thomas M. Disch caught my attention. It was dedicated to “Chip.” Samuel R. Delaney, I guessed– long one of my literary heroes.
The next thing I knew, I was caught up in a book where police and private citizens enjoyed widespread use of military grade weaponry, a cultural shift spurred by the arms industry; where a ballistic gospel of personal salvation based on self-defense was evangelically spread over the airways and door to door; where racial strife was fomented as a marketing technique to promote gun sales– a ploy brilliantly summed up as “They live off the carrion of our mutual distrust and bribe us with symbols that equate hatred with manhood“; where individualism was venerated so highly, society was fractionalizing and factionalizing, separating into literal armed camps; where society was intrinsically chaotic and hostile, and as a consequence, it seemed logical to equate narcissistic self-absorption with good mental health, even though catatonia was epidemic, and even though many patients with these symptoms of “health” were consigned to totalitarian asylums ruled through psycho-pharmacology. Culture wars were waged by tabloid-style gonzo journalists, dubbed “Spoolpigeons” with Joycean gusto
“The Ragged Orbit” seems an appropriate commentary about life in the real 2014, as opposed to the fictitious 2014 Brunner had proposed back in 1969. In 2022, nothing has changed.
It reminded me of an old horror comic book story, “Collector’s Edition”, by Archie Goodwin and Steve Ditko (Creepy #10, from 1966) where the main character steals a magically prophetic book, then turns page after page, until he reaches the point where the events of the beginning of the story are depicted, inevitably leading up to the image of an ax planted firmly in his skull.
On May 4, when I was about halfway through the book, Samuel R. Delaney himself posted a touching remembrance of Brunner on Facebook.
Ten days later, there was a racially fueled mass shooting in Buffalo, NY. It seemed straight out of “The Jagged Orbit.” Brunner had also predicted individuals who randomly go amok, committing wholesale slaughter, coining the term “muckers,” but that was a different book.
Then, out of the blue, my son asked me if I’d ever heard of a book called “Dahlgren”, which he had picked up because of a rock music connection.
This strange series of eerie coincidences were chilling, the kind of message one might associate with the worship of Hermes, which includes finding messages and significance when surprising and obvious links present themselves in seemingly random occurrences. Something mystical seemed to be going on. But Brunner, I think, intended the opposite message.
As I started doing research for this essay, I found several articles focused heavily on Brunner’s prescience. His accurate predictions come across as attention-grabbing stunts, particularly for one who died in 1995. I’m guilty of the same inordinate focus. But the eerily accurate predictions become less fantastical when you view them less as the visions of a magician gazing into a crystal ball, and more as a prognosis made by a physician after thoroughly examining a patient, akin to delivering advice like if you don’t quit smoking and drinking, your heart, lungs, and/or liver will quit these habits for you.
Brunner’s work shows an obsessive/compulsive focus on the influence science and technology wield over culture. The influence has grown more obvious and more significant since Brunner’s time, though anyone could have seen that coming.
Brunner’s predictions are quite astounding, but so are the specific problems he identified, and the advice he offered, which can be summarized simply: approach problems using scientific, well-reasoned, logical approaches; take a holistic view; do it with compassion, and empathy; engage your opponents in ways that promote peace rather than violence; pay attention to the world around you, and ever trust these methods, almost as articles of faith.
This advice makes perfect sense to me, but never mind about that, I’ve got my own weird perspective. I came away feeling profoundly discouraged. Brunner’s mode of giving that advice fits my idea, almost perfectly, of how to effectively transform a culture. Take a vision and a message and imbed it into a new mythology, and serve it up with transcendent excellence. It should have worked, I would think, I guess naïvely, but that’s what dreamers do, and dreaming like this is how imagination gets transformed into the stuff of the material world. The pen is mightier than the sword, they say, they being writers in the comfort of not being at sword-point, but the truth is- pens and swords have been dueling throughout history, and the winner always depends on the arena, and the arena constantly shifts. Brunner’s pen was ungodly powerful, and he should have won. I felt like I had stumbled upon an archeological dig and found superbly crafted tools that would have enabled an extinct civilization to avoid the catastrophe that wiped them out, and wondering why the tools weren’t used. Brunner’s books should have worked as self-preventing prophecies, praised for their literary sophistication, their poetic prose, their towering vaults of imagination, rather than the prophetic stuff that looks like a magic trick. The kind of stuff you can see in retrospect was right, but you wish it hadn’t been.
Maybe Brunner’s simple message is part of the problem, and maybe the way the message was delivered is the other part, and maybe the problem is the messenger.
Robert Silverberg tells us, “[Brunner] was a more than usually complicated man — a prickly perfectionist, sometimes sharp-tongued, always certain of the correctness of the positions he took, generally (though not always) with good reason.”
Brunner work has a strong undercurrent of aristocracy, and an implicit message—everything would be just fine if you do exactly what I say—and pay me for it. That’s what aristocrats do—dole out insights in return for the material rewards that is their birthright anyway. Though extreme wealth is disparaged throughout Brunner’s writing, one gets the idea he has the same attitude as Dorothy Parker when she said, “I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be darling at it.” Brunner must have had plenty of exposure to extreme wealth, for “the family business” was a multi-national corporation, and his great grandfather was Sir John Brunner, first baronet, a self-made industrialist, who later became known as “The Chemical Croesus.”
There are lots of unfavorable reviews of Brunner’s books that conjecture they were only done for the money. Not for the challenge, or for fun, or to bring his message to a wider audience, but for the money. He is charged with prostitution because he charged for his talents. But maybe he brought that on himself, by often and bitterly complaining about his finances. Somehow, it seems, he was shut out of the family business, and relegated to the status of a poor relation. After one of his contemporaries received a well-publicized enormous advance for a yet unwritten book, Brunner wrote an article about the difficulty of earning adequate wages through writing fiction. Observing that his own literary agency represented the other author, Brunner said he was tempted to send a terse note asking what the other author has that he doesn’t have, other than an enormous advance. Instead of sending a terse note privately, Brunner opted to publicly air his grievances, including the names of the literary agency and his personal agent. Some might say that mythmakers are a force that can change a society. Some might say our society’s ills spring from the ever-quickening pace of change wrought by advancing technology, and the failure of the culture to manufacture myths fast enough to keep up. But myths are erupting around us all the time, taking different forms, and specializing at the same pace everything else in the culture is specializing. And some might say the phrase “some might say” is a neat sort of magic trick, establishing credibility for a proposition without having to offer any proof. It is a mystical incantation, as it were, for instantly conjuring a myth. You could prop up the proposition by asserting that it underlies the writings of James Joyce and Joseph Campbell, which would be difficult to disprove, given how much commentary has been written about both authors, both of whom focused on society, culture, stability, and myth, with much of that commentary at odds with itself. Well, that’s the fate of prophets and mythmakers—to be misunderstood, and to create controversy, which is not surprising when dealing with visionaries. At the highest level of transcendence, one inevitably hits mysteries with contradictory answers, and pure paradox, paradoxically like myths themselves, true but not. And you can take the same proposition and fit it with an entirely different brand of credibility by stating it this way: Someday anthropologists will conclusively prove that society fell apart due to its failures to manufacture cohesive mythologies. Expressing it that way gives you a different breed of mythology.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, a new breed of myth-maker was evolving, guided by the illuminated by a technologically fired torch. These visionaries offered the sorts of things religions offered: miracles, predictions, answers! The new myths struggled to find a label—science romance, scientific fiction, scientification. It settled for a self-contradicting label—Science Fiction, sci-fi, or SF.
Brunner delivers an iconic tale of how the visionary torch was ritually passed to him at the tender age of six. He stumbled on a rare Hienemann 1898 first edition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. The book was so inspiring, the infant Brunner drew Martians all over the end-papers, and proceeded to obsessively consume more books in the genre until resolving to make a career of it, even before the age of 17, when he sold his first story. Brunner expressed the hope that his drawings would eventually make the book even more valuable, though he was modest enough to veil this hope as merely “vague”. 
“War of the Worlds” represents a curious cultural artifact, an emblematic representation of Brunner’s career; the Wells novel manifesting over the course of its long publication history as both as hardcover quality literature and disposable pulp– the extremes commonly associated with the SF preferred by the British, and the pulp Sci-Fi preferred by Americans; a tension embedded in Wells’ title itself.
