… this conglomeration of cryptic non-meaningful events…

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.

and

… 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.

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22 Comments

Filed under Brunner, John, Fantasy Fiction

22 responses to “… this conglomeration of cryptic non-meaningful events…

  1. I don’t think this is for me to be honest, but I have heard of The Sheep Look up. What is the figure holding on the cover? Looks like a psychedelic guitar.

  2. Of course I’ve never heard of him. You didn’t lose me after the first sentence, see, I’m persevering.
    I thought about Midas when I read about the Traveler and the unwise wishes. It all sounds a lot like Greek mythology.

    PS: Was it made into a film or a TV series?

  3. There are TONS of duds! Hehe, the Wrong End of Time, Born Under Mars, The Dramaturges of Yan, most of his early pulp, etc.

    He’s still one of my favorites — I haven’t read this one yet. Great review!

  4. ‘Fantasy’ immediately has me thinking about David Eddings and Raymond E Feist stacks piles high in a local ramshackle second-hand bookshop, prohibitively copious winding epics that demand ridiculous chunks of time. I did love Clive Barker for a long while and never found anything preferable, but I always assume that’s my failing, that I bring the merest element of suspicion with me upon hearing yet another name such as ‘Gambrel the Quintessent’ and so on. John Brunner, anyway, looks very interesting.

  5. I thought that about the cover too Guy, it shows when it was made doesn’t it?

    Emma, too bleak for a tv series, and no film I know of. It does have a distinctly mythic feel, that’s what Brunner’s going for. Still more one for fans of the genre though, in this case the more sword-and-sorcery/weird tales side of fantasy.

    Joachim, thankfully I’ve only heard of one of those (Dramaturges, if I read it it’s thankfully forgotten). I did think of you with this. Do you read any of this sort of thing? I know you tend to focus more on the sf side.

    Lee, Eddings and Feist are the mainstream of fantasy, which utterly supplanted this sort of stuff. This is descended (being simplistic) from Dunsany whereas they’re descended from Tolkien. Tolkien’s descendants were much more commercial, probably as they’re more reassuring. Dunsany’s literary children tend to be less comforting, their world is more a cracked reflection of our own than a place where there is clear cut good and evil, and where good always triumphs.

    Vance, Brunner here, Tanith Lee, Clark Ashton Smith, M John Harrison, all these writers portray worlds with troubling moral ambiguity, a lack of any clear gods or divine purpose, protagonists who may not be wholly sympathetic. It’s hard to know who to root for, or indeed if one should be rooting for anyone. With mainstream commercial fantasy it’s generally pretty clear who the heroes are. That’s part of what makes it commercial. It’s also part of what makes it generally not worth reading, even if you have an interest in this sort of fiction.

    All that said, I wouldn’t recommend Brunner particularly to non-fans. I think it would be tedious. M John Harrison’s Viriconium stuff maybe, certainly Dunsany who has the advantages of being both free and generally very brief. At least with Dunsany if you hate it you didn’t pay for it.

  6. gaskella

    Love the cover. Never read this, although I have read some Brunner and enjoyed it in the past. I used to be a fan of Vance – The Dying Earth was my favourite I think. I used to buy all the US editions from Forbidden Planet back around 1980 – they all had fab covers.

  7. I honestly can’t decide on the cover.

    The Dying Earth stuff is marvellous. I have a lot of time for Vance. Definitely among the true fantasy greats.

  8. I’m a Tanith Lee fan, so I guess if you mention them together, he must be on the darker side of things. Although Dunsany is not. A lot of the new fantasy is a bit insipid but there is a lot I like. I have a weakness for fairy tale retellings.
    I will certainly keep this one in mind.

  9. Actually the colored part of the cover reminds me of Klimt.

  10. Max, I haven’t read any of Brunner’s more fantasy-esque works… Although, I have a penchant for Calvino’s Invisible Cities and similar sorts of allegorical cityscapes/landscapes…. Not sure “allegorical” this is but it definitely seems like an interesting read.

  11. Dunsany has his dark moments, from a character perspective anyway. More than one protagonist meets a grisly, if often peculiarly fitting, end.

    The Klimt comparison is interesting, but I suspect the psychedelic guitar similiarity is not an accident.

    Joachim, I wouldn’t call it particularly allegorical (there’s a point being made here, as I discuss above, but it’s defnitely squarely in the genre camp). Allegorical cityscapes, what’s not to love? Have you been tempted by Mieville’s The City and the City?

  12. I have indeed been tempted by Mieville’s The City and the City — when I’m an old goat I’ll get to the sci-fi from the 2000s…. Until then, in my rather youngish state (20s), I’ll content myself with the 40s-70s ;) I haven’t read a sci-fi novel from post 1981 in many years….

  13. GB Steve

    I love this book. I read one of the stories in a small anthology containing others by Moorcock, Leiber, Roberts, it was all good stuff and very much at the Vancian end of the scale. That prompted me to get the complete series but mine is a later UK edition with a different cover. Micheal Shea took up this style of writing later on but never achieved the quality of Vance or Brunner.

  14. Steve, great isn’t it? Shea never quite grabbed me somehow, though I seem to recall his Nifft the Lean stuff is well regarded. What these authors have in common is they resist making fantasy fiction prosaic, which is exactly what I’d say most commercial fantasy fiction is.

    Joachim, waiting until it’s retro? Cyberpunk’s almost there now… On which note, the one post-1981 (I think) tale you might want to check out is William Gibson’s The Gernsback Continuum. It’s in his Burning Chrome collection. There’s a review here if you look in the drop-down under Gibson.

  15. Yup, I’ve read the Burning Chrome collection…. It was fine — I’m rather disenchanted with Gibson. I quit reading his work at Idoru….

  16. Though I have read a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy, especially when I was younger, I somehow missed Brunner. I had heard of him. This sounds like a great read. I like the theme of magic and spells as a cheap shortcut to hard work and substance.

  17. love retro cover but I m not a sci fi fan max ,all the best stu

  18. In my experience Stu you’re either bitten by the sf bug in adolescence, or never at all. If you weren’t there’s generally not much point worrying about it later. It’s not as if any of us are short of great books to read.

  19. I agree about getting into science fiction when young. I remember reading my first science fiction book, Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky when I was in sixth grade. I was hooked after that. About ninety percent of my reading was devoted to the genre through about twenty years old. While I read much less of it now, I till love it.

  20. I originally read fantasy works until I was 18 or so — and then came to realize how limited (and Tolkein copying) the fantasy genre was (well, and then New Weird was invented but after I quit)…. And then I moved to sci-fi — kind of late I guess….

  21. I’m glad I stuck with your review, Max. (I am not anti-science-fiction, but it is true that I rarely read any now.)

    Brunner’s fantasy sounds rather wonderful. I love the whimsicality of the last two quotes, but it is clear from your review that the novel isn’t relying on its pleasing style to carry the reader.

  22. It’s a bit of a favourite of mine Sarah, I admit, though there aren’t that many fantasy novels I read so any I do probably fall into that category (I read lots of new fiction, but very little new fantasy fiction).

    I’ll reread some Vance some time – the master of the darkly whimsical quote.

    On another note, I’m not planning on keeping my copy of this having now reread it. Would anyone like it? If not that’s of course not an issue and I’ll donate it to charity or something, but if anyone fancies a copy just leave a comment accordingly.

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