John Brunner: A Remembrance

The following remembrance was written on the occasion of the death, on 25 August 1995, of science fiction writer John Brunner, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, Scotland:


John Kilian Houston Brunner wasn't just a famous pro writer to me. He was a friend of mine for the past 20-odd years.

I can't say just when I was first aware of his work, but I remember reading Stand on Zanzibar upon its publication in 1968. That was an impressive piece of work, by a writer with a great cynical bent and an understanding of what makes people tick and why things go wrong -- and that was precisely the sort of insight he was best at bringing into science fiction. Our personal association began, I think, in 1972, when I read a short story of his, "Planetfall," which was contained in a collection, From This Day Forward. It was a brief mood piece about a girl in a run-down spaceport town who meets a boy from a spacefaring generation ship that puts down in the port for supplies; they meet and talk for only a night and then separate, never to meet again. I was 19 and a budding composer, and so I thought, "This would make a wonderful short opera!" Of course I had to have his permission, and I wrote him care of Doubleday & Co.

I don't know what some other writers would have done, but John wrote back in the friendliest terms and said he would like to see me give a try at the project. He didn't know who I was, he'd never heard a note I'd written, and for all I know he may not have known where Santa Monica (where I then lived) was. But the idea that someone wanted to take his story (if not his actual words), and make an opera out of it, was exciting to him. We had a lively conversation in letters for some months, in which we exchanged ideas on music (about which he knew a great deal), on liberal and radical politics (about which he knew even more), about anything and everything. And then finally he happened to visit Los Angeles. He would be staying at the home of Kris and Lil Neville, and some other friends would be popping by, and he insisted that I be there as well.

I showed up, per his order invitation, and could have died and gone to science fiction heaven. There were the Nevilles, of course, and Harlan Ellison, and Fritz Leiber, and just about every one of the giants who could be found in Los Angeles in those days. (There was an elderly lady who was "Mrs. Reggie," and I only found out much later that she was C.L. Moore!) I was just some sniveling teenaged neo who pretended to be a composer, but John insisted I call him John, and he treated me as an equal alongside all these giants. Nowadays I can eat a reuben sandwich at the same table as Larry Niven with perfect equanimity, or rub elbows with Harry Turtledove at a LASFS meeting, and it's as ordinary as everyday life. But imagine what this grand convocation at the Nevilles meant to such a young fan!

The opera didn't get completed; my librettist died, I spun my wheels trying to find an appropriate replacement, and eventually I gave up trying to compose in a world where my compositional style would have been perceived as nothing special. But I did complete a small chunk of it, a choral number, and even had it performed at San Francisco State University. I honestly can't say how often I saw John in the years after that, but we kept in touch and always found time to hobnob when we were at the same convention. John was one of a few locals I telephoned on the occasion of my first trip to Britain in 1985. He was always interested in what I had been doing and the latest news from home; because, dammit, your friends matter to you, no matter what the interval between meetings.

I saw John yesterday, 60 years old but (to the eye) as fit and feisty as Sir Thomas Beecham. He asked (as always!) what had ever become with the opera, and this time I actually had some news about it -- the fellow-student who had conducted that university performance was Kent Nagano, now the conductor of the Opera de Lyon and the music director of the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester. John was tickled that someone involved (however peripherally) with a work of his could have come to such a fate. He inquired whether I had a tape, and when I said I had, he urged me to see that I made him a copy. We exchanged addresses and arranged to get together in between some of his commitments on Sunday. But as we all know that was not meant to be.

John, I don't know what other good or bad deeds you did in your life, but this young fan (now nearly 42) remembers a genial, generous and wise man who brightened my life with your friendship. I'll be remembering you tonight, and always.

Matthew B. Tepper

Copyright © 1995 by Matthew B. Tepper

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