Brunner produced a staggering amount of writing, and all too many reviews of Brunner’s works throw shade in his direction by making him compete against himself, with openers like “Stand on Zanzibar” is Brunner’s very best novel, and this one’s not as good, but… Some accommodation is made for what’s termed the “Club of Rome”, or Brunner’s other high-ranking books, all of which vie for second best: “The Jagged Orbit”, “The Sheep Look Up”, and “The Shockwave Rider”. And then, if pressed, some critics will include nods for “The Whole Man”, or “Traveler in Black” or “Squares of the City” or “Crucible of Time” or “Maze of Stars” or “Victims of the Nova”, or a handful of his short stories.
Now, Brunner had a strange conception of what draws readers to a book. He wrote, “I conceive greatness in art, or indeed in human experience, as what one might call ‘insights’… the authentic frisson… the sense of making a total connection with the universe.”
That seems an extraordinarily rosy view of what readers want, coming from a writer intent on changing the course of society’s direction.
What drives book sales, anyway? What do readers really want? A distraction from reality’s woes? To find a shared experience with someone else who enjoyed the book? To be part of a group, part of a culture? To feel ennobled by the book’s aspirations, especially when it aspires to save the world? (or especially when it panders to humanity (or its vanity) by vainly assigning to it the task of saving the world).
Most readers, I think, cynically, are not looking for the kind of insights that shake up their deeply held beliefs. Maybe they think they are, but the market proves otherwise. Rather, readers look for works that reinforce their world views; They want their world view played off against forces that oppose it, with their world view winning in a gratifying victory, or losing in a stirring tragedy. To the extent most readers look for “insights”, it is through the craft of someone who has found a way to express what they knew in their hearts, but lacked the eloquence to express. It takes friction in fiction, simple conflict, to create frisson; the strong sense of excitement or fear connects readers to the universe.
So, what is it that draws a reader to a particular work? What draws you? How did this essay attract your attention at the outset, and why are you pressing onward through it? Perhaps it was the lure of a tale of thrilling intellectual adventure, as I obliquely teased at the outset of this essay. It’s what I’ve been subjectively getting out of reading John Brunner, and it feels very much like dazzling insight and frisson, though, in truth, the kind of stuff that John Brunner writes has long been exactly the kind of stuff I love, and most of the spectacular things I’ve found while trying to process thousands of pages of his writing have confirmed, eloquently, matters I’d already held as truths. There has been a great deal of augmentation, but not much in the way of reversal of my deeply held beliefs. What he gives me is a great deal of reinforcement, and self-satisfaction. It emotionally reinforced my notion that SF can help to save the world, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
But I like a lot of weird, off-the-beaten-path books.
Frequently, pure selfishness drives my choice in books. When my motivation feels unselfish, it feels more satisfying, though probably I’m still being just as selfish. Take my interest in asking why the world ignored John Brunner. The question was mostly asked for selfish reasons. I mean—and this is personal– I set out to write world transforming works using many of the kinds of approaches, themes, and goals that I found in John Brunner’s work. It speaks to me. Now, when I present my own writing, people give me confused or bored looks I get ignored as a writer. So, I suspected there was some singular, personal lesson to be gained about my own writing from a great writer I consistently ignored most of my life, even though he was right there, all the time, sitting on my bookshelf.
What draws me to a particular book? I ask what’s in it for me? What can I learn that I didn’t know before, what can I artistically copy, and what can I reject? What can I follow, and what can I rebel against? I am looking critically at myself, and inviting you, my reader, to do the same.
When I was an English and Creative Writing major as an undergraduate, I used to see a conflict between the way fiction was treated by the critical theorists and literary academicians, and those working in the Creative Writing Department. The academicians seemed largely inauthentic to me, and I used to deride the whole discipline of Literary Criticism as a means to appropriate other peoples’ words to present your own ideas. My heart was with the artists. But my view of Literary Criticism changed radically when I was in Law School. There, I found that by analyzing fiction, I had learned a great deal about many other unrelated subjects, and the discipline itself had practical applications for becoming an attorney.
If it seems as though I’m skipping around between unrelated subjects, and drawing weird parallels, it might be I’m intoxicated by John Brunner’s works, and copying some of his techniques, and maybe the connections are meaningful, though weird, and I’ll get to that later.
Brunner’s 1974 space opera, “Polymath”, a revised version of “Castaway World”, offers a telling parable about vision and leadership. The protagonist, Lex, is a polymath—a person of wide-ranging knowledge, a term that can mean either a genius or a dilettante, ambiguously meaningful, or demeaning, depending on the context. But the term means something else in the novel: one who has received specialized training and biological enhancement to cope with all challenges that might crop up on a new colony planet. Following a spaceship crash, Lex (whose name means “Law”) doesn’t reveal his polymath status to his companions. He doesn’t want them to look to him for solutions, because he had been preparing for an entirely different planet, and he had yet to complete his training.
The book concludes with the titular hero assuming a leadership role by finding the underlying truths contained in his half-finished specialized training, and applying them to an environment to which they were not intended.
“Those fools have thrown away their last tiny chance, and definitely burdened you with the troubles of a whole new world, haven’t they?… But you’re going to make it; I know you will. You’re going to show us how to live here, and we’re going to have to find ore and make tools and have farms and cities and one day we’re going to send a message back to tell people where we are and they’ll say you’re the most wonderful man who ever lived because you realized we mustn’t found our world’s history on an army, on war, on killing…”
…”But above all, we had to be stopped from deluding ourselves with a false hope. That’s worse than no hope at all… I figured out… what it is that a polymath has to do. He has to be right. Always and without exception. Nothing else is good enough.”
Now, definitely, without a trace of doubt or chance of qualification: home. All they had. Where their children would be born, where they would be buried.
But it’s going to be a good world eventually.
When the term polymath is used in the usual sense, it clearly fits Brunner. It makes the book come across as hubristic. A polymath, who sold his first book at age 17, Brunner tells us, “It’s notorious that a liking for SF goes with a pattern of other interests, some of which many not be very obviously related…”. A genius or a dilettante.
As I plowed into two of Brunner’s lesser regarded novels, Double Double and The Great Steamboat Race, I thought, this guy thinks he can do anything. The first is a frothy book about a shape-shifting monster at a rock and roll beach party, while the second is a complex historical novel set on the Mississippi just after the Civil War.
The opening passage of “Double Double” presents a startling icon of the book itself:
“Coming toward you it looked as though a piano with hydrophobia had suddenly run wild and opened huge bulbous eyes like a frog’s but with enormous thick—somehow sad—lashes. The white and black keyboard of fangs was painted on the radiator grille, the lashes surrounded the headlights. Splaying out along the sides were Art Nouveau curlicues forming frames the size and shape of double crown posters—green, orange, brown, purple, gaudier and more complex than the designs swirling around them. All of them said, somewhere among their fat bulges and curves: BRUNO AND THE HERMETIC TRADITION.
Sitting on the roof, dangling its lax tentacles three to a side and one each to front and rear, was an inflatable rubber octopus that had a tire valve under the middle-left tentacle.”
In the book, Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition is a rock band on tour, but the name also gives delivers another one of Brunner’s eerie prophecies, one involving himself. He invokes Bruno Giordano, a 16th Century polymath and Hermetic occultist who championed Copernicus and espoused cosmologies that included an infinite universe, and life on other worlds. Giordano was burned at the stake for heresy, and is sometimes viewed as a martyr for scientific reasoning. “According to historian Mordechai Feingold, “Both admirers and critics of Giordano Bruno basically agree that he was pompous and arrogant, highly valuing his opinions and showing little patience with anyone who even mildly disagreed with him. …it might have been Bruno’s manner, his language and his self-assertiveness, rather than his ideas” that caused offence.” The Hermetic tradition follows Hermes Trismegistus (thrice great Hermes), a mystical figure merging the Greek God Hermes with the Egyptian God Toth.
Hermes, the guardian of boundaries, lords over remarkable coincidences. And part of the worship of the god Hermes involves looking for signs and significance when coincidences present, the notion that the universe speaks to us through its improbabilities, the biosphere of the planet Earth being a stunning example.
The shape-shifting monster in “Double Double” is a pointed reference to John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story, “Who Goes There”, a classic of Science Fiction adapted to film under the title “The Thing from Another World,” and then twice remade as “The Thing”. According to Alexi and Cory Panshan, this story marks an important turning point in SF by introducing the idea that consciousness, and all life capable of supporting it, obeys laws as universal as those of physics, and can be comprehended by applying scientific method and logic. It is a theme Brunner would return to again and again.
