I’ve had John Brunner’s The Wrong End of Time (1971) for five years sitting in the to read pile — I’ve managed to get through around thirty pages the four times I’ve tried to read it over the years. However, I’ve finally got around to finishing it. And, well, it falls woefully short of any sort of greatness — especially considering it was published only two years after Brunner’s acknowledged masterpiece (and my favorite sci-fi book of all time), Stand on Zanzibar.
That is not to say that some of the world building skills so aptly shown in Stand on Zanzibar are not present. The Wrong End of Time occurs in a credible if painfully dated world — however, the forced plot which bears its head every now and then — which is ostensibly the main thrust of the book — is so utterly contrived that all the interesting elements of the world fall by the wayside.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
The Communists have taken over most of the world and other nations are more interested in maintaining contacts with Russia instead of the United States. The US has withdrawn into almost complete isolation behind a massive defense network — the oceans are lined with fences and bomb bunkers and the border with Canada is strewn with mines.
The Russians have discovered an alien spaceship near Pluto which has transmitted a series of images suggesting the imminent destruction of the human race. Sheklov, a Russian spy, is sent with rather nebulous (and nonsensical) orders to meet up with another spy in the United States, Turpin, to alert him to the aliens and find someone who might be able to sort out the pictures or a come up with a way dealing with the aliens.
Instead of developing this story line further, Sheklov hops around various parties with Turpin which show the dark and decadent side of American life. Eventually, he meets Turpin’s rebellious promiscuous daughter, Lora and her African American lover, Danty. Danty, who has some unusual mental power, had seen Sheklov emerge from the submarine and climb through the defense barrier. Danty’s a reb — a hippie who refuses to engage in regular American life. Eventually, all meet up, and with Danty’s older tarrot card reading Magda, uncover the real reason for the aliens — well, Lora, she sleeps through the “interesting” part.
The plot is predictable and boring. Danty is a somewhat interesting character and Brunner uses him to explore the racial tensions of the future isolated America. An America which becomes so intensely anti-Communist and xenophobic that educated African Americans engaged in a mass exodus to other countries. However, interesting events like these are only mentioned briefly.
Instead, the pointless predictable plot meanders about and the end is pseudo-cryptic and unsurprising. For a science fiction book written in the early 70s with an African American main character and a sympathetic Russian secret agent this is a startlingly unimaginative work. The injection of a social sci-fi element into what is on the surface an action novel is admirable and usually welcome, but here it fails in ever conceivable way. Brunner must have gotten bored about 1/3rd of the way through. Avoid at all costs unless you are a Brunner completest like me… Although, a few more of these and I won’t try to finish the ones I’m missing. Read his masterpieces…