East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

John Brunner’s Traveller in Black


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.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

5 thoughts on “John Brunner’s Traveller in Black

  1. You keep doing this. Keep reminding me of pleasures of my youth like movies and books for which I share your liking. THE TRAVELLER IN BLACK was original and different fantasy, and the Traveller, that enigmatic being with many names but a single nature (and one of his names, as I recall, was Ormazd) is hard to forget.
    One of Brunner’s science fiction novels, QUICKSAND (have you read it?) is pessimistic and the ending is grim, but it’s as good as I learned to expect from Brunner. He also wrote a series of espionage novels with a freelance secret agent named Max Curfew (in full, Cyprus Maximilian Curfew) a former CIA man, thoroughly disillusioned with right wing agencies and working in liberal causes now. Curfew is black, and in his adventures (HONKY IN THE WOODPILE, GOOD MEN DO NOTHING, and A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR CAUSES) he topples fictional versions of the Ian Smith regime and the government of Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haiti. I seem to remember Brunner saying in an interview that he had planned a novel in which Curfew averts nuclear war, but that was in the Reagan presidency, and he explained that in a world where the U.S. president’s wife was into astrology that seemed too optimistic even for espionage fantasy.


    • I did read Quicksand, but I missed the spy stories.
      I’ll have to look for them (I like spy stories).


      • They are good and original! But my memory betrayed me as to Curfew’s background. He’s Jamaican, and he grew up the hard way in a dirt poor family, and he got his spy training — maybe his education, too — working for the Russians in a number of Third World countries in the 1960s. The Russians, not the CIA. Then, disillusioned with the Kremlin, he stopped working for them and worked for the Brits, briefly, but he didn’t find them much better and he’s one angry black dude who reacts badly to anybody trying to manipulate or use him. His constant worry is that the Russians consider him a defector and want serious words with him, preferably in Lubyanka Prison. When the series begins he’s a freelance walking a tightrope. He was still that when Brunner stopped writing about him.


        • Sadly, most of Brunner’s work in my country was published in the ’70s and ’80s and never reprinted. And from what I am seeing, the Curfew novels are gard to find in English too.
          But I’ll keep an eye out.


        • I found one of Curfew’s books, in Italian “La spoia nera” (the black spy), pyblished in 1971. The volume is probably too delicate to actually read it, and it would set me back 20 bucks.
          Hmm, not now.


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