Stand on Zanzibar: It’s time for everybody to read it

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Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were two writers who initially established themselves not only in the world of realist fiction, but also as effective observers on society. As a result, their later novels Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World are heralded as two of the greatest science fiction novels ever written, with literary purists even willing to make allowances despite the sci-fi leanings. Perhaps it is John Brunner’s misfortune that his career was established in the world of science fiction. When Stand on Zanzibar was published in 1968, only those within the genre took notice of its qualities. As poignant literature that transcends genre, it too comments with profound relevance on the human condition.

The book’s title is based on the idea that 7 billion people would require an area of land the size of Zanzibar to stand shoulder to shoulder, front to back. The image that arises is a stifling clot of humanity, and Brunner’s goal in the novel is to outlay the social, economic, and psychological pressures that result from extreme population growth and densely packed lives, particularly in cities and urban areas. Though we have 7 billion people in the world today and do not (yet) deal with many of the problems Brunner describes, the overwhelming majority of the book will leave the reader stunned for its reflective and prescient view of 2010.

Far ahead of its time, Stand on Zanzibar is read today in amazement; the list of societal situations Brunner envisions far outnumber those which still seem long in the future or impossible. He may yet be wrong about eugenics, AI, military draft, shiggies (read to find out), legalization of certain narcotics, and the quantity of lives needed to produce the desired “Zanzibar” effect (100 billion people would have been better), but Brunner is nevertheless dead-on regarding the following topics: multi-national corporations wielding more influence than government, random violence in public, the pervasiveness of inner city poverty and crime, widespread drug use (designer to basement brew), the collapse of communism but continued existence of totalitarianism, the politically correct, airbrushed nature of media and advertisements — and this is only the half of it. There’s a short chapter detailing a music video that could have come straight from a rave today. Such cultural insight is beyond reproach and is one of the fundamental reasons to read the book.

Another is the story. Stand on Zanzibar tells of Norman House and Donald Hogan. House, a vice-president of GT, one of the world’s largest corporations, faces new challenges at the outset of the novel; his company expects him to be the lead negotiator in a deal that would bring the undeveloped African nation of Benina into the American fold of business and investment. Predicting the current state of political and military affairs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries today, the moral choices House faces are anything but easy, and knowing who to trust, never certain. Hogan, on the other hand, is an unemployed geneticist working secretly for the government. Though at first involved with House, his career takes him to parts of the world he never dreamed as he investigates a radical gene program being put in place by an overpopulated and authoritarian government. His mission there tests everything he’s been trained for.

What elevates Stand on Zanzibar from genre to literary status (beyond its human conscience, that is) is the success with which Brunner experiments with form, style, and content. Undoubtedly taking years to write, the book is infused with a wide variety of styles and perspectives, and a wealth of information and commentary on a large number of subjects — all “imagined.” Foremost, the novel is broken into four parts that alternate randomly. The first is “Continuity” which describes the plights of House and Hogan. “Tracking with Closeups” details tributaries of story; the lives of side characters quickly but effectively drawn to connect the main characters to the world at large. “Context” is the overt vehicle through which Brunner develops his thematic objectives, sociology, philosophy, psychology among them (the main character’s story being the subtle vehicle). And lastly, “The Happening World” is a short section that repeatedly appears quoting from the everyday life of Brunner’s Earth of 2010. From magazines to advertisements, party conversation to technical manuals, humor — dark and light — as well as realistic windows into society, all abound. That every piece of writing is “fictional” — not a quote from a real textbook to be found —  may perhaps be the most amazing aspect of the novel and is a huge part of the reward of reading it.

In the end, Stand on Zanzibar is literary science fiction worthy of mention in the same breath as Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-four and is one of the top 5 sci-fi books ever written. Brazenly “social science fiction,” the number of issues it discusses is impressive not only for scope but for prescience, particular the manner in which they have become increasingly pertinent to today’s world. Social, economic, and psychological concerns, as well as neo-colonialism, commercialism, birth control, and government power all play huge parts in the novel’s exposition. Brunner’s style and choices regarding content are likewise astonishing; the book successfully weaves four layers of text and its neologisms likewise show incredible insight into the evolution of language. If they have not already read the book, fans of Ursula K. LeGuin, William Gibson, Ian McDonald, Kim Stanley Robinson, and other writers of social science fiction will certainly want to have a read. The Joe Haldeman quote on the SF masterworks cover reads: “It’s time for a new generation to read it.” but, in fact, it’s time for everybody to read it.


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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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2 comments

  1. M. Robinson /

    Great author. The Sheep Look Up, my first, was mind altering: I (YA) never read a book like that (style-wise) before.

    I picked up a copy of Zanzibar for under a dollar and lost it before I read it (high school).

    The Shockwave Rider is also very good, but I would read Futureshock (Toffler) first; another mind alterer, style-wise.

  2. I was lucky enough to find a copy of this in my high school library, and reading it was a transformative experience. I’m sure its influence on the authors you mention above is substantial. I understand this book was partly inspired by the fragmentary literary style of Jon Dos Passos’ USA trilogy (which I haven’t read), transposed into future realism and social speculation.

    There is an audiobook version, and it was interesting to see many reviewers complaining about “The Happening World” segments interrupting the flow of the story, rather than enhancing the verisimilitude.

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