John Brunner’s Novels Have Scope That Requires Focus

Three John Brunner Novels: Stand on Zanzibar, The Crucible of Time, and A Maze of Stars

After seeing a small article on John Brunner in Tor.com, I went to my shelves and found three books by him, two of which were recommended in the article. I started with Stand on Zanzibar and discovered that I had a problem. Was it because my reading habits had changed?

This was late 2022: other than another hospitalization for my mother, things had calmed down a bit with my parents. My mother had settled into memory care and the late-night calls had subsided.

I used to read a lot more, but now I only read right before bedtime. I usually read about 30 minutes because I have to get enough sleep for the next day. Sometimes I push it to an hour or two if I’m really interested. Thus, I’m often reading my novels in short chunks.

Was that why I was bamboozled by Brunner’s Zanzibar? I just couldn’t get traction. I seemed to be reading in slow motion. I used to love sifting through fictional headlines–which Zanzibar has in spades–but I couldn’t remember enough story to pick up where I left off. Over a two week period, I restarted that novel five times. I finally put it down.

In my defense, I did read a lot of Terry Pratchett novels in 2022. Because of that I wasn’t willing to give up on John Brunner, so I opened A Maze of Stars and had a totally different experience.

A Maze of Stars has immense scope (both over time and space), yet manages to provide gripping personal stories. The Ship (known as “Ship” to characters who speak with it) originally seeded six hundred planets in the vast Arm of Stars with human settlers. Most planets had to be transformed; some successfully, some not. Some settlements and cultures devolved, but some kept advanced space travel and visited other systems–sometimes improving the lives of their neighbors. Ship is responsible for checking on all of them. Once Ship gets to the end of the Arm of Stars, it must travel to the beginning of the Arm again. At that point, Ship begins visiting the planets again.

The kicker, for Ship, is that traveling to the beginning results in time travel, either forward or backward. After the extensive trip, it must again figure out who it is, where it is, and when it exists. At the beginning of the book, Ship is once again figuring out the current time as it starts its cycle of visits. Ship realizes on the first planet that it visits that it has gone backward in time, so the reader benefits from Ship’s knowledge of what will happen in the future for that planet as well as what has happened in the past.

Ship is lonely, even if it can’t articulate its emotions. Ship can take on passengers, usually only a single person but sometimes a couple. Ship picks people who are going to die anyway, then lets them off where they want (even if that planet is probably not best for them). Throughout this book, we meet interesting cultures and characters, as well as seeing/knowing the results of the colonies. Throughout all the individual stories, however, Ship realizes that it has been damaged and wonders how far the damage runs.

With A Maze of Stars, I had no problem with focus. It’s an excellent SF novel that shows a very big picture, as well as the individuals and their smaller stories (which might have helped my focus). I went on to The Crucible of Time, which turned out to be a similar contrast of large scope with individual stories.

The Crucible of Time opens with students watching a simulation of the creation of their solar system:

A sun bloomed, with its retinue of planets, moons, and comets. One was the budworld. Slowly… a wild planet curved out of space toward what had once been their race’s home.

“If only they had known…” somebody murmured.

“But they did not!” the instructor stressed. “Remember that throughout the whole of what you are to watch! You are not here to pity them, but to admire!”

Obviously, their civilization survives. Brunner tells us that at the beginning–so I was worried that I’d lose focus reading this. But I didn’t. These aren’t humans, but they tend to have human sensibilities and flaws. I became engrossed in every story: the people who first look to the stars, the people who explore and find a cure to a scurvy-like disease, the people who advance technology, the people who survive what looks like a mini ice age, the people who survive the flooding as their climate warms, the people who investigate the declining birth rates, the people who push to go to their moon (which appears to have an atmosphere), and the people who do the first space shot with someone aboard. Many of the characters are fascinating, inspiring, and larger than life. Many have flaws, are petty, or do their utmost to keep their race on that planet and out of space. Brunner gives us all kinds of characters.

I was riveted, when I thought I wouldn’t be. I call them “people,” but they have two claws instead of hands, only one eye, foot pads, and a mantle (like a crustacean?) One could forget about that, but then someone would say “on the other claw…” or mention their foot pads. The only reason I’m sure they don’t have two eyes is that there is only mention of one’s “eye.” Their mantles get scarred with age, so females with smooth unmarred mantles are sexier. They don’t seem to wear clothes, but sometimes females wear items on their head or mantle (little items or a harness made of shiny stuff–maybe jewelry?)

Although it’s hard to know exactly how much time passes, it’s obviously passing. Whole families and tribes get wiped out. Huge cities are built and later swallowed by ice, or floods, or a comet. Religions come and go, as well as cults. Scientific rules are made, and later disproved. The reader sees them rebuild, and rebuild again. They face an existential crises where females can’t “bud” (get pregnant). They use sea-beasts for transportation and breed all sorts of unintelligent but useful creatures (i.e., for transportation to pumping water to keeping cities afloat). Much of their technology is biologically based.

Overall, both A Maze of Stars and The Crucible of Time were excellent. I highly recommend them. However, Stand on Zanzibar, which won Brunner a Hugo and possibly more, was difficult for me. It does require focus and perhaps a better memory than I possess. I may try to read it again–if I can get enough story and characters into my brain, I might be able to finish it.

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