The Society of Time by John Brunner
The British Library 2020, pb, £8.99
Reviewer: I. Rosenfeld
The Society of Time, published by The British Library Science Fiction Classics series, contains the original trilogy by that title, plus two additional stories: The Analysts, a fascinating early 1960’s challenge of racial prejudice; and Father of Lies – spellbinding, unpredictable fantasy about dysfunctional family dynamics. Add power, and the psychotic family environment contaminates the society and technology it rules.
All were published in the 1960s and written by the astonishingly prolific, imaginative and often prophetic John Brunner.
The Society of Time trilogy took me by surprise. These three different short stories can be read as a novella. The point of view belongs to Don Miguel Navarro, “Licentiate in Ordinary of the Society of Time and loyal subject of His Most Catholic Majesty Philip IX”, a King-Emperor(!) whose seat is 20th Century London.
Wow! How did all this happen? In this tale, Elizabeth the Great failed to prevent the Spanish Armada from invading England in 1588. Britain became the new base of the Spanish Empire. English is the language “only peasants spoke in (Navarro’s) universe”. The Spanish ‘Imperials’ rule supreme, democracy is non-existent, the slave trade continues and, except for Time Travel, scientific progress remains negligible.
In this regressive alternate London the king emperor’s view that women should not be barred by prejudice from science and philosophy is seen as ‘radical’; upper-class women, even emancipationists, appear naïve and opportunistic; and political intrigue by oppressed Native Americans alongside corruption in high places threaten everything.
Navarro’s world is strictly regulated by The Society of Time and its licenced enforcers, of whom he is one. But unlike his corrupt superiors, Navarro is the perfect gentleman: scarred, clever, honest and inquisitive, he is intrigued by refreshingly liberated women from Protestant countries. However, while licentiates can interfere with the past, there are very serious repercussions on Navarro’s present: just one bad egg in this nest of time-travel enforcers and everything in Navarro’s fantastical society may crumble.
No matter that Navarro humbly and regularly consults with the Jesuit Father Ramon – a wise Time Travel expert with an interesting spiritual angle. The story must unfold regardless, but I won’t spoil it for you.
It was not an entirely easy read. The British Library have included a disclaimer that they have left in “language in common usage at the time of (the stories’) writing” which is not endorsed by the editors. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Brunner’s thought-provoking statements about time loops, predestination and the nature of space-time, which sent me reading and consulting with physicists on how well-researched his claims were. Verdict – he’s done well, and I resolve to re-read these science and philosophy-based sections.
Brunner is an accomplished world builder. He died age sixty, yet wrote some two hundred stories. His most famous novel, Stand on Zanzibar, won the 1969 Hugo Award for best SF novel.
Married to a woman 14 years his senior and an early member of CND, Brunner wrote the lyrics to their marching song, “Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s thunder.” He was one of the early SF authors to grapple with key themes of his era like racism, drugs, environment and hi-tech warfare.
For people who enjoy a stimulating read as well as those of us who are Fantasy and SF writers, The Society of Time will provide a rich well of inspiration.