Brunner, John 1934–
Brunner is a British author of science fiction novels, short stories, and poems. A prominent and prolific author, he began writing science fiction of the futuristic variety, but in recent years has been writing fiction of the near-future. His extrapolations of present sociological trends, such as ecological problems, overpopulation, and invasions of privacy, have made him the most important science fiction author writing in this vein. He has also written under the pseudonym of Keith Woodcott. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Like] Kipling, Brunner is fascinated with the machineries and dynamics of empire. Both born in advantaged circumstances, they perceived from childhood the structure of corporate civilizations and are fascinated with the spectrum of psychological types in a society of classes. Kipling found the aristocracy stupid from snobbery; Brunner finds the power elite stupid from greed. Kipling found the lower class without an identity; Brunner finds mass man hysterical with the dangerous complexity of his civilization.
Both seem preoccupied with the progress of England's two greatest colonies. India pervaded Kipling's writing, and he found America wonderful and unimaginably powerful. America is Brunner's India. It is the setting for three of his most serious novels—as well as many others. He has seen America's power and its unwitting threat to the survival of the planet. (pp. 64-5)
Standing on the shoulders of such as Kipling, Brunner is perhaps well described as metapolitical, in pursuit of the sort of total understanding of civilization that can finally liberate man from all coercive myths—national and otherwise. The men differ in their propositions for the survival and prosperity of humanity, but both desire happiness for every individual human being. (p. 65)
Brunner chooses the speculative mood because it is an optimum medium for proselytizing the popular imagination. It is parabolic and homiletic. The catch is that effective parables for modern civilizations require enormous scientific and humanistic knowledge…. What, after all, would you really need to know to secure an empire? Kipling tried to know it. Brunner has tried to know it. But now there is more to know. And Brunner wants to secure a planet, at least. Accordingly, the information displayed in his most recent writing is encyclopedic. At the heart of SOZ, TJO, and TSLU [Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up] is the computer, enabling and potentially controlling the information explosion….
Brunner's speculative writing is … essentially expository fiction. This is the hallmark of speculative writing and not especially remarkable. What is remarkable is Brunner's consistent grace and intelligibility in explaining and abstracting civilization just beyond the threshold of the present…. He is facile in miming dialect and convincing in the transformation of his British-English ear to an American-English one—necessary for American scenarios. He does this so well that his slips become exceptions…. He is a master of the pun, that encounter with the word which on one level yields amusement,… while on another level it yields terror by its very possibility because when the meaning captured in a word can be seen to bifurcate, the word itself is no longer trustworthy. (p. 66)
With few exceptions, such as the short story "Fair" (1956), that interpolates a section of the narrative with counter-pointing commercial rap lines, or Threshold of Eternity (1959), which includes a "paragraph" composed of alternating lines from two separate paragraphs, distinguishable by means of one set of lines in italics, his writing is uncomplex in plot and structure, imaginative in setting, and peopled with characters that answer the folk imagination's need for heroes and various shades of villain. In style it employs a discourse that serves excellently to present story and exposition without getting in the way of suspense and a good read. At the same time it often provides samples of the social critique that will become the main intention of SOZ, TJO, and TSLU. Examples include The Atlantic Abomination (1960), presenting one of the most truly hateable aliens in science fiction by the simple device of having it spend a lot of time insisting that humans were sentient excrement and almost unworthy to serve it. It makes mental slaves of men. Some readers have seen the alien as an analogue for the fascist state. In The Whole Man (1964) Gerald Howson is a sympathetic hero whose growth from ugly cripple to parapsychological superman is one of the best examples in all science fiction wish-fulfillment romps of this sort. The Squares of the City (1965) employs a chess game actually played by masters as the organizing metaphor in a narrative tour de force. The result is a story that dramatizes the vicious manipulative process of a power elite in a colonized country. One feature of the work is the inclusion at the end of the text of an index of the chess pieces and their story-character equivalents. The effect is a "dramatis personae" directory. To this is added an annotation of "pieces taken," functioning as an obituary. Brunner utilized these narrative features in SOZ, TJO, and TSLU. (pp. 67-8)
[The title character of The Traveler in Black] is an undoer of myths, theologies, and sciences, all of which process in fact as "magics," political and epistemological vested interests, that operate to frustrate an ultimately coherent understanding of the universe which courageous and selfless reason might otherwise achieve. Variations upon this theme appear in SOZ, TJO, and TSLU. In fact, language and conventionally paced narrative, themselves indictable as solipsisms, are submitted to an ordeal in these three works. The "traveler" might have written them. (p. 68)
[SOZ, TJO, and TSLU] are built of many dozens of vignette-like sections which ultimately organize into montage effects…. Each commences with a series of sections which are imagistic and friezelike, catching characters and civilization like runners in mid-stride…. Succeeding sections catch the runners in new postures, lending the effect of a stop-action sequence of several characters' adventures interspersed with clips of a particular stage of the world, especially as supplied by news media, to suggest the significance of the adventures. The "caught" postures engender a subliminal suspense, incompleteness, or sense of balance precariously maintained, if not on the verge of being altogether lost. This suits the books' themes that warn of gravely unbalanced modern civilization. The opening sections of TJO provide a good example:
ONE PUT YOURSELF IN MY PLACE
TWO CHAPTER ONE CONTINUED
The "I" as presented is a pun and a participant in oxymoron, the nature of pun being symbol with unresolved references; oxymoron provides references as contradictory but newly intelligible only in relation to each other. "-solationism" completes "I" and simultaneously contradicts the resolution in the context of an at once revivified cliché, "PUT YOURSELF IN MY PLACE." Here the very fabric of language registers instability—a frequent Brunner tactic.
