The novel “The Jagged Orbit” by John Brunner was published for the first time in 1969. It won the BSFA prize as best novel of the year.
At the beginning of the 21st century, racial segregation in the USA became a total separation but it only exacerbated the tension between black and white with increasingly violent clashes. The Gottschalks, a mix between a lobby and a racket, take advantage of that selling weapons to anyone but leveraging the their clients’s fears they make the situation even worse.
The predictions of the future can be entrusted to sophisticated computers or to people such as Lyla Clay, a pythoness who during a drug-induced trance has visions of the future. For journalist Matthew Flamen, investigating the relationship between the Gottschalks and political power seems a good idea to keep his job.
“The Jagged Orbit” is one of the novels in which John Brunner describes some sort of dystopia where a problem in particular puts civilization at risk. In this case, it’s racism, which according to the author at the beginning of the 21st century brought the USA to what is practically a civil war.
The explosive situation begun because of the stupidity of racism but racial conflicts are further fomented by the Gottschalks, a cartel that operates in the arms field. Taking advantage of those tensions is an excellent strategy to sell weapons, the only risk is that too many customers might kill each other dropping the demand.
The future is really uncertain but above all the Gottschalks need to predict it in order to avoid being destroyed by their own business strategy. This is just one of the narrative threads of “The Jagged Orbit”, which has a plot fragmented among the stories of a number of characters. In various ways, the plot revolves around the not only political and social situations but also the Americans’ minds and the picture is far from positive.
In the novel there’s a sense of alienation within a society torn by violence exploited by the Gottschalks to keep their revenues high. The psychological side is important and among the characters there are also psychologists such as Dr. James Reedeth, his colleague Ariadne Spoelstra, his boss Elias Mogshack and Professor Xavier Conroy.
In “The Jagged Orbit”, however, psychology is not a help to the population because it ends up promoting a conflictuality that’s negative in the explosive situation that already exists. These elements are also developed in the conflict about the use of psychology between James Reedeth and Elias Mogshack.
The chaos of the society described in “The Jagged Orbit” is reflected in that in novel development but this is not necessarily positive. In my opinion the story ends up being too fragmented and if that’s not enough often the fragments are developed through discussions between characters so little or nothing actually happens.
“The Jagged Orbit” is not very long, also compared to other novels by John Brunner, and this is a problem when there are so many narrative threads to develop. Often novels are published that would be better with some cuts of useless parts but in this case perhaps a longer length would have allowed to strengthen at least some parts of the story.
One of the problems is a certain experimentalism, typical of those years. Certain language choices don’t help to understand the story. The narrative tones range from dark moments to the satirical chapter titles, sometimes longer than the chapters themselves and generally over the top.
Decades after its publication, the themes of “The Jagged Orbit” remain very strong. In the USA racial segregation is at least in theory over but the tensions are far from resolved. The arm manufacturers lobby is powerful and always tries to influence politicians to keep on sell weapons freely by leveraging the false sense of security they give to buyers.
John Brunner is considered a forerunner of cyberpunk for the narrative elements he put into dystopian novels such as “The Jagged Orbit” but his style is that of the ’60s / ’70s and from this point of view this novel seems to me aged badly. Honestly for me it wal a bit hard to read it but its themes and their development are still very strong and for this reason in my opinion it’s still a must-read.