One could view “Double Double” as an attempt to infuse an iconic historical figure and ancient myth into the contemporary consciousness, an injection, as it were, using grade Z cheapie movies like “The Beach Girls and the Monster” as a cultural syringe. Weird as it might sound, that kind of approach could have been better at actually bringing about widescale change than something as heavy as “Stand on Zanzibar”. Of course, it could have been, but wasn’t, and yet it still seems fairly ambitious and sophisticated for something so frothy on the surface.
Bruno and Brunner are names that both have high German origins, though truth be told, despite the similarity in sound, the roots are different. I wish I could make more of it, but if it offers any messages at all, it’s not to read overmuch into something otherwise unremarkable and superficial.
The opening sequence of “The Great Steamboat Race” reveals a veteran writer at the height of his powers preparing to show off. He seems to be announcing to the reader, I can do it all—I can do James Michener, or Robert Graves, or Mark Twain, or Herman Melville, or Margaret Mitchell! Take this, John Jakes!
The book is off to a rousing suspenseful start as a steamship called the Nonpareil (without equal), piloted by Miles Parbury (measured distances bury any equals) braves enemy cannon fire in a fog. Parbury, cursed with a stammer, hates having to put into words that which he intuitively knows and understands. Ordered to go against his best instincts, Parbury becomes tongue-tied, unable to articulate compelling reasons to resist the orders given to him by a military commander. The chapter ends in disaster; the steamboat is destroyed and Parbury is blinded. Brunner seems to say, in the subtext, I can do anything, and this is how I do “humility”, with a nod to Sophocles.
And this sequence seems emblematic of the book itself, for it was blasted to bits in the market, and, according to Robert Silverberg, it was this book that began Brunner’s long, slow, tragic decline as a writer. Silverberg’s essay, “Roger and John”, is an utterly heartbreaking summation of Brunner’s final decade.
“The Whole Man” features a merger of the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres. It uses the concept of telepathy to thrust the reader into the realm of ideas and dreams, and then concludes with a bizarre and remarkable concept of how dreams and ideas can manifest into the material world. Two men link telepathically in a way that allows one to copy aspects of the cerebral architecture of the other’s brain through thoughts alone, with an experiment that might cause in corrections to the other physical deformities. The final result isn’t revealed.
In 1964, when the book first appeared in its final form, there was only way to scientifically justify the ending. One had to leapfrog Jean-Baptist Lemarck over Charles Darwin with the proposition that acquired traits could be inheritable, though at this time, Lemarck had generally been discredited.
And yet we have the curious case of the midwife toad, which has all the makings of a myth itself, involving mysterious goings on, amphibian sex, suicide, and a title worthy of Conan Doyle.
In 1926, a biologist named Paul Kammerer won acclaim for a series of experiments that seemed to validate Lemarck’s theories. Nuptial pads, rough dark thick patches of skin are ordinarily absent on midwife toads. Kammerer’s famous experiments altered the environment of lab specimens, and found the pads appeared, and then passed onto the next generation. But then, Kammerer was accused of faking the results by injecting ink into his toads. He denied the charge. None the less, he killed himself, which most of his peers took as validation of the accusation of fraud.
In the intervening decades, new theories and subsequent experiments now suggest that Kammerer may have falsely accused of falsifying results. The change in environment could have triggered older dormant genes to bring about a manifested change that passes on to following generations that live in the altered environment. A fiction in the laboratory revealed the truth, perhaps. I’m not equipped to draw a final conclusion about the inheritability of acquired traits. I get most of my science the same place Brunner got his.
But still, the case of the fraud that might be true, or not, presents as a parable itself. Survival of the fittest often depends on the way species interpret lies presented in the wild. Like whether the snake that has the markings of a viper is truly poisonous or a clever imposter.
Coincidently, Kammerer was a polymath, an accomplished musician and composer as well as a biologist. Coincidentally, as well, one of Kammerer’s other passions was examining coincidences. He postulated that events are linked through waves of seriality. Seriality—the word itself resonates with magical implications, at least in English, yielding a pun as Seer Reality, and morphing poetically into See Reality.
Albert Einstein called the idea of seriality “interesting, and by no means absurd,” though that’s hardly what anyone would call a glowing endorsement. Carl Jung drew upon Kammerer’s work in his essay “Synchronicity.”
John Townley and Robert Schmitt summarized Kammerer’s concept of seriality: “Kammerer calls this quality persistence, the application of physical inertia at the systems level. The inertial quality increases the longer the system stays together, as the environment adapts to it and tends to sustain it from without as well as within. Every part of the system over time through this process, from the densest physical parts right up to the lightest informational parts. When the system finally does break apart, for whatever reason, the pieces travel on along their own paths, carrying with them the stylistic, spatial and electoral hallmarks of the experience. Although the visible whole is gone, it lives on its separates pieces which no longer appear to have anything to do with it, but which continue to evolve and form their own systems. The original has, in face, not died, by simply passed from the bandwidth where we can recognize it and has become part of the background environment. As in the case of fractals, self-similar parts of the original whole have been formed but at a size or place where we cannot see it. Never the less, the parts continue to evolve and they themselves break up and reform until one day some of them run into each other, again and surface—often in several different places at the same time, frame and vectors are involved—and suddenly, an unexplained coincidence arises…”
Kammerer organized varieties of coincidence in a way that drew upon his training as a biologist. Because the actions he describes take place in realms not visible to humanity, he can’t provide any proof, and he can’t offer any predictable results, so that his theories come across as pseudo-science, but dressed in the formal attire of Zoology, so it looks very much like hard Science Fiction. And yet, the above description of seriality also looks very much like biological truths discovered long after 1919, when Kammerer’s essay first appeared. It calls to mind the science behind cloning, the way each cell of a complex organism contains enough genetic information to duplicate the whole, and the way the individual organism contains information about the environment that gave rise to it, with the genetic information at the cellular level and the totality of the organism and its environment constantly infusing and spreading up and down the food chain all the way down to the microscopic, and perhaps even the subatomic levels.
While Carl Jung was exploring his complementary concept of Synchronicity, he recruited the aid of physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who stirred in a heady dose of quantum entanglement, only a theory back then, but since verified, coincidentally, by scientists who were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics on the day I was typing this section of this essay. And yet, seriality and synchronicity still look like hard Science Fiction, because the whole synchronistic mix of psychology and physics still isn’t provable, and still defies reproducible results.
Seriality and Synchronicity might theoretically yield up predictable results if we could only see the totality of the circumstances behind coincidences. In “Stand on Zanzibar”, Brunner wrote, “Coincidence means you weren’t paying attention to the other half of what’s going on.”
Quantum Entanglement, at a glance, looks very much to me like seriality on a subatomic level, though I can’t really engage it with anything even remotely resembling understanding. My summary of Synchronicity is necessarily a distortion, because of the need for brevity. And maybe the essence has been slightly changed.
I can tell you, from personal experience, the truth that surrounds phrases like quantum entanglement, synchronicity, and other lofty phrases like it, particularly when attributed to august authorities, like the legendary Carl Jung, or Nobel Prize laureates. Look what I’m doing in this essay, stringing together many concepts that have nothing to do with John Brunner or his books, or are only tangentially related because I found connections that appealed to me, and I’ve presented them under a label that invokes John Brunner’s authority, They work like post-hypnotic triggers, setting off a wide variety of associations. For most people, the word “quantum” induces a haze of meaning, a cypher, the zero bit in binary code; a blind acceptance of the incomprehensible under the rubric of science, or a bored indifference; while for others with right experience, it opens windows into complexity, depth upon depth, into profound insight in a way that connects them to the universe.
The summary of seriality above looks exactly like the structure of a common law legal system. You look at the facts and circumstances in an individual legal case, and you have to analyze it as a remarkable coincidence, or not, the repeating of an event, or not, in order to find its full meaning, which is the correct “law” to apply, i.e., the legal result. It is a tool for finding truth not unlike the worship of Hermes.
