The Crucible of Time

by John Brunner
Reviewed date: 2017 Nov 20
Rating: 5
416 pages
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A world so much like Earth: land, sea, wind, rain, snow. Moon, sun, planets, stars.

A world so unlike ours: The Arc of Heaven, a dense band of stars lighting up the night sky--to the Milky Way what a halogen floodlight is to a dim candle.

A people so different from humans: pressurized tubules instead of joints and bones. Mandibles, claws, pads, and mantle. A single eye. Treacherous dreamness instead of restorative sleep. Ichor, not blood. Combat-stink and weather-sense.

A people so like us in spirit: the need to unlock the secrets of the universe, to create telescopes and microscopes, to peer into the depths of space and into the mysteries of the living cell. To understand their world, to advance. To survive.

Stakes so much greater than humanity ever faced: the certain knowledge that their planet, traveling through a crowded region of space, will fall into another star and be consumed as fuel. They must quit their planet before the inevitable occurs and their species perishes.

Table of Contents

The Fire is Lit
The legendary Jing studies the stars and sees the coming doom
Ayi-Huat Jing, court astrologer of His Most Puissant Majesty Waw-Yint, travels north from Ntah to the Castle Thorn, to inquire of their learned folk as to the meaning of the New Star: that star which appeared suddenly and for a time out-shone even the Bridge of Heaven. Jing has with him star maps, which show that in addition to the New Star, there are sixteen stars that appear now which did not in years past.

At Castle Thorn, Jing meets Scholar Twig, Keepfire, and Rainbow, daughter of the Count. Rainbow and Twig share Jing's interest in the stars, while Keepfire's experiments with flame enable him to produce glass lenses, which Twig uses to invent the telescope. Jing and Rainbow use this basic instrument to examine the heavens, and discover that the Maker's Sling is not a solid band of light, but is composed of an uncountable number of densely packed stars. They examine the planets and discover satellites. They watch meteor strikes on the moon. It is Jing who taps into his dream-level and makes the crucial breakthough:

Jing yielded to a half-guilty, half-ecstatic temptation and let his mind be taken over by the dream-level. Imagination was not enough; it was handicapped by rational considerations like distance, delay, expenditure of effort, the obstinacy of other people. But already their new discoveries had made it plain that everyday knowledge was inadequate to analyze the outcome. For once his dream faculty might be wiser than his sober and reflective consciousness.

Suddenly his head was roaring-loud with revelations, as though he had tapped the sap-run of time. He marveled at what he heard himself say--or rather declaim.
"[I must] warn the world of what's in store when heaven's fire descends to burn the densest wettest jungle and boil the Lake of Ntah! Vast fires surpassing number of belief loom yonder in the dark and we are cast away upon a fragile barq, this little world, and more and more fires loom and every night the dark is pierced with streaks of fire and what it is we do not know but we must master it or it will utterly consume us! We must pledge ourselves to spare the world the doom of ignorance, not keeping any knowledge private that we've found, but spreading it about to last beyond our lifetimes!"
He was almost screaming with the fury of his visions, for the countless stars were crashing together in a colossal mass of flame, and the world itself was ripe to be their fuel.

He said eventually, "If stars are fire, then new stars happen when fresh fuel is fed to them. What fuel is there, barring worlds like ours? If we would rather not be fuel for a star, there's no one who can save us but ourselves... I've dreamed. It's made me weary. I must rest."

Jing sees that the world's doom is inevitable. More pressingly, though, a deadly plague sweeps the world. Ntah is destroyed by disease and famine, and as winter ends, the plague arrives at Castle Thorn. Jing contracts the sickness, but Rainbow is disease-free. Desperate to preserve this knowledge they have gained, Jing has all his manuscripts copied. He sends them with Rainbow, to carry away into the West, in the hopes that someday, this knowledge will spur people to find a way to prevent their certain doom.

Fusing and Refusing
Skilled sea-folk spread Jing's texts to the world
Skilluck, captain of the briq Tempestamer, voyages far abroad. Ever-colder winters threaten the survival of the Wego people, and Skilluck hopes to find new, hardier foodplants that will help them survive the changing climate. A storm drives him ashore on a distant continent, where he finds Hearthome. The folk of this advanced city have copies of the Jingtexts. The folk of Hearthome offer their aid to the Wego, even suggesting the Wego relocate to Hearthome if their village of Ushere becomes too inhospitable. They ask in exchange only that the Wego sailors take copies of the Jingtexts wherever they go, to spread the knowlege.

