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Stand on Zanzibar

by John Brunner

Introduction

This was the 16th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1969 at the 27th Worldcon, St. Louiscon, in St. Louis, MO.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in April 2020.

Cover

Review

Reading even just the winners of the Hugo for Best Novel, it's become clear to me that the sixties were an ambitious time for science fiction, in which many authors attempting to do things that hadn't been done before and, in so doing, stretch the boundaries of the genre. Books were bigger, often because they were published as books rather than serialised novels in magazines, and they got progressively more experimental. None of that is a big shock but I suddenly don't see the arrival of the New Wave as particularly surprising.

Stand on Zanzibar is New Wave and the first novel to win the Hugo that was not written by an American. James Blish may have lived in England for years, but John Brunner was actually English, even though his key gimmick here, the odd structure of the book, was borrowed from American author John Dos Passos and his U.S.A. trilogy, published in the thirties, and even though his lead characters, if they can be called that, are American.

This structure is obvious from moment one, when we're thrown into it with no real explanation to guide us. Rather than just settle down to tell a story, the novel is split into four different types of chapters, only one of which tells that story. Those are the Continuity chapters. Tracking with Closeups are prose chapters about characters we don't know and have no idea how they fit into the bigger picture, or even if they will. The Happening World is a blitz of information in collage form, almost like a Twitter feed nowadays. Context is what it suggests, often taken from the imaginary books of Chad C. Mulligan, a sociologist who we might call an influencer today, who shows up halfway through the book as a character.

This approach is initially challenging. We don't get any prose until page 23 and we're a hundred pages in before we start to grasp who the key characters might be. Add to that a lot of linguistic play, including puns, often in the chapter titles, and a whole slew of futuristic slang, and the effect is not unlike being dumped into the future without any preparation, trying to fend for ourselves in a culture we don't know, with information thrown at us from all sides until we're lost as to what's important and what isn't.

Eventually, we get used to the approach and settle down to follow the story at the heart of the novel, which, just to confuse even more, diverges into a pair of stories which eventually kind of rejoin. Ironically, after we work through details we don't understand for hundreds of pages, Brunner suddenly decides to explain them. For instance, it's clear from very early on that a computer called Shalmaneser is a) important and b) special, but we're given little detail about it until three hundred pages into the novel.

Looking back, once read, the point of the book really doesn't seem to be to tell a story at all. It's telling that the Wikipedia page includes a section to explain its title, a second to cover its structure and a third to detail the imaginary books quoted within this one, but the one about plot skimps a great deal, caring more about Brunner's extrapolation of current trends and his use of slang than Donald Hogan and Norman House. Each is a major player in his own way in this future world, but they feel less important than the gimmickry. I can understand why James Blish felt that Brunner was writing to win an award.

For the sake of completeness, Hogan and House start out the book sharing an apartment in New York. Hogan is a synthesist, which means that he spends his time absorbing information and looking for patterns, though it doesn't seem like he's doing anything at all until he's activated by the US government as a spy. House is a businessman at General Technics, a megacorporation, and he is given, as the only Afram, or African American, member of the board, a key job, to effectively buy an African nation.

One half of the story follows House as he struggles to understand the nation of Beninia, an impoverished third world nation but a bizarrely content one, whose people seem to be immune to invasion. The other follows Hogan as he's transformed into a killer and sent to Yatakang, an East Asian island nation, which has apparently made a breakthrough in genetic engineering and will be optimising their population genetically.

While both those subplots are engaging, neither seems to be going anywhere, as the substantial page count rapidly decreases. It could be said that both reach a conclusion but neither reaches the sort of conclusion that we might reasonably expect. Instead, how they develop and conclude gradually seems a lot less like story and more like yet another detail in the background of a thoroughly detailed future dystopia.

And, really, that's what matters here. What Brunner was doing was looking at the world of 1968 and extrapolating everything he could into a future world of half a century hence. Yes, that means it's set in 2010, a decade ago as I read. That also means that most readers are going to judge it on how well he figured out our world, which is fair enough, I guess, albeit unfortunate for a novel that does so much more than guess.

The starting point is overpopulation, as highlighted in the title. It was a thing, apparently, in the early twentieth century that the entire population of the world could fit onto the Isle of Wight, as long as they all stood up and packed in like sardines. Brunner suggested that the global population in 1968 would have to find a bigger island, the Isle of Man, while the increase by 2010 would mean that something like Zanzibar would be needed. He's rather close, but most people outside the UK would grasp that growth, the Isles of Wight and Man being British islands and Zanzibar being where Freddie Mercury was born.

He got some things pretty damn close. Tobacco is banned, for instance, once it became clear how deadly it was, but marijuana is legal and commonplace. I think that's a pretty astute forecast that was merely a little ambitious. His concept of muckers, a word derived from "amok", feels eerily similar to the mass shooters prevalent in the US, though he applies it globally and in a very different way, even though he does highlight extremism, racism and a growing social divide.

Some things are still worth debate. For instance, in one of his books, Chad C. Mulligan suggests that neither Christianity and Islam will outlive the 21st century. That might seem ridiculous in our current fundamentalist times but the majority of the developed world planet is demonstrably getting more secular. Brunner's idea of Mr. & Mrs. Everywhere, an omnipresent couple of artificial characters who allow viewers to interact with television, seems antiquated in style but not in technology, given that they're really avatars used to increase customer comfort.

Others are wildly wrong. For a start, Brunner expected the automobile to be a thing of the past in 2010, replaced by acceleratubes. Yeah, right. And he not only suggests that Puerto Rico will have become a state, but also Isola, which is what he calls the Sulu Archipelago that we know as the tail end of the Philippines reaching down towards eastern Malaysia and Indonesia.

The most important conceit that he got wrong, though, is how the human race would react to the idea of sharing a single planet with seven billion other people. His legal restriction on allowed child count fairly echoes China's One-Child Policy, but that failed in fascinating ways and nobody else had an incentive to follow suit. Also, Brunner has nations across the globe enact a set of eugenics laws to control who can have children, especially by barring anyone with hereditary conditions. That's certainly not where we ended up.

Nobody's going to guess correctly at slang terms from half a century out, of course. It's hard enough to do that a year out. However, some of what he has here seems so oddly sixties that it's hard to give it credence. For example, nobody uses am or pm in this 2010. Everyone says anti-matter or poppa-momma, which feels like something hippies might say when they're insanely high but nobody else, ever. Slang tends to contract rather than expand, making ideas like Afram for African American entirely believable, even if nobody actually went there.

And I'm going to shut up now, because there's so much in this book worthy of discussion that I could carry on for thousands more words and that wouldn't help anyone. I'll end by comparing it to Lord of Light, its predecessor as Hugo Award-winner for Best Novel. Both books are experimental in structure, broad in outlook and fascinating to talk about. They both feel like they're important books, but more so after we've finished reading them than during. When people talk about their very favourite science fiction novel, both show up often. And I had a whole bunch of problems with them both. I have to say that I prefer Stand on Zanzibar to Lord of Light, though, for the simple reason that I could easily go back to it one day.

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Next up on my Hugo runthrough is a novel that I've never read even though I have wanted to for a long time, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.



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Last update: 15th April, 2020