John Brunner

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Brunner, John 1934–

Brunner is a British author of science fiction novels, short stories, and poetry. His themes are humanistic, centering on the continuity of the human condition, and the psychological and physical survival of ordinary man. Brunner is a satirist, utilizing humor that is both playful and sardonic. Even at his most bitter or ironic, the events, atmospheres, and attitudes he describes have definite parallels with reality. Formerly a pilot, Brunner participated for several years in the British nuclear disarmament movement, an experience which has colored some of his works. Brunner is occasionally criticized for letting social protest override his literary sensibility, but he is generally recognized as one of science fiction's most controlled and realistic writers. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

James Blish

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The protagonist [of The Whole Man] is a man who, though physically handicapped himself, has telepathic powers which he uses for healing other people…. [The] novel showed powers of insight and compassion previously unsuspected … in this author—the powers of an artist, not just the technician….

These powers were promptly shown again in almost unbearably concentrated form in "The Totally Rich," a novelette…. Ostensibly the story's subject is longevity vs. death, but filtered through the Brunner sensibility it turns out to be about love, and the overall effect almost approaches high tragedy. (p. 5)

These same powers are now abundantly evident in his recent work, and most particularly in his present penchant for choosing protagonists the reader can barely like at the outset and making them grow into full-fledged human beings worthy of love as well as respect. This was implicit in "The Totally Rich"; it reaches full maturity in the 1972 novel The Sheep Look Up, along with much else. (pp. 5-6)

[Two aspects of The New Wave] relate directly to John Brunner: a dominant concern with the problem of today rather than the far future; and freedom to try any stylistic experiment no matter how wild (or, in the mainstream, old hat). John Brunner had shown an intense social consciousness before, both in his writing and in his personal life. It fused with stylistic experiment in the monumental Stand on Zanzibar…. The following novel, The Jagged Orbit, is also stylistically idiosyncratic—for instance, it is divided into a hundred "chapters," two of which consist of single syllables—but though Brunner did not pioneer this freedom in modern science fiction, he remains to date one of the very few … who has subsumed it to artistic purpose.

The ultimate issue we have seen is TSLU [The Sheep Look Up], surely his finest work thus far. It is again a sociological science fiction novel, but one with the sea-change of immediate concern with imminent social problems. It is technically brilliant, not only experimentally but in the way it does not scorn the old pulp ideal of tight plotting and beyond that the older ideal of being well-made and in balance. It is long, but not a word is wasted—on the contrary, it is one of those novels like Gaddis's Recognitions where as the pages left to be read dwindle the reader regrets that it does after all have to come to some end. (It is not the masterwork The Recognitions is—Brunner has yet to give us that….) There are scores of characters, all vividly brought to life and treated with sympathy, even the obvious villains. And it has nevertheless the most merciless happy ending I've ever encountered: the burning down of the entire United States. This may not strike you as happy at all, but it is the inevitable...

(This entire section contains 589 words.)

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solution for the multiplex problem posed, and the only one. The work has beauty, compassion, power, precision, and immediacy. It is not science fiction as we used to know it, but we are all the better off for that. (p. 6)

It cannot be said fairly, in my view, that [John Brunner] has fulfilled his early promise, because very little promise was visible at the beginning; but once he found his real voice, the outcome was not so much a promise as a sort of aesthetic explosion. (p. 7)

James Blish, "John Brunner: A Colleague's View," in The Happening Worlds of John Brunner, edited by Joe De Bolt (copyright © 1975 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1975, pp. 3-7.

William P. Brown

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Government is a key ingredient in Brunner's recent work. He develops his major theme, human survival, around it. He directly comments on it as part of his social criticism and frequently makes it a determining factor in his novels. This is certainly the case in [his most politically orientated novels,] The Squares of the City, Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up. All are first-rate political novels because they tell the reader something significant about politics—the activity of government….

Brunner's use of politics differs from more typical political novels like The President, All the King's Men, and Advise and Consent. They deal with the institutional decision-making centers of government, which Brunner conspicuously avoids; his analysis focuses instead upon the actual failings of government and the motives behind such failures. (p. 130)

The failure of policies, not the failure of institutions, are Brunner's concern. Readers are left with someone to blame but aren't shown exactly why they ought to blame him. They just never see politicians at work.

