# 16 = Volume 5, Part 3 = November 1978
Stephen H. Goldman
John Brunner's Dystopias: Heroic Man in Unheroic
In Age of Miracles, a novel that has received little critical
attention, John Brunner confronts his characters with an alien transportation
system that has been produced by unknown creatures clearly superior to mankind
in knowledge and application of science. While the human characters do learn to
make some limited use of the system, their position at the end of the novel is
comparable to that of rats on a sea-going ship, and, as the characters
themselves indicate, their future use of the network is predicated on just how
annoying these human rats become to the aliens: "...since we quit pilfering
live artefacts, the aliens have shown no sign of noticing us. I suspect they
can't be bothered. We've put up with rats and mice for thousands of years, and
we only take steps against them when they cause great harm" (Chapter 28).
While Age of Miracles certainly does not present the reader with a
unique situation — given the hundreds of works which are based on the
confrontation of human beings and superior aliens — there are, nevertheless,
two passages toward the end of the novel which show some highly significant
developments in science fiction writing which can be considered characteristic
of more recent interests within the genre. Such passages, as a matter of fact,
provide a strong clue as to Brunner's use of the image of the dystopia. For what
has happened in his later work is simply a matter of one image in science
fiction, the superior alien, being replaced by a new image, the dystopia.
The first passage is a full accounting of what the discovery of the
transportation network means for the human race. Waldron states:
We've been desperately trying to make the world seem familiar again. We've
been using comparisons and analogues: Den with his rats and mice, Orlando with
his bushman in a modern city, and so on. Finally we have begun to admit that
this isn't the same as anything we've run across before. It isn't even like
anything else. How could it be?
We've been tossed without any warning clear over the horizon of our own
past. We calculated the odds were against our being alone in the galaxy. Now
we know we're not. We deduced that other stars must have planets. Now we can
go and walk on them. It's a clean break. It's killed our past. We can't live
in it or by its standards any more. All that counts from now on and forever is
Superficially, this passage can be seen as typical of any number of science
fiction works in which man boldly leaves behind the past and faces the brave new
tomorrow. There is, however, a twist in the Age of Miracles which is
rather rare. Man is forced to leave his past not because of his own actions, but
because the future is imposed upon him. It is not man the seeker of new
frontiers who here changes his destiny, but man the non-seeker who has his
destiny change him. And, what makes this twist even rarer, destiny was not even
looking for him. Mankind's whole orientation is changed by alien intelligences
who have no, or almost no, awareness of the existence of the human race. Mankind
may have great new worlds now open to it, but they are worlds that have been
opened as a side-effect and man can only enjoy these new worlds at a cost of
The implications, therefore, of this passage are very unlike much of the
science fiction of the 1930's, 40's, and even 50's. Justifiably or not, when one
considers the nature of most science fiction works, one tends to see these works
as optimistic about man and his future. The future implies progress, and
progress implies a healthy, growing, human race. There are numerous short
stories and novels that see mankind as a vital race able to triumph over far
more sophisticated and knowledgeable aliens because of this vitality.
Frequently, the human race is portrayed as an upstart race that sweeps all other
races aside because of its energy and impatience to keep on the move. Such a
view, however, is not to be found in Age of Miracles.
But denying that Age of Miracles lacks the optimism of other science
fiction works does not necessarily lead to characterizing the novel as
pessimistic. There is a second passage, also a speech by Waldron, that merits
consideration when discussing the first. Waldron is about to join a colony on
another planet, a colony made possible by the use of the alien transportation
system. Realizing that all the new colonies owe their existence to an artifact
which is a painfully solid symbol of man's inferior position, Waldron
"leaned back in his chair. And thought: so rats get on ships ... True.
And what I'm going to do is much the same. But I'm not going to do it as a rat.
I'm going to do it as a man" (Chapter 28). Such a statement is
optimistic, but its optimism is of a different sort than that which has just
been characterized. Brunner's optimism stems from an individual, not from the
human race as a whole. When Waldron states that he will act as a man, he is
actually stating he will act according to what he conceives of as best in
mankind; that is, being a man is not innately noble. It is behaving as a good
man would behave that creates the nobility. One feels that a story about a rat
that somehow had won through to a sense of "rathood" and then acted
upon that sense would equally impart a tone of optimism for the rest. It is the
experience of self-affirmation that is important here, a self-affirmation which
enables the character to tell all that he is what he is.