And what I’ve seen, personally, in complex situations involving legal and medical controversies, is that people bandy about jargon, technical terms and canned phrases without fully understanding them, stringing them together in ways that superficially appear organized, or jury rigged with rhetorical architecture, but in full of gaps and misconstructions, or riddled with mistakes. Legal phrases like “mens rea, res ipsa loquitor” and “hearsay”, when invoked in legal arguments, carry the imprints of cases they’ve previously been through, chimerically shifting in meaning through presentations of opposing sides, their realities moving through a fog of contradictions. The lawyers using these phrases invoke authorities whose expertise is widely recognized, and greater than their own. The judges evaluating the arguments may not always follow the chains of logic that string the legal terms together. The outcome is frequently unpredictable. And yet, somehow, the legal system arrives at results that generally appear correct. The results ring of truth, a prediction that determines the fate of the parties. It looks like brilliance, but it was luck. It was fortuitous. It was a coincidence. Or perhaps it was actual insight after all, for having arrived at results through matters that lie beyond the bandwidth of human perception. Or as series of hallucinations. A dream.
The imperatives of brevity cause distortions, as do the invocation of technical terms and jargon that catch attention like linguistic baubles, and the kind of excess, and over-generalization, that I’ve indulged here happens all the time in business, journalism, law, science— in everything, everywhere. Conversations have to be condensed and passed on through layers of bureaucracy, or complicated concepts have to be simplified, so that they can be presented in a form that is useful. It’s constant, and always has been, but it’s becoming more obvious as the volume of available information increases. The distortions and mistakes repeat, are preserved, and proliferate. They are like mutations of data.
Information isn’t just growing. It is mutating.
You can see much of the same sort of exploration, blind groping, bullshitting, posturing, argumentation, and illusory and/or compelling conclusions earnestly at odds with themselves in this essay. Throughout this essay, I provide quotations about complex ideas, provide commentary, put them in new contexts under different organizing principles, which surely creates all kinds of unintended distortions and mistakes. Do I actually know what I’m doing, or am I just experimenting?
Legal terms work something like mantras. The word “mantra” has interesting roots. It originally means “mind tool”, though it is most commonly associated with religious practices, and continual repetitions, which can be a simple as a single word said over and over again, or it can be as intricate as an entire religion with many repeating special recitations, enough to cover every single every aspect of living, the same set or series applied again and again over every single day, every single week, every single year, and throughout succeeding generations. The very act of continual repetition alters brain chemistry, and levels of consciousness. If a new circumstance arises, there are repeating formulas for selecting the correct repeating terms, or inventing new terms and new formulas to be repeated. The same continual repetition endows the terms and formulas with special significance and weight, and then has the opposite effect, as it becomes rote, boring, and meaningless.
If we view the case of the midwife toad as a work of science fiction, it could serve as a parable of the way cultures change according to circumstances, reactivating dormant genes, or revitalizing discarded ideas. We see it in the way Kammerer is being reevaluated, transforming from a fraud to visionary. We see it in the way John Brunner is currently being critically reconsidered. The quality that was discarded becomes needed again. The old stuff seems new.
Now, here, I have a confession to make. When I finished reading “The Whole Man”, it triggered a dim recollection that there had been a notorious case of scientific fraud, though I couldn’t remember much else about it, so I did further research and was reminded about the infamous case of the midwife toad. The connections that followed seemed remarkable. And yet when I was reviewing my drafts of this essay, reevaluating what I had written, I realized that the transformed traits which might be acquired by the protagonist of “The Whole Man” were never stated as being actually inheritable. And the transformation proposed in the book might not even work, not even in its fantasy context. I had added something that wasn’t explicitly stated, and could only be implied with a stretch of the imagination. It was probably an erroneous reading on my part. You might say that my experimental essay on a writer of experimental fiction had at least one major misunderstanding. But I haven’t changed it, or tried to amend it, because it demonstrates the way a misunderstanding can set off a weird chain of associations to create a design, to effect a result; a misunderstanding that can promote understanding.
In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute closes his entry on Brunner with: “His life and works deserve full-length study for his role as a significant monitory voice in the West’s increasingly urgent debate about humanity’s condition as the twentieth century drew to a close.”
Jad Smith’s superb “Modern Masters of Science Fiction—John Brunner” is a major contribution toward that end. It is an extraordinary achievement, a remarkable resource.
After months of my own deep dive into Brunner’s works, I find Clute’s sentiment compelling, but with an ironic reservation. It is a bias of the legal training, to consider the flip side of any assertion, and to hedge, dodge, and seek exceptions.
Here, I’m caught between conflicting priorities. I’ve always held to an orthodoxy that artistic works should stand or fall on their own merits, separate and distinct from the biographical details or moral attributes of their creators. At the same time, I’m roused by narratives about the lives of artists, often moved, even to tears by their struggles, their sacrifices, their glories and martyrdoms for the sake of their sacred, transcendent pursuits; the way their biographies provide the stuff of myths and legends separate from the creations of the original artists. Even now, I’m injecting myself into is essay. And my personal details are of consequence to the points I’m trying to make; they have much to do with the meaning and structure of this essay, even though it looks very much like the accusations I used to hurl at literary criticism when I was a proverbial college sophomore—using other people’s works to promote your own ideas.
I can’t bring myself to ignore the way a series of coincidences began with a book randomly pulled off a crowded shelf and then led me to a work about the science of coincidence.
When I was a college sophomore, there were waves of seriality at work in my life that didn’t collide until now. Theories about science and myths shaping culture swirled around the campus. Joseph Campbell was teaching at Princeton at that time, as was Thomas Kuhn, whose 1962 book, “The Principles of Scientific Revolution” exerted an enormous influence on the way science is regarded from a philosophical and social perspective. Kuhn’s work is complex, and extraordinarily influential, but not without controversy. To summarize it for purposes of this essay requires a great deal of pithy oversimplification, which, admittedly, will cause distortions. Kuhn discussed the role of paradigms in the history of science, or standards, perspectives, and an idea or set of ideas that go through stages of development, acceptance, reevaluation, rejection, and transformation. To oversimplify, a paradigm is a generalization. And you know what they say about generalizations? None of them are worth a damn, including this one. But in general, generalizations can’t be avoided, because it is impossible to make any decision or take any action if you are forced to consider all possible exceptions that might hypothetically come into play. After a while, the exceptions you’ve been avoiding start to add up, and cause problems. You make adjustments to the generalization, and maybe that buys you some time. Generalizations generally have biases built into them. Correcting the biases generally leads to biases in the opposite direction, which is why today’s solutions generally turn into tomorrow’s problems. Eventually, you reach the point where the whole thing falls apart, and you have a new generalization that generally works. So, science shifted from being viewed as a linear process that would eventually reveal a complete and self-contained explanation of the Universe, something like a religion, to science being viewed as a series of paradigms falling in and out fashion, like artistic or business fads,
Although I never studied personally under Campbell or Kuhn, I was very much aware of their presence at Princeton University, their concepts resounding through various, seemingly unrelated departments, and among my peers.
Coincidence? Or perhaps there’s a more scientific explanation. It is mere apophenia, the seeing of connections where none exist– the bias that drives humanity to see gods and heroes in the night sky by linking up points of light scattered over infinite depths.
I kept reading more and more of Brunner’s works, as if they might provide an answer. It was becoming an obsession. Were messages being delivered through all the coincidences I seemed to be discovering. Or did the message lie in the chaos, the disastrous mess, a series of mistakes and illusions– the quicksand in which I was sinking.
Brunner picked his novel “Quicksand” as his personal favorite. It tells the story of a beautiful, fantastically strong (though oddly short) woman who appears naked out of nowhere, fortuitously not far from a psychiatric facility, where she is promptly committed due to being culturally naive, and spouting an unknown language. She develops an intense relationship with her treating psychiatrist, which becomes erotic, if not romantic. The plot then devolves into a series of ambiguities as the psychiatrist’s life falls apart in consequence of obsessions concerning his patient. The plot progresses by continually upending the readers’ expectations, not entirely unlike the Socratic method used to train lawyers. Psychiatry is turned inside out as a science, with the physician going mad. The patient might be from an alternate dimension, or from the future. Her world might be a totalitarian hell, or a utopian paradise. Or she might have been an escaped psychiatric patient, a foreigner, lost in delusions. In the end, the psychiatrist draws his own conclusions. He thinks he can see, very clearly, the terrible things that lie in store for humanity. He knows what’s coming, and he knows how to prevent it. He can save the world, but despairs so profoundly at his own circumstances, he won’t. Instead, he decides to commit murder/suicide. Inside his mind, in the end, he screams so loudly the entire world can hear it—“So I don’t care, damn you. I don’t care.”
