John Brunner’s 1967 The Productions of Time is a stand-alone contemporary science fiction novel.
A broken marriage and alcoholism destroyed Murray Douglas’ once-promising acting career. With great effort, Murray dried out. Now he is ready for a comeback. But few companies seem interested in hiring a prematurely aged former wunderkind.
Enter famed avant-garde director Delgado. Murray Douglas suits Delgado’s purposes very nicely. If Douglas accepts, the pay will be very welcome indeed. There is one small catch. Delgado’s productions are infamously cursed, leaving a trail of dead and deranged actors in Delgado’s wake. Only a very desperate actor would say yes to Delgado.
Arriving at the isolated former country club that Delgado has repurposed as a practice space, Murray finds his room is stocked with a vast supply of alcohol. He immediately orders it all removed. Nevertheless, booze keeps reappearing in his room, as though someone desperately needs Murray to fall off the wagon.
Murray finds himself working alongside a team of actors, each of whom has some career-stunting personal flaw much like Murray’s, ranging from drug addiction to sadism to pornography to rampant sapphism. No doubt this explains why each of them was available. Like Murray, each is provided with the means to indulge their particular obsession. Both Murray and drug addict Gerry are supplied with alcohol and drugs of sufficient quantity and purity  to be a death sentence should they crack.
Murray notices other disturbing details. Delgado’s rehearsal methods are peculiar, almost as though the purpose was to exacerbate stress rather than create a work of art. The beds in each person’s room are wired with mysterious electronics. The television sets have unfamiliar circuitry seemingly unrelated to their purpose.
Delgado has explanations for each peculiarity. Murray is unconvinced. Something darker is at work. This makes Murray a problem for Delgado. Mere firing won’t suffice. Delgado will have to find some more permanent solution for the nosy actor.
Although this novel was first published by Signet in 1967, I read the 1977 DAW edition. It contains the full text, rather than the streamlined version offered by Signet. Also, that’s the edition I own.
Apropos of 1967 … this novel reflects the social conventions of England in the 1960s . That said, Murray does not seem particularly affronted by fellow cast-members’ proclivities. His main issue with Ida is that he would prefer naïve, easily-swayed Heather as his bed partner rather than Ida’s.
Brunner quickly and efficiently deals with what might be called the Charles Paris problem . Delgado’s productions are notoriously troubled, almost as though that was the point. However, he never has trouble hiring talent because there is always a steady supply of desperate actors whose need for employment exceeds caution. In fact, Delgado’s reputation may act as a useful filter, eliminating most of the people who would ask too many questions.
It’s unfortunate that the title is a giant spoiler, and that the plot drags a bit in the middle, almost as through Brunner is unsure how to transition from investigation to resolution. Otherwise, the short novel is a game of cat and mouse between Murray and Delgado. The actor is doing his best to work out what’s going on (and to survive) while Delgado and his assistants do their best to keep their little project going until it reaches its goal.
1: I presume that it was too technically challenging to provide the cast lesbian Ida the means by which she could fatally lesbian herself or her crush (Heather).
2: As well as the social conventions of the 1960s, the plot assumes the medical standards of the 1960s. Mental illness is presented as something from which recovery is unlikely. The best solution for Murray’s deranged spouse is to lock her away forever.
However, since the events are depicted from Murray’s perspective, it is possible that this solution reflects Murray’s beliefs (or wishes), not those of society in general or even of the entirety of the medical establishment.
3: Paris is the protagonist of a long-running mystery series, an actor who is always hired to act in productions that invariably involve one or more murders. Murders which Paris invariably solves. Why directors persist in hiring a man whose very presence ensures death is unclear.