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The man who wrote ‘H Bomb’s Thunder’

PETER FROST raises his voice in song in appreciation of sci-fi legend and anti-nuke activist John Brunner

IT is a sobering thought that I have been campaigning against nuclear weapons and supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) for more than half a century.

Most recently, I attended a CND event linking Donald Trump’s policy on nuclear weapons and our own government desire to update Trident.

A young woman with a most beautiful voice led the singing of what has become the anthem of the anti-nuclear movement. “Do you hear the H-bomb’s thunder, Echo like the crack of doom?” she sang. I realised that I had been hearing and joining in with that song for all of those 50 years with CND.

Where, I asked myself, did the song come from? It is an interesting story.

In 1957, a science fiction author John Brunner became a member of the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests. He was a leading member of the Hampstead group from which CND was formed.

With his first wife Marjorie and Bertrand Russell’s former wife Dora Black he organised CND caravans into Europe and travelled around the world promoting the anti-nuclear weapon cause.

His contribution to the movement to ban nuclear bombs was considerable in many ways, but far above all his other achievements Brunner penned the song that would become the anthem of CND and the whole peace movement.

His song was The H-Bomb’s Thunder and its easily sung verses and easily remembered tune made it ring out over Aldermaston marches, pickets and peace camps not just in Britain but all across the globe.

It was sung on the first Aldermaston march in 1958. Brunner’s 1988 novel The Days of March is a supremely evocative fictionalisation of the early days of the CND movement and is one of his best works.

That book isn’t science fiction, but it was in that genre that Brunner made his reputation – he was one of the leading British science fiction writers of the last four decades.

Brunner sold his first novel at the age of 17 and was a prolific writer throughout the 1960s and ’70s. His most significant book and perhaps his best, Stand on Zanzibar (1968) was about the problem of overpopulation.

The title came from the prediction that by the year 2010 the entire world’s population could stand shoulder to shoulder on the island of Zanzibar. The novel’s experimental jigsaw style has hundreds of short snippets build up to give a powerful feeling of desperation.

In Stand on Zanzibar, Brunner imagines life in 2010, correctly forecasting wearable technology, Viagra, video calls, same-sex marriage, the legalisation of cannabis and the proliferation of mass shootings.

By 2010, Brunner predicted, the world’s population would top seven billion. He was exactly one year out. No wonder the book won the Hugo Award, the British Science Fiction Award and the Prix Apollo.

In his The Sheep Look Up (1972), he came early to the problem of pollution. The Shockwave Rider (1975) was one of the earliest and remains one of the best novels about computers. Brunner was ahead of his time in seeing that computers were about communication, not number-crunching. His was an early warning about loss of privacy.

In the novel, he created a computer hacker hero before the world knew what a hacker was. There’s irony in some of what Brunner got wrong. He assumed, for instance, that the US would provide adequate, inexpensive medical care for all by 2010 — silly boy.

While some of his predictions are sci-fi cliches, others have proven accurate. In The Sheep Look Up, he prophesies a future blighted by extreme pollution and environmental catastrophe. In the same book, he describes computer viruses – something that early computer scientists thought impossible. He even coined the use of the word “worm” to describe them.

Brunner based his song The H-Bomb’s Thunder on a long tradition of American songs that used similar tunes and word structure. Best known perhaps is the old miners’ union song Miner’s Lifeguard. This is itself based on a much earlier song from about 1870, Life is Like a Mountain Railway. They all used a version of an ancient Welsh hymn tune, Calon Lan, which had made its way across the Atlantic.

Brunner was just six years old when he discovered science fiction. During World War II, his family moved to Herefordshire, where Brunner’s father intended to run a farm.

In the move, he found and devoured his grandfather’s 1898 edition of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. From that moment, as he explained in his autobiography, he was imprinted by the genre “as permanently as one of Konrad Lorenz’s geese.”

By the age of nine, not only was he reading sci-fi, he was writing it too. His first story was about a Martian named Gloop. His first rejection letter came just four years later.

He was still only 17 when he finally broke into print with a page-long story, The Watchers, and his first sale to a US magazine was made before he turned 18. By then, he’d dropped out of school and given up a scholarship to Oxford in order to focus on writing. He wrote 5,000 words a day on his electric typewriter in the days before word processors or computers.

Brunner would produce nearly 100 books, including 80 novels and short-story collections as well as non-fiction. He wrote under many pen-names. He was Trevor Staines, Keith Woodcott, John Loxmith, Henry Crosstrees Jnr and a few more.

His books won him every sci-fi prize worth winning, including the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel, which had never before gone to a British author.

Even though Brunner had sold around two million paperbacks worldwide by the time he turned 30, the realities of the science-fiction market made making ends meet a constant challenge. To earn a living, he dabbled in poetry, fantasy and horror, even erotic fiction.

By middle age, much of his work was out of print. He was forced to sell his Hampstead home and move to Somerset. Ill health and his wife Marjorie’s death in 1986 led to depression.

In 1995, Brunner died of heart attack while attending the huge World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow. He had been booked to speak to the 5,000 sci-fi fans in attendance.

Nearly quarter of a century after his death, his famous song lives on. It is still being sung and I’m sure people who care will still be singing it even after we finally rid the world of the horror of nuclear weapons.


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