Balder pictures symbolizing civilization caught at the threshold of catastrophe open SOZ and TSLU. "Context (1)" in SOZ presents a slice of the stock opening script for a television news program (it might be called "jive as cliché"). About five hundred words deliver time, weather, and inescapable commercials. Then, nothing. The actual news is unimportant; perhaps less truthful than the commercial rap…. The effect upon the first-time reader is that of a person the rhythm of whose breathing has been interrupted. (pp. 69-70)
For the three works the principle setting is the United States, no more remote in the future than sixty years in TJO and a decade or less away in TSLU. SOZ lies somewhere in between. The "realism" of TSLU is more appalling than that of TJO because TSLU takes place more nearly in the present. All the works present worlds that might be generalized as polluted. SOZ features the population explosion, pollution with people. TJO presents a vision of the information explosion, pollution with data. TSLU may be the last word in "realistic" stories of a polluted planetary envelope. Brunner is successful in conveying the impression of a pea-soup-thick, toxic atmosphere layering most of North America. Each novel dramatizes the replication, multiplication, and exponential proliferation of commodities manufactured in a "progressing" civilization: data, people, and garbage…. [In] each story the computer is a power-controlling implement employed by the captains of government and industry to manipulate mass man and direct world economy to their personal aggrandizement. In such a world psychological survival for the average man becomes precarious. He is paranoid in the "jungle" of civilization as his ancestors were paranoid in the natural jungle. However, faithful to the myth of progress, society's response to paranoid behavior, finding prisons and penal codes at least indelicate, is to replace incarceration with "commitment" … to a sanitarium.
In each work there is the threat of being declared insane and sent to an asylum waiting for those who would disturb civil "order." The sanitarium is a major setting in TJO. (pp. 70-1)
Brunner is well aware that characters in the expository fable of speculative writing are rarely more than stereotypes or emblems. He sketches them well in this mode and has great fun in the storyteller's game of naming the characters according to their character. (p. 72)
Brunner also includes what might be construed as an oracle character in each novel…. They may be shades of Henry James's "central intelligence" characters. All are socially conscious, visionary intellectuals, fugitive from earlier academic associations, socio-anthropology, psychology, and ecological biochemistry. As such, quotations from their "writings" or dialogue are made to speak explicit diagnoses of the problems of population explosion, cultural mental health, and planetary ecology with which the works are concerned. By using them Brunner avoids the dated "Dear reader, now I shall explain" convention. They are ubiquitous in the respective stories as soothsayers, frustrated messiahs, and general markers of the message that is to be taken seriously amidst a snowstorm of "messages" broadcast by the also ubiquitous "media" of the stories. One might, of course, question the reliability of the revelations of these oracle characters. They do, after all, speak in words—whose meaning is pervertible. Even so, their moods are wholesome and constructive. They are good men thinking about chaotic civilization. In this role they do not participate in personally intimate relationships with any of the other sympathetic characters. They are rather teachers in search of learners. They appear celibate, seasoned in existential ordeal, and "ordained." Across the works they are one voice, three ways named….
