For many years the John Brunner stories featuring The Traveller in Black were very high in my Need to Read list. John Brunner was more famous as a writer of science fiction than as a fantasist, and he wrote some of my favorite SF novels (in particular, The Squares of the City and The Productions of Time). I often read about the series, and there was an edition in my country in 1996 – but I actually never saw a copy of that one, and I always considered missing these stories as a grave hole in my CV as a fantasy reader and writer.
So I was quite happy when a gift from one of my Patrons brought to my Kindle The Compleat Traveller in Black, a volume that collects the five stories of the cycle: “Imprint of Chaos“, “Break the Door of Hell“, “The Wager Lost by Winning“, “The Dread Empire“, and “The Things That Are Gods“.
Published in that strange interregnum before popular fantasy was codified, Brunner’s stories are as wildly imaginative as thought-provoking – and if there is an inspiration for them, it’s not Howard, or Leiber, but rather C.A. Smith and Jack Vance.
Indeed, the tone and language of the opening pages of the volume reminded me of the opening of Vance’s The Dying Earth.
Is there an overall plot?
The Traveller in Black travels through a changing landscape, in a world in which Order and Chaos are at odds, the former promoting stability, the latter in perpetual state of flux. The Traveller is somehow a bringer of stability his “mission” or existential role being help reality collapse to a steady state.
In this sense, while the adoption of concepts such as Order and Chaos can remind us of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, the perspective here is different, and while the Eternal Champion fights for balance, the Traveller seems destined to bring about a final crystallizing of reality, and the cessation of time itself.
At the same time, in its portrayal of a world in transition from magic anarchy to ordered scientific determinism, Brunner’s work maps some of the same territory that Samuer R. Delany will tackle – in a very different way – with his Neveryon stories.
Brunner’s tone is often ironic if not openly humorous, the language shifting in the blink of an eye from a polished, baroque and old-fashioned lexicon to very prosaic, offbeat and modern expressions.
Events are often presented elliptically, so that we often observe either only the cause, or the effect.
Smart, influential and alas all-too-short, The Compleat Traveller in Black is a good collection to remind us that there is life and variety beyond formula writing – and there always was. We only need to learn from the good ones.