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The Jagged Orbit
John Brunner
Victor Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition, 397 pages

The Jagged Orbit
John Brunner
John Brunner was born in 1934 in Oxfordshire, England. He attended Chelternham College then Oxford to receive a bachelor's degree in modern languages. In 1953, he published his first story, "Thou Good and Faithful," in the March issue of Astounding. After school, he enlisted in the RAF for 2 years before moving on to the Industrial Diamond Information Bureau in London. Beginning in 1958, he started writing full-time -- a career that would span more than 40 years until his death in 1995 in Glasgow.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Stand on Zanzibar

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Marc Goldstein

In his obituary for John Brunner, Robert Silverberg recalled Brunner speaking at an SF convention sometime in the early 90s. Brunner had aged badly. His beloved wife, Marjorie, had died recently, following a costly, prolonged illness. He spoke openly about the collapse of his career: his best titles were falling out of print, and his blood pressure medication made it difficult for him to write. From the podium, he begged publishers in the audience for copy-editing work to help him pay off his medical bills. Later, Brunner stopped taking his medication with the hope of reviving his writing career. He died of a massive stroke in 1995. It was a tragic end for one of our most important science fiction authors.

During a period from the late 60s through the mid-70s John Brunner wrote four ground-breaking dystopian novels: Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider. It is for this quartet of "awful warnings" that Brunner is most famous. These dense, multi-layered novels touch on a number of themes, but each claims a single central issue as its foundation. Zanzibar has overpopulation, Sheep tackles pollution, Shockwave Rider presages the computer revolution, and Jagged Orbit takes on racism. In each case, Brunner extrapolates the central theme to its most horrific conclusions, illustrating its consequences on all aspects of human society.

The Jagged Orbit opens sometime in the early 21st century, when the U.S. has become divided into racially separate city-states of blacks (called knees) and whites (knee-blanks). These enclaves clash with each other in a kind of cold civil war. Against this backdrop, Michael Flamen carries on as the last spoolpigeon, a muckraking gossip reporter with his own daily television newsmagazine. For months his show has been interrupted by mysterious static interference. Flamen believes that the network is conspiring to force him off the air (to fill his time slot with infomercials). His investigation into the source of the interference accidentally uncovers a conspiracy within the Gottschalk gun-dealing cartel. The Gottschalk's make a living preying on the racial fears of both sides, selling enough weapons to one side to make the other want more. Flamen suspects they have influenced the I.N.S. to allow known racial separatist and terrorist Morton Lenigo into the country.

Flamen goes to visit his wife, Celia, who is a patient at the Mogshack mental clinic. He arrives on a special day; one of the doctors has invited a pythoness, a woman who speaks prophecies while under the influence of powerful hallucinogens, to perform for the patients. Lyla Clay, the pythoness, and her strange performance draw Flamen into another civil war going on behind the scenes at the hospital.  Dr. Mogshack's treatment methods, which rely on computers to profile ideal human behaviour, seem to strip patients of their unique personalities.  Dr. Xavier Conroy vehemently opposes Mogshack's program, but Conroy's inability to compromise has exiled him to a teaching post at a minor Canadian college.

Xavier Conroy represents the voice of reason, and serves as a Brunner mouthpiece (a role filled by Chad C. Mulligan in Zanzibar, and Austin Train in Sheep). But Brunner is far too canny a writer to allow his characters to wrest away his control of the narrative (as Heinlein's characters often did). Brunner clearly has an agenda, but the didacticism never gets too heavy-handed. In fact, Brunner frequently undercuts the authority of Conroy, and takes pains to make him a realistically flawed character.

Flamen joins forces with Lyla Clay, Xavier Conroy, exiled knee propagandist Pedro Diablo, and Harry Madison, a knee mental patient with a gift for electronics engineering. As the country teeters on the brink of open racial warfare, they investigate the connections between the Gottschalk gun cartel, Dr. Mogshack, and the interference with Flamen's spoolpigeon show. Unfortunately, the finale hinges upon not one, but two instances of deus ex machina: a time-travelling robot and a character who can telekinetically influence broadcast transmissions. While these flaws dull the impact of the climax, they don't dilute the optimism of the novel's epilogue -- perhaps the most generously hopeful conclusion of Brunner's awful warnings.

The Jagged Orbit is usually regarded as the weakest of the four awful warnings. Perhaps this is because it lacks the focused hook of the other novels. Racism, gun violence, drugs, dependence on computers, and mental health figure as key issues in Jagged Orbit, but none really captures centre stage. The novel's central theme is really the more ambiguous concept of isolation: how technology can be used to create and exploit rifts between people. The ensemble cast and a multi-threaded plot (signature elements of Brunner's style) weave together in a way that reinforces the novel's thematic movement from isolation to unification.

Critics also suggest that The Jagged Orbit hasn't aged as well as Brunner's other works. True, its depiction of a United States separated into racially divided city-states more closely represents the anxieties of the late-60s than the current racial climate, where most of the questions swirl around integration rather than separation. However, Brunner's insight into gun violence, drug abuse, and our over-reliance upon technology still feels relevant.

Brunner's four awful warnings received high praise. Zanzibar won the Hugo. Shockwave Rider gets credited for being the first novel to predict computer viruses. Sheep is regarded as the one of the best speculative novels about the effects of environmental pollution. And Jagged Orbit was nominated for a Nebula (going up against Slaughterhouse Five and The Left Hand of Darkness, which won). And yet all four sold below expectations and have fallen out of print many times. That's why it's especially sweet to see this Gollancz edition reprint. The Jagged Orbit is an absorbing, immersive novel that, 30 years after its publication, still offers useful insight into the thorny problems that continue to draw people apart. It deserves to be in print; it needs to be read.

Undoubtedly, Brunner's awful warnings make for grim reading, but that didn't prevent the bleak dystopias of Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World from achieving lasting success. Some critics have labelled Brunner as anti-American, and perhaps this comes closer to explaining his lack of financial success. Orwell and Huxley's dystopic visions are more palatable because they lampoon totalitarian societies, and consequently, reinforce the way American readers view their country as the land of freedom and prosperity. It's not by accident that both novels are staples in American classrooms. Brunner, on the other hand, aims his satiric barbs directly at the heart of American culture. Clearly, the anti-American charge would never be made if Brunner happened to be a U.S. citizen (he was British). In any case, the accusation rings of latter-day McCarthyism, a simple-minded way to dismiss any criticism of U.S. culture and policy, no matter how valid. Along the same line, Brunner has been dubbed misanthropic. Either way, I have always read Brunner's awful warnings as dark satire and felt that he was critical of ignorance and indifference because he cared deeply about making the world a better place. Brunner was a vocal political activist; he walked the walk. Like Chad C. Mulligan screaming "I love you all!" at the end of Zanzibar, Brunner held a mirror up to reflect our foibles because he wanted to save us from ourselves.

Copyright © 2000 by Marc Goldstein

Marc is the SF Site Games Editor and the principal contributor to the SF Site's Role Playing Department. Marc lives in Santa Ana, California with his wife, Sabrina and cat, Onion.

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