The Society of Time: The Original Trilogy and Other Stories by John Brunner
(British Library, 2020)
Reviewed by Nick Hubble
This is an entry in the British Library’s somewhat eclectic series of ‘Science Fiction Classics’. The book contains five novellas: ‘The Analysts’ (1961) and ‘Father of Lies’ (1962), both originally published in Science Fantasy; and the three ‘Society of Time’ novellas, ‘Spoil of Yesterday’, ‘The Word Not Writien’ and ‘The Fullness of Time’, first published in 1962 in successive issues of Science Fiction Adventures. The back-cover blurb is slightly misleading in that although it correctly states that the trilogy was abridged when first collected as Times Without Number in 1962, it does not mention that the cuts were restored in the expanded 1969 edition. Mike Ashley discusses this in his introduction, but it should be more clearly labelled on the cover.
The main interest of the stories lies in the fact that they indicate the state of progressive sf sensibilities in the early 1960s. However, they are far too dated to work as general entertainment in 2021. Somewhat alarmingly, the copyright page includes a disclaimer that ‘neither the publisher nor the editor endorses any language which would now be considered xenophobic or offensive’. Ashley warns that the ‘The Analysts’, which comes last in the volume, ‘uses some words and phrases in common use at that time though shunned now’. This is far too cryptic and gives the impression that the British Library are more concerned with covering themselves than providing a full discussion in the introduction justifying the grounds for publication. As it stands, the reader expects the worst and might decide not to read it. Nevertheless, despite its use of the term ‘coloured’, I thought this was the best story in the collection because it has agential women characters, including a woman of colour, and realises that the solution to racial injustice can only lie in the complete refiguration of society.
All the stories would benefit from more contextualisation. I nearly abandoned the collection because I was so disappointed by the lazy stereotypes in the first two instalments of the ‘Society of Time’ trilogy. The setting is an alternate history in which the Spanish Armada successfully invaded England, leading to an enduring Empire, including North America and loyal ‘Mohawk’ subjects. The 400th anniversary of the Armada presents the occasion for some time travel adventures that explore familiar paradoxes. In the opening sentence of ‘Spoil of Yesterday’, we learn that the protagonist, Don Miguel Navarro, ‘regarded himself as a man of modern and enlightened views’ because he does not think that women should be ‘barred by prejudice from science, philosophy and those other fields which were traditionally the preserve of men’. Therefore, he turns down a municipality invitation promising clowns, jugglers, and pyrotechnics in order to attend a ‘small gathering of intelligent people’ hosted by the Marquesa di Jorque. However, the ‘joke’ turns out to be on him when it transpires that she is a vacuous fool who has unwillingly acquired a gold Aztec mask stolen by a crooked time traveller. In reality, it is the Marquesa who is very much the butt of all the jokes and continues to be so in the second story, which also makes fun of a Mohawk ‘weakness’ for ‘firewater’.
Brunner manages to redeem himself partially in the third story by portraying a Mohawk revolt against the Empire which forces Don Miguel to confront cold, hard reality. The logic of the trilogy and of the remaining story, ‘Father of Lies’, is that one must always beware of getting caught up in pocket universes or, as we say today, within ‘bubbles’. I suppose that is always a useful message, but the main value of the collection is that it illustrates the historical moment in the early 1960s at which the inadequacy of liberal humanism as a response to the legacies of colonialism and institutionalised racism became apparent.