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John who?

The cover of my rather ancient
Penguin copy
I occasionally like to revisit books I've read before, and recently picked up a title from my shelf by an author that seems to have almost disappeared from the collective memory of science fiction - John Brunner.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, Brunner was everywhere in the SF bookshops. He was a prolific author, and frankly some of his books were poor rushed jobs. But his best were excellent, and deserve to be remembered.

His most famous title is probably Stand on Zanzibar - not one of my favourites, but interesting in its use of news clippings etc to give the book a different feel. It's an over-population book and I was never thrilled by disaster novels. For me, one of his best was The Shockwave Rider. This used Alvin Toffler's extremely popular (and very inaccurate) stab at futurology Future Shock as a model. That part in itself wasn't very interesting, but Brunner gave us images like the computer virus before such things existed and made use of the fascinating if flawed concept of the Delphi principle (the idea that a group of people with no particular knowledge in a subject will improve their response to questions about it if there immediate answers are fed back to the group, which then re-thinks) as a mechanism for government - a really clever idea.

The book I re-read was a much smaller scale work, both physically and in it reach. Called The Productions of Time it features a collection of has-been actors brought together to put on an experimental play. What they don't know is that this is scheme to drive them further and further into their weaknesses to record the experience for an audience from the future. It's not bad as a novel, if not superbly written, but I think it's a great example of the sort of thing that those who criticize SF as a genre don't get. There is some technology (often painfully old-fashioned in its vision of the future: reels of tape? Perlease!) -  but this is entirely a book about people.

Admittedly not all great SF is about people. I was amused to hear the excellent Angela Saini struggling to defend Asimov's Foundation trilogy on that rather smug A Good Read programme on Radio 4. The format of the show requires three people to read each others choices of books, and the arty types were definitely looking down their nose at Asimov's dire characterisation. It's true, he couldn't write convincing characters, especially women - but Asimov is great for his ideas, not his characters. The Productions of Time is the absolute opposite - it really is all about the characters and for me is good example of why you shouldn't pigeonhole SF as all blasters and space opera. I'm not ashamed to say I love the original Star Wars trilogy of movies... but sometimes I want something different, and Brunner could put it in SF with the best of them.

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