John Brunner was one of the leading British science fiction writers of the last four decades. He died in Glasgow while attending - among hundreds of other authors and publishers and nearly 5,000 fans of the genre - the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, where he had been scheduled to speak on several panels.
Brunner sold his first novel at the age of 17, and was a prolific writer throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Much of his early work was "space opera", galactic adventure stories, which were distinguished from the "pulp" material of many other writers of the time by their literacy. He went on to write nearly 100 books, fiction and non-fiction, under a variety of names.
His most significant books stepped away from narrative conventions. His massive Stand on Zanzibar (1968) was about the problem of overpopulation: the title came from the premise that by the year 2010 the world's population could - just - stand shoulder to shoulder on the island of Zanzibar. The novel is written in an experimental jigsaw style, whereby hundreds of short snippets build up to give a powerful feeling of desperation: he once commented that "it should be read like a newspaper, not like a novel". The book won the Hugo Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the Prix Apollo. The Sheep Look Up (1972), another huge novel, again mixes fiction with fact, this time on the subject of pollution. The Shockwave Rider (1975) was one of the earliest and is still one of the best novels about computers; Brunner was way ahead of his time in seeing their true social impact being communication rather than number-crunching, and one of their threats being a loss of privacy.
These dystopian books managed to push a message without being polemical; Brunner was using the near future as a metaphor for the present. He said at the time of The Shockwave Rider that "I have always found fact infinitely more interesting than myths and falsehoods". He was a merciless critic of the illogicalities and deceptions of pseudo-science; in a paper at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1975 he lambasted the then-popular writings of such people as Erich von Daniken, T. Lobsang Rampa and L. Ron Hubbard. "The real universe", he said, "has a marvellous and unique quality, inasmuch as it and only it can take us completely by surprise." In science fiction, he wrote, the "certainty that tomorrow will be different from today in ways we can't predict, can be transmuted to a sense of excitement and anticipation, occasionally evolving into awe".
In 1957 Brunner became a member of the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests; he was a leading member of the Hampstead group from which the national Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was formed. With his first wife Marjorie and Bertrand Russell's former wife Dora Black he organised CND caravans into Europe, and travelled around the world promoting the CND cause. At that time many CND members were heavily into skiffle and Brunner wrote several songs for them, including the CND Marching Song, with its memorable opening lines, "Don't you hear the H-bomb's thunder/ Echo like the crack of doom?", which was sung on the first Aldermaston March in 1958. His non-SF novel The Days of March (1988) is a supremely evocative fictionalisation of the early days of the movement, and is one of his most significant works.
John Brunner was one of the most intelligent and cultured men I have known. He was extraordinarily widely read, and both his work and his conversation reflected this. He was also a marvellous satirist; he wrote some wonderfully witty songs and poems as a pastiche of other people's work. His spoof article ''Report on the Nature of the Lunar Surface'' was a ''proof'' that the Moon is really made of green cheese; while the last story published before his death, in the magazine Beyond, was a hilarious science fictional homage to A.P. Herbert.
He was sometimes considered a ''difficult person'' by his peers and editors; he could certainly be irascible. The reason for this, I suspect, was two- fold. Brunner was a per- fectionist: he detested sloppy thinking and sloppy work by others, especially if it affected him, and was not slow in saying so. Also, and perhaps not so easily seen by those who criticised him, he was an intensely honourable man; when others in the modern, money- driven world of publishing, were not so honourable, I believe he was genuinely bewildered and hurt. He was aware that some people saw his reactions simply as anger. If someone was able, quietly, to calm him down, he was deeply grateful to them; sadly, too few people could be bothered to.
It was undoubtedly this apparent bad temper, which was really nothing of the kind, which caused rifts between Brunner and some publishers, who didn't have the time to smooth (as they saw it) ruffled egos. For the last few years he found it increasingly difficult to get his novels published. His short fiction, published in the genre magazines, show that his writing was as sharp and well written as ever. His early death, in the midst of those who cared for both him and his work, has left the science fiction community shocked, and has deprived the genre of one of its finest writers.
David V. Barratt
John Kilian Houston Brunner, writer: born Preston Crowmarsh, Oxfordshire 14 September 1934; married 1958 Marjorie Sauer (died 1986), 1991 LiYi Tan; died Glasgow 25 August 1995.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies