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The Wrong End of Time

By John Brunner 

28 Nov, 2023

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John Brunner’s 1971 The Wrong End of Time is a stand-alone near-future science fiction story.

Affronted by several ungracious rejections of helpful US intervention, offended Americans have retreated back to North America. For the last thirty years, the US has sullenly remained behind what it firmly believes to be impenetrable defenses, reveling in capitalist decadence while doing its best to ignore the existence of the outside world1.

Now the outside world comes calling, in the form of Vassily Sheklov.

With America out of the picture, communist Russia dominates. Perhaps contrary to expectations, the results are not catastrophic. One might go so far as to say the last thirty years have been pretty good for the post-winds-of-change world. However, a development at the edge of the Solar System suggests that the happy days will soon end.

The alien starship sparkles with the energy of total conversion as solar winds are annihilated by its antimatter hull. The vessel seems eager to communicate. The images sent are alarming. As far as the Russians can tell, the alien promises nuclear war and reduction of human civilization back to the Stone Age.

The easiest way for the aliens to achieve this end is to huck a payload of antimatter at the US. Thanks to E = MC2, even a penny’s mass is equal to a Hiroshima’s worth of energy. The US would no doubt interpret such an attack from space as the act of its terrestrial enemies. A massive counter-attack would ensue.

Vassily infiltrates the US from the sea. Once Vassily is ashore, long-term mole Turpin provides Vassily with a place to stay and an introduction as a visiting Canadian. Conveniently, Turpin is very highly placed in the American military-industrial complex. Less conveniently, Americans are very set in their ways. Even a highly placed mole and his commie pal may not be able to guide the US away from destroying the world.

In fact, Vassily’s infiltration did not go unnoticed. US paranoia has been inflamed. The world may be doomed … unless young American Danty Ward’s unique insight can save the day.


The US somehow manages to turn drug-sodden orgies into a joyless social chore. This may be because Brunner himself does not seem to approve of sweaty grappling, in particular between persons of the same sex. It may also be due to a horrible misapplication of the Protestant Work Ethic.

I too look forward to the angry protestations about Brunner’s conceit that a world dominated by communist Russia might not be a dystopia. Interestingly the Russians themselves credit the outcome to luck rather than design.

Brunner appears to have drawn inspiration for the American xenophobic inward turn from events following the collapse of the British empire2, as well as the winding down of some lesser empires. Apparently imperial and quasi-imperial powers get their fee-fees hurt by rejection. The book also contains some speculations about how American race relations might develop3 and how the US political system might evolve4.


I decided to read this novel rather than Brunner’s Quicksand because I wanted something more upbeat than Quicksand. That is about the only way in which this novel lived up to my expectations. The espionage plot does not really hold water. The depiction of most African Americans (Danty aside) can only be described as unfortunate5. The analysis of the alien message is surprisingly unimaginative in ways designed to facilitate the plot. In short, I probably should have gone with Quicksand.

At least the novel is short! And I do like the cover art. However, readers looking for anything beyond dated futurism will probably want to look elsewhere.

The Wrong End of Time is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo). If The Wrong End of Time is available from Chapters-Indigo, that is a well-concealed fact.

1: The US has mostly given up foreign trade, with the notable exceptions of Canada and Mexico. They were offered the choice of trading peacefully with the US (on US terms) or being invaded and occupied.

2: Interestingly, Britain seems to have embraced what amounts to a pre-emptive accelerated Brexit. Enthusiastic ethnic cleansing has made the UK a pariah in Eurasia and in the Commonwealth. Thus, it is free to enjoy the full prosperity inherent in being an isolated nation on a small island not particularly blessed with natural resources.

3: US race relations develop poorly.

4: Rather implausibly, Brunner posits a system in which various factions back their preferred charismatic idiot for President. In reality, I am sure that voters understand that a presidential candidate should be smart and experienced; this would trump mere celebrity.

5: The book’s depiction of African-Americans is not improved by the subplot explaining that many of that community’s brightest moved back to Africa. What that means for the ones who remained in the US …