Skilluck and his pupil, Wellearn, return to Ushere with samples of what Hearthome has to offer, and convince the Wego folk to accept the Hearthome proposal. But it's too late: when the Wego arrive at Hearthome, they discover that the Northern Freeze has prompted a mass migration, and a horde of starved, dreamlost folk have overrun and destroyed Hearthome. The Wego salvage what they can, including copies of the Jingtexts, and Skilluck determines that they will take to the seas permanently. "We'll survive at sea!" Skilluck exploded. "The way wild briqs do! ... . Now let's go find a herd of wild briqs and start recruiting our new fleet. It's going to be the grandest ever seen!"

The Outpouring
The Great Fleet takes up the role of the Jingfired
The Northern Freeze is ending and the Great Thaw means rising sea levels, which threatens to destroy the great city of Ripar. The clever inventor Yockerbow creates pumps from syphonids and cutinates to hold back the water. This gets the attention of Barratong, admiral of the Great Fleet of the Eastern Sea. Barratong brings the Fleet to Ripar, where the Riparians--hoping to impress him and enlist his help for their city--induct him into their most prestigious society: the Order of the Jingfired. But Barratong is impatient with the Order. He wants to talk to Yockerbow.

Barratong invites Yockerbow and his spouse, Arranth, to join the Fleet, and to join him personally in a quest for knowledge. On one expedition, they uncover a cache of Jingtext manuscripts. Arranth compares the ancient starmaps to what she can see in the heavens with her small telescope, and makes a startling discovery: their world is rushing headlong directly into the Smoke! The Smoke, with its newly budded stars (which in later ages will be called the Major Cluster) is a dense nebula, a stellar nursery. As their solar system passes through it, interstellar debris will pound their sun and their planet, extinguishing life. To survive, they must escape their own world.

Yockerbow suggests taking this knowledge back to Ripar, but Barratong points out that Ripar has no modern stellar observatories, and "besides, Ripar is due to be flooded." They must found a new city, and build new observatories. Even as the rising sea levels threaten to flood all the dry land, it is up to the Fleet to preserve this knowledge, to spread it around the world, and eventually (when sea levels stabilize) to establish the next generation of scholars and scientists. As Barratong puts it, "We are the Jingfired now."

Breaking the Mold
Gveest discovers the secret to fertility and kickstarts the Age of Multiplication
All over the world, the folk are growing old. Fewer and fewer pairings result in a bud, and there's a real chance the folk may go extinct within a generation. Tenthag--"budded in the year called Two-red-stars-turn-blue"--is the youngest member of his village of Neesos, a fact that causes him to be pampered and over-protected by the adults, and shunned by the other young folk. So when he gets the opportunity to join the Guild of Couriers, he jumps at the chance.

He learns to ride speedy porps across the ocean, carrying messages around the world, trading freely in information--the Guild was created by the Order of the Jingfired in order to "maximize trade in information." His most special assignment takes him far south to an island where the scientist Gveest is studying the problem of fertility.

Gveest reveals that the male and female folk are separate species.

Gveest announced it in a rasping voice.
"Here, and elsewhere around the planet, we have tasted the fossil record. We hunted above all for our common ancestors. We haven't found them. What we have found, and the discovery at Neesos was its final proof, is two separate species which evolved in total symbiosis. You and I, Tenthag, can't reproduce without the mediation of that species which evolved with us and gradually took over the role of bearing our young. We must have been in the closest competition, craws of years ago, equally matched rivals for supremacy. One species, though, opted for acceptance of the other's buds, while mimicking to perfection its behavior-as far as speech, as writing, as intelligence!
"We hypothesize that in the early stages it was approximately an even chance whether implantation of a bud resulted in offspring for the 'male' version, the implanter, or the recipient, whose hormones were provoked into reproductive mode by impregnation and sometimes outdid the invader, thereby budding a female."
"But at just about the time the New Star is said to have exploded, wherever and whatever it may have been--I'm no astronomer, but they say it was somewhere around the Major Cluster--something provoked the 'female' species into yet another round of mimicry. It must have been a valid defense technique at some point in the far past, but extending it has cost them and us our reproductive capability."

