Friday, 23 October 1998

John Brunner: The Jagged Orbit (1972)

Edition: Arrow, 1972
Review number: 145

Brunner's four most famous novels take an aspect of today's society and exaggerate it, to create dystopias which are compelling because of the way they relate to our fears for the future. Stand on Zanzibar, the best known, is about the population explosion; The Sheep Look Up environmental pollution; Shockwave Rider computers and privacy; and Jagged Orbit race relations. They all use a similar technique, with news items interrupting the narrative and with a strong involvement from whistle-blowing academics. The Sheep Look Up and Jagged Orbit even share a character, the idiot US president Prexy, whom I have been told is an exaggerated picture of Ronald Reagan, then governor of California.

Of the four, Jagged Orbit perhaps works least well. It doesn't match the power of Stand on Zanzibar, the chilling realism of The Sheep Look Up or the narrative interest of Shockwave Rider. It has the interesting difference that as well as including fictional news stories from 2018, when it is set, it has chapters which are reprints of real news stories from 1968, concerning race riots and what might be done about them. Brunner's idea is that nothing is done to help the disadvantaged non-white population of America's innner cities, which leads to increasing militancy and eventually an arms race as arms dealers begin to exploit the market potential provided by individuals terrified by the threat of the other side of the racial divide.

The reason that Jagged Orbit is less successful is that the plot depends on the introduction of two far fetched elements, which are not given the meticulous background of the rest of the novel. These are a woman whose mind interferes with television broadcasts and a time-travelling computer. Neither would be impossible in a science-fiction novel, but the lack of justification given them compared to everything else is a big problem, making them appear to be random devices introduced only to provide an ending to an out-of-hand plot line.

Despite the careless plot, Jagged Orbit is worth reading for is mainly convincing background and its spirited attack on racism.

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