Breaking into the business with Silver Age space opera but putting himself on the map by writing intelligent dystopia with a social conscience, for a brief moment John Brunner put aside science fiction and dabbled in fantasy. After the success of Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, he wrote the four novelettes starring the other-wordly traveler in black. Unconventional to say the least, the eponymous collection is fantasy without being fantasy. A wizard (of sorts) may be the common thread binding the stories together, but humanity is at stake. The novelettes thus embrace the general idea of genre, but eschew its epic-ness in favor of parables.
He had many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding upon ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.
…is the quote which opens the first novelette in the collection, “Imprint of Chaos.” The traveler in black, carrying only a staff of light, walks the land granting wishes in satirical fashion, fending off the ingress of Chaos to give Order its place. And indeed the city of Ryovora requires every ounce of his wisdom if they are to survive the malevolent enchanter who seeks to twist the roots of the people’ ideology to the rudiments of a forgotten era.
“Break the Door of Hell,” the second novelette in the collection, is another story with morals of human dimension. Believing its ancestors have set them on the wrong path, the people of Ys request that the traveler in black resurrect the town’s dead in order that they might berate the sentient corpses and force them to provide the labor necessary to get the town back into shape. Getting more than they wished for, the town’s folk later come to the traveler with even more desperate requests.
After a terrible calamity strikes the village of Wantwich, the traveler in black confronts the General guilty of the destruction and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. In “The Wager Lost by Winning,” a clever tale, it’s up to the reader to discover whether life is indeed nothing but a punt.
The only one of these stories to be nominated for an award (the Hugo, interestingly enough), “Dread Empire” tells of the traveler in black’s usage of Four Elementals for teaching wisdom to the Duke and chandler of a small town. The note upon which the story ends, however, may be of most importance regarding the collection as a whole.
In the end, The Traveler in Black (1971) is a collection of morally enlightening tales. Brunner writes in the dense style readers of his other works will be familiar with, and it’s possible to pick at random any of the parables as none are connected in a linear sense, though, given the manner in which “Dread Empire” ends, it’s best to read it last. At times formulaic, Brunner reintroduces his main character through humorous wish grantings at the outset of each novelette. Apparently little if any work was done to smoothly blend the four stories together. There’s nothing exceptionally notable or terrible about the collection — they are run-of-the-mill stories which have seeped into the history of the genre and perhaps should have been fleshed out into novella length. For those looking for a comparison, I would easily nominate Moorcock’s Elric stories as a notable parallel as each deal with the war between Order/Law and Chaos. The Traveler in Black was later republished as The Compleat Traveler in Black upon the release of a fifth novelette, “The Things That Are Gods.”