The Wrong End of Time by John Brunner
DAW Books, 1971
Price I paid: 90¢
The time is the future. The place, an America so isolated by fear that it is cut off from the rest of the world by a massive defense system. Into this armed, barricaded state comes a young Russian scientist bearing a strange—and almost unbelievable story:
Superior, intelligent life—of a far higher order than any on earth—has been detected near the planet Pluto. Immune themselves by virtue of their far greater intelligence, these Aliens are about to destroy the planet Earth.
What the craaaaaap
I’m aware that one of my most common reviews is “I can’t tell if I like this book or not.” Well, hold on to your butts, readers, because this is near the top of the list of books that I’m divided on. Maybe not on the level of something like Space War Blues, but getting there. From a different direction, too.
For starters, there’s just the horrendous jacket copy on the back. It’s not that it’s wrong—although it is—it’s also that it’s ever so poorly written. I refer you to the last sentence of the synopsis. “Immune themselves by virtue of…” Immune to what? I’ve been racking my brains for days trying to figure out what this is referring to. Are they immune to their own master plan? Immune to America’s incredible defense systems? Immune to the madness that is sweeping across the Earth?
I don’t know! I don’t think I’m supposed to know, because it’s just bad writing.
Add to that the fact that “Earth” is alternately capitalized and not, plus the missing em-dash at the end of the first para, and we’ve got ourselves set up for a magnificent thrillride through an incredible cynical view of a future United States.
The front cover, though, is nice. I like it. It’s an accurate depiction of something that goes on in the book, so that’s a bonus. The best thing, though, is the short review by Library Journal. Is that the most wishy-washy positive review you’ve ever read, or what? It’s on par with “It could have been worse, I guess.” If that’s the best you can dig up in favor of your book, maybe just don’t put a blurb on the front at all. Or, you know what? Use the glowing one that James Blish contributed to the back cover. I won’t repeat it verbatim but there are things like “usual expertise” and “you’ll enjoy it” in there. I know that if I ever put out a book, one of the best possible things you could put on the front would be “You’ll enjoy it. —James Blish” right there on the front freakin’ cover. Not the moral equivalent of “I didn’t throw it away immediately.”
The book itself was a lot more of a social commentary than a story. It had some story going on, but it wasn’t coherent or resolved or anything. It dealt with a Russian spy who’d come to the United States because an alien ship had been detected. I don’t recall why he’d come to the States, but I think it had something to do with working to defang the incredible defensive matrix that the US had erected, maybe in hopes that the aliens wouldn’t see it and kill us all.
See, the alien ship was spotted out near Pluto and the thing it’s done is broadcast some holographic pictures so we could see them. They’re the same pictures that we see on the front cover of the book, starting with the galaxy and working its way down to cavemen. The interpretation that scientists have come up with is that it’s a threat. A sort of narrative saying “We see you and we will blow you back to caveman times.”
This gets lost in the story of the spy, Sheklov, as he’s exploring this future America and trying his best to figure out what’s going on. The place has gone to crap, guys, and it’s in ways that make a bit of sense so it’s hard to hate this book for being a little bit prophetic and worrying.
See, the chief thing is that the United States has become isolationist and fearful of the rest of the world. Foreigners aren’t allowed in, even from Canada. The Department of Defense is the chief jobs creator in the country, and the two political parties are the Army and the Navy.
Now that I think about it, I know I said that the DoD is the chief thing running the country, but really it’s a massive corporation named Energetics General that does by way of securing most, if not all, of the DoD’s contracts.
In the meantime, the people of America are just going bonkers. Conservatism is out of control, guns are everywhere, and people want little more than to protect themselves and be secure. It’s a tremendous military dictatorship, but a few people are rebelling.
Sheklov is staying with a guy named Turpin. Turpin is also a spy, but he’s been a sleeper agent for about twenty-five years. Through him, Sheklov learns a lot about how the country has gone downhill, often firsthand, since Turpin’s family is falling apart in a pretty standard way. Turpin even comments that having such a dysfunctional family is just part of his cover.
There’s also this guy named Danty who’s running around. He’s a “reb,” which means that he’s not falling for the traditional American values of materialism and security. He’s the future equivalent of a hippie. He’s also black, which comes up a few times. Danty’s got a sort of precognitive power that leads him to do things that he wouldn’t otherwise do. He compares it to having a feeling like hunger or thirst that won’t go away until he makes certain events transpire. He enters Sheklov and Turpin’s life when Turpin’s daughter, Lora, shows up at a family party with him. She does so in an effort to shock her parents by being seen with a black man. She also uses her promiscuity in a similar attempt. She’s a messed-up girl.
The thing is, Lora was one of the more understandable and relatable characters in the book. She’s damaged by the society that has brought her up and she’s trying, in one way or another, to rebel against it. She just doesn’t know how, so she uses things like shocking her parents and hypersexuality to do so. The problem is that she’s acting just like pretty much every other teenager in this future world because, basically, society is what told her to try to rebel in that manner in the first place. It’s a controlled rebellion, and poor Lora is just confused and annoyed by what she sees around her.
