Prolific British science fiction author John Brunner (1934-1995) was known for the predictive power of his work. Although set in the 1980s, his 1973 novel The Stone That Never Came Down anticipates the declining, crisis-stricken UK of 2022.
Inflation is rising rapidly, plunging working people into poverty. A huge strike wave spreads from one sector to another. A major economy has pulled out of Europe, adding to the economic chaos, and a new disease spreads around the continent. The British government neglects these crises, and instead pursues a culture war.
This bleak description fits the UK in the summer of 2022, but it is also the backdrop to John Brunner’s 1973 novel The Stone That Never Came Down. Brunner was known for taking the trends of his own time, and extrapolating them into often bleak stories of the future. He was prolific, and wrote dozens of novels, but his reputation rests largely on the predictive strength of his so-called “Club of Rome quartet” and especially Stand on Zanzibar (1968) which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
The Stone That Never Came Down could be called a little sibling to Brunner’s magnum opus. It is much shorter, less experimental, and narrower in its themes. Its setting is also more near at hand, as it imagines a world only around a decade ahead of Brunner’s own time. The critic John Clute wrote that Brunner experienced “a loss of belief in naive victories”. This novel is arguably also different in that sense; it posits an emergent technology with the potential to avert global catastrophe. Brunner, then, is somewhat more optimistic here than in his better-known books.
The story is set largely in a grim and declining London. The country faces economic ruin, violent religious fanatics rule the streets, and the exit of Italy from the European Economic Community (EEC) threatens to prompt a continent-wide war. The most prominent character is Malcolm Fry, a former teacher who was hounded out of his job for offending the powerful, conservative Campaign Against Moral Pollution. Malcom’s wife has left him, and he has been forced to rent out most of his house to make ends meet.
Malcolm’s life, and the state of the world, are both precarious but things begin to change quite suddenly. One night, a depressed and drunken Malcolm recklessly takes an unknown pill given to him by a man he meets in a pub. Soon, the desperate ex-teacher finds himself thinking differently. His memory improves hugely, as does his ability to make intuitive connections between seemingly unrelated things. He becomes more aware of the effects his actions have on others. Whatever he has taken is mind-expanding, in a very real sense. The only drawback is that Malcolm experiences a greatly increased need for sleep.
Malcolm meets a pair of scientists based at a small private institute. He learns that he has been given VC, or “viral coefficient”: an experimental organic compound that has permanently restructured his brain. Specifically, VC interferes with the brain’s “selective inattention”, which causes people to filter out or forget apparently unimportant stimuli. As the geopolitical situation escalates towards boiling point, the plot draws in a wider cast of characters who all are affected by VC. These include a crooked Hollywood star, a black militant, Malcolm’s new girlfriend Ruth, and a soldier sent to put down violent strikes in Glasgow.
Seeing the transformative potential of VC if it were to affect key decision-makers, Malcolm and his newfound allies attempt to exploit the compound in order to stave off disaster. This tech-fix is arguably what Clute would call a “naive victory”. No-one believes that any kind of mass action or social movement can provoke change - only a miracle drug that alters human perception on a fundamental level.
However, this potential shortcut to salvation in no way diminishes The Stone That Never Came Down. The story may indulge in some wishful thinking, but only after Brunner has crafted an eerie and unsettling extrapolation of today’s problems. As with the author’s better-known books, many elements here have an alarmingly direct equivalent in the real world of 2022. These parallels are partly a reflection of the state of crisis in which we find ourselves - but they are also a result of Brunner’s extraordinary perceptiveness and imagination. The Stone That Never Came Down adds to the argument that this great British author should be more widely read.
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