Thursday, November 28, 2013

Review of The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner

The 1950s and 60s was a time in the US rife with social tension and conflict.  With unpopular wars being fought on foreign soil, blood was also being shed on American streets as ethnic, gender, and counter-culture concerns often turned to violence.  Partially a reaction to these social issues, the New Wave science fiction movement, spearheaded by such writers as Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, Robert Silverberg, Barry Malzberg, Joanna Russ, and others shifted the genre’s gears, moving away from a hard science, extra-terrestrial focus toward Earth-side concerns.  John Brunner is an author who made the shift—highly successfully—and began incorporating the concerns of the day directly into his sci-fi.  Examining prejudice, social fragmentation, weapons production, paranoia, and existentialism in a dystopian setting, his 1969 The Jagged Orbit is one such book.  Undoubtedly part of the platinum standard of the New Wave, the novel has only become more relevant as society evolves closer to his frightening vision.

The setting of The Jagged Orbit is late 21 st century America.  Heavy racial segregation is occurring in the wake of ethnic tension, with various parts of the US seceding to form politically independent enclaves.  In mixed areas, hate crimes occur daily, the racism open and unabated.  Fully enabling the enmity, a family of arms manufacturers, the Gottshalks, play both sides against the middle, their profit line the beneficiary.  Fear and paranoia the selling points, ordinary citizens arm themselves as the cycle of violence spins faster everyday.  People barricading themselves at home and treading the streets in fear, society is unstable, life forever seeming one step away from complete chaos.

In this setting exists a variety of character perspectives.  Foremost among them is Matthew Flamen, a journalist who uses highly-advanced computer bots to mine the comweb for news to be used as expose material in his daily holo-show.  Flamen’s wife, having lapsed mentally after using dangerous narcotics, is being kept in the Ginseng Institute, the largest psychiatric ward in New York.  Recipient of half the arrestees from the city’s streets, the Institute is run by the reclusive Dr. Morgarth, a psychiatrist who promotes the ideology of strict individualism—an ideology which comes into question when inconsistencies in patient development and the state of those discharged is discovered. These and other characters, including Pedro Diablo, a newsman like Flamen in one of the black enclaves, Lyla, a seer who uses a sybil drugs to present oracles, and Harry Madison, a patient at the Ginsberg with extraordinary technical skills, float in and out of the narrative, painting the scenes and bringing an ethnically divided America to life.

Given the bleakness of the setting and the harsh manner in which the social concerns are presented, The Jagged Orbit is a dark, unsettling read.  The narrative dense and allusive—not in a poetic sense, but one referencing the world Brunner imagines—readers have much to chew over coming to terms with the background and its meaning.  The feeling of uncertainty which arises due to being unfamiliar with the futuristic scene and frightened at the potential for unexpected chaos parallels the instability and ambiguity the characters themselves experience.  As a result, the narrative possesses a very high re-read value and fully complements the intra- and extra-textual challenges.  The shards of America are ugly but pointed.  

Utilizing a narrative device employed in Stand on Zanzibar, interspersed amongst the viewpoint chapters of The Jagged Orbit are excerpts from the “real world”.  Newspaper clippings, quotes from journalists, and fly-on-the-wall scenes from various political appearances and closed-door meetings fill the interstices and give the reader a full impression of the state of Brunner’s future America.  Likewise peppering the narrative are quotes from the eminent (and fictional) psychologist Xavier Conroy.  Functioning the same as Chad Mulligan in Stand on Zanzibar, Conroy serves as a voice of reason amidst the social disorder and violence.  Drowned out years before, he preaches from afar at a remote Canadian university.  Attempting to subvert the malevolent individualism purported by Morgarth and others, Conroy’s sections portray detailed views behind the existent social ills.  And when he himself becomes involved in the plot, solutions are proffered, which like the causes, seem obvious but obviously need to be stated.

I recently read a news item regarding an Arizona group who want to provide free guns to single women and other “people of vulnerability”.  As such, it would seem the weapons theme of The Jagged Orbit has only gained in relevance since the book’s publishing more than forty years ago.  Mirroring makers of today, the gun manufacturers of the novel mass-produce weapons and are concerned only with the individual purchase rather than the greater effect of their product on society.  Protection from a world out to kill/rob you the top reason to buy a weapon, the distrust and fear inherent to this viewpoint has significant implications—implications which Brunner sums up point blank: is a society saturated with weapons the desired solution to its cultural and ethnic divisions?  Given that the number of incidents involving random violence are on the rise in the US and it’s possible guns will be handed out like candy to people, it would seem Brunner’s question needs to be addressed now more than ever.

In the end, The Jagged Orbit may be the single most important work of science fiction addressing the subject of societal fragmentation, and the subsequent paranoid discrimination and violence that results.  A literary version of Philip K. Dick, the book directly challenges many norms of American culture, becoming a troubling but important read as a result.  The USA Brunner envisions, unlike the contrived scenario of Orwell’s NineteenEighty-four, seems an all too natural and plausible evolution of our current reality, not to mention a more frightening one considering the millions and millions of guns actually available in society.  (It is probably due to this criticism of free-market market weaponry, not to mention American individualism, that Brunner’s book has never been a success in the US.)  It is thus important not to read The Jagged Orbit as a nihilistic rant, rather a dystopian cautionary written by a man deeply concerned about the state and direction of Western, particularly American society.  For any who doubt this, one needs only look to the opening pages, which read “I-“ “…solation” and the closing pages, which read “You-“ “… nification” for proof.


  1. LOVE this book (but really really need to read it again) -- and Stand on Zanzibar (my all time fav SF novel)..... Brunner is perhaps the most drastically different author work to work I have ever read -- from complete pulp crud to some of the most important novels of the era....

    1. I get the impression scholars, learned critics, and connoisseurs of the genre are well aware of Brunner's--indeed--important works. The Jagged Orbit, Stand on Zanzibar, and The Sheep Look Up are among the top works science fiction has on offer. But for reasons I cannot voice with certainty, he remains unknown amongst the so-called literati outside our field. Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury,,and a couple of others are recognized, but Brunner gets short shrift. While I don't think recognition by the literati is vital to Brunner's stature, I do think his three 'big' books offer everything those authors I mentioned have, and sometimes more. Doubletalk, John the Savage, and book burning are concepts most non-sci-fi readers recognize, yet Chad Mulligan's name is something they've never heard of--but should. I would love to see something like The Jagged Orbit take the place of Fahrenheit 451 in American schools as required reading. Given the fact (e)books do not face extinction anytime soon and the amount of violence and weapons in society is on the rise, Brunner's book just seems more relevant. Alas...

  2. Yeah, I would make a similar argument about his relevance. My point was more about the incredible disparity between his awful pulp endeavors (often written simultaneously with Stand and The Jagged Orbit etc) and these works. Little of the brilliance seeps over unfortunately....