It seems Brunner was continually torn between extremes of optimism and pessimism. Consider this bellow of unabashed authorial confidence, followed by a wail of despair:
…“I will lecture you on the habits of animals. Nobody will listen to me if they are not obliged to, so I oblige you, do you understand? No nonsense. … the best-known habit of the ostrich is to bury its head in the sand and refuse to face facts. This is common to politicians also. And others! … Whitewashing your windows won’t help any more than sticking your heads into the buckets of sand you’re supposed to keep ready to put out fires with!”
This is from an excerpt from “Manalive”, collected in a 1976 anthology, and described as an unpublished novel. “It still is.” Brunner added, “I wish I didn’t sometimes think it is the best book I’ve ever written”.
“Quicksand” is a bleak book for the author to ultimately pick as his personal favorite. But we get a polar opposite view in “The Dreaming Earth”, from 1963. There, a hallucinogenic drug transports its users to an actual utopia. The book contains a detailed theory involving brain chemistry and the way the individual mind transforms inner and outer experience, a neurochemical resolution to the old materialism vs idealism debate. The novel itself could be seen as a hopeful parable about the transformative powers of SF, given the way Brunner compared the writing experience to an addiction, one that combines a simultaneous experience of living and dreaming:
“Many, perhaps most writers, never stop working; everything they do from breakfast to bedtime, everything they read, from advertisements to poetry, gets mortared into the foundations of their subsequent output. Isaac Asimov wasn’t joking when he said that writing has the characteristics of an addictive drug. Once hooked on it properly, your life revolves it the same way a junkie’s revolves around the next fix. It can be physically unpleasant to be deprived of the opportunity to write. (Believe me).”
The message of “The Dreaming Earth” is reiterated in “Bedlam Planet.” There, a group of humans crash on a new planet with no hope of escape. They must adapt to a new and alien environment or die. Their bodies undergo adaptive transformations, teetering between disaster and reorganization. During this period of uncertainty, they hallucinate, and find themselves emersed in ancient myths, each dredged up from ancestral genetic memories. Great shades of the midwife toad! The novel is interspersed with verses from “Tom of Bedlam”, a British folksong about madness full of comical and terrifying nonsense. These dreams transition the stranded humans physically and mentally to a new reality. The culture they form has a bedrock of ancient Earthly myths fused into a monomyth, which is the novel itself.
The structure recalls “Quicksand” where neither of the alternate futures has any actuality outside of the book, and it is kind of funny in the way Brunner, unlike that novel’s psychiatrist protagonist, isn’t obliterating his message with death, rather Brunner is screaming it in the way he knows best. The fate of mankind is locked in the book like Schrodinger’s cat in its box of simultaneous life and death, a dark and morbid metaphor that began as a joke and had become a cultural icon.
Every science fiction fan knows the answer to life, the universe and everything. It’s funny how the notion that science fiction might provide an all-encompassing answer became its own culturally rooted truth, planted in a joke.
I got into a debate once with you, the reader, over the notion that American culture, through the apparatus of the its legal system, takes the position that anything can be true, provided it is presented in the right context. The truth of this proposition is embedded in the pervasive value of First Amendment Free Speech and Freedom of Religion. And I took it a step further, saying that this reflects the actual nature of reality—itself a deeply ambiguous word.
And I gave the example of the infamous “42” as the universal answer to the universal question. But you, the reader, raised an instant protest, saying I had pulled a trick of sophistry, and if it represented the truth, then anyone could create a complete fiction to serve as the context, and therefore invent any reality. To which I gave a typical lawyer’s answer—well, yes and no.
For starters, creating a complete fiction is much harder than it sounds. Take my word for it.
A piece of fiction can transform a culture, some say, and some cling to it as an article of faith. It can become a reality within a specific culture. Like I said, truth depends on context, and anything can be true in the right context.
And you, my reader, may be thinking you never raised such a protest, and if that’s the case, then it’s the wrong context for being true. But there are readers out there who did protest exactly the way I described above, even if I invented them.
Artistically created fictions aren’t the only way to create a cultural truth. One could pass a law to promulgate a proposition. It could be established that 42 will be the legally correct answer to the universal question of life, the universe and everything. It sounds preposterous, but the American tax code is riddled with many mathematical conjurations that are just as bad. And you could take it a step further. The entire world banking system is cultural truth that collapses if you remove its supporting legal architecture.
Or you could create a cultural truth by embedding a proposition in a religion. Many sacred truths are blasphemies to other religions. Or you could create a cultural truth by promulgating a myth.
Art, religions, myths and laws have been instrumental in transforming cultures, often blending into one another in the ethereal realms ruled by ideas. Science and technology have done likewise, but in the realms ruled by matter and energy. So, it seems easy enough to imagine that SF might work a fusion of these culture changing forces. It seems SF could channel them into saving the world.
You might view art, law, religion, science and technology as being intellectual tools that all ultimately lead to the same final destination—an all-encompassing transcendent truth whose essence is paradox, which is why it is funny, and not.
It isn’t surprising that many who experience transcendence, or frisson, or the ethereal thrills immersed in mystery, those who glimpse the ultimate paradoxical truths that lie beyond ordinary experience end up intoxicated by the revelation. They confuse the path with its destination. They think the path they took gives them a monopoly on how to get to the “truth”. This illusion of a monopoly on truth tends to be enforced by cultures and subcultures that spring up along the path. The truth is, the paths to the ultimate paradoxical truth all blend and unify, and yet remain separate. Consider Art, or the lies that reveal truths. Or Law, the lie that creates the truth. Or religion, the revelation of an ultimate consciousness so far beyond human comprehension, it can be said to both exist and not exist.
In “The City Beyond the Hill”, Alexis and Cory Panshin talk about transcendence in terms very close to the way Brunner describes frisson: an ethereal thrill, a confrontation with impenetrable mystery. He posited that SF provides a balance between mystery and plausibility.
In Brunner’s novel, “Manshape” (a revised version of “Endless Shadow”), he confronts the mystery of how SF could plausibly transcend even paradox by descending into it, reveling in it, and exploiting it to escape it, and reach an objective, a reality that isn’t subjective– a specifically desired result.
In “Manshape”, humanity is spread over countless worlds, all linked by an intricate cosmic bridge. The portals to the bridge have been constructed to simulate sites stretching across lightyears, a satiric comment on the ways the rituals of modern tourism let you travel all over the world and stay in the same place. The title comes from the “Proteus” chapter of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Paradoxically, Proteus is a classical shapeshifter, but the term “manshape” in the novel is used to denote cultural uniformity throughout the linked colonies of Earth. One human settlement, the world of Azrael, declines to conform to manshape, and rejects the bridge that would connect it to the rest of humanity. The protagonist here is a Pantologist, a student of everything, more or less a close approximation of the polymath protagonist of “Polymath”, for both protagonists have the same requirement to always be right.
The pantologist is charged with the task of convincing the people of Azrael to connect with the rest of their race. Humanity wants to embrace its lost brethren; despite the fact they’ve named their planet after the Angel of Death.
The planet’s culture has an elaborate ritual that involves handling venomous snakes, combining religious and legal aspects. But sometimes the ritual is rigged, using ringer vipers. The ritual then mimics what happens in nature, where snakes mutate their coloring to copy the markings of their deadlier brethren, and the survival of predators and prey depend on being right about which ones are genuinely poisonous.
In what looks like a shot aimed in the direction of a certain segment of SF fan culture, Brunner tells us, “Azrael had been settled by a dissident group of so-called libertarians, whose dream had soured under the impact of alien climate, alien disease, and alien predators, so that their attitude reversed abruptly, and they abandoned their belief in the perfection of the individual in favor of a naïve distortion of the survival of the fittest.”
As the plot unfolds, Brunner plays logic games with himself. Brunner has a bias for constructing parables in which scientific method shows the way to do the right thing. Here, the pantologist, charged with always being right, achieves his goal by accepting being wrong, a validation of scientific method, which includes experimentation. One of the goals of science is to provide predictable results, but the universe is constructed on a foundation of ultimate paradox, with new circumstances always arising out of the same old stuff in new yet eternal ways, making the cosmos a perfect machine for generating random results. In the end of the novel, the culture of Azrael accepts the awful unpredictability of life, finding meaning in the confusing mess, resolving to live in the face of it, and because of it, finding a purpose for life, which is to find the purpose of life.
