I’ve been drowning in job proposal/manuscript writing this month. I did manage to finish one of the growing stack of vintage science fiction weighing down my shelves: John Brunner’s The Productions of Time (1966), which sounded fun, but ended up disappointing.
Murray Douglas is a famous but washed-up actor, just out of rehab for alcoholism and trying to get back into theater. He gets recruited for an odd play project designed by an enigmatic Latin American playwright Manuel Delgado, whose past works have led to suicides and institutionalizations of the actors involved. Murray and the cast are kept in a lavish country club to work out the play, but Murray soon realizes that the theater project may be secondary. Delgado and his staff have rigged the place up with mysterious electronic devices that may be for eavesdropping, and and Delgado seems to be deliberately stoking to the sexual and narcotic vices of the oddly passive cast.
This mediocre story starts well, with an interesting premise, but sputters out in the development. Murray doesn’t solve the mystery, so much as just stumble on odd clues here and there. Despite the premise, the behavior of the characters is tame, even for 1966 sci-fi – any perversions are kept well out of sight, which weakens the whole idea of a story that exploits the human failings of the cast.
As you might suspect from the title, the ending plot twist involves some well-worn time travel tropes (this is a bit of a spoiler, but readers of C.L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” will likely guess what’s going on). The dramatic potential of the plot twist, however, is completely spoiled by the Scooby-Doo style wrap-up (complete with the obligatory “and we’d have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that meddling Murray”): most of the plot twist comes in the form of after-the-fact explanation.
This is not what I expected from the author who two years later would produce the stunning experimental masterpiece Stand on Zanzibar, but sci-fi aficionados know that unevenness in almost any given author’s output is typical.