Skip to main content

The Productions of Time (SF) - John Brunner ****

When I was in my teens and early twenties, Brunner was everywhere in the SF bookshops. He was a prolific author, and frankly some of his books were poor rushed jobs. But his best were excellent, and deserve to be remembered.

His most famous title is probably Stand on Zanzibar - not one of my favourites, but interesting in its use of news clippings etc to give the book a different feel. It's an over-population book and I was never thrilled by disaster novels. For me, one of his best was The Shockwave Rider. This used Alvin Toffler's extremely popular (and very inaccurate) stab at futurology Future Shock as a model. That part in itself wasn't very interesting, but Brunner gave us images like the computer virus before such things existed and made use of the fascinating if flawed concept of the Delphi principle (the idea that a group of people with no particular knowledge in a subject will improve their response to questions about it if there immediate answers are fed back to the group, which then re-thinks) as a mechanism for government - a really clever idea.

The book I've recently re-read was a much smaller scale work, both physically and in it reach. Called The Productions of Time it features a collection of has-been actors brought together to put on an experimental play. What they don't know is that this is scheme to drive them further and further into their weaknesses to record the experience for an audience from the future. It's not bad as a novel, if not superbly written, but I think it's a great example of the sort of thing that those who criticize SF as a genre don't get. There is some technology (often painfully old-fashioned in its vision of the future: reels of tape? Perlease!) -  but this is entirely a book about people.

Admittedly not all great SF is about people. I was amused to hear the excellent Angela Saini struggling to defend Asimov's Foundation trilogy on that rather smug A Good Read programme on Radio 4. The format of the show requires three people to read each others choices of books, and the arty types were definitely looking down their nose at Asimov's dire characterisation. It's true, he couldn't write convincing characters, especially women - but Asimov is great for his ideas, not his characters. The Productions of Time is the absolute opposite - it really is all about the characters and for me is good example of why you shouldn't pigeonhole SF as all blasters and space opera. I'm not ashamed to say I love the original Star Wars trilogy of movies... but sometimes I want something different, and Brunner could put it in SF with the best of them.

The paperback is out of print, but this is available on Kindle.


Paperback 

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

Through Two Doors at Once - Anil Ananthaswamy *****

It's sometimes hard to imagine that there's anything new to say about the basics of quantum physics, yet Anil Ananthaswamy manages this in a twofold manner (appropriately, given the title). Through Two Doors at Once does so by using the double slit experiment as a constant reference point throughout the book, and by bringing in a number of the more modern variants on the experiment which rarely feature in popular accounts of quantum theory.

Strictly, the book should probably be called 'Through Two Doors at Once and Spooky Action at a Distance plus Things That Have a Similar Effect', as it uses both the double slit experiment and the EPR entanglement thought experiment, plus modern experiments which don't, for example, involve slits but rather beam splitters that are their logical equivalent - but I have to admit, that would be a clumsy title.

Ananthaswamy gives us a good overview of the development of quantum physics - sometimes quite summary - but by making repea…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…