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Brunner, John

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1934-1995) UK author, mostly of sf, though he published several thrillers, contemporary novels and volumes of poetry [see Checklist below]. He began very early to submit sf stories to periodicals – several appeared under the working name K Houston Brunner, based on his own middle names – and when he was 17 published his first novel, Galactic Storm (1951) under the House Name Gill Hunt. Even in a field noted for its early starters, his precocity was remarkable. His first American sale, "Thou Good and Faithful" as by John Loxmith, was featured in Astounding in March 1953, and in the same year he published in another American magazine the first novel he would later choose to acknowledge, "The Wanton of Argus" (Summer 1953 Two Complete Science-Adventure Books) as K Houston Brunner; it was eventually to appear in book form as The Space-Time Juggler (1953 magazine citation as above; 1963 chap dos) which, with its sequel, The Altar on Asconel (1965 dos), plus an article on Space Opera and "The Man from the Big Dark" (June 1958 Science Fiction Adventures), was much later assembled as Interstellar Empire (omni 1976). This Interstellar Empire sequence takes place in the twilight of a Galactic Empire – a time rather favoured by Brunner in his Space Operas – when barbarism is general, though the Rimworlds (see Galactic Lens; Long Night; Rimworld) hold some hope for adventurers and mutants, who may eventually rebuild civilization. But the series terminates abruptly, before its various protagonists are able to begin their renaissance, almost certainly reflecting Brunner's ultimate lack of interest in such stories, which he registered in print – though certainly he subsequently revised many of them, not necessarily to their betterment – as "naive" adventures.

In any case, this lessening of interest evinced itself only after very extensive publication of stories and novels describable as literate Space Opera. Initially, from 1953 to about 1957, Brunner's activity was intermittent, mainly through the difficulty of making a living from full-time writing, a problem about which he was always bitterly articulate. In the mid-1950s he was working full-time with a publishing house and elsewhere, writing only occasionally. In 1955 he published one story under the pseudonym Trevor Staines. A little later he sold two novels, again first to magazines: Threshold of Eternity (December 1957-February 1958 New Worlds; 1959 dos) and The 100th Millennium (1958 Science Fantasy #29 as "Earth Is But a Star"; 1959 dos US; rev vt Catch a Falling Star 1968); they are two of the first novels he placed with Ace Books. With the signing of the contract for the first, Brunner took up full-time freelancing once again.

Over the next six years he published under his own name and as Keith Woodcott a total of 27 novels with Ace Books, in addition to work with other publishers. For some readers, this spate of Hard-SF adventure stories still represents Brunner's most relaxed and fluent work as an author. Two from 1960 are typical of the storytelling enjoyment he was able to create by applying to "modest" goals the formidable craft he had developed. The Atlantic Abomination (1960 dos) is a genuinely terrifying story about a monstrous Alien, long buried beneath the Atlantic, who survives by mentally enslaving "inferior" species via Psi Power, rather like the thrint in Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs (1966). Sanctuary in the Sky (1960 dos) is a short and simple Sense-of-Wonder tale, set in the Far Future in a star cluster very distant from Earth. Various conflicting planetary cultures (all human) can meet in peace only on the mysterious Waystation, a vast self-sustaining Space Habitat. A Spaceship docks, transferring its load of squabbling passengers into Waystation (see Ship of Fools); with them is a mild-mannered Mysterious Stranger who immediately disappears. Soon it turns out that he is an Earthman, that the habitat is in fact an ancient but still functioning Generation Starship owned by Earth, and that he has come to retrieve it. Mankind needs the ship: though this Galaxy is full, "there are other galaxies". Decades later, Brunner would rework the thematic concerns of this short novel at much greater length in A Maze of Stars (1991) (see below).

The mass of Ace novels contains a second series, also truncated, though its structure is more open-ended than that of the earlier one. The Zarathustra Refugee Planets sequence, made up of Castaways' World (1963 dos US; rev vt Polymath 1974), Secret Agent of Terra (1962 dos US; rev vt The Avengers of Carrig 1969) and The Repairmen of Cyclops (1965 dos US; rev 1981), all later assembled as Victims of the Nova (omni 1989), deals over a long timescale with the survivors of human-colonized Zarathustra; when the planet's sun goes nova, 3000 spaceships carry a few million survivors into exile on a variety of uninhabited worlds. 700 years later, the Corps Galactic has the job of maintaining the isolation of these various cultures, so that, having reverted to barbarism, they can develop naturally; their separate histories constitute a series of experiments in cultural evolution.

