Sunday 14 February 2021

The Society of Time, by John Brunner


The English author John Brunner (1934-1995) was very well-known when I was in my youth: what may be regarded as his peak writing years of 1968/70 coincided with my time as a student, during which I belonged to the university’s Science Fiction and Fantasy club, a small group of us who packed together in a room for weekly discussions of all things SFF. In 1968 Brunner’s most famous work - Stand on Zanzibar - emerged and won both the Hugo and British Science Fiction Awards in 1969. In 1970, The Jagged Orbit also won the BSFA. I am sure that I read quite a few of his books at the time, although the only one I can recall was SoZ. I have to confess that while I admired the ground-breaking SoZ as a technical achievement, I didn’t actually enjoy it much (too dystopian) and never read it again.

On reading Mike Ashley’s introduction to this volume I was astonished to learn that Brunner wrote more than 100 books and over 200 other stories. Considering that he died aged 60, that is a remarkable achievement; particularly since he was far from a fount of production-line pot-boilers. He was concerned with exploring major and often controversial issues: the consequences of population growth; weapons proliferation (he was a leading figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament); ecological collapse; global warming; genetic engineering; interracial violence; and aspects of IT including worms and viruses.

The full title of this British Library publication (sent to me to review) is The Society of Time: the original trilogy and other stories. This is not as daunting as it sounds, as it consists of five novellas totalling just under 300 pages, all originally published in the early 1960s. The first three stories are set in an alternative Earth in which history took a different turn in 1588 - the Spanish Armada defeated the English fleet, thereby crushing the Protestant religions and establishing the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe right up to the present day. Brunner portrays the very different world which would have resulted, with innovations controlled or suppressed, leading to a technologically backward society. However, there was one exception to this; a means to travel in time had been discovered. This had led to the Society of Time being established with the aim of controlling time travel in order to prevent history (and thereby the present day) being changed by accident or design. The agents allowed to travel in time are known as Licentiates and all three stories follow the activities of one of these, the Englishman Don Miguel Navarro.

In Spoil of Yesterday, Navarro discovers an elaborate Aztec mask in new condition, which must have been brought forward from the past - a huge crime requiring drastic action. I should note at this point that Brunner’s treatment of time-travel paradoxes is considerably more sophisticated than most and I had to read through the logic chains in these stories more than once to grasp exactly what was going on - and why. In the second story, The Word Not Written, there is an appalling breach of Society rules resulting in a band of mythical Amazons appearing during celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Spanish Armada. Once more, Navarro is in the thick of it, trying to straighten out the mess. Finally, The Fullness of Time sees Navarro investigating an apparent breach of the rules when a North American gold mine reports finding evidence of ancient mining - using modern equipment. The resolution of this problem - and of the whole series - is unexpected but neat.

Father of Lies is set in the modern world in which a group of students have discovered a “dead patch” in the countryside; an area in which machinery of any kind does not work, a village with an ancient castle is not shown on any maps, and the inhabitants speak an ancient dialect. The students soon find themselves in trouble, and need their collective ingenuity to solve the mystery and save themselves.

The final story is The Analysts, in which an architectural firm is offered a lot of money to oversee the construction of a new building which appears to make no sense at all. The explanation for this makes for a highly original plot.

In all of these stories, the quality of the writing and the story-telling is impressive, and I enjoyed them far more than I expected to.