Reading the BSFA Awards: 1970 – “The Jagged Orbit” by John Brunner

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I hoped it would help round out my reading a bit, and haven’t been disappointed!

The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner

John Brunner is a gift. He’s written a ton of science fiction that avoids being predictive in intent while also somehow being hauntingly, disturbingly accurate in its visions of the future. The Jagged Orbit is his look at racial tensions, and it won the British Science Fiction Association Award for best novel in 1970. (It also got a Nebula nomination.)

At first, the novel is not an easy read. No, scratch that–the novel never becomes an easy read, but it’s for different reasons throughout. The format makes it somewhat difficult. There are 100 chapters, some are composed of just a fragment of a word. There is a large cast of characters who seem quite unconnected at the beginning. Later, these characters do get thrust together, but I’m still not sure I caught exactly how things got resolved–or if they were resolved. And, I’m unconvinced that that matters.

The Jagged Orbit is much more about the journey than it is about the individual plot points or resolutions. Yes, there is a plot–racial tensions in the United States have ballooned and there is a group making money off selling money to everyone based on the fear over the same. A “spoolpigeon” named Matthew is trying desperately to hold on to his job while also paying for his wife’s place at an asylum, which he is obligated to do–the debt piles up if he tries to do differently. His job is a kind of talk show/investigative journalist combo. Other characters thrust the reader in the middle of various conflicts, in questions about psychadelic drugs, about trances and meditation, and more. The novel fits nicely into the New Wave sci-fi.

But it’s at least a bit more than the sum of its parts. It’s hard to judge the comments about race and racism in a novel written more than 50 years ago. Are some of Brunner’s use of terms and language in poor taste? Maybe. But is Brunner using those in order to show the absurdity of racism? Sometimes. What the book does best, though, is hold up a mirror to the reader today. It forces the reader to ask: what are you contributing to this mess–this world we’ve all got to live in? And for that, I recommend this novel.

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SDG.