Fri
Apr 24 2009 1:14pm

As you wish, so be it: John Brunner’s The Compleat Traveller in Black

John Brunner’s The Traveller in Black isn’t much like anything else at all. It’s a fantasy book by a science fiction writer, and it’s deeply weird. When I first read it, I was completely blown away by it. I now recognise that it has influences—most particularly Lord Dunsany, who was so much in eclipse when I was coming into reading SF and fantasy that though I heard him mentioned here and there, I didn’t discover him for a long time. (When I did, then felt I like some watcher of the skies when some new planet sweeps into his ken, or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific, and all his men looked at each other in a wild surmise, silent, upon a peak, in Darien.) Anyway, The Traveller in Black is Dunsany-style fantasy, rather than the Tolkien-style fantasy I called “realist magicism.” I read it because Brunner was already one of my favourite writers, I’d probably read a couple of dozen of his works before I picked up this one and read, to my surprise and delight:

He has many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding on ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.

Still, there was nothing to choose from as regards rigidity between his particular set of laws and those others. And one rule by which he had very strictly to abide was that at set seasons he should overlook that portion of the All which had been allotted to him as his individual responsibility.

That’s it, really. He wanders around surveying the All, on the side of order as against Chaos, granting people their wishes (though seldom as they’d like them granted) and seeing things pass from Eternity into Time, until everything has only one nature. The book is a picareaque sequence of wandering about a circuit of peculiar places, mostly grotesque cities, written poetically and with a strange edge to it.

I don’t think it’s as good as I thought it was when I was fourteen, or even as good as I thought it was when I bought the attractive Methuen edition (with an extra chapter, well worth having ) which I now own, in 1985. But I keep coming back to it at certain times, usually in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep and I can’t think what I want to read. It’s a fix-up, the sections were originally published individually in SF magazines, where they must have appeared almost unimaginably odd. The thing’s strange enough as a whole piece.

It’s unquestionably fantasy, and not even realistic fantasy, yet for something that’s full of magic, with a plot about bringing order out of chaos, it’s surprisingly science-fictionally worked out. It’s all extrapolation from how things would be if the universe worked that way. It’s informed by Zoroastrian philosophy and religion—one of the Traveller’s many names is Mazda, which is a clue—and influenced by Dunsany and perhaps Lovecraft, and perhaps also Zelazny. It feels more Zelaznian than anything else of Brunner’s. It was first published in 1971, four years after Lord of Light and the year after Creatures if Light and Darkness, when using unusual religions to do something on the borders of science fiction or fantasy may have seemed like a nifty idea.

What I like best of it is the prose style, the circling journeys, the horrible fates of greedy people, the way wishes are granted so obnoxiously, and the pervading sense that all the realm of chaos is passing away almost as we discover it. I like the way it’s structured around that circling—unlike most fix-ups the structure as a novel feels very solid. I like the names, and how they come from different sources but seem consistent, Laprivaan of the Yellow Eyes and Eadwil and the city of Ys. (When I discovered the City of Ys again in Possession, I was very surprised.)

My love for this book is so irrational and beyond analysis that I can’t even say if I recommend it or not.

25 comments
Terry Lago
1. dulac3
I love this book too. I don't have much to add, really, except that I wonder if Jack Vance might also have been an influence given some of the grotesque characters that get taught a lesson by the fulfillment of their wishes, the baroque feeling to some of the societies encountered, and the somewhat mannered approach to language.

If you like this kind of fantasy you'll probably love this book; if you don't, then not so much. :)
Irene Gallo
2. Irene
Not pull attention away from Mr. Brunner but I have to say: Any day with a Leo and Diane Dillon cover in it, is a good one.
Edward Bear
3. sehlat
It occurred to me some years ago that the great weakness of humanity is that we understand what we want pretty well, we rarely, if ever, understand the implications of the things we want. We wanted cars and cheap personal transportation. Rush hours and paving huge areas with blacktop weren't anticipated by more than a few people.

This book is about just that topic. "As you wish...", but the wishers also get the implications included in the package, almost always to their destruction.

And yes, it's a gloriously well done cautionary tale.
Tony Zbaraschuk
4. Tony Zbaraschuk
There's a strong sense in which this is a fantasy of justice; the Traveller tends to grant wishes more often to nasty people (though there are some examples of naifs making wishes) -- and a fantasy about the unmaking of fantasy shares strong elements with Tolkien's Third Age and the quest to destroy the One Ring rather than to find it.