There are, therefore, two points to be gained from a reading of Age of
Miracles that have implications for all of Brunner's work. The first point
is concerned with the future. Brunner does not assume a future of promise and
glory for mankind. The optimism of a manifest destiny is not part of the world
that Brunner creates. Instead, Brunner is far more likely to question the future
and man's place in it. The second point is, in many ways, a consequence of the
first. Since mankind has no manifest destiny, how is man to determine his place
in the future if he has any voice in it at all? In Age of Miracles the
answer is given: man's place in the future will be determined by individuals who
call themselves men. In other words, the future of the human race is an open
question, and the solution to that question depends on the people who are part
of the race.
Three of Brunner's novels are particularly concerned with exactly this issue.
Each of these novels, Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and The
Shockwave Rider, substitutes the image of a dystopia for the alien in Age
of Miracles, but the problem remains the same: man must take responsibility
for himself and his race. How the dystopia of each work becomes the metaphor for
mankind's failures and what kind of heroism is called for to answer each of
these failures are the major concerns of the discussions that follows.
In Stand on Zanzibar, the reader is presented with a world that has
become far too complex and far too painful for its inhabitants to even attempt
to control. While overpopulation can be seen as its most obvious feature, it is
not, in its own right, the real issue in the novel. Instead, a citizenry is
presented that refuses to confront the many problems that precede and follow the
crowding caused by overpopulation. The people of the United States are little
more than rats, and, like rats, they have turned to mindless aggression as a
result of the overcrowding. Brunner shows this ratlike behavior in a scene in
which Donald Hogan wanders into a part of New York City which is clearly off-limits
to him. In trying to defend himself from a mugging, he precipitates a riot:
Mindlessly he pushed and thrust and shouted like everyone else, hardly
noticing whether it was a man or a woman he jostled, an Afram or a WASP. The
gasgun on the sweep-truck discharged grenades over his head and the booming
music died in mid-chord. A whiff of the gas reached Donald's nose and wiped
away the last trace of rationality. Both arms flailing, careless of who hit
him so long as he could hit back, he struggled toward the people from the
opposite direction now impacting on the group he was enmeshed with.
The behavior of Hogan here is like that of any rat caught up in a swarm of
life that threatens any individual's existence. An aggressive stance is taken,
and there is no rational decision as to the object of that aggression. However,
as Waldron stated in Age of Miracles, man is not a rat. A man should
behave as a man. No matter what the environment, can the human race afford to
become a mere reactor against the environment? Is the intolerable condition of
the world of Stand on Zanzibar sufficient justification for such
Brunner would answer these questions with a decided negative. If there is
ever to be a future for mankind, than acting as a man, not as a rat, is a prime
prerequisite for assuring that future. While overpopulation might cause
aggressiveness, humans who refuse to face the problem ensure its continued
existence. Thus, the availability of mind-clouding drugs, the exotic emphasis on
costume, the mindless parties of the wealthy, and the self-righteous enforcement
of population control are all geared toward either dodging the issues or
relieving the individual from any sense of responsibility for what is happening
to him and the world he lives in. In other words, if overpopulation is the
single most significant feature of the world of this novel, every phase of the
life of the people of this world is tailored toward avoiding the problem at all
costs. And it is this latter phase which makes Stand on Zanzibar the
dystopia it is. Mankind's future is at stake here because individuals refuse to
act as humane beings.
There are two characters in Stand on Zanzibar who are particularly
relevant to the question of individual responsibility: Chad C. Mulligan and
Norman House. Mulligan (who can also be seen in The Jagged Orbit as
Xavier Conroy) is a sociologist who quite rightly identifies what is happening
to the human race, but who also cannot handle his own knowledge. Thus, Mulligan
simply disappears for a period of time as he tries to opt out of society. For a
man like Mulligan, however, such an answer is impossible:
"Opting out? There's only one way to do that, the same as throughout
history: you kill yourself. I thought I could resign from society. The hole I
could? Man's a gregarious animal — not very social but damnably gregarious
— and the mass simply won't let the individual cut loose, even if the bonds
are no more than police permits for sleeping rough. So I came back...."
