The Traveller in Black, by John Brunner
John Brunner is one of the recognised greats of science fiction (that’s lost half the blog’s readers already). He’s best known for his meaty sociological sf works such as The Sheep Look Up, or Stand on Zanzibar. I always preferred though his shorter, punchier books. His megatomes are well crafted, important to the history of sf, dense with rich ideas, but they’re not light reads by any stretch.
Brunner was a prolific writer, but one with surprisingly few outright duds. In fact I’ve never read anything bad by him, but then it’s fair to say a lot of his books sank into obscurity so if there were bad ones I never saw them. The concept of the internet worm was created by him (in The Shockwave Rider, arguably the first cyberpunk novel), and he wrote marvellosu tales of time travel, space exploration, alien contact and all those things that gladden an sf fan’s heart. Not all his books worked equally well, but at his best he was very good indeed.
He only wrote one fantasy novel though, that I know of. As it happens, it’s long been one of my favourite fantasy novels, by any author. Recently I picked up a second hand copy, and coming off a reading dry spell decided to revisit it. It’s still a favourite.
Nowadays the term fantasy fiction conjures up images of dragons, wizards, unacknowledged princes and plucky heroines. It wasn’t always like that though (arguably it’s not entirely like that now, but contemporary fantasy fiction is a bit moribund). Brunner ignored cod-Tolkienism. His work fits in a much more interesting fantasy tradition filled with authors such as Dunsany, Vance*, Tanith Lee.
The Traveller in Black is a man with many names (one of them, tellingly, Mazda), but a singular nature. He inhabits a realm which sits on the edge of our own, neither part of our universe nor wholly separate, on “a borderland between chaos, existing in eternity, and reason, existing in time.” This realm is filled with humans, and human cities, but also by spirits and elemental creatures of great power. Leftovers from the chaos from which the universe was formed.
In those days, the forces were none of them chained. They raged unchecked through every corner and quarter of the cosmos. Here for instance ruled Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes, capricious, whimsical, when he stared things melted in frightful agony. There a bright being shed radiance, but the radiance was all-consuming, and that which was solid and dull was flashed into fire. At another place, creatures in number one million fought desperately for the possession of a single grain of dust; the fury of their contesting laid waste solar systems.
The Traveller’s singular nature grants him certain powers, including the ability to grant wishes. He is just, but he is also possessed of a certain mordant wit. If a wish is born of malice or greed the Traveller will fufil it but the wisher, if they live, would likely prefer afterwards that the wish had remained ungranted.
… In the rich city Gryte a thief spoke to curse the briefness of the summer night, which had cut short his plan to break the wall of a merchant’s counting-house. “Oh that dawn never overtook me!” he cried. “Oh that I had lasting darkness whereby to ply my trade!” “As you wish,” said the traveler, “so be it.” And darkness came: two thick grey cataracts that shut the light away.
So too in Wocrahin a swaggering bully came down the street on market-day, cuffing aside children with the back of his hand and housewives with the flat of his sword. “Oh that my way were not cluttered with such riffraff!” he exclaimed, his shoulder butting into the traveler’s chest. “As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and when the bully turned the corner the street he walked was empty under a leaden sky-and the buildings on either side, and the taverns, and the shops. Nor did he again in all eternity have to push aside the riffraff he had cursed; he was alone.
In terms of plot The Traveller in Black is fairly straightforward. It was originally written as a series of short stories, and the novel itself consists of a variety of visits by the Traveller (where, if anywhere, he is between visits is never explained) to this curious realm. Each visit is both different, and yet the same. The details vary, chaos is slightly reduced on each occasion, but each time he passes from city to city granting wishes to the dismay of those he encounters.
In one city, on one visit, human sacrifices are being made to a great stone idol and the mad king wishes that he could bring it to life so that it could destroy the city’s enemies. In another a beautiful but unwise woman stands by a river that changes everything that bathes in it, and wishes she could be changed so that she could understand which actions would be wise and which not. The Traveller notes to her that her wish may itself be unwise, for he is not without pity, but she has not of course the wisdom to listen.
There’s a fairy tale quality to all of this. One elemental, now bound, spends its days seeking to forget its fate. It uses its small remaining power to raise tiny dust storms that wipe clean the tracks of travellers passing over the hill in which it is entombed, erasing all memory of their journey as it seeks to erase all memory of itself. There are warriors, beauties, cunning merchants, enchanters, all slightly larger than life (and Brunner was perfectly capable of crafting entirely realistic characters when he wished). One city is ruled by enchanters:
Each enchanter had come after his or her own style: Petrovic walking with his staff called Nitra, from which voices could sometimes be heard when the moon was full; Gostala riding on a creature she had conjured out of the deep water which was its natural element, that cried aloud in heart-rending agony at every step; Ruman on the shoulders of a giant ape fettered with brass; Eadwil on his own young legs, although his feet shone red-hot when he had gone ten paces – this as to do with a geas about which no one ever inquired closely. The air about them crackled with the struggle between protective conjurations and the tense oppressive aura that enshrouded [the city of] Ryovora.
If Traveller is about anything, it’s about the folly of human desire for gods and magic and shortcuts to thought and hard work. The outcomes of magic are always doubtful. Sorcery here is the equivalent of a fad diet, getting you at best only that which you could have got anyway through a little perseverance, but at a higher price and most likely you’ll pay that price and yet achieve nothing at all.
Brunner gently mocks us. In one story a man of our world, of 1970s Britain, is summoned by unknown means and sent by the Traveller to a city that wished it had a god. They install their new god, the divine Bernard, in a temple despite his protestations that he is merely lost. Bernard asks his worshippers where he is, how he got there, why they’re giving him gifts of fruit and praying to him. “But they would not answer him; they merely listened respectfully, then went and wrote down what he said, with a view to creating a canon of mystical precepts.”
For all that this is a melancholic book. The Traveller brings justice, order, reason, and that which he supplants is wild and dangerous and frequently insane. The world we, the readers, inhabit is undoubtedly a better one than the bubble of chaos the Traveller is so busily shrinking. Still, it’s a romantic place, and Brunner himself is wise enough to know that while sensibly we may prefer a world where streams reliably run downhill and trees rarely if ever speak to us, still in our hearts we are pulled to the fantastic. We know that unicorns don’t exist, and if they did would likely not be our friends, but still we wish they did.
I found one other review of The Traveller in Black online. The reviewer loves the book, as to be honest I do, and there are over 20 comments most of them from other fans of the book. Brunner was a genuine talent, and while I’m glad he’s remembered I do sometimes think he’s remembered for the wrong books.
* The following two quotes, which didn’t fit in the main body of the review, couldn’t be much more Vancian:
A death had lately occurred, that was plain, for approaching the city gate came a funeral procession: on a high-wheeled cart drawn by apes in brazen harness, the corpse wrapped in sheets of lead, gold and woven leaves; a band of gongmen beating a slow measure to accompany musicians whistling on bird-toned pipes no longer than a finger; eight female slaves naked to the ceaseless warm rain; and last a straggle of mourners, conducting themselves for the most part with appropriate solemnity.
… in Leppersley he cast the bones of a girl’s foot to read the runes they formed, and after great labor he incarcerated Wolpec in a candle over whose flame he smoked a piece of glass which thereupon showed three truths: one ineluctable, one debatable and one incomprehensible. That was in Teq, when the end of his journey was near.