[Brunner] is an excellent poet, writes fine, tight short stories, and is a first-rate essayist. Moreover, he demonstrates a willingness to utilize "voices" of every genre from poem through senate record to grocery list…. Much science fiction is flat because it employs a monotonously homogeneous voice for all its characters. (p. 73)
For Brunner's purposes, Brunner is master of hundreds of voices. The effect of his writing is that it cannot be said to have a characteristic style; it has rather a trans-typical style, without which no speculative writing can be intellectually and aesthetically estimable…. This is so because, whether the speculative vision is of the parallel present, the past, or the future, alternative, retrospective, or extrapolated voices and styles are required to present it with fidelity and authenticity. (pp. 73-4)
It is generally Brunner's principle to modify or invent a word as an efficient symbol for a condition, practice, device, social type, etc., for which otherwise a number of words must be employed. The intent is to make a complex phenomenon simple by facilitating the naming of it—especially a phenomenon for which it has not been politically popular to have an easy name. On balance this seems a good device to aid the encounter with the technological and psychopathological chaos of Brunner's "Americas." Alternately, he takes a common word like "lead" and defines it socio-physically, causing surprise and consequently new understanding in the reader. "Lead" is verbally relocated from safe to dangerous associations, as it has been physically relocated by a nature-poisoning civilization.
Brunner's mastery of styles further serves his intent that the novels be seen as well as read. Persons, places, things, and their gestalts are to be visualized objectively—even empirically—diminished as little as possible by subjective authorial associations. He is the antithesis of the "automatic" or "navel-contemplating" writer. With very little modification SOZ, TJO, and TSLU would be film scripts…. The titles Stand on Zanzibar and The Jagged Orbit compress sharp, if somewhat bizarre, images. The Sheep Look Up is more abstract but plays upon spectacle with the word "look." The McLuhanesque composition of the novels plays to the visually conditioned reader. (pp. 74-5)
Finally, Brunner is a satirist. Indeed, if we entertain seriously the thesis of Kingsley Amis's New Maps of Hell, that speculative writing must yield a form of satire, Brunner may represent a modern epitome. The speculative writer and the satirist may be the same: both employ exaggeration, caricature, magnification, and extrapolation, all elements of classic reductio ad absurdum. Out of control the speculative and the satirical visions dissolve into non-sense…. Brunner's control is excellent. Appropriately, SOZ's millions multiply; its media are saturated and it is media-saturated; its citizens live in a dope fog. The facile collapsing diction of the narrative personifies a cultural psyche at an advanced stage of becoming nondiscursive, precedent to becoming nonverbal, precedent to becoming nonsentient. The narrative of TJO is more conventional, sketching a dystopian nightmare in which the masses participate in a dream-myth, a pervasive televised pabulum strained and assembled by computers—a comment on the innocuous fare of present-day media…. The systematic exaggeration that TSLU exhibits may be a principal factor for disapproval of it by a few obstinate reviewers. The novel is gloomy, scenically so. But the speculative satirist must insist that if you emulsify your atmosphere with the stupidly proliferated garbage of your civilization, you will have murk—gloom. Brunner is most clever in TSLU with impositions such as the baby cooked in its mother's womb by an unshielded micro-wave appliance, or the polluted rainwater which reacts with hair-set lotion to discolor or dissolve hair.
Traditional notions of satire suggest obligations to comic effect. Strategic exaggeration often yields ludicrous absurdity, even when the underlying theme is tragic. Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, who share a sensibility with Brunner, can put readers in hysterics. Read in short sittings, Heller's Catch-22 … is funny, though the novel's point is that war is painful and vicious. Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" makes comedy…. The story's message, of course, is appalling. Brunner, too, is richly equipped to create comic effect…. In the relentless horror of TSLU comic effect is appropriately stunted. When it appears, it often works as surprise by bitter vulgarity…. Or it is macrocosmically grotesque…. (pp. 75-7)
In any case, the laughter evoked by Brunner's work is not as committed as for Heller's and Vonnegut's. I can merely suggest some explanations. Exaggeration of the crucial produces distortion that is tragic. The focus of Catch-22's exaggeration and caricature is upon the niggling events and procedures of World War II military experience. They are historically real and familiar—even domestic. Taken individually, a typical incident should not threaten the balance of civilization. The reader can laugh at it. Vonnegut's settings are futuristic and sociologically sweeping. But they often disarm the reader with their apparent whimsy. Events and furniture seem thrown together in a maverick allegory that does not compel us to referents in a real future. The reader can laugh at them. On the other hand, Brunner's comic effect, while it participates in these modes, outstrips itself. The laugh cannot last because Brunner's future events and furniture have the suggestion of authenticity. And for precisely this reason they do not strike many readers as immediately familiar. Even domestic detail has become strange, just when Brunner's careful extrapolation has convinced the reader that the detail, "the satch filter in the comweb slot" (future technology's answer to junk mail) is perfectly predictable. Understanding a Brunner exaggeration frequently makes it too late to laugh. (p. 77)
John R. Pfeiffer, "Brunner's Novels: A Posterity for Kipling," 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. 63-77.
