Today I’ve reviewed the seventeenth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. John Brunner explores how total immersion media, one organ in a vast futuristic fair designed to satiate the masses, can transform fear within the broken.
4.5/5 (Very Good)
John Brunner’s “Fair” first appeared in New Worlds Science Fiction, ed. John Carnell (March 1956) under the pseudonym Keith Woodcott. You can read it online here. It also appeared in his first collection No Future In It (1962).
I recently devoured Jad Smith’s short monograph John Brunner (2012) in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series for Illinois University Press. Not only did the book rekindle my desire to tackle more of Brunner’s short fiction but I also bought copies of The Squares of the City (1965) and Quicksand (1967). I might even reread The Shockwave Rider (1975) in the near future. If you are at all interested in John Brunner’s science fiction I recommend acquiring a copy.
Smith identifies “Fair” (1956) as Brunner’s “finest achievement during this [early] period” (Smith 28). I’d rank it right under his spectacular generation ship short story “Lungfish” (1957). As with many of Brunner’s best works, “Fair” had a contested publication history–in this instance John Carnell only accepted it under the pseudonym “Keith Woodcott” to “fill out an issue” (Smith 29). The identity of the consummate wordsmith didn’t last long as Carnell accidentally revealed his identity in next issue when the story came in second in the reader’s poll!
“Fair” was written soon after Brunner was discharged from the RAF in January 1955 which allowed him to restart his writing career. Smith writes that Brunner’s experience in the RAF inspired the thematic content of his stories–including how “groupthink could perpetuate outmoded thought patterns and entrench social complacency” (Smith 23). And that is clear here as the antihero Alec Jevons, “ex-test pilot […], ex-husband,” feels responsible for the growing tidal waves of fear that galvanize the UK (117). A fear that permeates the mind to such an extent that “the sun reminds you of the hydrogen bomb and the rain reminds you of a gas spray” (121). The fair draws in all who desire “temporary nirvana” (119).
As Jevons wanders towards the metal throat that blasts “Do you want amusement?” (117) to the crowds gathering at the entrance to the fair, he engages in a internal dialogue with the imaginary metal mind that controls the fair rehashing his fall from grace. Jevons omitted his heritage (half English and half Russian) when he applied for his pilot position. Now without any attachment or career, he allows himself to be pulled into the dissociative swirl of the fair’s interior… He imagines the fair as a mechanical entity shuttling forth the humans (and their money) like blood through its organs (118). He observes the mass of humanity seeking a “pleasure-filled night” to keep out the “darkness of their rooms, those without a future” (121). And one booth in particular draws him in.
Its interior contains the future of movies and TV–“total sensory identification was what they called it” (125). Originally for the training of intelligence agency, this organ of the fair uses it for an altogether different purpose. And Jevons, after immersing himself in the suffering of a Malay pearl diver, the joyous love of an African couple, the joy of flying without a nuclear payload, and speaking Russian without fear of reprisal, becomes its emissary.
In the science fiction I’ve explored in this series, futuristic post-TV sensory immersion devices are often presented as devious traps for those seeking escape. A few examples: In John MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” (1950) the virtual reality device is a perverse formulation of future capitalism that replays pulp escapism, in Robert Bloch’s “Crime Machine” (1961) it’s a manifestation of destructive nostalgia, and in Lino Aldani’s “Good Night, Sophie” (1963, trans. 1973) it can reprogram the viewer to follow the “correct” narrative. In this instance despite the trappings of a dystopic future immobilized by the terror that grips all, this machine has the possibility to transform: “you’re teaching these people about the men and women they hate because they think they’re different” (127).
I found Brunner’s use of an antihero, effective descriptions of the fair and its chaotic interiors (he would refine the use of background as character in later works), and poignant dissection of fear and paranoia refreshing and worth tracking down!
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