My review of the John Brunner biography

John Brunner is a science fiction writer who should be exalted among the genre’s giants, but has instead fallen out of fashion. A new biography of the British writer might not restore his reputation, but those who read it will find a new-found respect for a man who was ahead of his time. Unfortunately, those who do read it probably already know that.

I first became aware of Brunner while I was in university and was working my way through all of the Hugo-winning novels, novellas and short stories, figuring they would be wheat already separated from chaff. The one book that stood out from all the rest was the novel Stand on Zanzibar by Brunner. To this day, I count it among my favourites.

The book led me to his other groundbreaking novels, The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider, the former of which is a novel of a coming ecological disaster and the latter which is a prototype for the cyberpunk novel.

The impact of these books is fully covered in the biography John Brunner by Jad Smith. The Eastern Illinois University professor explains how Brunner carefully crafted books that stretched his own writing abilities and the limits of the science fiction novel.

While he was a contemporary of the New Wave authors in Britain, Brunner was never part of that movement, but stood apart and was frequently the target of abuse from them. As the biography describes it, it almost sounds like professional jealousy. Brunner sold his stories where he could make the most money and that was in the U.S. magazine market, not the smaller British outlets. His style was a fusion of the best of the American and British science fiction traditions. (I must confess that before reading this biography, I always thought Brunner was an American!)

Brunner had a handle on what editors wanted and was able to write stories that sold. While some of his stories might have been formulaic, he was always looking for inventive ways to tell them so he was not the sell-out that the New Wave purists might have believed. Brunner didn’t think the idea of the starving artist was all that romantic and instead chose to make money from his work. Despite that, you couldn’t say he got rich from doing it. He had financial problems of his own and his output, while prolific by many standards, was only ever enough to keep him solvent. His output slowed more as he matured as a writer and chose his stories and markets more carefully.

Smith’s biography charts Brunner’s career from start to finish with great detail. While Brunner may have had a reputation as a bit of an egotist, Smith portrays him sympathetically and you wonder if some of that bad reputation may have been the work of disinformation spread my his New Wave rivals.

There isn’t much about his personal life in the book, although you learn about his marriage to Marjorie and there various ups and downs and how his own health declined after her death. He remarried later in life, but died only a few short years afterwards.

The book concludes with a Q&A with Brunner and it is effective as it reinforces a lot of what is explained previously and acts as a sort of summary of the author’s life.

As a fan of both Brunner and literary biographies, I found this book entertaining and informative. I learned a lot about a writer about which I knew virtually nothing. I learned more about some brilliant books that I admired and now have a line on even more Brunner books that I have not yead read, but will do at the next opportunity.

I recommend this book to anyone who is an admirer of John Brunner or is a fan of science fiction history.

John Brunner
By Jad Smith
University of Illinois Press
Price: $21.95, paper; $80 cloth
http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/96pne3gh9780252037337.html