Despite these two series, and in contrast to some of his older peers, Brunner only rarely attempted to link individual items into series or fixups. Both his space operas and his later, more ambitious works are generally initially conceived in the versions which the reader sees on book publication. Further Ace titles of interest include Times Without Number (fixup 1962 dos; rev 1969), an Alternate History tale in which, centuries later, British rebels plan to reverse the victory of the Spanish Armada through Time Travel; The Rites of Ohe (1963 dos); To Conquer Chaos (1964; rev 1981); and The Day of the Star Cities (1965; rev vt Age of Miracles 1973) (see Wainscot Societies).

As the 1960s progressed, more space operas appeared as well as several story collections, including Out of My Mind (coll 1967; the UK coll with the same name is a different selection, 1968) and Not Before Time (coll 1968), which include outstanding items like "The Last Lonely Man" (May/June 1964 New Worlds) and "The Totally Rich" (June 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow). Brunner's stories are generally free in form, sometimes experimental. By 1965, with the publication of The Whole Man (stories 1958, 1959 Science Fantasy #32 and #34 as "City of the Tiger" and "The Whole Man"; exp fixup 1964; vt Telepathist 1965) and The Squares of the City (1965), it was evident that he would not be content to go on indefinitely writing the sf entertainments of which he had become master, even interesting explorations of tropes like Matter Transmission in novels like The Dreaming Earth (1963), material intriguing enough to inspire two of his later attempts to continue publishing works of wide appeal, Web of Everywhere (1974) and The Infinitive of Go (1980). But tales like this did not constitute attempts to transform his sf habitat. More ambitiously, The Whole Man, comprising fundamentally rewritten magazine stories and much new material, and generally considered to be one of Brunner's most successful novels, is an attempt to draw a psychological portrait of a deformed human with telepathic powers (see ESP; Telepathy) who gradually learns how to use these powers in psychiatrically curative ways (see Dream Hacking); for to communicate is to be human. The Squares of the City is a respectable try at a Chess novel in which a chosen venue (in this case a city) serves as the board and two of the characters are players while others are the various pieces. The stiffness of the resulting story may have been inevitable, especially since Brunner was playing out in his fiction a well-known master game. The Long Result (1965), more conventionally plotted as a detective/political thriller set on a near-Utopian future Earth on the cusp of being outstripped by a more rapidly developing colony world (see Colonization of Other Worlds), posits that racial prejudice (see Race in SF), now eliminated from human culture, will resurge as irrational hatred (by a few) of even benign Aliens.

Brunner's magnum opus of the 1960s, Stand on Zanzibar (1968) was perhaps the longest Genre-SF novel to that date, with the exception of Frank Herbert's Dune (1965), a fixup whose two parts reach 215,000 words; only the restored text of Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; exp 1991) is longer, at 220,000 words. Stand on Zanzibar came as the climax of a decade of sustained work. The panoramic Dystopian vision of this complex novel, much of which is set in an exemplary New York, rests on the assumption that Earth's population will continue to expand uncontrollably (see Overpopulation), partly as a consequence of the explosive implications of Eugenics-based ectogenesis as developed and promulgated world-wide by the Far Eastern land of Kakatang. The intersecting stories of two New Yorkers – Norman House, a Black executive on a mission to the Third World to facilitate further economic penetration, and Donald Hogan, a White "synthesist" and government agent, whose mission involves gaining control of the Kakatangian initiative – provide dominant strands in an assemblage of narrative techniques whose function of providing a social and cultural context (see Infodump) points up their resemblance to similar Modernist techniques used by John Dos Passos (1896-1970) in USA (1930-1936 3vols), but which (as John P Brennan has noted) fail to conceal the underlying storytelling orthodoxy of the tale. It is perhaps for this reason that the resulting vision has a cumulative, sometimes overpowering effect, while at the same time the meliorist logic of its pulp plotting (which descends from Homer) urgently conveys a sense that answers will be forthcoming, and that the protagonists will win through the story they are living. Through its density of reference, and through Brunner's admirable (though sometimes insecure) grasp of US idiom, the book's anti-Americanism has a satisfyingly American ring to it, so that its tirades do not seem smug; it won the 1968 Hugo and the 1970 BSFA Award, and its French translation won the Prix Apollo (see Awards) in 1973.