[In his poems, novels, and novellas, as well as in his short stories, John Brunner] generally conforms to the accepted conventions for successful writing. His style, tone, imagery, sense of plot, and conflict are consistent throughout the whole of his work. The quality of his work varies, of course, but that is the case with most writers….
Brunner's stories fall into two categories by point of view used. Seldom does he tell a story from a minor character's point of view; his stories are, then, either first-person stories or stories told from the omniscient point of view. The latter type predominates. (p. 78)
The omniscient point of view gives Brunner the freedom to make up all the rules of the game himself. He can make decisions freely concerning time and space. He can bring old characters to a new setting, as in "Judas," or he can bring new characters to an old reality, as in "Fifth Commandment." He can take the reader forward in time to create a new arena entirely for the story, as in "Singleminded" or "A Better Mousetrap." In short, Brunner writes most of his short stories from the omniscient point of view—and takes full advantage of that technique.
When Brunner does use the first-person point of view, as in "Fairy Tale," it can be a stunning success. In that epistolary story Brunner faces a basic problem. For plot reasons, the protagonist, Barnaby Gregg, must be alone at the story's end. The story, moreover, depends on the distillation or refraction of circumstances within Gregg's mind, its basic meaning being inextricably bound to Gregg's understanding of the chain of events leading to his decision to write the letter. Here Brunner could have opted for the omniscient point of view. But it is important for us to be inside the protagonist's mind only, to perceive the others through his eyes, for the others—and indeed the problem of time lapse itself—are the vehicle of the story. Gregg's story is fantastic; therefore it is necessary that only he understand the events he relates. First-person point of view becomes a necessity. (p. 79)
[In "Orpheus' Brother"] Brunner is able to detail the calmness and deliberation with which the narrator goes about his horrible deed, to suggest the real horror of the story, precisely because he uses first person.
One reason why any writer uses first-person point of view is to facilitate vicarious participation for the reader. Perhaps Brunner's most successful use of first person for that reason is in "The Totally Rich," a story told by a man who is capable of perceiving all the nuances of the action…. The plot calls for intimate scenes between the narrator and the woman who is the subject of the story. Because the woman is the subject, Brunner could not have used an omniscient point of view; that is to say, it is important for the reader not to see the inside of her mind. The gradual revelation of what motivates her, as seen by the narrator, is what constitutes the story itself….
Brunner is frequently playful, is often serious and somber, is predictably cynical. He is seldom, if ever, intimate. He controls the tone of his stories carefully, although occasionally he surprises even himself. (p. 81)
By far the most frequent tone in Brunner's short stories is that of cynicism. Time and again men fall into the traps which they naively lay for themselves. One wonders where Brunner stands to gain such an aesthetic perspective/distance. As individuals, men emerge as fools—uxorious or otherwise. Brunner's prefaces are especially illustrative: "Human beings have been defined as 'the only animals lazy enough to work hard at saving themselves trouble'"…. "If the dolphins are in fact intelligent, let's for God's sake hope they are too intelligent to want any part of this human lunacy…." Brunner is equally cynical about the systems under which men operate and by which men are ultimately judged. "The trouble seems to lie in the fact that perfect inhabitants of a perfect society would need to be the children of perfect parents"…. (p. 83)
Repeatedly Brunner writes stories about foolish men dealing with foolish, impotent systems. But the point of all this cynicism is this: we (Brunner and the reader) are excluded, except as we choose to involve ourselves in any way but intellectually with the madness that Brunner sees as rife in our world. The very nature of the cynic puts him somehow outside what is going on, gives him esoteric insights into the folly of men and circumstances. Brunner generously allows us to stand outside with him, to share his point of view, to laugh, however darkly, at the foibles of his fictional creatures.
As stated earlier, all of these varieties of tone and mood are controlled, are carefully built in. They show us that we are dealing not with a mere teller of stories, but with an acute observer of the human condition—one who can make us share his attitudes toward us for a time, even though we are dimly aware that we are somehow being manipulated.
