Friday, 13 July 2001

John Brunner: The Compleat Traveller in Black (1987)

Edition: Methuen, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 872

The five tales in this collection, which as it says is the complete set of stories about the traveller in black, were written over about a twenty year period and were revised for inclusion in this volume. The stories all have the same plot, each describing a tour made by the traveller around the cities in his domain, reducing chaos and promoting law; he makes this journey whenever a particular configuration of stars is seen in the sky. He is described as the unique being with many names but one nature; basically this means that he has no other motivation than his task. He goes about it by granting wishes, usually in a way not at all intended by the person making the wish, as is traditional in fairy tales.

Despite his one-dimensional personality, the reader becomes quite fond of the traveller in black, as he plods around his domain, becoming more weary as his work nears its completion. The work involves quite a complex idea of what law and chaos mean; the basic idea is that a world ruled by chaos is unpredictable, with, say, natural laws changing from day to day; but the wishes seem to promote law through a departure from the norm while, on the other hand, practitioners of magic seek to use chaos by making it submit to law and generally end up strengthening it.

Another writer whose fantasy is principally about the relationship between law and chaos rather than good and evil is Michael Moorcock, but his characters seek to balance the two and his conception is rather simpler if capable of spanning far more stories.

The tone of the stories, however, is much more like that of Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth, even if the settings are rather more prosaic. The arcane magic arts, for example, are overcome by the traveller's quiet "As you wish, so be it"; the stories are peaceful and enjoyable. They are among the subtlest classics of the fantasy genre.

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