Three further novels, all with some of the same pace and intensity, make together a kind of thematic series of Dystopias. The Jagged Orbit (1969) conflates medical and military industrial complexes with the Mafia in a rather too tightly plotted, though occasionally powerful, narrative which also addresses issues of race. The Sheep Look Up (1972), perhaps the most unrelenting and convincing dystopia of the four, and depressingly well documented, deals scarifyingly with Pollution in a plot whose relative looseness allows for an almost essayist exposition of the horrors in store for us. The Shockwave Rider (1975) employs similar reportage techniques in a story about a world enmeshed in a Communications explosion, and has become famous for its prediction of the Computer/Internet virus (here called a worm) and its anticipation of several concerns of Cyberpunk. Unsurprisingly (with hindsight), though these novels received considerable critical attention, they in no way made Brunner's fortune. He was always extremely open about his finances and his hopes for the future, and made no secret of the let-down he felt on discovering himself, after these culminating efforts, still in the position of being forced to produce commercially to survive. This naïveté was humanly touching, but fatal to his career.

For some years before his death Brunner's health was uncertain, which (coinciding with his disillusion) caused a severe slowing down of his once formidable writing speed. In his decreasingly frequent publications since 1972, Brunner tended to return to a somewhat more flamboyant, ironized version of the space-opera idiom he had used earlier, and the relative lack of fluency and enthusiasm of novels like Total Eclipse (1974) and Children of the Thunder (1989) cannot easily be denied. There is a sense in these novels that skill warred with convictions, and that, as a consequence, Brunner could not any longer allow himself the orthodox delights of pure storytelling. He died just as the renaissance in Space Opera began to shape British publishing in the 1990s, with the first novels of Iain M Banks already proclaiming that something new was in the offing; but there are few signs that Brunner felt comfortable with the free-flowing exuberance of the reinvented mode, which he may have thought ultimately irresponsible. All the same, A Maze of Stars (see above), which expanded the Generation Starship of the original Sanctuary in the Sky into a full-fledged sentient World Ship, gave some evidence of an intention to try. But even The Great Steamboat Race (1983), an associational novel, set on the Mississippi River, which he devoted years to writing, shows some signs of a nagging dis-ease. At the point of his sudden death – of a stroke while attending the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow – it cannot be denied that Brunner's commercial career had stalled, despite his steady output of reliable short fiction.

In the end, his name depends on two strands of his output: on his significant contributions to the space-opera redoubt, which he came to look down upon; and the immensely formidable tract-novels about the state of the world published between 1968 and 1975. The opinions extractable from these latter works are closer to left-wing than usual with US sf writers of his generation (these opinions, which he articulated publicly many times, may be in part responsible for his failure to acquire a secure US marketing niche, as well as contributing to his loss of belief in the naive victories endemic to generic fiction), and their essentially Dystopian take on humanity's chances of adapting to the demands of species maturity makes him seem more contemporary now than he did in the decade of his death. His life and works deserve full-length study for his role as a significant monitory voice in the West's increasingly urgent debate about humanity's condition as the twentieth century drew to a close. [JC]

see also: Androids; Arts; Disaster; Futures Studies; Games and Sports; Invasion; Money; New Wave; New Worlds; Politics; Pseudoscience; Psychology; Singularity; Superman; Time Paradoxes; Time Police; The Terrornauts; Transportation.

John Kilian Houston Brunner

born Preston Crowmarsh, Oxfordshire: 24 September 1934

died Glasgow, Scotland: 25 August 1995


The complex textual history of Brunner's early titles discussed in the body of the entry above is there given; titles not discussed are given a full history below, when known.


Zarathustra Refugee Planets

Interstellar Empire

Max Curfew

individual titles

collections and stories

works as translator

  • Gérard Klein. The Overlords of War (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1973) [trans of Les seigneurs de la guerre (1971): hb/Margo Herr]


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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