Of course, Brunner is not a political scientist objectively attempting to explain reality and predict the future. His function is, in fact, diametrically opposed to such a role. His is value-oriented in intent and purpose. Brunner writes fiction and defines actuality as he desires. He writes of the future, which provides additional freedom to lead the reader wherever he wishes. In addition, his dystopian novels are oriented toward developing negative images of the future. Thus, the ultimate failure and subsequent demise of society is his concern…. He is no more writing about politics than he is about science. It is merely one element in his social analysis….

These novels are especially valuable for speculative purposes because Brunner does not play runaway games with his images of the future. Almost everything about them is closely related to the present. There is no escape into a Buck Rogers future where amazing new techniques influence behavior or where man has been transformed into a different creature. Brunner's plausible scenarios and characters can be taken seriously.

The dominant political themes of the novels are … predicated on contemporary dilemmas. (p. 131)

Brunner's political objects and events also extend from present actuality.

In short, Brunner's novels are relevant to an understanding of politics. He writes about its failures in a manner that allows us to reflect on what tomorrow could be like. At the same time, the immediacy of his speculation adds a dimension of believability to his analysis that forces us to contrast government's present activities with those in the novel. Brunner conveys the message that we could be headed for disaster because government is not performing its function well.

Brunner in these four novels follows a pattern that can be loosely interpreted as an explanatory model. This model is quite simply and easily outlined:

  1. Government is a dangerous institution because it fails to order society and provide for its future.
  2. It does not better the state of human affairs for most people nor even provide them any assistance in leading comfortable lives.
  3. It does, in fact, consistently take action that makes matters worse.
  4. These conditions hold because government officials are both self-serving and short-sighted. The reasons for this are many, but the most important ones are undue emphasis on nationalism, close ties between industry and government, and a corresponding lack of concern about real human problems.
  5. The government that emerges is a callous politics of self-interest. The self-interest of governmental elites and of the masses are distinctly different because elites relate to preferences that are unrepresentative of the long-range needs of the whole society. (pp. 132-33)

Throughout these books, government troops and officials murder young people, persecute reformers, tacitly support arms dealers who prey on the populace, and continuously destroy people both physically and psychologically by prying into the most private portions of their lives. In each instance, the actions reward or save political influentials. (p. 134)

It would be a mistake to conclude that Brunner's commentary provides only a point of comparison for use in questioning actual and specific government programs that might resemble them. Brunner seems to be challenging far more than the acceptability of individual policies as they apply to sets of problems. His campaign is not a simple one for environmental protection or population control; he is asking the broader and more generalized question: "Is government doing its job?"…

In essence, the real job of government is to order society and provide for its future. It can only achieve such ends by bringing predictability to personal relationships and to the utilization of social resources. Assurances must be made that individuals will not be subject to unexpected pressures from others and to shortages that abruptly threaten life.

The governments portrayed in these novels do neither. Brunner presents a society composed of people and groups who depend on one another and share the same resources, but no rules exist either to limit or define behavior. (p. 135)

The "response-failure" political model accounts for governmental ineptness but it does not explain it. In the first place, the causality implied in the model is only assumed. Brunner presents no evidence to substantiate this claim except to note that governmental policies consistently reward powerful interests. Second, there is no explanation as to why these interests should be served by government officials. Since the decision-making system is never revealed, government officials are never portrayed as receiving or using any benefits or rewards that could have been derived from such coalitions.

On the contrary, political leaders are portrayed as inept or foolish, and perhaps these factors account for their response to special interests…. [The] United States president always responds out of misguided sympathies for business. Politics, as presented here, is not shown as a bargaining game where trade-offs and exchanges are necessary. Instead, it resembles the world of C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite where government is captured and dominated by wealth. But again, no concrete reasons for capture are provided, at least none that relate to the special significance of wealth.

Brunner presents no evidence or information to suggest that this model, or the political system it represents, is self-sustaining. Rather, this system seems to perpetuate both itself and governmental failure because society is at fault. Citizens fail to take the steps necessary to provide direction for governmental officials, and wealthy interests come to power in their absence. (p. 136)

[There] is no political force in these four novels to stop [citizens who] are willing to assume the personal cost of participation. However, citizens fail to do so because their social relationships and the environment which they structure militate against active participation in any constructive endeavor. Government may be discouraging participation, but the languid behavior of the citizenry makes any such actions relatively unnecessary. In short, Brunner tells the reader that he has little faith in popular control.

