Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

1964: To Conquer Chaos (Brunner, John)

Light and swift, yet hearty and fulfilling (4/5)

You could say I'm a bit of a Brunner fan... this is my 17th Brunner book and I have thirteen more on my to-read shelf. If you have any more than this, then we should talk. To say the least, when I open a Brunner novel I only expect the best. Period. His diversity is what keeps me coming back--he's the king of the stand-alone novel in my opinion. Out of his whole collection, he only wrote three series (can't that that for nearly modern sci-fi authors) but even those are loosely woven together, so perhaps "theme" would be a better word than "series." I own the original 1964 Ace cover (mint condition, thank you very much) which trumps the 1981 DAW cover with a damn dragon on the front.

Rear cover synopsis:
"On the face of the Earth only the Barrenland remained an impenetrable mystery--a blasted radioactive area the size of a small state where no man dared to venture. But Jervis Yanderman was one of the more courageous souls of that future day when men at last were starting to reconstruct the vanishing civilization of the dim past. Jervis knew that the secret of the Barrenland had to be solved. For things from out of this world still emerged from it to terrorize neighboring lands and strange weird visions haunted those who even approached it."

The Grand Duke Paul of Esberg has received rumors of a strange barren land one fortnight's march away. When his northern scout, Ampier, returns to Esberg maimed after a brief with a creature near the Barrenland, the Duke becomes interested in what lays beyond the border of that barren land. Infected with a curious green mold, Ampier accompanies the Duke's troops to investigate what lies at the edge of this Barrenland.

Militarily led by Jervis Yanderman and spiritually led by Granny Jassy, whose visions of the Barrenland intrigue the Duke, the 1,000-man army treks to the town of Lagwich, which borders the Barrenland and is prone to attack by the things which escape. Conrad is the resident chandler boy who also has visions of the mysteries which lie beyond the border. Frustrated by verbal jousts and ignored pleas, Conrad seethes with hatred for his peers and seeks a life with Jervis's army.

Nestamay Maxall is being tutored by her grandfather in the art of defense. Her lineage is dedicated to the protection of the Station, where occasional monsters "hatch" and escape the dome. However, the 400-year long inbreeding of the Station's staff has left her with only one ideal mate, who she can barely talk to let alone romanticize with. When a polypedal monster is reeking havoc under the dome, the Station personnel don't understand by the alarm wasn't triggered, but Nestamay understands why.

To Conquer Chaos is very cleanly written. At the same time, the novel is linear but mysterious; rustic yet futuristic; passive yet horrific. If you ask me, a classic science fiction novel isn't that unless is has monsters in it! Brunner makes the monsters interesting by making them all different and, in the end, providing a reason for it. As the characters battle the beasties and Jervis expounds upon the likely source of the critter-chaos, the reader is sucked into the three thread narrative. How are the Jervis and Conrad threads tied to the Nestamay thread, if at all?

The light characterization of each character goes hand-in-hand with the 192-page length of this earlier Brunner novel. Because the plot is so swift and the tale so intriguing, the light characterization accomplishes a lot when Jervis, Conrad, and Nestamay are in the height of action or concocting a Plan B withdraw from their established life. It's a whirlwind of not only action, but also of sympathetic emotion. I'm not quite sure if Brunner has ever penned such lightly sculpted yet such interesting pawns in his marvelous plots.

Common to an early Brunner novel (and an early Poul Anderson novel, as well) is his written style. Dry as it may be, it imbues a sense of antiquity. Where Poul Anderson in Three Worlds to Conquer (1964) used words like behoven, erstwhile, belike, nigh and thundersmitten, John Brunner has uses words like hitherto, afresh, amiss, impugn, and addlepated. If any other author were to try using such words, the attempt would feel awkward. But the 1960s use of this Olde English by Anderson and Brunner is most welcome.

The one flaw which haunts To Conquer Chaos is Brunner's trope of the six sense--extra-sensory perception or remote viewing. This hypnotic state is found is other Brunner novels such as The Whole Man (1964) and Bedlam Planet (1968). While the latter two examples of extra-sensory perception in Brunner's novels were somewhat persuasive, his use of this trope of fairly dull in To Conquer Chaos. I can see the necessity for it in the plot, but the answer to its existence fails, not because the ending is bad because of the disconnectedness to Conrad's and Granny's remote viewing.

A very satisfactory novel by Brunner, yet again; even the last page conclusion produced a nodding, smiling satisfactory ending. If you can stomach the ESP trope and monster invasion better than I can, then perhaps you'll enjoy this novel even more than I did! This mint condition Brunner novel has a rightful place atop my fourteen-high stacked Brunner pile.

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