Part of Turpin’s cover is that he’s a higher-up in Energetics General, so we get to see his view of the nation and the people who are running it. They are all, without fail, just horrible people. One of the guys who runs around in his circle is even the head of what is essentially the Church of America. He’s a televangelist and a bigshot and a huge pervert who keeps putting his hands all over Lora whenever he sees her. She can’t stand him. She even relates a time when she hooked up with some boy at one of her dad’s parties. This guy found them in a state of romantic embrace (they were DOIN IT) and just, well, whipped it out and joined in, in a manner of speaking.
The sexuality in this book was both disturbing and explicit.
The reason I’m telling you all this is because, well, that’s what I got out of the book. The story itself progresses amongst all this exposition, but one of the things that made me like this book a bit was the exposition itself. It was always from an outside-looking-in perspective (generally from Sheklov) and it filled in the blanks of the social commentary that the author was trying to put forward. He was taking what he saw as America at the time and running it right on down that slippery slope to hell. It’s over-the-top, yeah, but it’s an interesting exercise in looking at the concerns of someone from the past who is writing about the future. A sort of topical commentary that is more understandable because it’s hidden behind science fiction.
The problem is that the plot just doesn’t go anywhere. There are a series of events that almost blow Sheklov’s and Turpin’s covers. Sheklov meets Danty and grows interested in him. Danty knows that Sheklov is a spy. The Russian is, incidentally, posing as a Canadian lumber magnate who is looking to bring his business interests to America. I’m not sure why that was supposed to work, since we’ve already been over the fact that America doesn’t like any foreign countries at this point, but still.
Events transpire, and I wish I could relate them but they were just convoluted, that get the federal security force on the tail of Danty and his friend Magda. It turns out that Sheklov and Lora are there when this goes down, so the four of them start to flee. It’s explained that if a person is even suspected of treason that their life will go down the drain, and it looks like the feds are onto Magda.
Danty reveals to Sheklov the extent of his weird precognitive powers and they all set off toward Canada to escape the crumbling hellhole that is the United States of America.
“Where are the aliens in all this?” I hear you asking. Well, stay tuned, because that part of the plot does in fact come up again.
On this long road trip Sheklov reveals that he’s a spy. Everybody goes kind of nuts at this point. He even blows Turpin’s cover, right there with his daughter in the car, and she goes kind of bonkers. But not bonkers enough to risk anything, it’s just that there’s a sort of generalized emotional breakdown.
He explains why he’s in America in the first place, and reveals what they all know about this alien ship that was discovered and the messages it sent. And here, with about twenty pages left, is where the story just stopped making what little sense it made in the first place.
Danty goes “Oh, yeah, I get it.” But he doesn’t tell us what he gets. He just drives toward Canada. The border is both guarded and mined, so they’re relying on his precog powers to get them through.
Then there’s a narrative jump to after they get across the border. We see Sheklov reporting to his superior in the Russian government about this Danty character who sacrificed himself so that Sheklov, Magda, and Lora could get across. There’s this bit about how having somebody with his powers would be useful, but Sheklov gets to explain to his superior what Danty figured out about the pictograms the aliens sent us.
Okay, get this. This made me angry. This is among the worst endings I’ve ever dealt with.
Okay, so Danty just went, “Oh, hey, for no reason that the audience can discern, I know that these pictures were sent by aliens that live their lives backward through time, like Merlin. This isn’t supposed to represent them blowing us up, it’s them welcoming us into the galactic community.”
And then the book ends.
At least it explains the title of the book
This is about one step away from “It was all a dream.” I am infuriated by this ending.
Nothing about this resolution had anything good to say about anything. The best I can figure out is “Oh, doesn’t it say a lot about us to read destruction into a message of peace?” But that’s stupid too. And I didn’t need 160 pages of pseudo spy thriller, which had nothing to do with that ending mind you, to tell me that. It’s like this author had a core of one idea and a shell of another and figured “I need to make this car payment” and threw them both together. I am not a happy reader right now.
But the hell of it is, I was hooked! I wanted to see how this would turn out. How would this message from space affect an America that has already gone so bonkers? Would they just start launching nukes like everybody feared they would at the beginning? Or would it break down the barriers, reintegrate them into the global community, and resolve the problem?
No, it didn’t do any of those things. It never even tried.
Still, the cynical part of me was hooked on the depiction of this future America gone wrong. I was able to see parts of it coming true, albeit perhaps more slowly than the book intended, but also on the grounds that we just have a lot of the same problems now that we did back in 1971. I’m willing to say that the real lesson of this book, and of history itself, is that nothing changes and we’re all going to be afraid of what wacky thing America will do next.
It’s not what the author intended, sure, but it’s fun to think about.
One thought on “The Wrong End of Time”
In order to tip the balance to labeling the book “crap”, Joachim and I both hated it… and that’s coming from me, a big Brunner fan and completist!