John Brunner is rightly famous for his dystopic works Stand on Zanzibar (won Hugo for best novel), The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and Shockwave Rider but most of his output consisted of pulp science fiction space opera. The novella and two short stories (novelettes?) that make up this volume all take place in the same future world populated by a vast crumbling empire, slaves, and sword wielding heroes. The decadent empire has almost fallen into oblivion and outer world planets are inhabited by pirates and mutants who seize power and travel across the galaxy with the old Empire’s ships and technology.This classic yet unoriginal world is the backdrop to three unoriginal but relatively entertaining stories. The first of the stories is by far the best and the last by far the worst (they chronologically go backward in time which illustrates Brunner’s developing talent).
THE ALTAR ON ASCONEL
The Altar on Asconel, written in 1965, is a pretty good read and deserves 3.5/5 stars. Brunner writes in the little introduction to the volume (On standing on One’s own Feet) that this novella was written after the background of his future world was developed and thus, some depth is definitely apparent in his work.
The plot fits nicely into the background and is an integral element of the work. In this story, three brother of various professions band together with a rouge telepath to fight a cult from the far reaches of the galaxy who have gathered on Asconel and seized power. Two of the three brothers are very interesting characters while the third is entirely forgettable.
Sadly, Brunner likes to kill of his characters that don’t fit well into his narrative and especially at the beginning uses the time old technique of dumping the details of the political situation by means of a lengthy verbose lecture (telling the reader instead of showing). However, this story has some interesting ideas, characters, and technology.
THE MAN FROM THE BIG DARK
The Man from the Big Dark, written in 1958, deserves 3/5 stars. Brunner tells us that he wrote this story while trying to tackle some of the key issues plaguing his invented future. Primarily, why did some technology and ships survive after the Empire crumbled away and the infrastructure disappeared. This story follows in a rambling manner the journey of an ex-space pirate (and a scantily clad woman) attempting to free a world he suddenly “belongs” to from his once allies (space pirates from the Big Dark). The action at the end is way to hasty and many of his decisions do not fit his character and background story. Simply put, this is a good attempt but needs a few rewrites.
THE WANTON OF ARGUS
The Wanton of Argus, written in 1953 when Brunner was 17, is pure drivel. To quote Brunner himself, “I threw the lot in – every cliché I could think of, from wicked princesses to giant black slaves.” Thankfully, this piece of crud allowed Brunner to publish his future works. The great number of characters is detrimental to the short story format and all the characters are empty of character. The story is about a second born daughter and her attempts to prevent the first born daughter who has just returned from slavery on another planet from usurping her control over a younger brother who is king.
That said, the ending does have a pretty fun twist that almost makes up for all the other lousy clichés.