John Brunner

[This is CP’s obituary of the writer John Brunner, written in the usual haste which inevitably follows any sudden or unexpected death. It was published in 1995 in David Langford’s monthly newsletter, Ansible. This article may be downloaded, but may not be uploaded or printed elsewhere.]

John Brunner’s sudden death at the Glasgow world science fiction convention came as a profound shock, but not, sadly, a surprise to those who had been in contact with him in the weeks and months before. Every conversation I had with John in the last two or three years was spiked with his unhappiness, frustration and disappointment. His health had become intermittently poor, his finances generally shaky and his career seemed at a low ebb. But in earlier years he was buoyant. John was the first major sf writer I came to know personally, and although I often found his company uncomfortable, because away from home he put on a defensive veneer, I never ceased to admire him, like him and more often than not love him. Here is what I will remember of him:

John was a passionate political liberal: he was against the bomb, against racism, against government oppression, against corruption. Many of us are too, but John gave up most of his non-writing life to these causes. He lobbied, marched, wrote songs, joined committees, demonstrated.

He and his first wife Marjorie were constant and loyal friends to me throughout the break-up of my first marriage. None but the three of us knew this, and now only I remain.

At home: He had the largest collection of folk and jazz records I have ever seen. He was a brilliant and adventurous cook, and delighted in giving his guests gullet-searing soups or palate-teasing delicacies. John liked fast, open-top cars, enjoyed wine and tobacco, revelled in the company of women. He loved animals. He enjoyed excruciating people with his awful and invariably unfunny puns. He was personally generous, giving freely his hospitality, time and interest.

Professionally: He was a fierce defender of what he understood science fiction to be — I once saw him stoutly standing up to a film-company executive, whose film Zardoz John reckoned to betray all the things for which sf stood, and who was threatening to drag John outside for a punch-up. His novels were highly readable, fast-moving, professionally executed and extrovert in style. The best of his serious novels, Stand on Zanzibar and The Shockwave Rider, and several others, are amongst the finest, most imaginative and best written works in the field.

I never heard John say anything bitchy or jealous about another writer. On the contrary, he was supportive and helpful to young writers. At the same time he always told them the truth about their writing, as he saw it. (I recall this well.) He had an incisive critical mind, as anyone who was at a Milford Writers’ Conference with him will know. He was probably the widest-read man I have ever met: his house was packed with books, and his mind was furnished with their contents. John, in his literary-database role, would delight in showing off his knowledge, always with a playful edge, often with serendipitous results.

He was a friend, and while the world at large has lost one of its best and most under-rated writers, our small sf family has lost an extraordinary, intelligent, erudite and amusing man. Our loss is terrible.