Crucible of Time (1983)

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Published in 1983, Brunner’s Crucible of Time explores the ideas and themes around the threat of extinction to an alien species. It is the race to create an ark, drawing on mythology, religion, psychology and science. What strikes me about Brunner’s Crucible of Time is how polarised the society becomes in the face of their destruction. One group gorges natural resources, making every scientific discovery a play thing or in the mid section of the novel about the embracing of the self; the ego over society. The other group goes to a left wing stance, almost echoing the early nature movement born out of the sixties counter culture. Here science is pushed, production is magnified at the cost of the self, and society’s goal is survival. Brunner taps into human problems, the alien species a veiled message about how we deal with science vs religion, the desire of the self and family, how the latter inevitably erodes the chaos of puberty and early adulthood. Brunner explores legacy and how one generation views the last as destructive, useless and retrograde in their approach to problems e.g. climate change was our parents fault and we have to live with it (but we won’t do anything about it because of economic fears). In Brunner’s case, this alien world echoes the angels and demons of the world we live in. With climate change arguments and evidence gathering pace since this book was published in 1983, it is not hard to see the parallels with our own coming demise. We have embraced the self satisfaction, the immediate hit of products and media, looking for the next big thing to consume and destroy, leaving little substance behind. We have become a civilisation that flinches at substance, faith or belief. This becomes the norm in the West whilst in the East, tech is becoming the new God, a new way of expanding our limits. In the end though Brunner touches on a simple, stark and real idea, that if a species survives it has to share resources; each year we consume more and more, leaving little for future generations. It will become a problem for our children, and the scope and timeline of this novel sees a world of abundance slowly become a world of need, the need to share if they are to survive. Sadly, looking at the twelve year window we have left to stop heat rises, there is little evidence that we will stop our consumption in the West as we still carry a colonial mindset. We do not share, we conquer and control.

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Let’s consider Brunner’s choices in the novel. This is no Stand on Zanzibar (1968), the depth and control of the line here, though still masterful in parts is starting to wane. It is the scope of the story that is jaw dropping here and owes much to the legacy of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930). There is the same scope of time here, vast timelines scattered down into novella size sections, each showing the slow evolution and realisation of how ideas survive, are warped by time and history, and how much knowledge is lost along the way. Here Brunner is successful, erudite, leaving the reader to come to that conclusion but there are incidences in his prose where Brunner tries to explain the science of the objects the alien species has built, this then becomes like skimming stones across a lake, you no longer seek depth in the prose, you are happy to just skim along the surface and I did find myself in those moments becoming disengaged with the characters. Therein, lies the fundamental problem with the novel, though this is a mosaic structure, we never have enough time with the characters before history, meteorites or disease flings them aside. The great thing about Brunner’s characters in other novels, such as, Sheep Look Up (1972) is that you spend time with them over the entire arc of the novel; even a mosaic novel (mosaic literally means multiple character arcs and no defined protagonist but a series of protagonists). Brunner goes with the same idea here, multiple character arcs but they are separated by generations, the same ideas of religion as a groundless, science as fact, come up time after time, making the text a little wearing in parts. In the end this is a series of novellas within a novel arc, and that makes for some unsatisfactory questions that are never answered. We invest in this novel to see the escape, but this in the end becomes an epilogue viewed by historians.

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