The complete traveler in black by John Brunner

I have not read any of Brunner’s other books (which seem to be mostly sci-fi) but I based on “Traveler in Black” stories I will. This ‘novel’ is really a fix-up of several long short stories.  The first version was published as The traveler in black; The complete traveler in black adds one more story as a coda to the series.

Brunner’s style is rather literary, but no too flowery.  The setting reminds me a bit of The Dying Earth stories of Jack Vance, with grotesque places and people, living in a world where magic is a fact of life.  The writing reminds me a bit of Lord Dunsany, with evocative names and titles that suggest a lot of unspoken history and significance. In some ways the stories read like an homage to both Dunsany and Vance, but with a much less ironic or detached viewpoint.  The protagonist, the titular traveler “with many names but one nature,” is no Vancian rogue or venial Dunsanian adventurer.  He is a man (apparently immortal) on a mission — to root out the forces of chaos, to bind the elemental creatures of chaos so they may not interact with or corrupt the world, and to grant the wishes of mortals.

The force of “chaos” in these stories is left vague.  I would not necessarily associate it with the more specific senses of the term you find in Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, or the Warhammer game, but it has some resemblances to all three, probably having more to do with the mythic idea of ‘primordial chaos’ and such than any direct influence.  It seems to be a force of change, and destruction, and in some cases seems to be equated with magic and time; it is largely hostile to order and justice.  Whether the alternative is any better in human terms of morality and happiness is a theme of the stories, and it is no spoiler to say Brunner tends to side more with Anderson than Moorcock in this debate.

The traveler’s ‘single nature’, which is never explicitly explained, grants him certain powers and restrictions on what he can and can’t do.  There are some lines of thought, and some sentences even, that he can’t complete, and some questions he can’t answer.  But whenever someone states some wish, the traveler grants it (indeed, must grant it) — usually with wildly unanticipated consequences that mete out justice, sometimes brutally, sometimes  subtly.  The traveler usually plays a small role in each story, although his powers generally serve as the impetus of major plot events.

The setting changes a good deal, as each story takes place decades or centuries after the last.  The traveler’s work progresses as well and in each story the powers of chaos are receding, and magic and the supernatural become less and less potent, and the world more mundane. The magicians in the world are slowly revealed to be rather sinister — the first ones we encounter are merely ‘merchant wizards’ who use magic to import luxury goods and increase their city’s prosperity; by the end it is clear that magic involves dealings with demonic powers and the rituals, which are suggested than explicitly described, could be right out of Carcosa or The book of Ebon Bindings.  There is quite a bit a DM might want to steal from the setting for D&D, although the specific plots and characters would not really work so well (I think it’s a bad idea to take plots or characters from books for gaming anyway, though).

Brunner also seems to have some philosophical axes to grind, or at least to explore, and at times reminds me a little of Borges in that regard. I don’t think Brunner is quite as good as Vance, Dunsany, or Borges, but who is?

Still — The complete traveler in black invites comparison to Vance, Dunsany, and Borges!  What are you waiting for, read this!

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Published in: on March 14, 2012 at 1:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I read his novel, The Sheep Look Up, and enjoyed it. I would recommend it to folks who enjoy dystopian science-fiction. I’ll have to check this one out at some point too.

  2. Both ‘The Sheep Look Up’ and ‘Stand On Zanzibar’ are very prescient, putting their fingers on the (mostly dystopian) way the world is going or will go in this postmodern age. Like Gibson if he wrote about the environment and human nature more than just cool tech and pop culture. I highly recommend them both.

    I’ll have to read The Traveler in Black.


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