John Brunner is another one of those names that has floated around my Science Fiction constellations since I can remember, yet I’ve never read. This book collects three novellas, two from his early days in the 50s, and one from the early 70s. All are set in a vaguely presented future history, where Humanity was able to spread through the stars via alien technology they found in their early days of space exploration. The empire they built across a thousand stars is on the edge of full collapse, in part because Humanity never really earned its place, never figured out for themselves how to travel the stars, relying on mysterious tech.
This book is a great read if you’re looking for some classic Space Opera. Though the book is only about 250 pages long, it has very, very small print, and would probably be half again as long, or more, if the print were at a normal, more readable size. As it is, it’s eye-strainingly dense. The Daw edition I read also has a lot of typos for a professionally produced product. All that aside, it’s very entertaining. The first story, The Altar of Asconel deals with deposed royal brothers, a strange religious cult, and some very weird ideas. It also does a good job of establishing the universe and its rules. You’ve got the fading remnants of a Human empire, mutants getting shipped off to the frontiers, space technology based on found alien machines, etc. There are hints of Asimov’s Foundation series, but from a very different angle. The second story, The Man from the Big Dark deals with space pirates and planetary power struggles. More depth is added to the setting. This one feels kinda like something Andre Norton might have written in the 60s. The last story, The Wanton of Argos was actually the first one John Brunner wrote (actually the stories are collected here in the reverse order of how they were written). There is a lot going on in this tale of rival sisters, strange conjurers, dubious dealings, and hope for the future. This gets a bit nuts with the twists, and the finale is somewhat confusing and odd. Still, there’s a lot to like.
The book definitely made me want to dip further into science fiction of the 50s and 60s. That was truly a Golden Age for it. It also got me in the mood to play some Fading Suns or Traveller or something.
Fans of the genre should find plenty to like, and I’d highly recommend tracking it down. However, if you’re not already a fan of Golden Age Science Fiction and Space Opera, this is probably not the best place to start. Also, while the book features some surprisingly forward-thinking treatments of female characters (I mean, compared to contemporaries, not to today), it also features some particularly off-putting racist stuff. It’s not extreme, but it’s conspicuous. Perhaps more so, because the book feels so modern in other ways.