The female species has become too much like the male species to reproduce. Gveest devises a way to restore the original bud-reaction that the most recent round of mimicry has damaged. The folk are saved! But the resulting population explosion outstrips the food supply, despite Gveest's frantic efforts to spread new, improved foodplants around the world. The Age of Multiplication results in starvation, dreamness, and the downfall of civilization.

The folk discover radioactivity and open up a whole new branch of science
The floating city of Voosla makes landfall at the site chosen for the new World Observatory. Young Awb watches as catastrophe strikes: the mountain-top cracks and the entire site of the observatory crashes down in an avalanche of rock.

The scientist Thilling, who is secretly one of the Jingfired, mounts an expedition to investigate the reasons behind the disaster, and she takes Awb as an apprentice. What they find just beyond the ridge is like nothing they've ever encountered. Strange, mutated plants. An invisible poison that causes blisters and kills from the inside out. Something that is causing blurs and streaks on their best image-sheets. A curious yellow mud along the banks of the river that gets hot when it builds up in layers.

It's radiation.

Awb gets a near-lethal dose of radiation when he collects samples of the yellow mud. He recovers, but the experience permanently warps his thinking.

Years later, Thilling returns to Voosla. Awb has become a great leader, spreading a gospel of dreamlost self-reflection, opposing science and reason. She confronts Awb, but their confrontation is rendered meaningless when the Greatest Meteorite hits the ocean, destroying the entire city of Voosla.

Hammer and Anvil
Psychoplanetarists fail to stop the first rocket launch
Chybee runs away from her parents in Hulgrapuk to attend a lecture in Slah by leading scientists Ugant and Wam. Also present at the lecture is Aglabec, the leading psychoplanetarist. The psychoplanetarists are a cult that hold to a "dreamlost belief that they can enter into psychic contact with other planets." They spin vivid tales of astral projection and visits to aliens on other planets. Aglabec in particular is promoting a view that spaceflight should be prohibited because the folk's "ancestors were on the verge of spaceflight, so alien creatures hurled the Greatest Meteorite at them."

"According to [the pyschoplanetarists], intelligence came into existence everywhere at the same time as the whole universe. On every world but ours, mind-power controls matter directly. That's how Swiftyouth and Sunbride hurled the Greatest Meteorite at us. Our world alone is imperfect."

Ugant and Wam are afraid the psychoplanetarists may be planning a terrorist attack against the city of Slah. Chybee agrees to infiltrate the cult and learn their intentions. However, Aglabec recognizes her and has her imprisoned and starved. Dreamness overcomes her, and she reveals to Aglabec that Ugant and Wam are preparing to launch a rocket. Aglabec organizes his followers in a brazen attack on the launch facility.

At the last moment, Chybee's rational side awakens and she thwarts the attack. Soon after, Aglabec's credibility is destroyed when a series of large asteroids strike Swiftyouth.

"So how exactly is Aglabec going to account for the collision of Swiftyouth with not one meteorite but maybe half a score of them, each greater than the one that washed Voosla and half an ocean high into the hills?"

Well and Fitly Shaped
The folk achieve spaceflight
The first crewed space launch fails and Karg, the astronaut, crashes in the hinterlands of Prutaj. He's rescued and brought to Fregwil. The folk of Fregwil pride themselves for their modernity and technological advancement, which is quite a different worldview than the city of Slah, whose people have sacrificed for decades in order to fund a space program.

Albumarak is a pupil of Quelf in Fregwil, and she discovers that Quelf is holding Karg prisoner and attempting to brainwash him into saying that Fregwil's way of life is superior to Slah's. She helps the Slah delegation to free Karg, and then goes with them back to Slah. Her knowledge of electricity and super-conductors (learned from Quelf) enables the Slah space program to take a new tack: a rail-gun launcher to lob payloads above the atmosphere, with a small rocket booster to achieve orbit, instead of large rockets launched from enormous balloon platforms. With the magnetic rail-gun launcher, they are able to fire off ten launches a month, safely, efficiently, and cheaply.

