I recently read a couple of John Brunner books.
Interstellar Empire: A Tale of Three Space Operas
The first, Intersteller Empire is actually a collection of three novellas and a short essay. (This is not mentioned anywhere on the cover, which is the kind of thing that makes reading cheaply-made science fiction of the era even more of an adventure than it would be otherwise.) The novellas all take place in the same universe and are for some reason presented in reverse chronological order, so that first there's the essay, On Standing on One's Own Feet (copyright 1965), then there's the first (and most recent) novella, The Altar on Asconel (copyright 1965), then the middle one, The Man from the Big Dark (copyright 1958), and finally the oldest one, The Wanton of Argus (copyright 1953, when Brunner was 19). The Wanton of Argus might be the earliest of Brunner's works I've ever read.
On Standing on One's Own Feet
The essay tries to set the stage. In it, Brunner talks about how it used to be really easy for him to write space opera, but now it's a lot harder because he's started to think a lot about how completely unplausable the swords & spaceships scenario is. (I'm paraphrasing wildly here, of course.) But he's been giving it a lot of thought and has come up with one possible (and mostly unused) scenario that he thinks accounts for things. The idea is that mankind stumbled across a vast store of abandoned alien spaceships capable of faster-than-light travel; these allowed the human race to create a giant galactic empire, but when the space ships started to break down the empire started to collapse with it. Therefore you have worlds that are suddenly mostly thrown back on their resources (hence swords and other primitive technology) while traders, space pirates (ARRRRRRRR!), etc. still make an occasional appearance on the scene bringing bits of technology from other worlds that haven't yet completely lost it.
The Altar on Asconel
Which is all well and fine, but I felt that The Alter on Asconel was rather too clearly an attempt to write a story based on these ideas. The main character and hero is a historian who, when we meet him, is describing the currently accepted theory of galactic history, for instance, and at the end of the story we get to meet one of the aliens who so conveniently left their spaceships behind for mankind to find. To make the universe even more insteresting we learn that a lot of mutants are being born and that they are all being either killed or banished to the outskirts of the galaxy, where it's also rumored that there are civilizations that are making great strides towards making their own space ships.
Which is not to say that this isn't an interesting theme and one worth exploring, but it seems like other concerns got left on the floor. The main character is a bit too good and competent, and he manages to make it through an entire revolution without violating his vow of non-violence (unless you count turning off the antigravitation controls so one of the bad guys bounces off the ceiling and gets rendered unconscious, but it doesn't seem you're supposed to). The psychic mutant who joins the hero early on has great powers, but exactly how they work depends largely on the needs of the plot -- one moment she can influence a band of paranoid rebels into letting the party into their midst, and another she gets distracted and doesn't notice a guard is looking for them while she herself is supposed to be on guard duty. This tended to break me out of my suspension of disbelief and detracted from my enjoyment of the story.
The Man from the Big Dark
This is a pretty straightforward pirate story. Guy joins pirates, pirate chief kills guy's girlfriend, guy flees, guy helps thwart pirate chief's plans, guy gets new girlfriend. Some of the stuff described in On Standing ... is there in the background (was some of it introduced in later editing, I wonder?) but it's not the point of the story and isn't nearly as intrusive as it was in the first story. So I found this one more enjoyable.
That said, some of the characterizations were wacky nutso and I had a hard time with them. For instance, the hero comes across the (female) captain of a ship while she's naked and steals a kiss from her (she of course immediately tries to kill him but fails to), then manages to get a job doing menial work on the ship, and it's clear that the woman is very distrustful of men in general. After they've been travelling for a while, they get pulled over by a naval vessel who says he's looking for someone who is clearly the hero and says that he committed rape and murder. To the hero's surprise, she tells the navy guy that she hasn't seen anyone like that. Which, OK, we get the idea, she's come to trust him and thinks he isn't such a bad guy, and it's somewhat implausable but it's not like we haven't seen worse in the genre, so we give it a pass. But then what do we make of this passage later on in the story?
Kareth-- he used her name awkwardly --when that officer inquired for me, why did you deny that you had seen anyone who could be the man?
She gave him his answer with utter frankness.Because,she said,I did not think you, of all the men I know, would ever have to resort to rape!
Ewwwwwww, that's what we make of it, or at least that's what I made of it. (Keep in mind that this guy assaulted her about ten seconds after he met her ... eh, I'll stop, I think the point is made.)
That's the most extreme example of this, and setting it and other occasional oddities in how characters act and think it's a nice little action-filled yarn set against a galactice empire gone mad!
The Wanton of Argus
Finally we come to the oldest and most absurd of the stories in the book, and, maybe unsurprisingly, the one I liked best, The Wanton of Argus The title sort of spells it out, doesn't it?
Where the first story took place in the remnants of the old empire (and explored a decent chunk of it) and the second took place at the galaxy's periphery, the third story takes place in the heart of the decaying empire itself. The old emperor has died, and the new emporer is just a kid, and his eldest sister disappeared while going off to university to learn to be a good regent, so the second-eldest sister is poised to become the regent ... but then the eldest sister suddenly reappears. The political factions reorient themselves, traps are laid and sprung, etc. etc. etc. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger with odd powers appears. Whose side is he on? What will he do? What will happen?
This by itself would have been enough to make an interesting story, but Brunner apparently decided that while he was at it he might as well throw in the kitchen sink, so we also get a lot of surprise plot twists, battles between individuals with absurdly strong psychic powers, hallucinatory sequences, time travel, benevolent and almost omnipotent beings, and all sorts of crazy stuff. This pretty much prevents you from taking the story at all seriously but, for me at least, once I made the leap to complete disbelief it made the whole story a lot more enjoyable. Although I'm not sure if I enjoyed it in quite the way Brunner intended, but hey, I have to look out for myself.