Polymath is a significant expansion of Brunner’s space opera Castaway’s World, which appeared as an Ace Double in the 1960s. I remember reading the ace double version of this many years ago. The rewrite contains some sex and a significant refinement of some of Brunner’s themes.
Polymath is a very readable straight adventure story, but like all of Brunner’s novels, mixes its escapist elements with a strong underlying theme. Brunner’s themes tend to be difficult and mature and sometimes feel out of place, especially in a space opera as Polymath was obviously written.
The story revolves around a pair of ships that escape from a nova on their home system. There was little warning and the ships escaped without any preparation with anyone who manages to get aboard. The ships crash land on dangerous and hostile alien planet about 20 miles apart. One group slowly manages to adjust, the other group concentrates on repairing their ship, which proves impossible.
Brunner uses these two approaches to the same problem to contrast different kinds of societies. He does this subtly in the form of an adventure novel. The protagonist is a Polymath – an individual who has been physically and mentally altered with skills and abilities that are designed to help emerging colonies on alien planets. He is, however, only twenty years old and has had only minimal training. He does manage to manipulate the two societies so that the combined colony stands a chance at being successful.
Brunner populates the colonies with all of his favorite villains. There is the coarse and sadistic leader who creates a forced work camp, but there are also unexpected villains such as gossips and those more interested in self aggrandizement than the welfare of the group. There is a failed leader who commits suicide and a psychotic who cannot accept that the colony is stranded on such an inhospitable planet. There is also a neurotic woman who copes with the loss of all she knew by having sex with anyone who will pay attention to her.
This rich context of danger and interesting characters fills the 156 pages and the book comes to a satisfying ending much too quickly.
I have another dozen or so Brunner books to read, including Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, and I am starting to enjoy Brunner’s style.