In “The Crucible of Time”, Brunner crafts a new vehicle for elevating Science as the correct approach for responding to the moment-to-moment challenges of surviving in an uncertain universe. The protagonists are alien creatures called “the Folk” with non-human sensory systems, though they communicate in a very human language, not unlike what you’d expect to hear from an Englishman living in America.
The lesson here is the universe has an actual, eternal nature, objectively verifiable, no matter what tools you use to analyze it, and no matter what culture apprehends it. The real stuff, the truth, is out there, and keep looking at it, keep looking for it, and keep trying to understand it in a practical way.
Brunner uses the complete otherness of his protagonist race as a medium to abstract the nature of consciousness and fictitiously examine the ancient rift between materialism and idealism. The Folk sometimes lapse into an altered state of consciousness called “dreamness”, kind of a deep neurological separation from the material world, an elevation of the ideal into an ideology. Dreamness is treated as a form of revelation in parts of the culture, as opposed to the followers of a visionary named Jing, who promulgated a materialist gospel, spread by his followers known as the Jingfired, who conform to the essential values urged throughout Brunner’s works: use scientific, well-reasoned, logical approaches, take a holistic view, and do it with compassion, and empathy, engage your opponents in ways that promote peace rather than violence; pay attention to the world around you, and ever trust these methods, almost as articles of faith..
As with many Brunner works, the villains here are analogous to organized religions and their adherents.
One of the worshippers of the dreamness state tells us:
“You and those like you want to deny life. But we affirm it. We share the fiery joy of existence near the sun. We enjoy the frozen beauty of giant worlds. We know what it means to be weighted down gravity a score-fold, and not to care, because we borrow bodies suited to it. From searing heat to bitter cold, we transcend the plain dull world of every day, and eventually we shall perceive the universe. When our task is done, no one will care if this pretty planet is destroyed. The destiny of the body is to rot… the destiny of the mind is glorious.”
It is the inverse of the despairing indifference at the end of “Quicksand”, with a jab at those who would turn away from the urgent matters facing this world in favor of eternal satisfaction in the next. But this passage also looks very much like a brutal satire of those who would treat SF as a religion. It’s funny if you take it that way, almost laugh-out-loud funny, if you have a dark sense of humor, but also heartbreaking. Consider how deeply Brunner’s being was intwined with SF Culture; it was his passion, his livelihood, a kind of brotherhood, a kind of family, and there were legends in that family, heroes and giants of the field. SF was his life, and death. SF was his truth– his religion, and one gets the sense, here, Brunner was going through the SF equivalent of the dark night of the soul.
“The Crucible of Time” is a tough read, but one that captures, in a rush of frisson, the passage of time, the growth and decline of cultures, the transformation of the material world into myth, and then back again, with myths offering material salvation of the world. In many ways, the experience reminded me of G.I. Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” which I had the misfortune to encounter at the age of 17. It is another philosophical science fiction novel (sort of) written in arduous prose deliberately made dense and obscure, full of invented jargon. I kept reading it, page after page, even though there were 1,200 of them, and all the while, I had very little notion of what was going on. What I found, at the end of it, was that something of its essence has been instilled in me—a propensity for parables that are jests, or profound insights, or utter nonsense, or a con. I’ve always had a high tolerance for confusion when I read. That’s part of the way I was able to survive Law School. In the Twenty First Century, it is almost a necessary coping mechanism. It helps me push myself when confronted by minds much smarter than my own. But my tolerance for confusion also makes my writing confusing, often because I’ve pushed myself too far. Have I lost you yet?
This whole business of trying to push my mind beyond what it can normally process—what ends up happening is every now and then, I hit the ragged boundaries of endurance. I confront the infinite void of vastly too much information to ever process, to ever understand. And then it all comes together in a glorious rush of frisson—or insight—a glimpse of infinity. I understand it all—or imagine I do. But the understanding only lasts for an instant. I dream, then wake, then I dream of trying to find again what I fleetingly saw. I try to express it in language, though it is a medium ill-suited for the task. I get it. In a flash. The detail as part of a grand design, the detail as the design itself. One instant it presents as immaculate order, the next instant it dissolves into nothingness. God, I dream, then wake, then try to recapture the dream.
All along the way, during my literary journey of the past months, there have been junctures where I feel I’ve been absorbed into Brunner’s dreams, or he’s been absorbed into mine, and I think I’ve gotten it, whatever it was he was getting at. A tsunami of waves of seriality breaking on the shores. And then I’ll realize how little I’ve gotten, and I’ll feel like I’m drowning. At this point, I’ve gone through about 3,500 pages of his writing, but there’s at least another 2,500 unread pages still sitting on the shelf. Each of his books seems to offer something new. What insights reside within those unread pages? How much have I missed in the books I’ve already read—not only what I’ve missed between the covers, but also what I’ve missed in the many alternate directions where the content points. I have the insight, and it feels like I’ve grabbed hold of everything. But what do I know? What do I really know? Nothing. It’s gone, and the journey to find it again looks it would take longer than a lifetime. And then there’s the not inconsiderable issue of the fact that there are others writers out there demanding my attention. And then there’s my own writing, for I still have much to say, outside of this essay. And then there’s the important matter of shaking off the dream, and living a life apart from the hallucinatory illusions that flow from reading and writing.
I’ve been wandering around in another man’s dreams, another man’s life, and picking up glimpses of it, an experience of visiting a mind vastly superior to my own, setting down fragments and manufactured condensations, distorted generalizations, like a tourist taking snap shots. I’ll have this essay to go back and review, a souvenir of my journey. Like a tourist, I might even be brought back to the experience of travel by going through the snapshots. And now I’m trying to show off my snapshots in the hope of sharing the experience. Has this essay been something like looking at photos of someone else’s vacation?
Even if I can’t grasp the full message, I can identify with what John Brunner was doing with his fiction—exploring the boundaries between the dream and the waking, and trying to nail it down into the semi-tangible stuff of language and art and poetry. I’ve been there, tried that. I failed, but on a far smaller scale. My art has been praised, reviled, and ignored. I’ve fallen from much smaller heights. I can say I’ve been there, sort of, the voice of experience of a lifetime spent in pursuit of artistic creation. In these days of massive sharing of misinformation, the testimony of a single witness with personal experience can be as trustworthy as the word of someone presenting themselves with supposedly authoritative information that comes from unidentified sources. There’s something more believable about someone speaking from experience. Trust me. But I only possess a fragment, and I’m passing on a smaller fragment. How much of the whole man does the fragment contain?
Brunner was forced to continually experiment, to keep trying new things because whatever he churned out would work for a little bit, and he’d earn a little bit, but not quite enough. He was selling millions of books, but his work was falling out of print, earning him nothing. His health was failing, his talent diminishing, and he had to keep going, to make a buck. He was trying to survive.
God, what a dream, actually earning a living off of one’s dreams. God, what a nightmare.
Brunner’s early horror novel, “The Atlantic Abomination”, was written as a critique of H.P. Lovecraft. Whereas Lovecraft channeled the experience of Gnostic revelation to depict a spiritual experience of science as existential terror, Brunner shows the flip side– a gargantuan Cthulhu, a monster as the personification of religious reasoning.
In “Interstellar Empire”, there is another version of religious revelation as an experience of horror:
“It was as though the temple had grown larger, the walls receding into a misty distance and beginning to glow. With a shock, a sense of perspective overtook him. Those walls were the very bounds of the universe, and the faint glow was the light of stars—countless in number, inconceivably faraway.
Then there was a pause which had the still quality of eternity. Nothing moved, nothing changed.
Seeping in, the, like water oozing thought a porous rock, came a sense of presence. Personality. Consciousness.
Somewhere in this monstrous emptiness, perhaps as far off as the dim stars, perhaps father, a being had come into existence to show the mind the gap between galaxies was no more than a single stride. As though drawn by a magnet, Spartak’s dissociated awareness began to eon-long plunge through nowhere to find it and pay his homage….
The presence was aware of everything, from the least bacterium to the pattern of those vanishing galaxies; had sounded and plumbed the farthest void and weighed and measured the nucleons of the atom. I “said” so, and what petty human could contradict such a declaration.
For it knew all human history and felt contempt.”
In “A Maze of Stars,” Brunner delivers an extraordinary SF version of Gnostic revelation that goes even further. There, Brunner taxes his imaginative powers to place himself into a composite consciousness that combines mechanical and cross-species biological awareness. The protagonist is a giant sentient spaceship that seeded the distant stars with human life, and periodically returns to visit and assess the products it has wrought.