And with the discovery of a wild planetoid on a collision course for their world, even Fregwil participates in the space program. With their combined resources, they create an artificial world in space. Karg is sent up as the first inhabitant of the new world. Just barely, they have managed to ensure the survival of the species.

"Listen to me, you down there-listen to me! My name is Karg, and I'm in space, and I feel wonderful! I'm free at last! I'm not trapped on a lump of mud that may be smashed at any moment by gods playing at target-practice! I'm free!"
"But I'm not out here purely for the pleasure of it. I have a mission to perform. I'm to be the first inhabitant of another planet--a world we devised at Slah, which is just coming over my horizon, so I'm activating the maneuvering pumps--just a moment... Done. If you're watching with telescopes, you'll be able to see my cylinder match orbits with the artificial world. And from there, using its farspeakers, I'm going to tell everybody the good news. You and I won't survive our system's passage through the Major Cluster. But we'd be long dead anyhow, remember! What I'm here to prove is that the species can!"
His voice rose in a jubilant crescendo as Albumarak and Presthin clutched each other, not knowing whether to laugh or sob.

"We can escape! We can survive! We shall!"

Who are these folk?
They're non-marine cephalopods, or something like it. Brunner doesn't describe them any more than a history of the Roman Empire would describe human anatomy, so we have to pick up clues from context. They have soft, flexible bodies supported by pressurized tubules. Their bodies consist of a torso surrounded and covered by a tough but flexible mantle. They can trap air beneath their mantle, and inside it. They walk on two pads, grasp things with their two claws, and have a pair of mandibles and a single eye at the top of their bodies.

The only hard parts of their bodies are the mandibles and claws. They use their mandibles and maw for eating, and they clack their mandibles when they are excited, but they talk by squeezing air from their mantles. The mantle is the most important part of their body--it is flexible, strong, and emotive.

The folk don't have bones to break, but puncturing a major tubule can be life-threatening or permanently disabling.

Stomach, hearts, guts, and brains are never mentioned. A head is referred to only once, and I think that may have been an error. Ichor, not blood, courses through their tubules. The seat of emotion is the pith.

Their method of reproduction is unclear. No live birth or eggs, but rather, buds that grow on the females. Exactly how this works is never revealed.

In Breaking the Mold, Gveest discovers that the folk are actually two separate species: the female species is especially malleable, and as an evolutionary tactic, mimicked the male species even to being able to carry its buds. Interestingly, before this discovery, the main characters were male. Afterwards, the movers and shakers of history are female.

The folk do not sleep. Their consciousness is complex, and they live constantly on the knife's edge between rational alertness and dangerous dreamness.

Their consciousness is different from ours. Those processes that are subconscious in humans, such as digestion, are accessible to them. Jing describes it thusly:

Some areas [of his mind] were darkly red, like those deep-lying mental strata concerned with fundamental processes such as digestion, where one might venture only in emergency and at the cost of immense concentration; others were pinker and brighter, like the levels where one might issue commands to oneself about sitting or standing, walking or climbing-or fighting; others again tended to be bluish, like the dreams harking back to childhood incomprehension of the world which could so easily overpower a person when weary, sick, frightened, grief-stricken or undernourished, and which sacerdotes and other fools deliberately cultivated because they had never learned to prize dreams less than memory; yet other levels were greenish as memory was; more still gleamed clear yellow like imagination; and just a few, including the great hall itself, shone with the white brightness of reality.

Someone who is well fed, in good health, and not under stress is usually in what we would consider a rational state of mind. But hunger, sickness, or distress lead the folk to fall into dreamness, a state of irrationality where they cannot tell dream from reality. Even daydreaming or sliding too deeply into imagination can be dangerous. Whole civilizations fall when famine strikes and the dreamlost hordes destroy everything in sight.

But it's worse than that: some folk starve themselves purposefully, to get religious visions in the state of dreamness.

As usual, Brunner is antagonistic towards all forms of religion. In this case, the folk's religion is connected to dreamness, which is irrational and dangerous by its very nature. Brunner never presents any form of religion grounded in rationality, which leads me to suspect he thinks such a form of belief doesn't exist.