I loved this when I read it, and now I have to go back to see how it's aged.
Tony Zbaraschuk
5. Michael Walsh
I have fond memories when reading some of the original stories then the Ace edition. It's always dangerous to revisit past reads.
Tony Zbaraschuk
6. Dan Blum
How many chapters does the Methuen edition have?
walter tingle
7. wjtingle
I heartily recommend it, but not to the the faint of imagination. I like Brunner OK, but I love "The Traveler in Black".

It's nearest kin (IMO) are two books that are unlike each other: Sean Stewart's "Cloud's End", and M.A. Foster's "Waves". Weird, done right.

Regards,
Jack Tingle
Clifton Royston
8. CliftonR
I'd have picked the influences on the Traveler in Black as less Dunsany and more Cabell, who seems to me full of people getting What They Wished But Not What They Want. Perhaps Clark Ashton Smith too, whose writings are also full of weird cities full of nasty people.

Being so prolific, Brunner has written vastly more kinds of books than people remember. People tend to think of him as primarily writing epic dystopias such as Stand On Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, Jagged Orbit et al. but he's also written a number of very very different books over the decades, some of them profoundly odd. Not just this, but also novels such as The Infinitive of Go, Quicksand, The Dramaturges of Yan, The Atlantic Abomination...

(Oh and bravo for the Waves cite above, as it's one of my favorite books, but I must confess I don't see any stylistic or content connection to The Traveler in Black.)
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Dan: One more than the Ace edition I used to own.
David Goldfarb
10. David_Goldfarb
The Methuen edition (which I also have alongside of the Ace edition with the cover shown here) contains "The Things that are Gods", which was originally published in the short-lived Asimov's SF Adventure Magazine. The Methuen edition's text is also extensively revised at the level of sentences and paragraphs -- read it side-by-side with the Ace edition, and while all the stories have the same plots, on nearly every page you'll find things phrased differently. I'm on the road just now and don't have access to the texts, or I'd post some examples.

Actually, I think I can do one from memory: in "The Wager Lost by Winning", in the Ace edition the Traveler says something like, "When I grant a second wish, I may point out the consequences if I choose" -- and tells the girl why the wish she's just made is a bad idea. In the Methuen he simply says he need not grant the wish, and doesn't, without the explanation.

Unlike Jo, I can say whether I recommend the book or not, and I recommend it highly indeed. If the summary in this post sounds the least bit appealing, read it!
Tony Zbaraschuk
11. randwolf
Two more highly likely influences are Jack Vance's The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld. Catch a Falling Star, which I find is a rewrite of his earliest book, probably also owes something to Vance as well. Brunner also had a fascination with formalist philosophy, rather a formal magic realist sensibility, which didn't come out very often, perhaps because he didn't have a market for that kind of work. It shows up in Traveler, of course, but also The Stardroppers shows a bit of it, as does The Wrong End of Time and, oh, what is that title? I remember the cover, but the title? Got it, thank you Google Book Search! More Things in Heaven, which might almost be in a Platonic universe.
Tim May
12. ngogam
Is that the same city of Ys as in Vance's Lyonesse?

(Well, looking it up in Wikipedia, it's an actual mythical city, so I guess it's not so surprising if it turns up in multiple authors' works.)
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
I hate to admit it, but I haven't really read any Vance. His book with "Wankh" in the title was a standing joke to my father, and I kind of mentally filed him as someone who'd make stupid smutty puns or had a cloth ear for names and avoided him. Then later I knew someone really obnoxious who raved about him, which was even more offputting. But I don't think I have actually ever even tried to read anything of his. Where should I start? What's most like Traveller in Black?
Tony Zbaraschuk
14. randwolf
Hmmm...it's been a while since I've read Vance, but the book that has stuck with me most is in fact The Dying Earth, which is enormously influential. Vance is considered a very fine stylist, noted for his descriptions. I haven't read him recently enough to have an opinion of that, however. YMMV. The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld were a major models for the original D&D, especially D&D magic.
Tony Zbaraschuk
15. randwolf
As a following thought: though there are considerably similarities in setting between The Traveler in Black and The Dying Earth there are enormous differences in attitude. Brunner is always, I think, sharply moral in his concerns--he was after all an activist. Vance, though he has ethical concerns, wears them more lightly; his style is distant and ironic. Well, time to end this bout of insomnia.
Terry Lago
16. dulac3
I find Vance hit or miss myself. I enjoyed _The Dying Earth_, but found his Cugel and Rhialto stories not to my taste. The only series of his, so far, that I've completely enjoyed from start to finish was the "Lyonesse" series of books which presents a very unique take on the pre-Arthurian mythos. It is also, I think, his only work which could be considered pure fantasy as opposed to Sci-fi or Science Fantasy.
Tony Zbaraschuk
17. David Scholes
Sounds like my kind of book!

