“The Crucible of Time” Review

2-star rating

Give John Brunner credit for trying to do something hard: tell the story of an alien species living on a hostile world as they evolve from near-primitives to space travelers. To do that, Brunner had to create the aliens, their world, its solar and stellar environments, and then put all that into a story spanning thousands of years. In less than 400 pages.

No easy feat. I wish he’d succeeded.

His solution to the span-of-years problem was clever enough: write seven 10-chapter novellas, each focusing on the creatures at some point in their scientific and cultural development. Then hit them with a catastrophe of some sort to wrap up that novella and jump ahead hundreds or thousands of years to when the species had mostly recovered. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, those catastrophes became more and more strained, as if Brunner was struggling to come up with the kinds of challenges that would move the story and the species forward.

The Crucible of Time has so many other flaws that this problem became almost insignificant. For starters, we never got a complete description of what these creatures looked like or what they called themselves. We learned they had a single eye, claws instead of hands, mandibles instead of lips, a mantle of some kind, and a number of legs that wasn’t defined until near the end of the book. In addition, they walked around using some kind of internal hydraulic system in “tubules” instead of muscles. Infants “budded” off of their mother, rather than gestating some other way. They used scents to communicate emotions. And for some, never-explained reason, they used a base-20 counting system. Alien, all right, but hard to picture.

Even that might not have been so bad had Brunner not resorted to the most awkward and heavy-handed ways of showing how “alien” their language was. He often replaced a single letter in an English word with another letter: shark became sharq, bark and junk (both kinds of boat) became barq and junq, spider became spuder, fungus became funqus, and so on. Colloquial English phrases also got “alienized”: “on the other hand” became “on the other claw,” “knew in her heart” became “knew in her pith,” and so on.

Writers today are taught to use dialect and specialized terms sparingly, and this book is an object lesson on why. Rather than making these creatures seem alien, the terms call attention to themselves and distract the reader.

Add to that Brunner’s penchant for long, wordy paragraphs, especially when either the narrator or a character was explaining some particular aspect of the world or their latest scientific advancements, and the book simply became a slog to read. Some of this we might attribute to when the book was written (published in 1982) and where (England) but other British works of the time were far more readable.

When I first started the book, I thought it was Brunner’s first novel. Imagine my surprise when I learned he’d already been writing and publishing for 30 years when this one came out. That too may help explain its style.

So call The Crucible of Time a work of good intentions poorly executed. Not a horrible book, but not one readers should spend their time with.

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