In any case, dreamlost religious adherents exist throughout history. Jing is opposed by the sacerdotes, "who are so attached to their dreams they can go on claiming” the stars never change, when in fact, the New Star had recently appeared and outshone anything in the night sky. Skilluck and Wellearn deal with opposition from the fanatic order of chaplains. In Tenthag's day power-hungry relidges discourage rational thought and oppose scientific progress. Awb himself sees a vision in his dreamlost state, and founds an anti-scientific cult. The psychoplanetarists, chief among them Aglabec, oppose space travel directly and with violence. Throughout the folks' history, dreamlost religious fanatics stand in direct opposition to the scientists who seek to learn the knowledge that will save their race. The scientists are not always right, but the religious believers are always dreamlost and wrong.

The weather-sense is the deepest sense the folk possess, but Brunner drops only a few hints about how it works. My best guess is it has something to do with sensing the ambient barometric pressure, which makes sense for a species whose bodies are built upon pressurized tubules. But it's more than that: weather-sense seems to be an integratory sense with multiple components. Weather-sense is sensitive to the quality of the air in all ways: pressure, wind, odor, temperature, possibly even electrical charge.

Beyond its mere mechanics, weather-sense may be described as a perception of connectedness to the presence and reality of the physical world. Weather-sense grounds one in the real world. It distinguishes reality from dreamness. When one passes beyond imagination into dreamness, he loses connection with the physical world and weather-sense is dulled or lost. Any prolonged separation from natural elements dulls the weather-sense--such as cloudiness obscuring the sun, or polar nights that last for months.

In addition to grounding the folk in the physical world, weather-sense also gives information about the conditions of the world. Weather-sense can detect and predict storms. It detects conditions that presage lighting, so there may even be an electrical sensitivity involved as well. Keen weather-sense can detect when folk are scared or angry or confident or lying--probably due to the pheromones they emit.

Biological technology
Brunner imagines a world where the dominant form of technology is not mechanical or electrical, but biological. Where there is a need, the folk breed a creature to serve that role. Northfinders are living compasses. Barqs are living riverboats, large enough to carry passengers and cargo on their backs. Briqs and junqs carry sea-folk across the oceans. In later ages, the folk breed recordimals to record and replay audio; guidimals to steer rockets; haulimals to carry cargo over-land. Nervograps laid overland or undersea can carry signals for miles, enabling instant long-distance communication. Farspeakers are natural radios. Even their lighting is provided by bioluminescent glowvines or luminants--the folk generally avoid fire if they can.

Precisely how the folk create their living technology is not explained. The life on their planet must be more malleable than the creatures of Earth, and I wonder if there is an evolutionary mechanism other than random mutation and natural selection at work. Even on a planet with higher levels of mutation-causing radiation, the speed at which organisms change is remarkable.

Not everything can be biological, though. Rocket engines must be made of metal--no biological component could withstand the heat. For everyday items that cannot be produced biologically, glass is generally preferred to metal, though. This may be because metals are dangerous to their sanity. In Hammer and Anvil, Ugant comments that "tampering with metals can be dangerous to our sanity-not just radioactive metals, either, like stumpium and sluggium, but any which don't occur naturally in chemically reactive form." On the other hand, the metals needed for use in Slah's space program don't appear to be a danger to the sanity of the astronauts. So it may be only some metals that are unhealthy for the folk--just as some heavy metals are injurious to humans.

Barqs, briqs, and junqs: the naming of alien things
Brunner turns familiar things alien by altering the names: an alien shark-like creature is a sharq. The sea is filled with mollusqs. A barq is living riverboat creature, and the folk ply the ocean in briqs and junqs. Maggors infect flesh and wivvils destroy crops. Spuders spin strong spuder-webs. It works, mostly, although I find it grating sometimes. I think carrier-pitchens, hawqs, and yowls are a step too far.

Not everything is named this way. There are gulletfish, draftimals, haulimals, mounts, bravetrees, toughtrees, luminants, glowvines, and sparkleweed. Northfinders serve as living compasses. Recordimals can record and replay audio. Guidimals keep rockets on target. I prefer those names to the faux-earth terms.