Mulligan is the type of individual who feels his humanity all too well. It
was his disgust for what had become of his fellow creatures that caused him to
try to resign in the first place. But, it was also this deep identification with
humanity that forced him to return.
It is essential to understand fully Mulligan's commitment to the human race
before his reaction to the solution of the Shinka paradox can be appreciated. In
identifying a biological substance that neutralizes aggressiveness, an immediate
solution to world-wide aggressiveness becomes probable. All that needs to be
done is to synthesize the substance and, presto, "brotherly love out of an
aerosol can." Mulligan, seeing such a temporary solution, however, voices
what must be on the minds of many a reader:
"But it's not right! It's not something to be made in a factory,
packaged and wrapped and sold! It's not something meant to be — to be
dropped in bombs from UN aircraft!.... It isn't a product, a medicine, a drug.
It's thought and feeling and your own heart's blood. It isn't right!"
And then, with the bitterness of a lover, Mulligan addresses the entire
"God damn you for crazy idiots! All of you! You're not fit to manage
your own silly lives! I know you're fools — I've watched you and wept for
you. And ... oh my God!"
His voice cracked to a breathy moan.
"I love you! I've tried not to and I can't help it. I love you
all...." [Continuity 42]
Mulligan is caught in the dilemma of his own love for mankind. On the one
hand, his love demands a fit object: people should be rational, honest,
compassionate of their fellows. The population of the world of Stand on
Zanzibar, however, shows no such qualities. On the other hand, Mulligan's
love also demands that its object persevere. This is not a conditional love that
is granted or taken away as Mulligan sees fit. Thus, if man cannot survive
through his own qualities, the chemical must be accepted. It might tear him
apart to realize that such a means is the only present solution, but Mulligan
will finally accept it if it can save what he so greatly loves.
In his own way Norman House also starts as a character who tries to isolate
himself from society. Unlike Mulligan, however, the course of action he takes is
not the result of an inherent love of mankind gone cynical. House begins as a
cynic and attempts to deny the humanity within him. Thus, when Brunner
introduces House in Stand on Zanzibar, it is in terms of a calculator:
Everything about Norman Niblock House was measured: as measured as a
foot-rule, as measured as time. Item the degree to which he allowed
himself to lighten his skin and straighten the kinks in his hair, so that he
could exploit the guilt-reaction of his colleagues while still managing to get
next to the shiggies who did the most for his cod. Item the soupc on of
eccentricity he manifested in his behavior, as much as could ordinarily be
tolerated in a junior VP of a big corporation and that much over the limit
which said he was not a man to trifle with. Item the amount and nature
of the work he arranged to have channeled to his office, selected so the
visits of other zecks found him engaged in vastly important transactions.
Norman House has learned to succeed in the rat-world of Stand on Zanzibar
by denying he has anything in common with his "fellow rats." He is in
such tight control of himself that he need not fear the possibility of turning
into a victim of his world; he creates victims but he is not one.
