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The Wrong End of Time by John Brunner1.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from Powells“As thinkers, Vassily, we are an amazingly lazy species. It’s a wonder we survive from one day to the next.” Even in the worst novels, there can be nuggets of truth and wit, particularly when those novels are written by authors who are ordinarily very good.

The Wrong End of Time is a poor novel by a very good author. As such, it contains reams of deeply acerbic commentary on what Brunner saw as the failing moral character of the United States at the onset of the 1970s, following the social turmoil of the ’60s counterculture and its abject failure to quell the might of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower had warned everyone about. This can often be an eyebrow-raising read, as are certain political observations that make Brunner seem startlingly prescient. In one passage, he even appears to predict Brexit and the deep-seated xenophobia that inspired it.

…Or, most graphically of all, consider the British: tricked into electing a right-wing government that forcibly deported black — but not white — immigrants; expelled in consequence from their own Commonwealth of Nations, which fell apart; denied entry to the “richman’s club” of Europe because of this incredible display of perfidy… and now moaning in squalor about the cruel way in which the world had treated them.

On the other hand, Brunner proved to be far less perspicacious (to put it generously) in his depiction of the Soviet Union as some bastion of social enlightenment and personal freedom. The Wrong End of Time amounts to a blip in an otherwise estimable career. Brunner doesn’t even seem interested in its featherweight SFnal premise: that humanity has been under observation by the usual ineffable godlike aliens who have found us wanting, and are planning our imminent destruction.

We open in a dystopian near (as of 1971) future. The United States has become as paranoid and hyper-isolationist as North Korea, closing off all its borders and monitoring every inch of seacoast with impregnable high-tech surveillance networks. The government is ultra-conservative and fascistic, with “rebs” — all those hippie dropouts who won’t fit in or bow to the hegemony — socially and economically ostracized, subject to police raids and beatings. Large swaths of the disenfranchised black population have emigrated to Africa. But the real political power is held by mega-corporation Energetics General, which maintains security forces whose authority trumps that of police. They effectively monitor all aspects of American life. In the outside world, communism has won and the USSR is the global superpower success story with whom every other nation is on good terms.

Vassily Sheklov is a Russian agent who sneaks into the US by swimming ashore from a submarine, in order to meet with a fellow agent, who has been under such deep cover that for 25 years he has lived as Dick Turpin, one of Energetics General’s executive VP’s. The aliens, you see, are apparently in a parking orbit around Pluto, and the Russians have managed to figure out that they not only mean to destroy us, but troll us while they do it. Their plan involves dropping a huge space rock onto an American city, which will make the insanely paranoid government believe they were the victim of a Russian first strike, and retaliate with full-scale thermonuclear armageddon. Pretty silly plan, as plans involving space rocks go, because it wouldn’t take an especially large one to extinguish all life on Earth in one hit. But what good is wiping out an entire planet if you can’t have a few laughs, I suppose?

What exactly Sheklov and the Kremlin expect Turpin to be able to do about any of this is up in the air. But it doesn’t matter, because the story just rolls along like a car in neutral on a hill. Sheklov is unaware his arrival on American shores was witnessed by Danty Ward, a young black man with a psychic/precognitive/telekinetic ability that is only explained by telling us he was born at the “wrong end of time.” Danty can’t understand his abilities (so we don’t feel too bad about our own bewilderment), but is naturally driven to find out who Sheklov is and why he’s here. This brings Danty into contact with Turpin’s immature and unhappy teenage daughter, Lora.

There are hints that Brunner has some good themes he could have explored here, like the way in which concepts like freedom are most loudly preached by those whose true goal is oppression. But none of it’s developed. The story mostly follows Turpin’s and Sheklov’s attempts to avoid getting their covers blown. The aliens are just a plot device, and rather than build to a climax, the story drops a shaggy-dog ending and then stops.

Though the politics of The Wrong End of Time are a full-throated excoriation of the far right, there’s little in the book to win over progressives. An SF novel from the early ’70s in which the heroes are an anti-establishment black man and a communist agent while the villains are the entire United States was a brass-balled move even at the time. But Brunner falls into his own clumsy traps. While attacking America’s systemic racism, the book’s own black characters are racist stereotypes, especially a trio of street hoodlums who speak in incomprehensible slang. And while we’re meant to think of Lora as sympathetic, a sad child of privilege acting out against a family that ignores and devalues her, she’s still presented as a whiny, oversexed teen bimbo, while other female characters consist of shrewish wives and mothers-in-law. The only woman in the story with any substance is Danty’s friend Magda. But with her tarot cards and streetwise dialogue, she just ends up being the book’s Magical Negro. A novel that wants us to cheer its disavowal of racism and sexism while clumsily, if unwittingly, trading in both is a novel that exists in the wrong end of any time.