The human condition that Brunner observes, and allows us to observe with him, covers an astonishing range of time, space, and imagination. Some of his stories are historical in conception, as are "Fair Warning" and "The Nail in the Middle of the Hand." Some, such as "The Totally Rich," are basically contemporary in setting. By far the bulk of Brunner's stories, however, are futuristic in orientation. But the settings themselves are mere window dressing; the human condition varies little, if at all, throughout the whole of Brunner's short fiction. It has often been said that there are no new stories, and that the true test of a storyteller is how well he can retell an old story. (p. 84)
Brunner's short fiction is more often than not set in the future. His stories, however, are peopled by characters understandable and credible in terms of what we know about man and his foibles now. This should not be interpreted as a weakness in Brunner's writing; on the contrary, it is a basic strength. Brunner himself is something of a historian; that shows very clearly. And it is reasonable to surmise that Brunner is of the "history repeats itself" school.
His stories are predicated on the basic condition of mankind as it has always been and, as Brunner projects, it always will be. The characters in Brunner's stories are governed by the basic needs, just as characters throughout history have been. They make human choices in the face of their predicaments, and that is what gives the reader such a high degree of catharsis, of pleasure through vicarious identification. Were Brunner to project a new breed of men into a new set of circumstances, the results would be disastrous.
The moral principles upon which Brunner's plot resolutions hang are traditional as well. Typically, Brunner's stories feature a moment of epiphany for the hero that occurs at the moment of climax. The hero realizes suddenly, inspirationally, what all the preceding action means, and that meaning changes his life—or his view of life. (p. 91)
Moreover, the moment of revelation is realized in forms of traditional moral values. Typically, the good earn their reward, the stupid and corrupt get what is coming to them…. Note that the morality of the stories is the morality that we were all brought up on. New morality does not go with new settings; rather, the readers' morality stays with the readers. This is a shrewd tactic on Brunner's part….
[His] humor might be characterized in two ways: a kind of playful attitude on Brunner's part, as mentioned earlier, and a kind of deeply black humor which can only come after the genuine despair of understanding some aspect of the human condition. (p. 92)
In his preface to Time-Jump Brunner discusses the nature of his humor. His perception of what he considers funny is particularly illuminating …:
The Germans have a term which English lacks, and it neatly spans the area where science fiction and comedy meet. They say Galgenhumor: gallows humor.
This is the humor of someone standing on the scaffold with the noose around his neck, distracting the executioner and the crowd with wisecracks in the hope that the cloud of dust on the horizon may—just by the slimmest of chances may—portend the arrival of a royal reprieve.
That description is particularly apt, as Brunner's brand of humor is just that: a holding action. His formula is simple: take a trend observed to be happening in society and project its logical conclusion. That conclusion is something we can laugh at now; we may not laugh at all if/when it really happens. (p. 93)
The weakest of Brunner's humor can be found in the "Galactic Consumer Reports."… The basic device in these stories is to substitute consumer goods from some far-future time for the kinds of products being analyzed in these magazines now. There are two reasons why these stories do not succeed. First, the structure to which Brunner commits himself is too restrictive; he cannot move about as freely as he does in his other stories. A second reason, dependent upon the first, is that Brunner is forced by the structure of the story to make the products analyzed so futuristic as to be incredible. (p. 94)
Brunner does not allow the structure of his stories to dominate at any time. Rather, he cloaks his conflicts in a wealth of detail, futuristic and otherwise. His characters, no matter how far removed in time or space from our present situation, are completely credible; they function on the basis of the same values as do Brunner's readers. Over and over he takes our present value systems and tests them in situations where they have never been tested before. They hold up well, for the most part. Through this kind of value-testing Brunner shows us that some of the periphery of our value systems is indeed superfluous. Does it matter much if, as in "Eye of the Beholder," the artist himself appears grotesque to the human eye with its built-in set of expectations? Of course not; the concepts of art, beauty, creativity and expression all remain valid. And, in terms of the human condition as we understand it, why shouldn't they? (pp. 94-5)
Stephen C. Holder, "John Brunner's Short Fiction: The More Things Change …," 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. 78-95.
John Brunner's poetry is about poetry—what it is (and what it isn't), what it has been in the Western tradition, and what it can be to help man either survive in this world or build new ones. While his poetry is often satire or explicit social protest, his primary subject is the poem itself as liberating music. Each poem is a further statement and embodiment of an aesthetic which he describes pointedly in the title of his first volume, Life in an Explosive Forming Press…. (p. 96)
Poetry [according to Brunner] is a sculpting of words in time and space, as they appear on a page, as they sound to an audience, as they are breathed by a reader. Poetic "statement" explodes into packed images of poem as sculpture.