From Sunbride to Sluggard: the planets of the budworld solar system
The folk live in a solar system similar to ours. At first glance, this looks like it could be our solar system in the distant future, long after mankind's extinction. I find that unlikely. For one, their solar system is missing a planet: where Mercury would be is an asteroid field. For another, their Steadyman is far too close to be Jupiter, and the orbital periods of the budworld (550 days) and Swiftyouth (940 days) don't jibe with Earth (365 days) and Mars (687 days). There is no asteroid field between the inner rocky planets and the outer gas giants. And there is no mention of rings around any of the gas giants. It would take a great deal of orbital migration and planetary change to turn our solar system into theirs.

The rocky planets of the budworld solar system are:

  • Asteroids - The solar system's only asteroid belt lies inside the orbit of Sunbride.
  • Sunbride is the closest planet to the sun. It's rarely visible in the sky, and is too hot for life.
  • The budworld, where the folk live. Its year is 550 days long.
  • The budworld has a single moon, barren and devoid of atmosphere. It is large enough to cause significant solar eclipses, although it's not mentioned if these are total or partial.
  • Swiftyouth, a reddish planet with a year of 940 days. Considered too cold for life, but there are signs of seasonal variation. No moons mentioned.

The four outer planets are gas giants, with "gigantic storms in their immensely deep gas-mantles," and have moons visible only through a telescope. The four planets themselves are visible to the naked eye.

  • Steadyman is almost pure white in color, has a year of 1900 days, and has at least two moons.
  • Stolidchurl is yellower and has at least three moons.
  • Stumpalong is greenish.
  • Sluggard, greenish and dimmer than Stumpalong, has at least four moons.

Besides the solar system objects, there are other things in the sky at various points in history.

  • Arc of Heaven, also called the Bridge of Heaven, or the Maker's Sling: a swath of stars so densely packed as to appear a solid mass when viewed by the naked eye.
  • New Star, which appeared in the days of Jing, brighter than anything else, and faded away in later ages.
  • The Blade of Heaven, a comet.
  • The Smoke, sometimes inaccurately called the Smoke of the New Star, is a nebula of interstellar material dense enough to form into new stars.
  • Major Cluster, a bright cluster of stars formed out of the Smoke, brighter than anything else in the night sky.
  • Aurorae at both poles, the northern ones sometimes referred to as the Maker's Mantle.
  • Meteors and meteorites are commonplace, much more so than on Earth.

One can see similaries to our solar system, though, if you don't look too closely at the details. Taking the asteroid belt as the remains of a planet, that gives us four rocky planets and then four gas giants. This puts the budworld as the third planet, and the budworld has a single moon just like Earth's. The outermost rocky planet is reddish. The four outer planets are gas giants and have moons.

Artwork: depicting the folk
The cover art on my American edition shows an artificial space habitat against the backdrop of a planet and moon being bombarded by meteors, all hanging in a densely crowded region of space. It doesn't show the folk themselves. Given the lack of description from Brunner, it's a wise choice.

In the artwork accompanying the magazine publication of The Fire is Lit (Asimov's, September 1982) and Fusing and Refusing (Asimov's, January 1983) the artist gets a few things right (bilateral symmetry, two claws, two pads, and mandibles) but gets a lot wrong, too. The illustration looks very much like a large, erect beetle. The exterior appears hard, like an exoskeleton. The mantle looks rigid and only covers part of the torso. And the artist has drawn two eyes, not one. The pads (legs) are much longer than I imagine, although Brunner is not specific, so that is not necessarily in error.

The best depiction is probably the cover of the French translation (Le creuset du temps), which shows Jing using lenses to view the stars. Here, the folk look like large erect bugs, but the details are correct. A single eye. Mandibles and claws. A mantle that covers the body. A body made of flexible sinews, not a hard exoskeleton.

The German edition (Die Gußform der Zeit) has an impressionistic illustration on its cover. It looks like one of the folk opening its mantle, but it's stylized and cannot be taken as an accurate representation.

There is an Italian translation (La prova del fuoco) with an illustration of a spacecraft, but not as inspiring as the American artwork. There's another Italian edition with a cover that appears to depict a squidlike creature, but I haven't been able to track down a decent image of that artwork.

One British edition shows merely a large ocean wave; another features the briq Tempestamer in a storm, and the small figures of the folk on her back appear to be squid-like humanoids.

There's a Spanish edition (El Crisol del Tiempo) with a large spiral-shaped thing, which could maybe be a briq or a junq? I'm not sure, the scene doesn't seem to illustrate any scene from the book.

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