Sitting There in Your Head
The Best of John Brunner
By John Brunner
1988’s The Best of John Brunner is a late entry (possibly the final entry) in Ballantine’s Classic Library of Science Fiction. It is exactly what one would expect from the title: a selection of short works the editor deemed Brunner’s best. The Best of John Brunner is the first of what I hope will be my long-running monthly survey of Brunner’s fiction.
Sure hope I come up with a name for the series by Thursday.
It’s my habit for to start long-running author projects at the beginning and then work my way to the end. I have several reasons for not doing it that way this time. Firstly, while Brunner’s first novel (1951’s Galactic Storm) is still in print, I’ve not read it and have no idea how good it is. I don’t want to start with a dud. Secondly, although I am avid fan of both Brunner and Ballantine’s Classic Library of Science Fiction, I had never seen The Best of John Brunner until Josh Munn was kind enough to send me a copy. How could I resist reading and reviewing it?
Editors having their own tastes and collections being of finite length, it is not surprising that some well-known and well-regarded Brunner stories did not make it into this book. Most notable for their omission: Brunner’s Traveler in Black stories.
Checking ahead I see The Best of John Brunner overlaps with other Brunner collections: Out of My Mind (three stories), Time-Jump (three stories), No Future in It (two stories), Foreign Constellations: The Fantastic Worlds of John Brunner (three stories), The Man Who Was Secrett and Other Stories (one story), and From This Day Forward (two stories). However, Haldeman did not draw so much from any one collection that this will preclude my reviewing any of the above at a later day.
“Consumer Report 4” appears to be original to this collection.
Having thumbed through ISFDB to see if any of the pieces included were award finalists, I belatedly noticed that to the extent that award nominations reveal tastes, readers preferred Brunner at novel lengths, although not so much that they were inclined to reward Brunner monetarily for the extra effort required. We’re lucky a frustrated Brunner didn’t go full Xanth.
Kudos to the editor for selecting works that suggest Brunner’s full range1, rather than focusing on Brunner’s talent for gloom. This presents a challenge for me, inasmuch as this part of the review is where I should single out particular pieces for praise, which requires the quality of the pieces to vary more than they do.
The Best of John Brunner is out of print.
Each Brunner story is accompanied by an introduction, presumably by Haldeman.
Introduction: The Brunner Mosaic • essay by Joe Haldeman
A glowing introduction to Brunner’s body of work by Joe Haldeman. Haldeman notes that the rewards (money and fame) that Brunner should have won for his effort and expertise were well short of his due.
On a related note, this collection of an award-winning author appears to have been printed just once, in November 1988. Other, lesser — much lesser — authors in the Ballantine’s Classic Library of Science Fiction were given multiple printings. Some are still in print.
The Totally Rich • (1963) • novelette
A visionary genius discovers that he has been unwittingly laboring for one of the mega-mega-rich. Unfortunately for his employer, what the patron craves is something money cannot buy.
“The Last Lonely Man” • (1964) • short story
An act of charity towards a pitiable loner reveals all too late that there was good reason to avoid the fellow.
“Galactic Consumer Report No. 1: Inexpensive Time Machines” • [Galactic Consumer Reports • 1] • (1965) • short story
A short, comic, pretend-nonfiction piece comparing and contrasting rival brands of time machine.
For some inexplicable reason, I was under the impression Bob Shaw wrote the Galactic Consumer Reports. Ah, well. As long as I refrain from ever mentioning that, my secret is safe.
“Fair” • (1956) • short story
What dark purpose hides behind the popular Fairs?
Brunner was capable of bursts of optimism, as proved by this story.
“Such Stuff” • (1962) • short story
A scientist makes a number of remarkable discoveries regarding human dreaming, not least of which is that his experiment lacks the eject button he assumed it had.
“Galactic Consumer Report No. 2: Automatic Twin-Tube Wishing Machines” • [Galactic Consumer Reports • 2] • (1966) • short story
Another compare-and-contrast, this time of wish-granting machines. It turns out one needs to be extremely judicious about wish machines, as their failure modes are spectacular.
“Tracking with Close-ups (21) and (23) (excerpt)” • short fiction
X‑Hero • (1980) • short story
A series of very short fables about a man overcoming adversity with extreme cunning.
Unlike the other works in this book, this example was never published on its own, being a very small part of the large tapestry that is Stand on Zanzibar.
“No Future in It” • (1955) • short story
A reluctant wizard, faced with a task he has no idea how to accomplish, fearing the consequences of disappointing his patron, is helped by a most unexpected ally. [Editor: Rumpelstiltskin?] [James: nope!]
“Galactic Consumer Report No. 3: A Survey of the Membership • [Galactic Consumer Reports • 3]” • (1967) • short story
A reader survey reveals quite unexpected truths about the Consumer Report readership.
Younger readers encountering this for the first time need to understand that at one time, British tax policies were contentious.
“What Friends Are For” • (1974) • short story
Dissatisfied parents acquire a robot companion for their misbehaving genius child. Their hope that the boy’s behavior would be improved is met, but how this is achieved comes as an unpleasant surprise.
This is not a M3GAN-style tale of AI gone horribly wrong. The issue is that the parents misunderstood what the problem was (if this were inspired by a real-life situation, I would not be terribly surprised). The twist is that the AI does exactlywhat it is supposed to do, no spatterpunk or other creative embellishments added.
The Taste of the Dish and the Savor of the Day • (1977) • novelette
A charming conman finally comes into the inheritance he has long awaited, only to discover there’s an unanticipated catch.
“Galactic Consumer Report No. 4: Thing-of-the-Month Clubs” • [Galactic Consumer Reports • 4] • (1969) • short story
Assessing the utility of the myriad (NOUN) of the Month Clubs available to consumers.
This feels very much like a good-natured mockery of my former employers at Bookspan.
The Man Who Saw the Thousand-Year Reich • [Mr. Secrett] • (1981) • novelette
The curious events leading up to a notorious Nazi war-criminal’s demise during WWII.
Well, not so much “curious” as “hilarious.”
An Elixir for the Emperor • (1964) • novelette
An ambitious Roman allows spite and greed to blind him to the treasure at his fingertips.
The Suicide of Man • (1978) • novelette
A technological specter finds itself simulating a dead man long after his demise. This is no act of charity by the humans of the very distant future. It does take some time for the revenant to understand what need he will fulfill.
Much less downbeat than one might expect from Brunner and much more downbeat than one might expect from the title.
“The Vitanuls” • (1967) • short story
The Population Bomb has been defused! But not in time to prevent the world from running out of a precious, irreplaceable resource.
1: These stories sample Brunner’s range within speculative fiction. Brunner wrote in other genres as well.