"Life in an Explosive Forming Press" represents, as much as it states, his aesthetic. In a subtitle he calls the work "A Modern Sonnet" in order to manipulate the reader's expectations about conventional form. Before they are even in tune, the reader's presuppositions are immediately violated by a first line that begins with "and." A settled sensibility expecting suspenseful build-up in the form of the sonnet is repeatedly dislodged by middle-of-the-sentence syntax…. (p. 97)
Though Brunner unifies "Wordsharp" in part through the use of a dramatic frame, he also embeds his images in what Charles Olson has called "composition by field, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the 'old' base of the non-projective." Brunner's use of "projective verse" means that he often sets up a poem on the page structurally so that it will most closely approximate its rhythms as it is read aloud. Each image works also according to what Pound and the Imagists called the "language of common speech," which itself creates "new rhythms." Brunner's images most resemble what Pound described as "hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite." And his style further demonstrates the conventional Imagist belief that "concentration is of the very essence of poetry."
Often Brunner speaks through an observer-narrator who blends self-reflective commentary with dramatic incident and dialogue. The result is generally images tightly packed in a particular spatio-temporal context. (p. 98)
Brunner's propensity to create layers of interlocking yet conflicting tones contributes significantly to the complexity his speakers manage to sustain [in "Multiple Choice"]. As a fade-out, "Multiple Choice" surfaces inner conflicts faced by the surgeon-poet who now cuts loose his creation for analysis by the critic trained in "paper chromatography." Curiously, although the poem concludes his first volume, Brunner generally introduces his poetry readings with it. The tone is learned, pompous, even smug, and ever-threatening, beckoning the audience (with Brunner—as distinct from his speaker—presiding) to explore and to enjoy exploiting the poetic resources of "the subtlest language ever evolved on earth." (p. 100)
Brunner as theorist … sounds like Wordsworth or perhaps any practicing poet who works by "projecting the mores and emotional responses of realistic human beings in a realistically different environment"…. (p. 102)
Patterns of humor from light puns to invective … orchestrate Brunner's musical rhythms and provide the clearest link between poems embodying his aesthetic and his satire or poems of social comment. (p. 104)
The extent to which Brunner "applied a film technique to prose fiction" … underscores obvious similarities between his science fiction at "the forward interface of now" and the social satire in his own poetry.
Brunner's poetic satire is equally effective, though less immediately jarring than his poems on poetry. His pack of images deals contrasts, paradoxes; exploding sounds turn back upon themselves to create at once self-conscious irony that is personal with consciously limited perspective, and direct commentary which itself carries less force but which serves to counterpoint other "wordsharp" images. Brunner's satiric poems are generally about using people, things, and destructive technology in ways that are out of tune with the basic life processes. Opposition between the "simple" and the "perilous," "freedom" and "repression," images of mind cut off from body, of napalm destruction and the corruption of money are of course stock subjects for the satirist. Less obvious are his images of urban society, officials co-opting "movements," and the hypocrisy of the white liberal.
As poetic sculptor, Brunner has his satirical persona surgically cut and reshape his perceptions in three basic patterns. Above all else, his speakers emphasize a deterioration in modern man's inability to see life whole as an ongoing process. And measured against this standard of an integrated "felt" existence, his satiric vision sharply attacks the perversions and distortions of mechanized society and man's interiorizing of its wrenched, dualistic values. Finally, as corollaries to this general state of the life force run amuck, the speakers probe the dissonance of violence, greed, and hypocrisy in the Present Interface of Now.
"Balance" is itself a key term in Brunner's world of explosion and disequilibrium. In "On Balance" he suggests that using people, things, and human reason itself perversely merely to escape momentary difficulty produces destructive technology. Child abuse, slavery, and official execution are products of "the pure white light of reason" gone out of balance. Similarly, in "He Was Such a Nice Chap—Why Did He Do It?" Brunner portrays the impotence of the disintegrated psyche that doesn't understand "the art of letting go," a picture of modern man whose mind is "cut off from his body." Emerging from the dualism of man's fragmented perceptions and values is a sense of hopelessness that finds expression in … overt self-destruction. (pp. 104-05)
As poet, Brunner starts with the twofold assumption that words create and define the worlds we know and that the process of creating through words is important and fun. He therefore develops an aesthetic in the poems themselves, an aesthetic of "the best words" sculpted into "their right order" to create humor that can be subtly disarming or supercharged, and social commentary that can be witty satire or explicit protest or both. Brunner and his speakers thus self-consciously observe themselves in action. Following the influence of Tristram Shandy, Brunner the poet writes poems about poems, theories about theory, and satirizes satire—all of which help create the sense of distance that pervades his works on the whole. Commenting on the almost absolute fusion of theme and structure he is seeking in his poetry, Brunner acknowledges that he wants "to be able to discipline in formal pattern … things which ordinarily are too terrible, too disgusting, too repulsive to be accepted—except with a shock and a shudder"…. (pp. 107-08)
Ronald Primeau, "'It Goes Bang': Structures of Rhythms in the Poetry 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. 96-109.