At least, such is House's assessment of himself. Two incidents occur,
however, which shatter this assessment. First, House must confront a fanatic
from the Divine Daughters who is trying to destroy the computer, Shalmaneser. As
he walks toward her, he notices the severed hand of a technician who had tried
to stop the fanatic:
He saw the hand's owner writhing and moaning on the floor, clutching his
wrist and trying to find pressure points on the leading bloodvessels through a
fog of intolerable agony. He saw the smashed reading table whose fragments
were crunching under the feet of the panicky, mind-absent staff. He saw the
light in the eyes of the pallid white girl, breathing orgasmically deep, who
was standing off her attackers with her bloody blade. [Continuity 2]
House takes in the entire scene as one who calculates what the chances are
for effective action. If the world of Stand on Zanzibar reduces most of
mankind to rats, House has escaped such reduction by refusing to be human. Thus,
after he assesses the situation, he disconnects the hose holding super-cooled
helium and turns the stream on the arm of the fanatic. "And then the weight
of the axe broke the girl's hand off her arm." House has simply frozen the
hand and then allowed it to snap off. Such a use of the cooling system of a
computer is hardly an expected one. The mind that could conceive of it would
have to be a rather cold and calculating one. In case, however, this point does
not immediately occur to the reader, Brunner quickly adds
He didn't look at the girl, who had keeled over — fainting or possibly dead
from the shock — but only at the frosted form of the hand still gripping the
axe's shaft. There should have been some sort of response, if no more than pride
in his own quick thinking. There was nothing. His mind, his heart, seemed frozen
as that meaningless object on the floor. [Continuity 2]
Norman House reaches, at this point, his greatest distance from his own
humanity. But it is exactly this moment that leads to House's rebirth as a
human. When House meets later with Elihu Masters, the ambassador to Beninia,
House is forced to confront what he has done and his reaction shows him fit to
rejoin the human race:
"How I feel about myself? I feel I've been
conned. I feel ashamed. I finally evened the score. I got a trophy — I got a
paleass's hand. And how did I get where I could take that off? By following
the rules for living that The Man laid down. And they're no good!" [Continuity
Admitting that his way of life is at a dead end, House has fulfilled two
conditions: first, he is ready to deal on a human level with his fellow human
beings; second, he is ready to find a new goal. Masters, by offering him the
directorship of the Beninia project, gives House the opportunity for both human
contact and new direction.
House, therefore, comes to the Beninia project as a man given a second chance
at life. Thus, unlike Mulligan, he is willing to accept the chemical solution to
man's hostility to man as a temporary answer because he is aware of just how
important is the second chance it offers. After all, he has his own example. To
reach this point of humane concern, however, House has undergone a
transformation. He has proven himself worthy of running the Beninia project and,
more importantly, shown that he cares now about his fellow man. This caring,
moreover, is no simple emotional fling calculated to atone for his earlier
actions. House brings a mature and rational judgment to his concerns that allows
him to give the most effective comfort possible. Thus, when House is approached
by the American armed forces as to the possibility of allowing Hogan to view the
Beninia project, his first reaction is anger over what might have happened to
Hogan. Noticing, however, the defensive posture of the officer, House
immediately changes direction:
"All right, let's stick to the orbit we were flying. You want to know
if he can come and look over the Beninia project. Yes, he most certainly can,
and if you've decided to discharge him from the service, I'll be happy to hire
him myself. Tell him so — it might cheer him up if he's depressed about
something." [Continuity 42]
The ability to calculate quickly and accurately has remained with Norman
House. But there is this one significant difference: his calculations are now
combined with a healthy humanism. House has learned to put his talent to work
Given such a change in House, it is altogether proper that, when Mulligan
does break down, it is Norman House who comforts him:
A long time later, when people had come from all the rooms to see what the
shouting was about — Elihu Masters, Gideon, scores of anonymous faces — he
allowed Norman to take his hands and lead him quietly away. [Continuity 42]
If, at the beginning of Stand on Zanzibar, House avoided being a rat
by avoiding being a man, at the end he avoids being a rat by being the best that
a man can be. And this is exactly Brunner's message: beyond the temporary
chemical solution lies the permanent solution of choosing to be what is the best
part of the human race. Norman House makes just this choice.
In Stand on Zanzibar, the choice is finally made after the character
has developed from a cold machine into a thinking and feeling human being. In The
Sheep Look Up, Brunner presents the reader with a very human character who
must choose between self-sacrifice and escape. Such a character is very much
like Chad Mulligan in that his love of man and his horror of what man has done
constantly struggle for dominance. Thus, like Mulligan, Austin Train tries to
isolate himself from his responsibility. But, like Norman House, he must
eventually make his choice. Train, unlike House, does not need to grow into his
humanity. Instead, he must accept responsibility for it.
The theme of responsibility, therefore, is central to The Sheep Look Up, and
the dystopia presented in the novel is created to underscore this theme.
Starting with the first chapter, the reader is confronted by a world of severe
restrictions. In that chapter there are warnings against swimming in the ocean,
drinking the water, and breathing the air without the aid of a filter mask. Man
seems to be penned in by a world completely hostile to his continued existence.
