Sci Fi Friday: meet John Brunner

The Modern Masters of Science Fiction series is devoted to books that survey the work of individual authors who continue to inspire and advance science fiction.

Under his own name and numerous pseudonyms, John Brunner (1934–1995) was one of the most prolific and influential science fiction authors of the late twentieth century.

Jad Smith, author of the MMSF series title John Brunner, describes the author’s early novels as “eerily prescient.”

“His Hugo Award-winning Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is set in 2010 and feels very contemporary in its handling of media saturation, urban overcrowding, terrorism, and genetic modification,” Smith told us for a previous blog post Q&A.

The Shockwave Rider (1975) is a forerunner of cyberpunk,” Smith added. “It finds Brunner imagining a “data net” resembling the Internet, coining the term ‘worm’ to describe self-replicating malware, and broadly engaging with the idea of information society.”

Before the cyberpunk revolution, Brunner owed his greatest fame to the experimental novel Stand on Zanzibar. A dystopian epic written from multiple viewpoints, Stand on Zanzibar found such a wide readership that, like A Canticle for Liebowitz, it became one of those science fiction novels non-sci-fi readers loved in droves. Influenced by John Dos Passos, and ambitious in both scope and theme, Zanzibar won the Hugo and moved Brunnernot altogether willinglytoward a growing camp of British writers who insisted sci-fi pursue literary quality rather than the commercial success favored by their American brethren.

That rift widened in coming years. Furthermore, critics took Brunner to task regardless of his take on events, condemning his pessimism or his optimism as the opportunity presented itself. Famously prickly, Brunner seldom if ever apologized for either approach. As he said in 1975:

The problem with being a science-fiction writer these days is that you have to make do with what material is offered you by the real world. This has always been true, of course, but at the present moment the real world is offering far more material for dystopic than for utopic writing. There is a fundamental assumption in The Sheep Look Up: that the human race is so apathetic about its own shortcomings that it may prove in the long run not to be a viable species. Personally, I detest this
idea. . . . But the more one looks at the consequences that have resulted from our present technological ingenuity and the degree to which we have rushed ahead blindly . . . the more one is included to believe that perhaps things will be that bad.

Brunner became a tragic figure in the 1980s. Hypertension affected his health, and the loss of his wife and business manager to a series of strokes left him devastated by depression. Virtually all of his books except Zanzibar fell out of print. He turned to horror, dark fantasy, even mystery, without success. As Smith notes, he “spoke openly of the collapse of his career and expressed the hope that some publisher might offer him proofreading work to do as a way of paying his bills.”

Determined to make a comeback, Brunner ceased taking blood pressure medicine in order to have more energy for writing. The same year a stroke killed him. But he left a legacy.

“He defied categorization and blended many of the best elements of genre and mainstream, of the American and British SF traditions,” Smith said. “His hybrid approach at times chafed on his contemporaries and put him out of step with the market, but later generations of innovative SF writers have taken note of its difference and built fantastic edifices upon it.”

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