1973’s Age of Miracles is an expanded and revised edition of John Brunner’s 1965 The Day of the Star Cities.
First contact with a vastly superior alien civilization came in the form of catastrophe: every lump of fissionable material larger than two or three kilograms on the surface of the Earth abruptly blew up. Chaos and mass death followed. By the time surviving governments were able to take stock, vast, enigmatic, alien structures had planted themselves in the American Midwest, in western Brazil, near the Russian Urals, on Australia’s Nullabor Plain, and in Antarctica. Armies dispatched to drive off the invaders went mad. In the end, humanity had to accept that new owners now dominated Earth.
Near the alien city in the American Midwest, a madman staggers away from the city. He had clearly ventured too close. He dies and is then identified as government employee Correy Bennett. The only problem with this is that the original Correy Bennett is still very much alive.
Both the Russian and American star cities are surrounded by territory the two governments were forced to abandon. This presented an opportunity for would-be warlords. In Russia, that was Buishenko. In the United States, it was Grady. Both men earn a considerable portion of their incomes by acquiring and selling enigmatic alien artifacts found near the alien cities. Both have used this income to arm their forces, Buishenko more so than Grady. Den Radcliffe, who first met the madman staggering out of the city, works for Grady. He has an eye to replacing Grady as local warlord.
Bennett’s appearance and death in the enclave known as “Grady’s Ground” suggests a disturbing possibility: the aliens may have mastered time as well as space, and traversing their structures may bend a man’s timeline back on itself. Bennett is therefore a dead man walking. Rather than try to save him, it is best to exploit the situation for the US and humanity’s benefit.
As far as the authorities know, artifact retrieval is limited to the regions adjacent to the alien cities. Even scavenging such regions is dangerous; scavengers risk madness. This perception is incorrect, something Buishenko already knows.
A group of fleeing Russian refugees makes it to the US. Among their number is a frail boy named Pitirim. Pitirim has a rare talent, one that makes him extremely valuable. Pitirim can venture into and out of alien cities, bringing artifacts with him.
Likewise in Grady’s Ground, young, abused Ichabod has the same knack as Pitirim. Bennett had purchased an artifact from Ichabod, but had no idea how the boy had obtained the device. By the time the authorities realize that Ichabod can venture into and out of the alien city, the blockade around the city has left the boy the sole agent with the knack.
Unbeknownst to the authorities, Ichabod’s ability is the key to far more than stealing the occasional alien artifact. The boy’s knack could give humanity the stars … if it can be understood before an enraged Buishenko conquers his way to the Midwest in search of his lost Pitirim. If it can be understood before the aliens, tiring of having their property stolen, take measures to rid themselves of local pests.
While I have never encountered The Day of the Star Cities, it’s clear that the revisions and expansion involved in creating Age were substantial. Day is about 150 pages. Age is 300.
Brunner populates his novel with a cast of thousands. Despite the novel’s comparative heft, there really isn’t room to develop most of the characters in great detail. This has unfortunate consequences for Grady, Pitirim, and Bennett. Pitirim exists to demonstrate that humans can venture into and out of alien cities, and to inspire by his flight the Russian invasion of Canada1 and the United States. Having served that purpose, he dies in a hail of bullets thanks to inept communication. Likewise, Bennett serves as an example of how not to traverse the alien cities, while Grady reveals what happens to humans who foolishly hoard stolen alien treasures in a space under their office.
Age reads as though it had been inspired by two different books: Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon, which also features a dangerous alien structure, and to a greater degree Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, which details the hazardous lives of Stalkers, who retrieve discarded alien trash. However, while Brunner might have read 1960’s Rogue Moon2, Roadside Picnic was first published (in Russian) seven years after The Day of the Star Cities. Unless Brunner had access to a space-time bridging alien structure, it seems unlikely the Russian novel could have inspired him.
Readers may also be reminded of such works as Tenn’s 1968 Men and Monsters, Davidson’s 1966 The Kar-Chee Reign, and Disch’s 1965 The Genocides. Although Brunner’s book ends more happily for humans than does the Disch, it shares with The Genocides and Men and Monsters a universe in which humans have unambiguously been relegated to secondary status by aliens who do not even notice us save as pests, a development the characters are as swift to comprehend as English people are that their empire is gone3.
This was in my teen years one of my favourite Brunners. There was therefore a certain element of dread inherent in revisiting this novel. Happily, I think its strengths still outweigh the flaws.
1: Alas, it turned out that relocating the national government from a radiation-soaked Ottawa to Vancouver Island placed it directly in the Russian invasion path. The next election will see many novice MPs, the veterans having been shot out of the air fleeing the island.
On a happier note, dispatching the majority of Russian forces to America presents an opportunity enigmatic China is swift to exploit.
I think an enigmatic China appears in other Brunner novels, sufficiently off-stage to serve Brunner’s narrative purpose without demanding too much detail.
2: Given how few SF books were published in 1960, Brunner probably did read Rogue Moon.
3: Those who don’t quite understand the new normal see access to alien worlds via the star cities as a triumph of human destiny, while the more prudent want to spread as quickly as they can in case the aliens decide to exterminate humans on Earth.