Brunner's treatment of popular participation in politics is far more sophisticated than in most speculative fiction. Most authors of this genre, including those of Brave New World and 1984, portray humanity as perfectly manipulable. Huxley's and Orwell's citizens are subject to such total control that their best efforts to assert individual preferences are easily crushed by direct government action. Thought police and television surveillance are sufficient explanations for their subjugation.

Such factors are insufficient for Brunner. Government may indeed attempt control; but when it does, it is by clever trappings rather than forceful techniques. The preferred means of control is propaganda devices intended to promote citizen agreement. Subliminal perception employed by the regime in SOTC [The Squares of the City], for example, redefines viewer images according to the needs of the government. Heavy-handed domination would only promote animosity and hostility, leading to avoidance and resistance.

The implication is that citizens are free to think and act if they want to. They just don't. As a result, officials not only propagandize through the media, they also manipulate symbols through the policies they enact and the citizen actions they encourage. (p. 137)

However, this manipulation does not fully explain the lack of political participation. People restrict themselves as much as does government. Propaganda techniques, Brunner reveals in a rather subtle and implicit fashion, would never work in a society where people share a sense of community and actively engage in its pursuits. They work only because people are willing, even anxious, to accept them. Citizens want to believe. The inhabitants of these novels are too drug-oriented, too selfish, too concerned with material affluence, and too much without any sense of values to revolt against government's manipulation. They could be, and are, conned by anyone. This is the easiest route for them to follow.

At the heart of Brunner's political world is a weak society. Ineffective government only exists because its citizens allow it. Society, not politics, is the source of the problem and the subject of most of the author's criticism. (p. 138)

Those of Brunner's characters occupying positions of political power are distinguished only by their eminence. They, too, are selfish, visionless, and paranoid…. To Brunner, they're as ignorant as the next person and can't be expected to succeed. But this is only part of the problem.

Greater difficulties arise after people arrive in official positions. At that point they are confronted with an interplay of technical innovations, economic interests, and governmental forces that combine to determine future behavior. Big government and big business are portrayed as a collusive, almost singular force, operating together for some common purpose. In Western countries this purpose is financial profit, while in underdeveloped and non-Western countries, like SOZ's [Stand on Zanzibar's] Yatakang, the motivation is industrial growth. The end product of both is political power which can be utilized to exercise even greater control over already acquiescent subjects.

In short, the political world of these four novels is little more than an unrestricted power grab in which citizens see little reason for taking part. Brunner shows the need for coordinated governance by noting its absence. Beyond that, very little is revealed about political decision making. If indeed there is collusion, we don't know how or why. The biases of government policies are obvious, but the reasons for them are not…. Brunner doesn't say….

This seems to be the only solid clue that suggests collusion between Brunner's government and his large economic interests—government manipulates citizens but not wealth. Manipulation to retain power and avoid difficult policies is expected of any government. The absence of manipulation, on the other hand, suggests that it is unnecessary because these interests are apparently vital supporters of government. Still, we don't know how or why.

Brunner wisely could devote considerable attention to this void in these novels. He could proceed best by developing the point that these two forces come together through material need. (p. 139)

Brunner's novels could obviously have been developed more fully by further applying compatible interpretations of actual conditions rather than halting with the simple assertion that governmental responsiveness is dangerous. The reader never understands the nature of the danger, and Brunner's presentations become half-truths in terms of the probable.

Other things that Brunner suggests about governmental process are far-fetched. His portrayal of the president of the United States is especially shaky. All authority is too carefully placed in the hands of the chief executive, who moves other officials at will. (p. 140)

Brunner touches on some very real problems in [the] areas of international relations…. But again, Brunner's presentation is incomplete. Nationalism is indeed a problem similar to what Brunner describes, but it is not unchecked by economic factors. Brunner misses the multinational corporation whose profit motives overstep the boundaries of any one country….

