Five Fascinating Facts about John Brunner

Interesting facts about John Brunner (1934-1995), British science-fiction author

1. John Brunner coined the term ‘worm’ for a program that infiltrates another computer. In his 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider, Brunner came up with the idea of the ‘computer worm’, a program that sabotages another computer (or a whole network). In that novel, one character says, ‘I’m just assuming that you have the biggest-ever worm loose in the net, and that it automatically sabotages any attempt to monitor a call to the ten nines.’ Prescient indeed! Now, of course, ‘worms’ are part of the modern world of computers connected to the internet, along with Trojan Horses (from Greek myth, of course), viruses (borrowed from biology), and other insidious programs.

2. He also foresaw cyberpunk. As SF author Chuck Rothman has put it, The Shockwave Rider was ‘cyberpunk before cyberpunk was invented’ – Brunner not being someone who would be deterred from writing about it just because it hadn’t been invented yet. Once again he proved to be ahead of the pack: the protagonist of The Shockwave Stand on Zanzibar coverRider, Nick Haflinger, survives against the US government (who are out to get him) thanks to his skills as a computer hacker, anticipating a figure such as Henry Dorsett Case from William Gibson’s Neuromancer – a book which was published almost a decade after Brunner’s. (It also predates Vernor Vinge’s 1981 novel True Names, an early work of cyberpunk which also centres on the world of computer hackers.)

3. Brunner published his first novel when he was just 17 – and did so under a pseudonym. Brunner’s first novel, Galactic Storm, appeared under the pen name Gill Hunt in 1951. He began his career as a prolific author of space operas – and then, in the 1960s, became something far more interesting. One of the turning points was his landmark 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, of which more below. Brunner wrote around 100 novels, making him one of the most prolific ever science fiction authors – in a genre that isn’t exactly short of prolific writers.

4. Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar foresaw the future in all sorts of interesting ways. Published in 1968 but set in 2010, Stand on Zanzibar got many things right about the early twenty-first century: Brunner correctly predicted that the population of Earth would have exceeded 7 billion by 2010 (he was only a year out: this happened in October 2011), that Europe would form a sort of collective union (i.e. the EU), and that China would rise to become a competitive world power. As if all that isn’t prescient enough, it even has a character called President Obomi, and predicts the Euro, electronic music, Honda cars (at the time they were known as a motorbike manufacturer), the decline of the popularity of tobacco, the desolation of the city of Detroit, the video phone-call, Viagra, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. The book moves between storytelling and world-building, with some chapters dropping in bits of information about this future world in a variety of different textual forms. The book rightly won Brunner the 1969 Hugo Award, the top award in science fiction. The novel has been reprinted in the SF Masterworks series, so is still in print and available for a reasonable price (e.g. on Amazon: see Stand On Zanzibar.)

5. Despite this, Brunner’s name is barely known now outside of science-fiction circles. Unlike his contemporaries such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, John Wyndham, and Brian Aldiss, Brunner’s name has not lasted in the public imagination. By the time he died, in 1995, many of his novels had fallen out of print. SF Masterworks have reprinted Stand on Zanzibar, his masterpiece, and a must-read for fans of science fiction. As well as uncannily predicting our own world, it also – like all great science-fiction novels – tells us a lot about the 1960s world out of which it came.

We have more about science fiction in our pick of H. G. Wells’s best SF novels and we offer some interesting facts about dystopian fiction here.

Image: Cover of the SF Masterworks reissue of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.


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  2. I’ve been thinking lately about how that novel I read as a teenager did capture this present so well.

  3. Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar are two seminal books of my youth and hold up much better than some of his contemporaries’ works. He is a forefather of some of the authors – Charles Stross and Willam Gibson – I very much enjoy today.

  4. Misspelled Keith Ferrell’s last name, sorry.

  5. I’d recommend his ‘The Sheep Look Up’ as well. A prescient novel that focuses on environmental issues.

  6. As I recall from a conversation with Keith Ferrel, Editor Emeritus of OMNI, Brunner met his wife through a reading of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. That’s an interesting bit of trivia.