John Brunner’s 1971 fantasy collection The Traveler in Black was the first book published as an Ace Science Fiction Special. It has since been republished under several titles and with varying contents; nevertheless, like its protagonist, we can say that it has but one nature.
He had many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding upon ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.
Chaos is losing its grip on reality. The Traveller in Black does his humble best to accelerate the process. In most cases he does this by using his power to warp reality to give people what they want — at which point they find they didn’t really want it after all.
I’m going to review the stories in this collection in the order in which they are given in the 1982 edition, which adds a novelette, The Things That Are Gods, that does not appear in earlier editions. I am using my preferred cover, from the first edition.
Imprint of Chaos • (1960) • novelette
Having provided his memorable assistance to a number of unfortunate persons, the Traveller assists the cruel Duke of Vaul in the Duke’s quest to awaken a dread idol. Granted the spark of life, the idol delivers to the Duke all the Duke might have imagined and more.
Break the Door of Hell • (1966) • novelette
Once great Ys has fallen on sad days. Its present inhabitants, convinced the fault must be that of its founders, are determined to call up the founders’ shades so that they might be rebuked. The Traveller, ever helpful, assists them in this project. Much rebuking ensues.
The Wager Lost by Winning • (1970) • novelette
Arrogant Lord Fellian attracts the Traveller’s attention when the Lord’s army seizes the inhabitants of a harmless town. Sure of his wealth, power, and LUCK, the Lord sees no true risk in a wager with the Traveller. Indeed, there is no risk because the outcome is foreordained.…
The Things That Are Gods • (1979) • novelette
Wishes carelessly granted leave the Traveller contending against an entity whose powers are equal to his. Failure is unthinkable … but victory might be just as undesirable.
Dread Empire • (1971) • novelette
The Traveller’s eons of effort may come to nothing, thanks to the efforts of two fools who work to summon the Great Old Gods. The man with one nature faces a singular end.
“Traveller” or “Traveler”? The answer is “yes.” Various editions use whichever spelling pleased their editor. Similarly, some editions add “Compleat” to the title. It would be reasonable to think Compleat indicates an additional story in the collection, but sadly this is not the case. Some editions of Travel(l)er have four stories, others add The Things That are Gods … but the presence or lack of “Compleat” is not strongly correlated with the presence of that story. Let us all shake our fists in the direction of inconsistent editorial choices. [Editor’s note: I resemble that remark!]
Brunner is not an author one might read for sympathetically treated women characters. For the most part, this book is no exception. Most of the speaking characters are men and the few women who play significant roles are fools or worse.
“As you wish, so be it,” is one of my favourite phrases whenever I am working in a service capacity. I filched it from this very book. This seemingly helpful sentiment is almost invariably followed by dreadful and entirely foreseeable consequences. One would think that this would have removed from the gene pool those who carelessly make wishes in the presence of a mysterious stranger. Strangely enough, there is never a shortage of people who make the very same error. Perhaps it is because so few of people who encounter the Traveller are in a state to warn others afterwards.
Rereading old favourites sometimes provides surprises. In this case, it was discovering a modern analog to the story of Ys. The citizens were convinced that the old days were better and placed their faith in a pointless and foolish solution.
“Then what did they do?” the traveller inquired. “If anything.”
“Fell first to moaning and wringing their hands, and lamenting their sad fate by night and day; then, when this proved unfruitful and incapable of filling the granaries, turned to a crowning imbecility and invoked the aid of magic. I see you scowl, sir, and well you may, for all the world knows that magic is a vain and ridiculous snare laid by evil demons in the path of humankind.”
But there must have been a great and terrible lust in the minds of very many people for the change to come about; there must have been public foolishness on a scale unparalleled throughout the All.
The modern-day equivalent is so obvious I will not insult your intelligence by naming it explicitly.
There are parallels between the Traveller stories and Tanith Lee’s later Flat Earth books. While Brunner might have influenced Lee, I think it more likely that both are playing in a sub-genre of fantasy now unfashionable, in which fantastic worlds evolve towards the mundane.
Where Lee’s Flat Earth revels in decadence, the world of the Traveller in Black is one in which one finds a sardonic pleasure in watching people get their just desserts. The delight is redoubled in that one can predict a catastrophe, but one cannot predict just HOW foolish choices will backfire. If that’s the way your sense of humour rolls, you’ll enjoy this book.