Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Posted January 2, 2015on:
published in 1968 (Hugo winner for best novel)
where I got it: purchased used
Stand on Zanzibar is a New Wave science fiction novel. According to Wikipedia:
“New Wave is a movement in science fiction produced in the 1960s and 1970s and characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, a “literary” or artistic sensibility, and a focus on “soft” as opposed to hard science. New Wave writers often saw themselves as part of the modernist tradition and sometimes mocked the traditions of pulp science fiction. . . “
It’s always fun when authors predict a future that is the future for them, but is the past for us. Like when a book takes place in 2010, or a tv show from the 70s takes place in 1999, and now we get to see what they got right and what they got hilariously wrong. Stand on Zanzibar takes place in 2010, and it’s a little creepy what Brunner got right. First, a few words about the title. The title is refers to this phrase that has to do with overpopulation:
“. . . if you allow for every codder [man] and shiggy [woman] and appleofmyeye [beloved child] a space one foot by two you could stand us all on the six hundred forty square mile surface of the island of Zanzibar.”
And overpopulation is a huge theme of Stand on Zanzibar. Earth has 7 to 8 billion people, The United States is bursting at the seams with 400 million. Many single family homes have been chopped up into smaller and smaller often one room residences, and any kind of privacy costs a fortune. To keep populations down, most states in the US have instituted some type of eugenics law, where for example, if you have the genes for hemophilia or color blindness, you are not allowed to have children. Abortions are easy to obtain, and often forced. There are options for adoption, but many couples simply opt to not have children, while openly resenting the family across the street who was approved for two children.
Many of the subplots involve attitudes about having children, race relations, post-colonialism, and populations turning into sheep. Once i realized the timing connections, the out-dated post colonialism attitudes of some of the characters became clear, as the 1960s was a time of British crown colonies gaining independence and becoming what we now know as Lesotho, Guyana, Sierra Leone and Jamaica, to name a few. A lot of privileged Brits were suddenly being told they weren’t in charge anymore.
The main characters of the novel are Norman House, Donald Hogan, and Chad Mulligan. Norman is an executive with General Technics, the company that makes everything, and most importantly the company who owns Shalmaneser, the smartest computer on Earth. A Muslim African American, Norman rose through the ranks at GT via affirmative action, and there is quite the character study regarding how he is treated (or thinks he is being treated) by non-blacks and non-Muslims. His roommate is Donald Hogan, a professional student. Secretly recruited by the government to be a synthesist, Donald spends much of his day in the library reading up on current events, and making connections between seemingly unrelated events. Chad is a sociologist who is desperate to retire. He’s the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock type character, who tries over and over to tell people what is happening around them.
I had a tough time getting into Stand on Zanzibar for two reasons, both of which resolved themselves quickly, and were certainly part of that New Wave-ness. First, the way the story is presented; and second, the language. The story is presented in chapters of three different types – one type following Donald and Norman, another type offering vignettes of what is happening elsewhere, either with minor characters or outside the US,, and the third type called “context”, which in a channel surfing style offers snippets of conversations or tv shows or billboards, or even long snippets of Chad Mulligan’s books. Language was a two pronged bugger. there is a lot of Clockwork Orange style slang that took me forever to figure out: “poppa-momma” is pm (like 10pm), “anti-matter” is am (like 8am), “sheeting” is fucking (as in “you sheeting idiot”. a really fun play on words, actually!), “prodgies” are children, and “bleeder” is a wildly offensive insult meaning the person has hemophilia or any other undesirable genes and that they should never be allowed to have children. There was also a lot of racially charged language, and my assumption is that Brunner used them for shock value.
The plot meanders all over the place, often offering little vignettes of minor characters so we can see a better cross section of the population. This is *not* a fast moving novel, and I don’t mind that I’d done some research ahead of time, because the storytelling style sure was not going to tell me what the main plot was. Around half way through the book, Norman and Donald receive their important “missions”. General Technics is getting involved in industrialization of a fictional African nation of Beninia, and Norman, being African American, is judged by his employer as the best guy to be the company ambassador, so off to Beninia he goes. Donald is called up by the government and “eptified” to act as a secret agent in a fictional southeast Asian county of Yatakang. He’s to meet with their foremost geneticist to see if the man’s claims about creating “designer babies” is true. I suppose these are the main action sequences in the book? Honestly I found most of the second half to be completely boring. The government of Beninia was quite fascinating, and there were a few James Bond-ish moments with Donald, but the lead up to these events was far more interesting than what happened when they got there.
My favorite parts of the book were Chad’s interactions with other characters. He’s been locked in an Idiocracy style story, where no matter how he begs people to act like intelligent human beings and open their eyes to what society is pushing on them, their response is to pop a trank (tranquilizer) which to me is just another version of “but it’s got electrolytes!” Beyond dystopia, this is a very nihilistic view of the future.
This was seriously the book that would not end. I’d read for hours and hours, and you still have two hundred pages to go, it was like the Groundhog Day of books. The prose is very dense, with the vast majority of the book being subplot, and introductions to characters who are only briefly if ever mentioned again. It was probably a mistake to try to finish reading this book in six or seven days, I think i would have done better with it had I read it for a few days, put it down, and picked it up again a few days later, instead of trying to bash my way through it.
There’s been some discussion online over the years about what Brunner got right about the future. Religious backlash against family planning/ availability of abortions? check. People being encouraged to medicate their stresses away? check. Police riots? check. Detroit being a wasteland after car manufacturers have downsized? check. There are others as well, but those were the most entertaining for me.
Stand on Zanzibar is one of those books that I’m happy I read, but that I don’t see myself ever reading again. I’ve got Brunner’s Players in the Game of People as well, and as it is a much, much shorter book, I’ll probably read it at some point.