Jad Smith describes the ship realizing its actual nature:
“as it completes the final stage of its sweep, the lost place it never remembers… It is a cloned consciousness comprised of machine, nonhuman, and human intelligences locked together in a cybernetic system… derived primarily from an intelligent squid that evolved in the depths of the ocean of Earth, adapted to isolated, endless motion. This part of the Ship controls a substrate of machine intelligence but remains subject to a super ego of sorts, several cloned human personalities that have at this point merged into a hive mind. The interplay of conscious and unconscious element in the Ship’s awareness creates a kind of feedback loop that causes it to add up more than the sum of its parts—to a developing individual—but on a level that also makes the Ship a slave, a conscious being “without liberty of action.” As tragic a figure as the Wandering Jew, the Ship labors forever in obscurity, a relic of the past and the only one of its kind. However, it is a transcendent mind, unique and wise, and as readers learn earlier in the book, it harbors deep within a feeling akin to hope or optimism…”
Along its journey, the Ship brings about human passengers, and briefly forms interactive relationships before sending them on their way, usually to some form of doom. This personification of all forms of consciousness linked inextricably presents an imagined microcosm of how the Universe might internally process its vast information, and the novel becomes a parable of how portions might be shared with the human race. It looks like SF as a mode of spiritual inquiry, a questing for deity in the void. It also brings to mind Kammerer again, and waves of seriality to produce an improbability as remarkable as life itself. A chaotic jumble of sensory information swirls through conflicting channels, with receptors only partly able to communicate with one another, unable to fully reach individual understanding because of their vastly different natures and resources as they struggle to string together the stuff that pours in from the world in ways that superficially appear organized. They end up with a result jury-rigged through synapses and circuitry, but in ways that are full of gaps and misconstructions, or riddled with mistakes. The impulses of light, sound waves, or electrical current or chemical action carry the imprints of their sources, chimerically shifting in a haze of contradictions, passing from sending points to receiving points, sometimes through apparently nonexistent channels, a stream of seemingly untranslatable codes. And yet, it manifests as a Universe. We apprehend a result that looks like truth, looks like revelation.
It filled me—thrilled me– with a sense of frisson, and insight.
The Ship also brings to mind the Demiurge, a being of ancient origins that manifests itself in various forms in various religions, sometimes portrayed as the maker and master of the material world, nearly all powerful, though inferior to the ultimate ideal, pure spirit. The Demiurge is often portrayed as a being who thinks it is God, but is not.
In 1973, with faint praise, Brian Aldiss damned Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar”: “Towards the end, faced with winding up a complex affair, Brunner takes refuge in a welter of action in which coincidences pile up, jaws drop, testicles hammer pavements, brains chill, and key scientists are smuggled out of police states in the dead of night. The power of the statement is dissipated. But it is an interesting experiment, no least to a critic because it marks a stage along the road, midway between pulp and social commentary. Commendably ambitious, Brunner has not prepared himself sufficiently in his previous writing, mainly countless Ace sf thrillers, for the creation of a major book. A man of intelligence and wit, he seems unwilling to make a personal statement. In Zanzibar, he takes courage from the new developments of sf in the sixties, and may yet give us something bigger and better—or preferably smaller and better.”
Half a century later, the world has changed, and “Stand On Zanzibar” looks very different. Jad Williams counters Aldiss: “Brunner also engaged with Marshall McLuhan’s notion of “art as anti-environment.” McLuhan was of the opinion that the ground rules of culture operate largely at the level of unspoken assumption. He believed that art could provide “a means of perceiving the environment itself.” At its best, it functions as a type of social metafiction, opening up a space for speculation on culture as a medium subject to use and abuse along all kinds of vectors, from the personal to the pollical. Importantly, it could do so in an exploratory rather than prescriptive way. This notion dovetailed with Brunner’s long-standing interest in employing background as a plot device… He could track parallel streams of human experience but do so by opening close focus windows on individuals caught up in the ebbs and flows of culture.”
Much has changed since Brunner’s time. So many of the cultural forces he identified are disastrously coming to full flower. But some of the weaknesses of humanity may yet become its strengths. The swelling ranks of human numbers wreaks environmental havoc, but it can provide a new resource in itself, something bigger and better, though we might wish, like Brian Aldiss, for something smaller and better.
There are more specialists expanding their views through localized examinations, more polymaths and pantologists to intervene between them, more geniuses, more visionaries, more extraordinary tools for exploration and mentation.
So, you’ve gotten this far. What were you looking for, in the first place? Information about a possible book to read, or books, or what to avoid, or a different reader’s perspective on something you’ve already read, or a condensed summary of other works, so that you don’t have to spend the time reading them? And, did you get what you expected?
I still kept reading more books by John Brunner, because they seemed to contain messages aimed directly at me. Nothing could have been more disquieting than “Players at the Game of People,” one of Brunner’s horror novels.
There, preternatural beings, the Owners, confer opulent benefits to the Players, people they recruit for unfathomable purposes. The Players get whatever they want, most of the time, with the only conditions that they indulge their impulses, recruit new Players, and surrender control, for brief interludes between long stretches of reveling in the glories of materialism.
The Players should be in a state of perpetual satisfaction, enjoying limitless wealth, unfading good looks, and boundless energy, seemingly free from all the life’s trials and stresses, a kind of Heaven as portrayed through the miracles of Madison Avenue marketing. But even ceaseless pleasure wears thin after a while, and the paradise existence becomes an existential Hell, devoid of meaning. The Players are a species of spoiled pet.
The identities and nature of the Owners is never revealed. They might be aliens, or future humans, or angels or demons, or the Creator himself, whose initials are J.B.
Despite what I said earlier about trying to view a work of fiction as a thing separate from its writer, the meaning of this book only becomes apparent when you consider what was happening in Brunner’s life when he wrote it. The Players are fictitious characters, utterly lacking in substance outside the book in which they abide, and the Owners are a singular being, all powerful in this domain, but whose projections of his consciousness into nonexistent entities now reveals a horrible lack of purpose. Characters in the novel are the writer’s pets. And who are the other Players being recruited? Other writers, lost souls who happen to find a kinship with John Brunner?
God, it is a terrifying novel. It seemed directed to me, very personally, as if I’d become a character in the book I was reading. I think again of the old Creepy story. The ax being brought down. I was forced to take a look at my own life, and ask very seriously– what do I need to change?
“The Traveler in Black” is a rare foray by Brunner into old-fashioned Fantasy. It engulfs the reader in opulent, hallucinatory prose. In each of its four stories, a swirl of confusing imagery slowly congeals into understandable order wrought by the enigmatic titular character, a kind of god, or devil, who grants wishes that invariably backfire.
Here’s a telling example, and one that seems directed to anyone trying to sway the minds and hearts of humanity, with particular focus on the way Brunner is trying to do the same:
“But I have counseled against this foolishness,” stammered Jacques.
“No,” corrected the man in black, “You did not counsel. You said: you are pigheaded fools not to see that I am absolutely, unalterably right while everybody else is wrong. And when they would not listen to such dogmatic bragging—and who would—you washed your hands of them and wished them a dreadful doom.”
“Did I wish them any worse than they deserved?”
“Discuss the matter with those who are coming to deal with you,” proposed the traveler sardonically. “Their conviction is different than yours. They hold that by making people disgusted with the views you subscribe to; you prevented rational thought from regaining mastery. Where you should have reasoned, you flung insults; where you should have argued soberly and with purpose, you castigated honest men with doubts, calling them purblind idiots. This is what those coming for you say. Whether your belief or theirs constitutes the truth, I leave for them and you to riddle out.”
And yet, the same book features a god who takes the form of a gigantic baby, bawling and throwing a tantrum, wreaking wild destruction– a merciless and haughty parody of Biblical divine wrath, committing the same sin the preternatural Traveler warned against. I have to wonder if Brunner was intentionally being ironic, or if religion had become a blind spot for him.
“The Traveler in Black” also comes across as a parable of humanity going through the three stages of civilization postulated by James George Frazer in “The Golden Bough”, from magic to religion to science. The story cycle itself is parable of Fantasy, as genre, transforming into Science Fiction.
It seems ironic, intentionally or otherwise, that the science in which Brunner places so much (if you’ll excuse the word) faith, isn’t exactly what you’d call real science, since boasted that he never took a science lesson in his life, and most of his understanding of science comes from reading SF.
