Traveller in Black
John Brunner, 1934-1995

The British sf author John Kilian Houston Brunner died on 25 August 1995 after suffering a stroke at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow. At the convention's awards ceremony, his friend Robert Silverberg recalled John's sf achievements and suggested that rather than a minute's silence, he'd have liked a last round of applause. The standing ovation continued for four minutes.

John was indeed a giant of sf, dealing at his best with lived-in futures combining extrapolative exhilaration and the nightmare of future shock. Stand on Zanzibar (1968) with its focus on overpopulation was his recognized blockbuster, winning the coveted Hugo award (the sf Oscar, usually monopolized by Americans). It slightly overshadows its companion volumes The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Sheep Look Up (1972) – a scarifying polemic against pollution which ends with the stench of all America burning – and The Shockwave Rider (1975), prophetically mapping problems of information overload, computer viruses, rampant hacking and the net.

His hatred of superstition and cant combined with wide-ranging erudition to make him a long-time supporter of the skeptical movement, even before it took shape in Britain. One belief he regarded as rank superstition was the value of nuclear deterrence as a route to world peace: not a safe political position in 1958, when John was in the first Aldermaston march and wrote the song 'The H-Bombs' Thunder', later the anthem of CND. As for religion ... someone in The Stone That Never Came Down (1973) bitterly challenges a religious fanatic to name one, just one, weapon of mass destruction not invented by a nation supposedly honouring the teachings of Jesus Christ.

In 1975 the Institute of Contemporary Arts ran a lecture series as part of its sf festival. John Taylor appeared, mentioning how he'd seen the famous spoon-bending phenomenon 'occurring under conditions in which there was no chance of fraud'. By coincidence, John Brunner had long been fuming over the widespread notion that all sf readers are gullible idiots ripe for any pseudoscientific drivel. In a speech entitled 'Science Fiction and the Larger Lunacy' he lambasted the counterfeiters who pass off their grubby imaginings as science fact.

The boot went into Velikovsky, Erich von Daniken and 'T. Lobsang Rampa', as preface to John's assault on 'the single most wholly dishonest book I have ever had the misfortune to set eyes on', being Pauwels's and Bergier's The Morning of the Magicians. Penicillin is a phallic mushroom! Plutonium was well known at the Gas Board in Paris years before being synthesized in California! Best of all, Professor and US Senator Ralph Milne Farley is cited as a scientific authority: but John recognized 'Farley's' theory as a bad summary of The Immortals, a dire 1934-5 sf novel by a hack whose pen-name was Ralph Milne Farley. The polemic broadens into a lament over the old 'two cultures' division: when The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology contains hopeless scientific howlers and a contemporary encyclopaedia says there are 1580 feet in a mile, how can we ever clean the crap out of the stables? This talk is reprinted in Science Fiction At Large ed. Peter Nicholls (1976), reissued as Explorations of the Marvellous (1978).

Alas, John Brunner was cursed by sanity. He felt he'd said all he had to say in those big, ambitious, acclaimed novels of the 60s and 70s ... which by sheer ill luck failed to provide him with a continuing income. Afterwards, despite the exuberance of his early works, he found himself increasingly unable to write lucrative pot-boilers with wish-fulfilment themes; he seemed to grow embittered. The death of his wife Marjorie in 1986 cast a long shadow. She had handled all his business affairs for nearly three decades, and without her John found it difficult to maintain diplomatic relations with publishers. He is survived by his second wife LiYi Tan Brunner, a Chinese immigrant: they married in 1991.

Characteristically, John's one major excursion into the never-never lands of pure fantasy – Traveller in Black (1971) – stars an enigmatic figure whose goal is to purge the universe of irrationality, drive back chaos, force magic to give way to scientific law. It proves a lonely and thankless job. In this sense, John too was a traveller in black. He is much missed.