This world is thoroughly polluted, and, whatever the cause, man is now a victim
of that pollution. Like the hungry sheep in Milton's "Lycidas," all
that is left to mankind is to "Rot inwardly, and foul contagion
The comparison of men to sheep is an important one for the theme. What has
happened to the environment must be seen as an act of stupidity and apathy.
While the desires for money and for power certainly have played their parts, the
result is not caused by sly, conscious manipulation. There are no Satanic
figures in the novel. Rather, the businessmen and politicians are fools who are
too simple-minded and short-sighted to be mistaken for devils. Thus the
responsibility for what has happened to the earth must finally rest with men who
stood by and allowed it to happen, with people who did not oppose the rape of
Brunner emphasizes just how sheep-like man has become when he describes Pete
Goddard's encounter with an oxygen dispenser:
By the door, a large red object with a mirror
on the upper part of its front. Installed last fall. Japanese. On the plate at
the side: Mitsuyama Corp., Osaka. Shaped like a weighing machine. Stand
here and insert 25¢. Do not smoke while using. Place mouth and nose to soft
black flexible mask. Like an obscene animal's kiss. [December: It's a Gas]2
Hostility and aggression are clearly not the major problems in this world.
Docility reigns supreme — so supreme, in fact, that man is about to lose a
world for lack of action.
If the earth and its inhabitants are to be saved, man must act; and in order
to spur man into activity, the central figure, Austin Train, must act. When
Train is first introduced, he is presented as a fugitive, and he clearly has
reason to be: his constant warnings about the human race and the damage it has
wrought have created many enemies. Moreover, these same warnings are credited
with spawning a host of "Trainites" who seem to demonstrate, more
often than not, for the sake of demonstrating.
Neither of these two effects, however, is the real cause of his going
underground. When Train is asked if the demonstrators frighten him, he replies:
"Them? No! They annoy people, but they do no real harm. Create a lot
of publicity, provide a few object lessons for the bastards who are wrecking
the planet for commercial gain ... And they allow the demonstrators to feel
they're being constructive.
No, the kind of thing I have in mind is this. Suppose someone decides a
whole city is offending against the biosphere, and pulls the plug on a nuclear
"You think they might? That'd be crazy!"
"Isn't the moral of the twentieth century that we are crazy?"
Austin sighed. [December: The Moral of the Twentieth Century]
Train is afraid to speak out further, not because he might be arrested or
killed, but because he might inspire unbelievable acts of violence. Train
refuses, therefore, to take the chance.
This refusal must be considered a serious blow to man's chance for survival.
While there are others, notably Doctors Advowson and McNeil, who are willing to
act, these people have neither the fame nor the weight of authority that Train
has. Hence, they can only touch a few lives, and that is frustratingly too
little and too late. It is Train who must act because everyone knows Train. The
problem with such visibility, however, is that whatever results from such
actions will be Train's responsibility, whether or not he was able to control
the events. And again, Train is not ready for such responsibility.
What finally does force Train into accepting his role is the fact that
madness already reigns over the world, and people are passively allowing
themselves to be led to the slaughter. Like Chad Mulligan, Train cannot submerge
his love for mankind. An example of this love can be seen in an episode in which
Train tries to hide from the world as a garbage man named Smith:
"Smith!" A roar from the gang boss, storming up the alley.
"What the hell are you playing at? Hey, where do you think you're
Austin waved the fly-strip under his nose.
"There's a woman sick upstairs! Taken barbiturates in a room with the
windows shut and one of these hanging up. Know what they put in these stinking
things? Dichlorvos! It's a cholinesterase antagonist! Mix that with
They saved her life. But of course reporters wanted to talk to this
unexpectedly well-informed garbage-man, so he had to move on again before they
got the chance. [May: The Dog Days]
Train cannot turn his back on what affects the lives of people around him. He
cares too much to do such a thing, even when becoming involved betrays his
chance for avoiding responsibility. It becomes obvious that Train has accepted
responsibility for individuals; what remains is to accept it for all humans.