Despite some problems with his analysis and the omission of some important explanatory factors, Brunner constructs some intriguing interpretations of the political process and why it fails. He begins with the society and its support of government and details a plausible explanation of the general reasons why important problems are not solved by governing institutions. On the whole, his accounts are quite well done. They not only concur with many elitist interpretations of politics but they also offer explanations for the existence of the elites. (p. 142)

Brunner's political insights make for eventful study…. The satire that characterizes Brunner's political writing also contributes to the readability of this material. His points are often made with such bitter irony that readers cannot help but be jolted by the significance of the action. (p. 143)

William P. Brown, "Government and Politics in Selected Works of John Brunner," in The Happening Worlds of John Brunner, edited by Joe De Bolt (copyright © 1975 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1975, pp. 130-44.

Michael Goodwin

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Far too often, SF writers with no taste for homework set their cautionary tales in so distant a future that the process of shattering an ecosphere becomes a side issue.

John Brunner never tells us exactly when The Sheep Look Up is taking place, but it seems to be no later than 1980 or 1990—the very point at which all the "minor" environmental crises are beginning to converge into a disaster. It's the process that concerns Brunner, because an ongoing process can be stopped. Sheep has more political punch than any other ecological disaster novel I've read, precisely because its concrete details suggest concrete action.

Brunner has done his homework, and the novel's background is scrupulously built up from a collage of current data and careful extrapolation. (p. 63)

That the environment is delicately balanced is hardly a new insight. Yet Brunner scatters characters and climaxes in every direction—there's always someone, or something, near at hand to serve as a horrible example of what happens when you mess with Mother Nature. Hence, for a didactic novel, Sheep is virtually free of sloganizing.

The one problem is that, given the cast of hundreds (most of whom are locked into ideological functions), very few characters can be portrayed with much depth. Still, individuals are no more the focus of this book than a single oil spill. Brunner works with statistical extrapolation, and his large sample makes The Sheep Look Up utterly convincing. (p. 64)

Michael Goodwin, in Mother Jones (copyright © 1976 by the Foundation for National Progress), August, 1976.


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John Brunner's best work is related to the tradition of literary naturalism. His fictions offer projections into the relatively near future—a few decades—of trends that are clearly detectable in the present. He works with large canvasses, building worlds out of many individual lives. He himself has expressed his indebtedness to John Dos Passos for his naturalistic blend of fiction and documents from the communications media, but he has altered the technique of Dos Passos in several crucial ways. First, by attempting to "document" the future he has set himself a task which is more demanding and more interesting than documenting the present. Put simply, documenting the future requires imagination as well as some skill at social science.

But even more important, a naturalism of the future radically alters the deterministic quality that makes literary naturalism so oppressive and even unesthetic. Brunner gives us a fictional world in which the lives of characters are limited or destroyed by cultural decisions enacted before their time. This world is highly deterministic. But the fictional world which is so oppressive is emphatically not our own world. We are in fact presently making the cultural decisions which will either bring into being the dreadful world of Brunner's fiction or prevent these horrors from being visited upon us. As Brunner puts it, his books are intended as signs reading DO NOT GO THIS WAY. Thus he replaces the numb inertia and helpless pity required of readers by traditional naturalistic texts with a direct appeal to the conscience of the reader. This is most concretely realized in his last novel, The Shockwave Rider (1975), which ends with a ballot upon which the reader is invited to mark his or her choice for the culture.

In The Shockwave Rider the fictional world is thus left open for salvation. But in Brunner's greatest and most sombre novel, The Sheep Look Up (1972), there is no such choice for his fictional characters. Still, the choice for the reader is presented with stunning power. The title echoes lines from Milton's "Lycidas" about the abuse of power and the spread of moral poison, starvation and pollution. The novel is about these things also, but it is literally about the spread of physical poison, pollutants…. It is impossible to say of this book that fact ends here and fiction begins there. Every day headlines turn Brunner's fictions into fact, and the nightmare comes closer. And Brunner's novel teaches better than anything else in print what may happen if we pass certain points in the spread of pollutants, after which an irreversible process will set in. It is a beautifully made and horrifying vision, in its all too plausible solidity…. Brunner paints a picture of the future, clear as Brueghel or Bosch, along with that little sign: DO NOT GO THIS WAY. (pp. 38-9)

Derek de Solla Price, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 30, 1976.


Brunner, John (Vol. 8)