I've always liked John Brunner and this seems something more than a little out of the ordinary.

I've been reading science fiction and science fantasy for about 50 years now and at the age of 60 finally got myself published.

The link to my author page is:

www.StrategicBookPublishing.com/ScienceFictionandAlternateHistory.html

Cheers

David Scholes
Alan Wallcraft
18. AlanWall
Looking for this book used on Amazon (USA) I saw a link for:

I own the rights to this title and would like to make it available again through Amazon.

I have never seen this before, and it is yet another way that Amazon is ahead of the pack. If the copyright owner reads this, there is likely a market for many of John Brunner's works - perhaps as ebooks. If there is no market, then please let Project Gutenberg (say) produce an on-line version.
William S. Higgins
19. higgins
Tonight we were driving around Des Plaines, Illinois, a city built atop an immensely ancient meteor crater--but here I am, digressing already.

A great many signs over stores in Des Plaines seem not to be fully illuminated. This lends them a kind of mystical meaning.

We began to read them aloud: F RESTONE. HOBB. ONUTS.

We wondered whether the signs were truly broken, or whether perhaps some of the letters were switched off in the interest of economy.

This led K to speculate that different letters might be darkened on different nights. Come back tomorrow and the sign will have an alternate message.

Then we came to a joint that sells beeflike sandwiches. Under a bold, bright outline of a cowboy hat, it proclaimed ARB.

Later, home, I came across your discussion here.

For the second time tonight, the mythical city of YS came to mind, submerged in a way, hidden in the darkness.
Jo Walton
20. bluejo
Bill, that's wonderful. It's almost poetry.
Tony Zbaraschuk
21. Neil in Chicago
I've loved this book all along, but the cover pic looked a little odd for a moment, until I figured out that it must be a later edition. My memory is pretty certain that it was an Ace Special, and the Dillon cover reinforces that.
While you're casting about, hither and yon, you might bring some new, current attention to the most incredible sf imprint ever, the Ace Specials. The list of titles and authors is still boggling.

((hey, KEWL -- my retype-the-squiggly-letters includes "pnh"!!1!))
Bruce Cohen
22. SpeakerToManagers
What Irene said @2, in italic bold letters of fire.

I remember when I first read Dunsany, years after reading The Traveler in Black, I thought to myself, "So that's what Brunner was doing!" Brunner was rarely recognized for the sheer variety of the writing he did; the dystopias are what people usually think of, but he wrote in many other styles and subgenres. Some have been mentioned above, but there are others that I've remembered over the years, and often had to find again, because they lodged themselves in my brain and wouldn't leave. For instance, Sanctuary in the Sky, which has echoes of Catherine Moore's Judgement Night, and Threshold of Eternity, an homage to A. E. van Vogt. And then there's Enigma from Tantulus, which is sort of the inverse story to The Dramaturges of Yan. In Enigma, it's the human race that shows an arrogant confidence that may not be justified by the final outcome ...
Tony Zbaraschuk
23. Joel Polowin
I've got a copy of the Bluejay illustrated edition of The Compleat Traveller In Black, with lovely pictures by Martin Springett and five chapters. (The list of other Bluejay illustrated editions, at the back of the book, has Vance's Wankh immediately preceding this book.)

I don't remember when I first read the book, but I was youngish, and it made a strong impression. I liked the theme of bringing order and justice to the world by granting wishes to evil people who didn't think carefully enough about what they were asking for. And I was (and still am) particularly fond of the passage which compared cookery to magic.
Tony Zbaraschuk
24. Mezz
From 35-40 years ago, main memories are that it seemed quite unjust, and upset me, but like Joel & StM above I remember very little except its power. I'd quite forgotten it was Brunner; he does tend to have that effect on me.

On Librarything there are two editions (I do love how both spellings are included): The Compleat Traveller in Black (www.librarything.com/work/187728) and The Traveler in Black (www.librarything.com/work/314366) — this is the closest to my memory of the cover.
Tony Zbaraschuk
25. Cuyahogen
Traveller In Black is one of my formative books. I love it and would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone to read. It is undoubtedly as good as it was when I first read it, and much better than Brunner's disaster novels, which always struck me as false. (Incidentally, they're not 'dystopias', they're 'cacotopias' - 'utopia' means 'nowhere', it's not a word implying a nice future.)The only other Brunner work at the same level of writing, for me, is 'The Squares of the City' - arguably not science fiction at all, but an excellent read. But then, science fiction is dead and smelly; we were promised cities on the Moon, and all we have is dodgy recollections.

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