This acceptance begins when Austin Train understands what is wanted from him.
He is being used by people; that is, by taking responsibility for their actions,
Train will allow people to finally react to their world. No one need fear the
consequences of his or her acts, because Train is willing to bear that burden.
In a speech that refers back to his earlier fear of responsibility, he accepts
the burden by telling Peg Mankiewicz:
"Remember you once asked me whether it bothered me to have my name
taken in vain? Well, it does. My God, it does! It was the thing I finally
found I couldn't stand any longer. I'm not a Trainite!....
"But then," he said, "Jesus wasn't a Christian, was
"Think I'm crazy, Peg? I can read it on your face." He leaned
forward earnestly. "So do I, much of the time. And yet ... I can't be
sure. I think perhaps I may really be very sane." [August: The End of a
Long Dark Tunnel]
The implied comparison with Christ in the above passage should not be ignored
as an overly dramatic gesture. On the other hand, more should not made of it
than is intended. Brunner is trying to show the reader that Train has finally
accepted his role. He is now willing to take responsibility and to act as he
must, as a leader and as a conscience to all who are willing to follow him. If
someone does some insane act in his name, he is willing to accept that
consequence as well. Finally, if he is to die, so be it. In so far as these
actions resemble the actions of Christ, the parallel holds.
Given Train's decision to come out of hiding, it only remains for him to
choose the time and place. In light of his earlier fear of people performing
unconscionable acts in his name, it is ironic that Train chooses as his coming-out
party a trial in which he must answer for a kidnapping he did not do. Even more
ironic, however, is what he has to tell the American public at this unveiling:
"Well, this living organism we call Mother Earth can't stand that
treatment for long — her bowels tormented, her arteries clogged, her lungs
choked ... But what's happened inevitably as a result? Such a social upheaval
that all thoughts of spreading this — this cancer of ours have had to
be forgotten! Yes, there's hope! When starving refugees are besieging
frontiers, armies can't be spared to propagate the cancer any further. They
have to be called home — like ours!" [November: There Is Hope Yet]
Less than a year earlier, Train was afraid that some madman might destroy a
city and claim that he did it as a follower of Train's. Now Austin Train is
directing the entire American population to rebel and destroy a country. A
little later, Tom Grey will confirm Train's call to self-destruction:
We can just about restore the balance of the
ecology, the biosphere, and so on — in other words we can live within our
means instead of on an unrepayable overdraft, as we've been doing for the past
half century — if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and
wasteful of our species. [November: The Rational Proposal]
But even this confirmation cannot diminish the force of the change that has
taken place within Austin Train.
Thus, when the reader is told at the end of The Sheep Look Up that
America is on fire, the fire must be seen as a hope for the future, a hope made
possible by Austin Train. If the future of man in Stand on Zanzibar lies
with the calm, clear concern of Norman House for all those around him, that same
future is in The Sheep Look Up made viable by Train's living up to the
consequences of his position and his fellow Americans' accepting the
responsibility for their former sheep-like behavior. Once again, an individual
has shown the way by being the best there is in the human character.
There now remains one final Brunner-designed dystopia to investigate. In
The Shockwave Rider the reader is confronted with a society that has the
fullest possible access to the greatest amount of information ever collected,
and it is this very accessibility of knowledge that leads to the major cause of
social destruction. Nicholas Haflinger expresses the cause best in one of his
conservations with Freeman:
"Not everybody knows. In this age of unprecedented information
flow, people are haunted by the belief they're actually ignorant. The stock
excuse is that this is because there's literally too much to be known."
Freeman said defensively, "It's true." And sipped his whisky.
"Granted. But isn't there another factor that does far more damage?
Don't we daily grow more aware that data exist which we're not allowed to get
"You said something about that before." Freeman's forehead
creased with concentration. "A brand-new reason for paranoia, wasn't that
it?" [Book 3: Starting to Grow Again]3
Put directly, the "brand-new reason for paranoia" is that some
people know more than other people. But those who know more do not owe their
greater enlightenment to greater intelligence but to a higher classification
number. Thus, knowledge is metered out in measures determined by a caste system;
being a member of the higher castes assures success because more information
about business, social, and political trends is available.