Given the computer's significance, it is understandable that much of today's science fiction deals with this machine. Unfortunately, science fiction … has its share of technophiles (those who see human survival as mainly dependent upon further technological development) and technophobes (those who see further technological development as the major threat to human survival); such simple-minded approaches are neither realistic nor useful. Yet, in the hands of a superior practitioner, the speculative and extrapolative nature of science fiction makes it an unparalleled tool for exploring the fundamental questions raised by the man-computer relationship and its societal consequences. John Brunner, whose works deal extensively with computers and their human effects, is especially well suited to be the focus of such an analysis. Few authors draw such complete and informed pictures of the computer in our future….
Brunner accepts the basic principle that social relationships determine specific technological design and applications; technology is not self-creating. The capabilities and assigned tasks of his major fictional computers certainly reflect the values and interests of their owners and operators….
Most familiar computer uses exist in Brunner's works and provide insights into the man-computer relationship. (p. 168)
Many problems of internal unrest and imbalance in modern industrial societies, so graphically depicted in Brunner's major works, may be due to the absence of internal control systems of adequate scope, speed, and reliability. The computer can meet these needs. Brunner recognized this in a very early novel, The Threshold of Eternity. In grandiose space-opera tradition an interstellar war between man and aliens rages through space and time. Human resources have been totally mobilized for the war effort and dispersed defensively throughout the solar system. The narrow margin for victory tolerates no inefficiency. Yet it is not an oppressive society, for mankind is joined in mutual dedication to the common good. People laugh and love, as well as fight. The heart of this system is a computer, the only possible means for the coordination of such a complex and far-flung assemblage.
Brunner perfects this image in a recent story, "Bloodstream." The city has become a living organism, the next major stage of human sociocultural evolution; the socially patterned acts of individuals in business, communication, transportation, and so forth, constitute the internal structures which function to keep this superorganism "alive." In effect, the entire city is a self-regulating biological machine. The disruptive person is analogous to a disease germ, the police to antibodies.
Technology does not automatically solve human problems; it does increase our alternatives…. Brunner appreciates this; he is certainly no believer in the inevitability of effective action through technological advance.
This is humorously illustrated in TJO [The Jagged Orbit] by the "desketary," a computerized secretary and information storage and retrieval system used by psychiatrists at a mental hospital. It is a very useful machine, keeping patient records, recording therapy sessions, giving access to banked data, and capable of visual data display, statistical analysis, and language translations. But it breaks down whenever it "hears" blue language: "What in the world was the good of letting the contract for the Ginsberg Hospital's computing system to a firm which was currently hiring as many neo-puritans as was IBM? When at least eighty percent of the patients he was trying to cope with were suffering from sexual hangups, it was a constant source of irritation to have these censor-circuits expressing reflexive mechanical Grundyism all the time"…. Thus do human choices structure technology.
The treatment of mental illness provides a more serious example. Doctors at the Ginsberg compute patient personality profiles which are compared with ideal "healthy" parameters. Hospital chief Elias Mogshack, himself mentally disturbed, expounds a psychiatric theory based on extreme individualism, a doctrine so alienating that patients are rendered increasingly unable to function in society. Yet this theory is the basis for defining the "healthy" parameters. As one character observes, "It sounds more as though they sew a straitjacket and trim the poor devils to fit"….
