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Saturday 2 July 2011

John Brunner: a British Philip K. Dick?

John Brunner (pictured left at Eastercon in 1976) was a British science fiction writer whose career in many ways paralleled that of his illustrious American contemporary Philip K. Dick. Their first stories were published within a year of each other (Brunner's in 1951 at the age of 17, Dick's in 1952 at the age of 23), and they both went on to generate an impressive corpus of novels and short fiction throughout the 1950s and 60s. They were two of the most prolific contributors to Donald Wollheim's line of Ace "paperback originals"... and even shared the credits on two 1960 Ace Doubles: D-421, featuring Dr. Futurity and Slavers of Space, and D-457, with Vulcan's Hammer and The Skynappers (for the benefit of the uninitiated, Wollheim was notorious for inflicting sensationalist titles on his authors, and all these stories are more sober and intelligent than their titles suggest!).

Both Dick and Brunner slowed their production rate in the late 60s and 70s... and in both cases their "academically recognized" work dates from this period. Aside from their writing, the two authors had other things in common: they were both notoriously paranoid in their dealings with other people, and both had a morbid obsession with the East-West arms race and the threat of nuclear war. And, sadly, they both died in middle age -- Dick in 1982 at the age of 53, Brunner in 1995 at the age of 60.

There are important differences, of course -- most notably the fact that all of Dick's novels are still in print, while very few of Brunner's are. This may be down to the large number of Dick's works that have been made into successful motion pictures... a mixed blessing, perhaps, but one that has yet to be inflicted on anything John Brunner wrote. People who only know Brunner through his most famous works -- the huge, near-future dystopias of Stand on Zanzibar (1968), The Sheep Look Up (1972) and The Shockwave Rider (1975) -- might add that the fictional themes and subject matter of the two writers are also completely different. But John Brunner produced many other excellent works that are now almost forgotten, but which show interesting other dimensions to his character.

Although his best-known works all deal with the sociology of the near future, many of Brunner's other novels have more conventional science fiction themes. It's widely known that he was the first person to use the word "Worm" in the context of computing... but less well known that he was the first person to use the word "Gray" as the name of an alien species! His obscure 1965 novel The Martian Sphinx (published under the pseudonym of Keith Woodcott) includes a race of enigmatic aliens who are dubbed "The Grays"!

Amongst Brunner's vast output, there are several works that could be called "Dickian", including the following:
  • The Gaudy Shadows (1960, later expanded into a 1970 novel of the same name), in which an entrepreneur constructs multi-sensory illusions for the entertainment of the idle rich. The illusory worlds are created using a combination of stage sets, simulacra, hypnosis and liberal doses of an LSD-like drug -- the latter designed to enhance the brain's tendency to pareidolia: "to reject the actual appearance of objects and seize on their resemblances to other things". This is Brunner's most direct attempt to depict "the malleability of externals under psychosis or drugs" -- a phrase he would later use to describe the work of Philip K. Dick!
  • No Other Gods But Me (1966, expanded from A Time to Rend, 1956). The protagonist of this novella discovers that his life is being screwed up, deliberately and systematically, by a shadowy religious cult called the Real Truthers... who in turn are being manipulated by a despotic ruler in a parallel universe. The hero shifts between the two realities, and is told that originally they were one and the same: "Our suspicion is that the reality of the pre-animate cosmos differed from its present reality; to put it in the most extreme terms, the universe may well be a figment of the minds of mankind. Certainly the massed minds of the race constitute the only force known to be powerful enough to change it. You are to accept that long ago -- perhaps ten thousand years -- it was changed."
  • Father of Lies (1968), in which a group of vacationing students, having failed to find the Loch Ness monster, turn their attention to a strangely shunned area of rural England. They discover a small, self-contained world of fantasy -- complete with dragon, ogre, mediaeval villagers and a gothic castle. This all turns out to be the projected dream-world of a big-brained, perpetually child-like mutant -- born in Victorian times and steeped in Arthurian mythology: "At what stage the make-believe turned to that horrible reality, we'll perhaps never be sure... Maybe his power, till then dormant, matured. And then, all at once, the world turned to nightmare for everyone around him. The land of legend escaped from his mind and pervaded the real world."
  • More Things in Heaven (1973, expanded from The Astronauts Must Not Land, 1963). Strange events occur when the first faster-than-light ship emerges from hyperspace. Crewmembers are seen wandering around on Earth, spouting philosophy, several days before their ship is due to land. Vast ethereal figures, possibly angels or demons, are seen in the sky. And when the ship is boarded, it's found to contain mis-shapen monsters claiming to be the original crew! All this is explained in pseudo-Gnostic terms worthy of Philip K. Dick himself: "What you refer to as normal space is a very special case of hyperspace -- indeed, an artificial distortion of it. Human awareness isn't native to such a continuum and includes concepts which here can find no real referents. In consequence you 'see through a glass darkly', and in days when the shock was fresher attempts were made to convey a vague memory of your original reality by means of myths and legends."
As to John Brunner's views on Philip K. Dick... as mentioned in an earlier post, he was his biggest fan this side of the Atlantic!

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