Thursday, July 05, 2007

John Brunner

In Reflections and Refractions Robert Silverberg writes about the sad life of the science fiction writer John Brunner.  At one time he was at the top of his field -- then everything went wrong.

He was a golden boy from the start.  He sold his first novel, Galactic Storm, in 1952 at what seems to me the remarkably young age of 18.  He was prolific and energetic during the 1950's and 60's.  Silverberg writes,

His early work was always competent and professional, and sometimes a good deal more than that; but when he was about thirty he found his mature voice, and gave us a string of significant books like Squares of the City and The Whole Man, and then in 1969 the huge and masterly Stand on Zanzibar, which brought him his first and only Hugo Award. He seemed to build on that triumph in the years immediately following, with such important and well received books as The Jagged Orbit and The Sheep Look Up and Shockwave Rider, in which he invented the concept of computer viruses at a time -- 1975 -- when the computer concept itself was still largely unfamiliar to most people. He was only about forty then; and it appeared that he was staking a claim for himself in the science fiction world as the natural successor to the aging Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke.

It was not to be. Something went wrong in John's life.

What went wrong, in my words, was that he had built a fan base writing science fiction -- and then he found the desire to write something else. He decided around 1975 to write a massive historical novel called The Great Steamboat Race. He worked on it for five years from 1976 to 1981 that were a tremendous drain on his finances. The book finally appeared in 1983 and it sank without a trace.  It was a disastrous failure.  Brunner was never the same again.

In the summer of 1983 he commented that his books were all out of print and no publisher was interested in his future work.  In 1986 he received another blow when his wife Marjorie died.  In 1987 he was only 53 but he looked like an old man.

Because of a genetic predisposition to hypertension and strokes he had to take a blood pressure medication that interfered with his concentration and made it impossible to write.

He began to seem like a lost soul, haunted, despondent.  In an astonishingly sad convention speech... he spoke openly of the collapse of his career and expressed the hope that some publisher might offer him proofreading work to do as a way of paying his bills.

But he had not given up.  After all, he was John Brunner; he had won a Hugo Award. Why couldn't he make a science fiction comeback?  He got an idea for a major new novel he hoped would restore his position in the field and pay off his debts.  All he needed to do to write was stop taking that damned medication.

So he stopped the medication and resumed writing.  At the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, Scotland on August 25, 1995, he suffered a massive stroke and died at the age of 60.


Jennifer Snow said...

Um, not to steal your thunder or anything, but how is this a tragedy? The man wrote several good novels! He won a Hugo award! And then he wrote what he wanted even though it wasn't his "genre". Even at the end, he decided that writing was more important than his health and stuck with it!

The fact that he didn't retire wealthy doesn't really signify, in my opinion. Most of the writers I know (myself included), consider themselves a success if they finish the novel and it tells the story they wanted it to.

Myrhaf said...

You're arguing that Brunner was a success, not a failure, and I agree. But I called his life sad, and it is sad to think of a Hugo Award winner asking publishers for proofreading work to pay the bills.

Would you agree with me that his story is interesting enough for a blog post?

Dismuke said...

I think it was a very interesting - albeit very sad - posting.

It is always sad if people who are extremely talented (and I am assuming here that he was talented as I have never heard of him before not being into science fiction) at their chosen profession that they are passionate about are unable to make a financial go of it - especially if they have already broken into the field. And having to choose between one's perfectly rational and productive passions and one's health - well, that is very sad. Too bad there wasn't some form of medication that was able to do its work and not mess with his mind.

Mike said...

Thanks for posting this. It puts things in perspective. I'm still a ways away from completing my first SF book (about 40% complete) and I can only imagine what turns life could take from there. I have to hand it to Brunner... he went for broke, and it was what I should like to have done in his position.