Meeting At Infinity

Meeting At InfinityI am pleased to have started 2023 with reading a vintage science fiction novel. I read Meeting at Infinity by John Brunner (1934 – 1995).  This novel was first published in 1961. I read the ACE edition with cover art by John Schoenherr.  The book begins with a short prologue and has twenty-one chapters.

After reading the prologue I was rather discouraged because I really do not care for that sort of writing. To describe it – it just feels like its trying really hard to be lofty and profound and it just annoys me. Anyway, it is not an easy novel to read even beyond the prologue. Frankly, the first six chapters are a lot of work in which the reader really is not given much to work with.  Characters are mentioned and they seem to be acting with purpose, but its all very closed to the reader at this point.  Threads of a plot are everywhere, but they are not very accessible.  In other words, it feels a bit frustrating because not only is the setting an unfamiliar future world, but the characters roles and relationships are difficult to consider.

This is one of those novels where as a reader, you have to continue on because you have faith and trust in the author.

Obviously, the author has an overall plot – he has a story he is going to tell us. For whatever reason, he felt that starting in media res and not really bothering with any exposition at all was the way to start this novel. In my opinion, the book takes too much work to start. It is not engaging and at my age, maybe I do not fancy authors trying to tell stories in such a sink-or-swim fashion. The sentences on their own make sense, it is just tedious to keep reading them. Now, this clears up somewhat around halfway into the novel. I am not sure if it clears up per se, but the reader becomes much more familiar with the setting and the characters. The motives seem a little sketchy, nevertheless. The novel is, more or less, an action novel, believe it or not.  It is difficult to accept that in the beginning, but ultimately that is the baseline for this work.

The author has said that he has high regard for Anthony Burgess (1917 – 1993) and I feel like Brunner had an advance reader copy of A Clockwork Orange.  Not that this novel is similar, but there are aspects that feel a little too coincidental. If I must give an example, I will suggest the counter-culture youth in Burgess’ novel being similar to the yonder boys with their alpha dog leader, Jockey. Meeting at Infinity predates Burgess’ book by a year. Brunner’s lower caste of society has their own lingo and their own gang-like structure of toughs and petty crimes. Syndicates running in their own circles – so far beneath the top of the society that they are almost two separate universes already. The lingo Brunner creates is actually kind of fun – I like it. For familiarization, it would remind contemporary readers of something like the lingo used in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) among Immortan Joe’s army.

As I mentioned, the novel is, more or less, an action novel. However, the overarching structure is a sort of economic/sociological future that we are not really told enough about.  No, novels about economics are rarely the most fascinating. So it is a bit of a blessing, perhaps, that readers are not given too much detail about this society. However, it is a frustrating thing to not have the thing fleshed out a bit more. I mean, basic supply & demand and consumption is utterly absent. Its clear that there is a top-echelon of “owners of the means of acquiring.”  But what, for whom, why, seems a bit sketchy. You have to have a market – and there is a Market – which is not entirely explained, either. Just a sort of corporate boardroom which seems to maintain some balance among the vying controlling interests.

There is some explanation, I guess. This future society is the result, one assumes, of a fellow named Tacket turning everything upside down on account of a discovery and usage of portals? Matter transmission portals, I guess? Or Stargates, perhaps? Again, this is one of those concepts that is constant in the novel, but not easily accessible. Or maybe I am just a horrific reader? I kind of do not think this is the case, though.

vintage-sf-badgeThere are also these rho-function elements. Apparently, they are part of imported technology from one of the portals? The main sidestory involving a woman named Allyn Vage is utterly about these rho-function things. Now, toward the end of the novel, there is some attempt to explain what all of this is about, but honestly, its very much left up to the reader. Its very difficult for an author to successfully utilize hard science and yet not fully work them out. Brunner takes the somewhat slack avenue of frequently saying that the characters themselves do not really understand how the technology works. Its okay to say so, but then do not make the technology such a pivotal element of the novel.

Further, there is an element of “luck” introduced. This was reminiscent, to me, of something out of Asimov’s Foundation. In fact, I would say that this novel feels a lot like Foundation + A Clockwork Orange. I enjoyed the element of luck and the characters involved in it – but it seems like a stolen concept. Or too obvious:  of course the alpha leader in the subculture is the one that has this ability.

The many separate interests cause battles to be fought on multiple fronts throughout the novel. There is even a police force in this society – but there does not seem to be a governmental structure? So, the novel feels like there are multiple sides at odds sitting on very shifting and unknown sands. It is difficult for the individual characters to sort it all out, so it certainly is not easy for the reader.

If the reader gets through the whole novel, a lot of the threads come together and make sense. There are resolutions and answers, to a point. However, the answers and connections seem irrelevant or paper-thin. As if a lot of work was put in to make an action novel that has all the correct elements, but none of the depth.  It is a skeleton in some senses and one that takes a lot of work on the reader’s part. I think, generally, the ideas and breadth of the novel could make it a four-star novel, easily.  However, it falls short in a lot of ways that hamper the great ideas and threads in the story. I think the way most reviewers put this is to say that the ideas are there, but the execution is not on point.  A little exposition and history to flesh out the society would have been helpful.  The character Kingsley Athlone is an absolute mess and needed to be rewritten or something. But there were characters I enjoyed and I wish they had their own continuing adventure novels for me to read.

This was a strange novel to read – difficult as heck to start, stubborn in the middle, and somewhat rewarding at the end. I feel like though I did not love it, there is something about it that lingers in my imagination after I finished it.

3 stars

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3 comments

  1. I have long held that this is Brunner’s best pre-The Whole Man novel. So much of his early work is hackwork due to the demands of writing for a living… and this one still sort of works. Of course, his best novel-length fictions would come later.

    1. I am glad I read this one – even with its difficulties, I think its a valuable vintage sf read. I haven’t read enough Brunner yet and I look forward watching his progression to his masterworks. Thanks for stopping by!

      1. Yeah, I put a monograph on Brunner by Jad Smith on my best histories of SF I read in 2022. It explains the Brunner strategy — writes tons of hackwork in order to save up enough money to write a “serious” novel (like Stand on Zanzibar). Despite winning awards, etc. these novels seldom if ever made enough money. Often, if he took too long writing a more serious work or if he struggled to find a publisher for a non-genre novel, he would start to rewriting earlier works (which is why we have so many Brunner rewrites in the 70s), take aborted projects like B-movie screenplays and turn them into novels, and/or take on other jobs (he wasn’t always a full time author). It really shows the liminal existence of many SF authors (other than Silverberg who invested early earnings wisely or Niven who was a trust-fund baby).

        The list I mentioned if you’re curious: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2023/01/01/updates-my-2022-in-review-best-sf-novels-best-sf-short-fiction-and-bonus-categories/

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