Stand on Zanzibar

by John Brunner

Cover image

Publisher: Gollancz
Copyright: 1968
Printing: 2003
ISBN: 1-85798-836-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 650

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John Brunner is unfortunately not as well known or as frequently read now as he once was. He was an extremely prolific British science fiction author from the 1950s through the 1980s, ranging from space opera to social satire and complex analysis of social trends. Stand on Zanzibar is one of his best-known novels and a Hugo winner, written in 1968 and attacking questions of governance, overpopulation, mass media, and international politics. With that subject matter, you'd think it would be dated, but this is one of those books that beautifully captures general tendencies in sociology despite often being wrong about the specifics.

The narrative structure of this book is unusual and rather intimidating when you first start. There are four types of (generally very short) chapters in the book: context, which contains snippets or essays that help explain world background; the happening world, which are large sets of very short news blurbs and events; tracking in closeups, which focuses a tight camera on a particular character (sometimes a minor supporting character) for a short time span; and continuity, which tells the heart of the story. You're told at the start of each chapter what type of chapter it is. Since Brunner starts with context and happening world chapters, I was convinced at first that the whole book was going to be an annoying and difficult read. Thankfully, I was wrong; the continuity chapters tell a traditional and quite comprehensible story with two viewpoint characters and the world becomes much less confusing fairly quickly despite a large cast. By the end of the book, with more understanding of what's going on, the context and happening world chapters became my favorites.

I'll mention the other shortcoming up front as well: Brunner makes extensive use of invented slang, and while he mostly has a decent ear for it (far better than Heinlein, for instance), it's still invented slang. Expect to take a while to get used to words like "shiggies" (women with no fixed residence who move from boyfriend to boyfriend and live with them) that are explained only in context. He also has a few hideous clunkers, such as "poppa-mamma" for pm in times. Every time, throughout the book. Thankfully, most of the slang adds flavor or fine shades of meaning and isn't just slang for the sake of slang, like that.

Once you get past that, though, Brunner is simply amazing at constructing a believable future society. I spent much of the book marvelling at how well he anticipated social trends, and then realizing with a jerk of surprise that a listing of the details of the extrapolation would make it sound like he was horribly wrong. We don't have eugenics boards and draconian birth control. The US isn't in an extended, low-intensity conventional war with China. Relaxed morality about sex didn't work out at all the way that Brunner projected, and of course Brunner missed the Internet and many of the uses of computers. But when you're reading Stand on Zanzibar, the politics, mass opinion, and human reactions to the events of the world are so believable and recognizable that the whole world feels credible.

I think Brunner's strongest skill is his elaboration on the basic extrapolation and his analysis of the resulting side effects. If there were popularly supported eugenics boards, there would indeed be intense social pressure against people with inheritable problems. People with defects they considered minor (like colorblindness) would try to dodge the system. A radical Catholic sect fighting against all limits on procreation feels entirely plausible. Similarly, Brunner may have missed the general growth of computing, but his major use of a computer is economic modelling and forecasting for a huge multinational corporation that is answerable more to itself than to governments. We don't seem likely to have technology that projects one's own image and speech patterns into travel programs, but Brunner's presentation of how such a technology becoming hugely popular would affect international politics and skew perception of other countries and cultures is believable.

On top of that, one of the major supporting characters is Chad C. Mulligan, author of the fictitious The Hipcrime Vocab, a Devil's Dictionary for Brunner's world.

IMPOSSIBLE — Means: (1) I wouldn't like it and when it happens I won't approve; (2) I can't be bothered; (3) God can't be bothered. Meaning 3 may perhaps be valid, but the others are 101% whaledreck.

Mulligan shows up during the regular plot and is quite enjoyable there, but the best parts are the excerpts from either Vocab or his various other imagined books, letters, or essays. If you like biting sarcasm, this is awesome stuff.

Rather painfully, we managed to digest Darwinian evolution so far as physical characteristics are concerned within half a century of the initial controversy. (I say "we," but if you're a bible-thumping fundamentalist I expect you at this point to take the book by one corner at arm's length and ceremonially consign it to the place where you put most sensible ideas, along with everything else you decline to acknowledge the existence of, such as mainly shit.)

It's worth reading Stand on Zanzibar solely for Chad Mulligan.

I haven't yet mentioned the plot. Partly that's because the world and the character profiles are the highlight of the book. The plot isn't bad and, after a slow start gathering its momentum, delivers an adequate conclusion. It does, however, promise a payoff that it never really delivers, and many of the extensive supporting cast that are profiled along the way are never involved in it. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it can be surprising. I kept wondering when some of the chapters were going to fit into the main stream of story before realizing that they were never intended to. (Labelling only a fourth of the chapters continuity is an even stronger hint than I'd realized.)

Despite that minor letdown, including some deus ex machina problems with the explanation of half the plot and a cast that's difficult to keep track of (pay attention — one of the early chapters is a quite useful dramatis personae in disguise), this truly does deserve the status of masterpiece. There's more realistic social analysis in this book than in a carful of average science fiction novels, and Brunner is proof that you don't need to get your extrapolations right in order to talk about how people react to their world. Highly recommended; one's knowledge of SF canon is simply not complete without it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-11-22

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21