The result of such a situation is a massive lack of trust. People distrust
other people because it becomes impossible to tell whether a neighbor's, or
relative's, or friend's sudden success is the result of personal skill or
privileged information. Further, since caste depends on what one knows, the idea
of sharing information with others becomes absurd. Why give someone any
information they may now know? After all, it may be used to the disadvantage of
the teller. People become isolated from one another, and the ability to share
ideas and problems with others is lost. Trust, in other words, has gone.
In such a society, Hearing Aid becomes the single most helpful agency. The
understanding that the hearer will never repeat or act on the information given
by the caller allows over-burdened callers to relieve themselves of their fears
and gripes. Here is the one place where a peace has been called. But this peace
comes at a terrible cost. In order to get the trust of the callers, the promise
has been made that any knowledge received will not be used. The hearer,
furthermore is completely dehumanized in that he or she speaks only minimally,
and his or her face does not appear on the screen. The help, therefore, that
Hearing Aid is able to give is limited to enabling the caller to continue a bit
longer and to function a little more smoothly within society. But Hearing Aid
cannot act and, thus, it cannot change the conditions in society that force the
callers to seek help in the first place.
To achieve such a change, the condition of privileged information must
change. Nicholas Haflinger learns to trust his thoughts, fears, and hopes with
Kate Lilleberg, but the ultimate issue far exceeds this personal one. Haflinger
must decide whether all members of society can be trusted to know all things. By
completely opening up the information network, Haflinger would, in fact, declare
just such a trust. His conversation with Freeman shows that he is more than
willing to take such a step. He goes so far as to loose a "worm" in
the network that releases selected "secret" material. But Haflinger,
unlike Norman House or Austin Train, does not take the final step over the line.
The issue of whether or not to trust people with knowledge of all things is too
large. And the question remains: If such a situation existed, might it not be
worse than what exists now?
Brunner's solution to this problem is to hold a plebiscite. Haflinger asks
all Americans two questions:
#1: That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy
of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.
#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain
illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of
us can know. [Book 3: The Content of the Propositions]
As an individual, Haflinger has learned to trust people and to act on the
trust. Again, a single man has here declared his right to be a man. The
Shockwave Rider, however, leaves the reader with the issue unresolved. In Age
of Miracles, the future had been changed forever; in Stand on Zanzibar and
The Sheep Look Up, the possibility for a future was preserved; but in The
Shockwave Rider, the novel ends with mankind at the crossroads. Haflinger
can effect the change, but first society must declare its basic humanity. In
order to do this, it must vote yes to both propositions. If it refuses, then
free and unlimited access to all information is too dangerous, and the society
will be better off as it is.
Thus, whatever the nature of the dystopias John Brunner creates, the issue
can usually be seen as one of humanity. Whether he is concerned with hate, self-centeredness,
or paranoia, Brunner is ultimately investigating what it is that makes up a good
man, for it is the good man who will, or can, save us all.
1. The chapters of Stand on Zanzibar are numbered not
in a single series but instead under four rubrics.
2. The unnumbered chapters of The Sheep Look Up are
named for the months of the year, December through November, with each having
several named but unnumbered sections.
3. The three numbered books of The Shockwave Rider have
each a number of named but unnumbered sections. N.B. According to a letter sent
by Brunner to editors of reviews and fan magazines, the text of the US edition
published by Harper and Row (and reprinted by SFBC and Ballantine) has been
severely mutilated. The UK editions, then, presumably differ from the text used
Two points may be gained from a reading of Brunnerís
Age of Miracles that carry implications for Brunners other work. Brunner does
not assume a future of promise and glory for mankind: the optimism of a manifest destiny
is not part of the world that Brunner creates. Instead, Brunner questions the future and
mans place in it. The second point is a consequence of the first. Since mankind has
no manifest destiny, how is man to determine his place in the future? In Age of
Miracles, the future of the human race is an open question, and the solution to that
question depends on individuals. Three other Brunner novels are likewise concerned with
this issue of heroic men in dystopian settings. Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep
Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider all suggest that human beings themselves must
take responsibility for the human race.
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