Among what might be referred to as Brunner's less important novels, The Webs of Everywhere (originally published just as Web of Everywhere) is one of the more satisfying and worth picking up on your next used bookstore crawl, despite the dodgy cover. Its premise is similar to the later The Infinitive of Go, in that it deals with a future whose social and physical landscape has been utterly changed by the invention of a transportation device, here called a Skelter. But Brunner takes ths tale in an altogether different, and I think better, direction.
Here, Brunner deals with the broader philosophical and sociological implications of the existence of this kind of technology, whereas in the later novel he confronts it as a physics problem. Though Webs roots its story in a few assumptions that are initially a little hard to swallow — that the device, implemented without any sort of security apparatus of any kind, is singly responsible for the destruction of civilization as we know it — ultimately the tale is more thematically and intellectually rewarding.
Once the Skelter made global instantaneous travel a reality, it soon proved to have opened a Pandora's Box. Terrorists, criminals, and other miscreants used to device with impunity, wreaking havoc upon the world leading to an apocalyptic war the characters refer to as the Blowup. Not until after the dust had settled and the straggling remnants of humanity pulled themselves together did one of the world's few remaining wealthy movers and shakers, the philanthropist Chaim Aleuker, invent the privateer, that allowed Skelter owners a privacy code. It's a bit implausible, I know, that Skelters would have been built without such a device in the first place. Kind of like building a house without a door that locks.
Anyway, many years after the Blowup, we meet Hans Dykstra and Mustapha Sharif. Hans is a photographer and hobbyist who has been illegally buying Skelter codes from Mustapha, a blind Egyptian poet who has attained influence and reknown for his own philanthropic work. Hans wants a little reknown of is own, travelling to ruined cities and abandoned, forbidden territories to catalog their history; he hopes that after his own death his work will be appreciated despite its illegality. But soon ambition and greed take over Hans' altruism. One of the few men with a wife (the male/female population ratio is skewed), he is still deeply dissatisfied with his lot. Clearly a man can have what few other men have and still be miserable.
It so happens that Chaim Aleuker is hosting a party in the interests of finding a new crop of potential world leaders who can get civilization on a faster track to recovery. Invitations are sent out worldwide feauring a series of cryptic clues, with the idea that anyone with the brains to solve them might be a fit leader. Mustapha disagrees with Aleuker's political notions, thinking that the old ideas of leadership were exactly what got the world into the shape it is currently in. (That may be true in a broad sense, but in fact it seems to me an illogical design and implementation of Skelter technology was the real culprit.) To spite his nagging wife (who really wants to go), Hans deciphers the clues easily enough, and ends up at Aleuker's party, where, among others, he meets a naive young girl named Anneliese that Aleuker rescued from an oppressive fundamentalist Christian enclave. It's a situation Hans promptly wants to manipulate to his advantage; in his self-absorption, the distinction between his wife, who represents all of his life's disillusionment rolled into one, and the virginal ideal represented by Anneliese couldn't be plainer.
At this point, I'll stop with the detailed synopsis to avoid spoilers, only to say that something goes terribly wrong at Aleuker's party, and Hans finds himself on the run (with a frightened Anneliese in tow) in a situation where his illegal activities could well be exposed. (There are draconian penalties for using unauthorized Skelter codes.) This in turn means Mustapha himself is at risk, and the man knows it.
Published at a time when global social and political turmoil was about as pronounced as it is today, if not moreso, The Webs of Everywhere ultimately wants to examine and discuss what the attitudes are that people will need to change if civilization has any real chance at succeeding into the future. Is there, as Ayn Rand argued, a virtue to selfishness, or should this always be balanced with the right degree of altruism (and what is the right degree)? As a plot device, the Skelter represents humanity's selfishness taken to its ultimate realization; our desire to want too much, too soon, at no cost. I'm not sure I agree with all of Brunner's conclusions, nor his dramatic handling of them. Hans' final confrontation with Mustapha seems too pat; Hans is too much the seething cauldron of inner conflict, Mustapha a little too enlightened and self-aware, too obviously the ideal to which humanity ought to aspire. But I admired the way this novel engaged me intellectually (frankly, I was expecting a potboiler), gave me lots of food for thought on these themes. I think you will too.