Likewise, the development of accurate data by the computer is not a substitute for value decisions. When Thomas Grey, insurance actuary in TSLU [The Sheep Look Up], discovers that life expectancy in the United States has been going down for the past three years, his only action is to order a hike in life insurance premiums. (pp. 169-70)
Finally, the greater range of alternative actions made possible by technological advance means little if people are not aware of them…. Science fiction's solution is computerized "teaching machines." Presumably, Brunner utilized such devices to [teach information and, in some works, values]. (p. 171)
The computer as worker is a … major area of Brunner's fictional concern. This includes computer-assisted automation and its two subtypes, robots and androids…. Given the overpopulated and high-consumption worlds typical of his major works, Brunner obviously has extrapolated the continued development of automation. These societies could not exist at all without such systems. Unfortunately, abundance for so many coupled with conspicuous consumption … produce intolerable strains on the environment and world resources. Under such conditions living standards will fall, as TSLU demonstrates. This problem is rooted in the economic and political systems depicted by Brunner, with computer technology treated as neither cause nor savior; Shalmaneser and Robert Gottschalk are ethically neutral entities, and neither can act outside their programs.
Brunner creates a very advanced system of automation in "Thou Good and Faithful," a story which symbolically sums up his view of the relationship between technology and man. A military expedition from Earth is scouting for planets suitable for future colonization. They discover a park-like world apparently inhabited by gentle, yet independent, robots [which are under the direction of massive, master computers]…. A master computer explains to the Earthmen that their creators were once much like the humans, preferring quantitative expansion over qualitative growth. But the creation of an ultimate system of automation proved to be the tool needed to turn the vanished species toward transcendent concerns. Eventually the machines helped their creators "evolve" beyond the old material world, which was given to the computers as a gift. Now these machines were offering themselves, and potential transcendence, to mankind. They are, and can only be, good and faithful servants. (pp. 171-72)
Brunner provides an excellent example of an advance in computer technology likely to add new industries, jobs, and products to the economy. A "full range of contemporary domestic autonomic services" is introduced in "You'll Take the High Road." These are specialized, miniature robots, apparently the product of a technological breakthrough equivalent to the development of fractional horsepower motors which gave us home power tools, kitchen appliances, and many specialized industrial tools. A whole new world of consumer goods appears, including the "chess autonome," "cerebresponsive chronological autonome" (a clock keyed to a specific person's brain), "liquor autonome" (in this case, the mixologist is shaped like a St. Bernard), the "Jackson-POLAC computer" (paints wall murals), "Cordon Bleu autonome" (a cook), and "General Purpose autonome" (your own man Friday). (pp. 172-73)
Although the "autonome" represents an important development, Brunner's treatment is tongue-in-cheek. He recognizes the tendency for abundance to trickle off into decadence and waste. His "autonomes" are snobs, nagging their owners to buy more of them and making invidious comparisons with nonowners. Thorstein Veblen's leisure class is alive and well in science fiction.
The development of sophisticated robots in human form, androids, eventually leads to questions of android rights and human-android relations. Brunner's Into the Slave Nebula is set in an affluent, leisure-oriented society based on android labor. The androids are made of organic material and are human in capacity, response, and appearance, except for their blue skin. They feel joy and pain, yet they have no rights. They are bought and sold, worked and harmed at will by their owners. The analogy with human slavery is clear, and this is Brunner's intention.
But from the standpoint of computer development another point can be made. The line between man and machine eventually disappears. This is the ultimate step, far beyond today's master-slave relationship between computer and man and even beyond the symbiotic relationship in Brunner's "Wasted on the Young," where human brains are used as control units in automated systems. In evolutionary terms, technology is equivalent to an extension or modification of man's basic organic equipment. The computer extends man's mind in the same sense that the telescope extends his eye. Perhaps man is already a cyborg, an entity part man and part machine which functions as a whole. Stripped of all his technology, man could no more survive than if he were deprived of any other vital organ….
Forecasting is a third major area of computer applications found in many of Brunner's stories…. (p. 173)
Unfortunately, Brunner makes computer forecasting look very easy…. Computer capability cannot substitute for the lack of basic social, cultural, and psychological knowledge of how social systems function. This is frequently overlooked by physical scientists, professional futurists, and science fiction authors. Yet many anticipated developments in forecasting will not occur without growth in the social and behavioral sciences commensurate with computer developments…. It is no coincidence that those characters acting as problem solvers in many of Brunner's works include sociologists, anthropologists, and ecologists. This contrasts sharply with traditional science fiction heroes, who tend to have engineering or physical science backgrounds. (p. 174)
Brunner's balanced insight provides a useful guide; the computer is simply a tool man uses to achieve his ends. Once created, a machine may generate unintended consequences or be put to evil uses, but basically it will perform as man designed it. Blaming the machine for this equates to condemning the hammer for missing the nail but not the thumb. Humanity remains the problem and the solution. (p. 175)
Edward L. Lamie and Joe De Bolt, "The Computer and Man: The Human Use of Non-Human Beings in the 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. 167-76.