Stand on Zanzibar

My older son has been voraciously reading science fiction novels from the golden age of SF, namely the 1960s and 1970s. I say the golden age, because I was his age in the 1960s and at university in the 1970s, and read all the same novels.  I have more than once told him that I read almost all of the “good” or “important” SF and authors of that period.  My interests veered into fantasy of the Tolkien type, but at the same time the immense proliferation of second rate Tolkien copiers in the 1970s (think Terry Brooks: Shannara etc) led to me ceasing to try to read all the important authors as they were published.

I also got rid of much of my extensive SF library with time, keeping only a few authors that I particularly enjoyed (think Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Roger Zelazny….) and now I am buying my son SF novels from Amazon that I once used to own.

My son recently read “Stand on Zanzibar” by John Brunner and raved about it, said I had to read it. It has a huge reputation, made a big impact, and won the Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention in 1969, as well as the 1969 BSFA Award and the 1973 Prix Tour-Apollo Award. Fifty years after its first publication in 1968, it is considered one of the greatest SF novels of the period, and is still regularly reviewed and discussed.  I was embarrassed to admit that I had never read it, and set out to do so. I had read at least a couple of other John Brunner novels at the time he was publishing them, and don’t recall being particularly taken with them. Looking now at various readers comments to a recent Guardian article, it seems a lot of people were put off by the unusual writing style and the slowness of the main plotlines to take off and stopped reading it before they were far into the 550 page novel.

The novel was published in 1968 and describes the world of 2010 using a narrative style which mixes two main storylines with chapters about many minor characters or quotations from the sociological works of the hipster guru sociologist Chad Mulligan, together with chapters consisting of fragments of conversations, advertising slogans, news bulletins, short paragraphs extracted from conversations and books, lists of things.

While I was fascinated by this complex and multifaceted bombardment from all directions that builds a sense of the future world of 2010, I did find that I needed to read it in short bursts of several chapters, and then put it down.  This went on for a week or two, and then the novel got me in and I started to read it more intensively until I couldn’t put it down as the main narrative lines and characters came together in a very satisfying if disturbing conclusion.

I won’t do a conventional review. You can find many of these easily through Google, or read a summary of the plot and major themes on Wikipedia. The Foreword to the edition I read, A Happening World by Bruce Stirling, gives an excellent review ad overview of the novel. A major theme of the book is overpopulation, and the developed countries all have very strict eugenics laws and restrictions on reproduction. While the world has not exactly gone in this direction, he was writing 10 years before China introduced its one child policy and for many decades, around 20% of the global population did indeed experience a regime similar to what he describes. Additionally, he foresaw much of the potential development and issues of genetic engineering, embryo selection and genetic modifications.  I will return to the issue of his forecasting of the future below. One of the main plotlines concerns a U.S. megacorporation that tries to broker an offshore mining deal with a small impoverished African nation, but ends up struggling to crack the big world-changing secret of how the people of this backwater can be so goddamn reasonable and cheerful all the time. The other major plotline concerns a Vietnam-style war in the Pacific, and the efforts of the USA, with its conscript soldiers to overthrow a Chinese style socialist dictatorship in the Indonesian region.

My initial reaction to the focus on overpopulation was to think that he had indeed focused on a real and serious issue, even now when the global population is projected to stabilize around 11 billion rather than continue to exponentially increase, but that he had missed global warming as a major issue. The two will interact to cause ecological and human catastrophe in Africa and other tropical regions, with spillover effects through increasing refugee issues for Europe in particular. But I was a little hasty with this criticism.

John Brunner (1934-1995)

Looking at some of the reviews online, I discovered that he had written four loosely related novels of the dystopian future which included Stand on Zanzibar with its focus on overpopulation. Though as one commentator pointed out, its less about overpopulation than a warning about the world and its demands crowding inwards, with dysfunctional populations with random violence, sabotage, and resort to many types of drugs, though tobacco is no longer socially acceptable.

So apparently Stand On Zanzibar is one of four novels essentially giving Brunner’s angry visions of dystopian human futures. The Sheep Look Up is set in a  polluted world, The Jagged Orbit in a violent world, and the The Shockwave Rider in an information world of computers, hackers and viruses.  Written before personal computers even existed, The Shockwave Rider foresaw hackers and computer viruses, referring to the latter as “worms”. I think I read at least one of these other novels back in my SF days, but don’t really recall it.

Back to Stand On Zanzibar. Many commentators have focussed on the predictions of the novel, particularly in the last decade now that we are at 2010 and beyond. Prediction is not the main point, or even a particularly important point, of this type of SF novel, rather they are about warnings. Warnings about current trends and directions of humanity.  But what stuns about this novel is just how much Brunner got right, and in some cases, eerily right. Writing in 1968, how could he have named one of the important world leaders in 2010 as President Obomi?  He also used a population of 7 billion in 2010, and the UN best estimate of 2010 population is 6.96 billion!

Ted Gioia compiled a long list of these predictions. Here are some of the major ones:

  • the Soviet Union has lost power, and China stands as the most important US rival. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.
  • Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives
  • random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar.
  • the other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States. But the government paints the terrorists as a bigger menace than they really are, to cover up the fact that random angry individuals are committing acts of sabotage as well.
  • prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. This was close to the actual increase in U.S. prices during that period which was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)
  • Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.
  • America has largely left Jim Crow behind, but institutional racism persists and “brown-noses” employed by major companies worry about whether they are the token blacks. And, most bizarrely, there’s a major world leader named President Obomi.
  • a key character in the novel is Shalmaneser, a supercomputer cooled by liquid helium, which has massive computing capacity and able to analyses and forecast outcomes of complex situations and output documents are generated with laser printers
  • wearable technology and smart phones connected to a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia
  • the story imagines a world with a vast social network that media organizations use to put out news in short bursts, and receive real-time feedback from their fans
  • although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.
  • gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, with same-sex marriage, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).
  • motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells
  • Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — very similar to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city
  • TV news channels have now gone global via satellite and smart TVs allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule.
  • inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat.
  • tobacco use has become quite socially unacceptable but marijuana has been decriminalized
  • people casually pop tranquiliser drugs, and harder drugs are readily available, and pharma companies are funding programs to address addiction

Some things Brunner did get wrong. For example, he assumed that the US would have figured out how to provide affordable medical care to everyone and that there is an inhabited moon base. But overall, the future society he imagines is fairly familiar and the differences are enough to jolt us into seeing the similarities.

Brunner published Stand on Zanzibar as the New Wave SF movement was in full swing in Britain, and the novel can easily be mistaken for part of that wave. But much of the New Wave has not stood the test of time, as Zanzibar has done, and Brunner targeted major issues in a way that the New Wave largely did not. Definitely well worth reading, and definitely persevere past the initial chapters which set you in a world of bombardment of the senses and overload of largely meaningless information and adverts (hey, just like the world we live in). Thought provoking, disturbing and not a book you will forget in a hurry.