Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Twenty years and more after reading Stand on Zanzibar for the first time, I was surprised at how vividly its opening had stayed with me. First up the extended epigraph, a quotation from McLuhan, a warning to the unwary about what Brunner is about to spring on his readers, unsuspecting as they may have been in 1968, perhaps less so now. “Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of the urgent need for insight. A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding. … Innis makes no effort to ‘spell out’ the interrelations between the components of his galaxy. He offers no consumer packages in his later work, but only do-it-yourself kits.” (Brunner brackets this bit of the real world at the beginning of his book with a “message from our sponsors” at the very end, “This non-novel was brought to you by John Brunner using Spicers Plus Fabric Bond and Commercial Bank papers interleaved with Serillo carbons…” His note from the present has become an item in a time capsule.)

Then two sections of rapid-fire sensory input, moderately mediated through prose. The first resembles the script for a news show, mashing together visuals, sound effects, neologisms and background information for the world that Brunner is not so much introducing to his readers so much as throwing them head first into the deep end. The second is titled, “Read the Directions,” and it has bits of narrative that introduce characters who will appear later, but starts off announcing the setting, “For toDAY third of MAY twenty-TEN ManhatTEN reports mild spring-type weather under the Fuller Dome. Ditto on the General Technics Plaza.” In the next six pages, no fewer than two dozen characters make a brief appearance (“Guinivere Steel’s real name is Dwiggins, but do you blame her?”), interspersed with bits of advertising, overheard dialog, and excerpts from The Hipcrime Vocab (HIPCRIME: You committed one when you opened this book. Keep it up. It’s our only hope.), a Devil’s Dictionary of Brunner’s invented 21st century written by Chad C. Mulligan (“a sociologist. He gave it up.”) who returns as an important character and a bit of an authorial stand-in.

“And to close on, the Dept of Small Consolations. Some troubledome just figured out that if you allow for every codder and shiggy and appleofmyeye a space one foot by two you could stand us all on the six hundred forty square mile surface of the island of Zanzibar. ToDAY third MAY twenty-TEN come aGAIN!”

After that initial blast, the book slows down for a few pages and offers continuous exposition about one character. Not one of the main ones, of course, Brunner’s not ready to let his readers settle down much yet, but an important one, and the first of the sections the book calls “tracking with closeups.” Each of the 32 closeups in the book follows one character (who may or may not otherwise intersect with the main narrative) during a crucial or illustrative turn of events. The closeups are one of four types of chapters that Brunner interleaves throughout the book; the others are “context,” like the news show that started everything, “the happening world,” like the second burst of input, and “continuity,” the notionally main story. Pair of stories.

As Bruce Sterling notes in his foreword,

Stand on Zanzibar is often compared to the work of John Dos Passos, due to its variant narrative modes, its multiple point-of-view characters, and its collages of newspaper clippings. But Dos Passos was writing a pragmatic and naturalistic book. Brunner … is antinaturalistic—he’s aiming for future-shock, for a moral freak-out, for the hallucinatory.

(Brunner’s book also predates Future Schock by two years.)

Sterling again,

It’s a book that should have been exceedingly modish. It missed that target, and it shot a hole in the clock. It became a timeless classic of temporal disorientation.

For all that the world has passed Zanzibar‘s setting by five years now, and that Brunner was writing nearly fifty years ago, plenty of this future feels familiar, more than I think it would have around the year 2000. To take one example, Brunner’s United States is involved in a seemingly endless was in the Pacific; he was clearly drawing on Vietnam at the time, but direct American involvement in Afghanistan is headed towards its 15th year, much longer if far less deadly than Vietnam. Among the ads in “Read the Directions” is a pitch for marijuana, and what we would call Big Pot is clearly a part of the world. Brunner’s media landscape also features Mr and Mrs Everywhere, literal stand-ins for television viewers, whose sets are programmed to make it appear as if the owners are visiting the places that the Everywheres go. (Reality television?) One of the quote announcers jokes about “Mr and Mrs Everywhere, or Mr and Mr, or Mrs and Mrs” but in that regard, too, 2000 seems closer to 1968 than it does to either Brunner’s imagined 2010 or the real 2015.

Not that prediction is the point of the book. As he said at the very outset, Brunner is aiming for insight and understanding. The big problems that he wrestles with are overpopulation and violence. He fires off all kinds of secondary predictions as a consequence of building this particular future, but what he spends his time illustrating and dramatizing are the density and terror of a world of seven billion people. Those are very 1960s kinds of concerns, and in some ways it’s also a very 1960s kind of future that Brunner imagines: computers are still centralized and run on a time-sharing basis even though one may be a true AI, the world’s most powerful companies are conglomerates, gender roles in general have not changed much, intercontinental calls are still cumbersome, and so forth.

One of Zanzibar‘s theses is that increased density of population inevitably leads to increased violence among people. Brunner took the increase in crime of the 1960s to be a demonstration of this theses, and extended the trend forward for fifty years. It was a plausible explanation, even though in recent years a more plausible case has been built for the presence of lead in people’s environments as the reason for the increase and its decline (in the US) from the early 1990s onward. But the imagery of people packed into the book’s environments — New York, later the islands of Yatakang (a sort of not-Indonesia) — gives Zanzibar some of its dense power. The final mystery of the book is why Beninia (a not-Biafra, and also not-Benin, whose name echoes both the Bight of Benin that it borders and “Benign-ia.”) seems, uniquely, immune to the problems of violence and density.

Despite the bleakness, the violence, the truly chilling sketch at the end of a traumatized fighter, the necessary indifference of a world of seven billion, as Sterling says, “the darkest truth of all is that John Brunner, the wild inventor of this dystopia, is a kind-hearted man. He’s a sentimental idealist who loves humanity and wants everybody to thrive. He has to choke that admission out of himself, but he truly loves all of them, with a big, rambling, Dickensian kind of humane pity and affection.” And so, leavened with black humor and vast and cool detachment, there is more than a bit of hope at the end of the book.

This stylistically avant-garde book full of messages, many of them contradictory, won the Hugo award for best novel in 1969.

Permanent link to this article:

1 pings

  1. […] just look at that run of Hugo winners: 1967 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; 1968 Lord of Light; 1969 Stand on Zanzibar; 1970 The Left Hand of Darkness. From falling rocks and computing trajectories with the Heinlein […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.