I see a quest for spirituality in Brunner’s work, despite the apparent hostility toward religion that is all over the surface. There’s a short story of his called “The Nail in the Middle of the Hand,” that contemplates the way consummate artistry can be brought to executing any activity, including execution itself. An ancient Roman has so perfected his skill at crucifixion, with attendant attention to creative cruelties, he is known as The Expert. But after plying his trade on absolutely the worst possible victim, he desperately tries to further hone is his skill by later practicing on himself, first nailing his own hand to a table, then desperately trying to figure out a way to tackle the other hand. On first reading, it struck me as a twisted tale of divine retribution coupled with a sardonic joke about perfectionism in artistic execution. After reading more of Brunner’s work, and considering his final years, it seems a profoundly sad comment on the way he was hammering himself into his art. This was a writer who resolved to go off his blood pressure medication in order to be able to create yet another masterpiece, but instead, he suffered a stroke at an SF Convention, a final performance that almost invariably is featured as the grand finale of any writing about his life.
I ended up with an essay that was nothing like what I expected to write. I found out my motivations during the process, during the journey. I find I’m reaching out to others who might have made the same mistakes about John Brunner that I did during his lifetime, trying to set in motion waves of seriality to reawaken dormant artistic visions, to build up toward the end to which they were originally intended. But with a shift, a change, a mutation.
“one keeps going on the thin nourishment of illusion…
one limps, but one keeps going somehow…
the torch is set to the house and the long trek starts
to the unknown village with what possessions one can
carry but one keeps going;
somehow one keeps going;
Transcendence is great. Immersion in mystery is exhilarating. But there is another side to the truth of ultimate paradox. One still has to do the right thing at the present moment. It is a very Darwinian, very binary choice. Survive, or don’t survive. Live or die. It happens to individual organisms, civilizations, species, biosystems, religions. Even dead authors have to stay fit enough to keep on going.
In “Catch A Falling Star”, Brunner delivers a tale steeped in Swiftian social satire. In the far distant future, a visionary scientist detects a fiery sun moving on a collision course toward the Earth, with roughly a mere two centuries left before total annihilation. The visionary sets out on a nearly impossible quest to avert the disaster, with no plan in mind, and no concept of any potential solution. Along the way, he gathers together a strange band of allies. At every step of their surreal journey, they encounter indifference to the terrible danger, and opposition to their efforts to halt it. But the book has a happy ending, even if it is a Deus Ex Machina cop out. You might characterize it as a parable of waves of seriality combining to avert the dreadful fates predicted by Brunner throughout his works, a hope that the forces he tried to set in motion will actually, eventually, miraculously, bring about their intended result.
It’s hard to let go of that ideal, that great hope, presented in a context that makes it a truth unto itself, a walled off reality, pure and satisfying. But maybe the blind optimism of the hero in his desire to accomplish the impossible task is part of the joke.
The last novel considered in this essay is the last novel Brunner wrote. The title, “Muddle Earth” is an atrocious pun, but particularly apt. I was drawn to the book by its promise of themes and issues I view as vital concerns: a promise of a scathing satire of the way America has turned its unique folklore, including pulp and science fiction, to the ends of consumerism; a planet of theme-park merchandizing. The book turned out to be stubborn in its persistent frustration of reader expectations, but still, somehow, bizarrely engaging. Superficially, it looks like a comedy, but it doggedly refuses to be actually funny.
I was getting ready to put the book down, and then I hit something that made me want to keep going. It has happened to me so many times while I’ve been reading Brunner’s works. I think I’m done with them, (at last!), I’m getting bored, but then I’ll hit something like that cracks open one of the book’s secrets and points to a new perspective:
“Autho. It gets to be a drag saying ‘authentic’ all the time.”
“Amen to that.”
“Still… it could be quite amusing, hm? Seeing one thing, hearing it described as something different—the incongruity could make it rather funny. And there isn’t much left to laugh at, you know… You see, apparently our sense of humor is unique to us, like religion, and there’s a school of thought among the Galactic Conglomerate that claims we ought to be cured of that as well, only they can’t prove it’s harmful enough.”
…”I was a clown once myself… You should have seen the merriment I could squeeze out of a wet diaper… and now I am as you see me, in despair… Have you ever had your finest jokes microscoped… In the end they get you so worried you realize… you don’t know if it was actually funny—whether anything is funny—whether anything could ever have been regarded as funny by anyone. You doubt the evidence of memory. You pester your friends and they stop being friends. You search the past obsessively and try to reconstruct gags and pranks of your forerunners, but of course, they’re no longer novel, so you lose heart, so you think of going to search for new ideas on other worlds, but because you can’t make people laugh anymore, you can’t raise enough money for the trip.”
It seems to aspire to the grand absurd hilarity of Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but if you peel back the façade, it looks more like a bitterly envious stealth attack. The surface bubbles with horrendous puns, not the kind of wordplay that shimmers with double or triple meanings, but rather the kind that hit the mind with a thud; verbal pratfalls, and physical pratfalls generally leading to grotesque injuries, and shallow, obvious references to other SF writers. It repeatedly attacks religion and wealth, and ultimately conflates the two. These are familiar targets for Brunner, but here done viciously under a guise of good fun. It is so unsettling and grim, and heartbreaking, it practically dares the reader to laugh. A satire of satire. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and comedy and horror. Brunner’s last novel is a fusion of all three. It brings to mind Herman Melville’s last novel, “Pierre, or the Ambiguities,” a weird melodrama about financial, personal, and artistic failure, close to unreadable when originally published, though not without its champions in these times more tolerant of deliberate obscurity/incomprehensibility/haughty nihilism; a book which many critics view as a gesture of righteous rage against a public that rejected “Moby Dick” and “The Confidence Man.”
As I went through book after book by John Brunner, I felt a kind of communion, a similarity of vision and artistic intent. What shook me up was the way Brunner seemed so right about how to change culture through Art, and yet it seemed to have no effect at all. His writing reminded me of my own—except that his was so much better, so much more astute, and if his writing failed to make changes in society, what point was there in continuing to pursue my own. It put me through something like the artistic dark night of my soul.
People have long been telling me to get real. People tell me that my writing in particular, and SF in general, isn’t going to change anything.
It hit me like a slap across the face. For months I’ve been reading John Brunner’s writing, and it has inspired me to action, but mostly the action has been to keep reading more of John Brunner’s writing. It is distressingly like the myth of finding meaning and self-worth by buying stuff, the tragic joke at the heart of “Muddle Earth.”
So, I realize I need to pay attention to the other half of what’s going on. All of us do. The other half—the part you, me, and everyone else has been ignoring, or denying, or trying to wish away, or the part all too many believe can be eliminated with intimidation and brute force.
The Deux Ex Machina won’t arrive to save the world. Not the Deux either, nor the Machina, nor science, nor art, nor religion, nor law, nor politics. Nor science fiction. Not in itself. Not in isolation. Not alone.
 Reflections by Robert Silverberg: Roger and John,
Azimov’s Science Fiction, March 1996
 Brunner, John. The Economics of Science Fiction, Australian SF Review #9, 1967, as quoted in “The Writer in Black” by Dr.Strangemind.com, January 7, 2019.
 Brunner, John, Book of John Brunner, DAW; (1976) pp. 17-18
 Brunner, John, Book of John Brunner, DAW; (1976) p. 17, 18
 Brunner, John, Book of John Brunner, p.15
 Wikipedia, citing Feingold, Mordechai; Vickers, Brian (1984). Occult and scientific mentalities in the Renaissance. pp. 73–94. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511572999.004. ISBN 978-0511572999.
 Panshin, Alexis and Cory, The World Beyond the Hill – Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence, Jeremy B. Tarcher, Inc., 1989, p. 274-275.
 John Townley and Robert Schmitt “Paul Kammerer and the Law of Seriality” Fortean Studies, 1994, Volume 1.
Smith, Jad. John Brunner. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013, p. 58
Smith, Jad. John Brunner. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013, P.37
 Smith, Jad. John Brunner. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013, P. 113
 Aldiss, Brian, The Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, Doubleday & Company, 1973, p. 278
 Smith, Jad,. John Brunner. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013, p. 59
 John Brunner, Book of John Brunner, DAW; (1976), p. 132
 Brunner, John, “Muddle Earth”, Ballentine Books, 1993, pp-163-164.