In the 1980s Donald A. Wolheim reprinted most of the John Brunner bibliography. Brunner rewrote or edited novelettes that he had published in the 1950s in magazines or the 1960s in Ace Doubles.
When you read a Brunner novel you never know if you re going to get one of the lesser ones that he knocked off in great numbers or one of the great ones.
Manshape is a much better novel than the ones I have been reading. It was published as "Bridge to Azrael" in 1964 in Astounding and Campbell must have thought it good enough to commission cover art.
The sciencefictional idea is that the colonies of Earth are connected with a bridge system that allows people to move instantly across hundreds of light years. This bridge system connects the known outposts of Earth that left in the distant past in a diaspora. These colonies have been out of contact and have developed their own cultures. The Earth has discovered the planet Azrael which has developed an ascetic religious system that permeates the society. Ritual flogging and suicides dominate the culture.
The problem is that Azrael does not want to rejoin with Earth and denies Earth the right to build a bridge on the planet.
The underlying them is one of depression and suicide. Several characters are clinically depressed and several commit suicide. The book is really dealing with the problem of depression and suicide and it used the depressed and suicidal planet of Azrael as the foil for a philosophical discussion.
This is not as bad as it sounds. Dealing with the neurotic society becomes a real problem since the planet’s rejection of Earth threatens everyone’s own attitudes about death and dying. By denying the bridge Azrael has denied Earth’s Raison D’etre for the past several hundred years. Society is threatened and the depressive and suicidal culture of the Azraelites begins to spread.
The solution, without giving away the books ending, is based on finding something worse than death. Suicide, in Brunner’s novel, is not about ending life as form of escape or relief. Suicide stems from deep depression and is an expression of the worthlessness of the individual. The suicide feels that he deserves death. He feels that he is so worthless that death is the only logical thing. The person feels that worst thing that can happen is to die and that is just what is needed to justify life. The novel concludes by finding something worse than dying. It makes dying look too good for the depressed society. In order to be truly punished for being so worthless, something worse than death is the only punishment that is deserved.
This "worse than death" scenario is clever, although probably dangerous as a real life solution to suicide. I found Manshape engaging and well paced. There were interesting characters and an interesting problem that was well balanced with the science fiction elements. The novel was a very quick read and I guess that it was only about 60k words.
Like I said, it’s a gamble reading Brunner. He wrote a few novels that just did not work for me. I enjoyed this one. I have a shopping bag with a dozen or more Brunner novels obtained at a garage sale. I will be picking them out at random and reading them on the bus. I am looking forward to the next one.