Mining the Genre Asteroid: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

20 Feb

Donald Hogan is a spy.

Meanwhile, his roommate, Norman House, suspects nothing of this. To him, Donald is a self employed dilettante. Bookish, maybe, but not a bad guy. Norman has other things to occupy him, like his rising star at General Technics. General Technics is a corporation vast enough and powerful enough to contemplate a political and economic takeover of an small, refugee-laden African nation which by all rights should be absorbed, conquered, or writhing in civil war and discontent like much of the continent. And yet it is not. Why?

General Technics is also powerful and potent enough to be the leader in the development of artificial intelligence. I tell you three times that Shalmaneser is the most powerful AI developed on the planet, and when Shalamenser is bent to the problem of Beninia, one learns what happens when a superintelligent AI meets a paradox.

And in the meantime, Donald Hogan’s mission will take him to a Southeast Asian nation which may have discovered a major breakthrough in genetic engineering, one that could change this eugenics-dominated planet. For, you see, all eight billion people in the world, if they were gathered together, would be able to just about fit, as they Stand on Zanzibar.

StandOnZanzibar(1stEd)

I mentioned Stand on Zanzibar in my previous column on Rite of Passage as being the book that beat it out for a Hugo in 1968.  I thought, spurred on by that mention, that it would suit further analysis in its own right.  Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner is a hallmark of the New Wave movement in Science Fiction and, in some ways, is one of its real high watermarks. The book was a winner of the Hugo Award in 1969 and the BSFA in that same year.

It’s a mosaic novel, written in the style of John Dos Passos. In addition to the fragmented storylines and narratives of Donald, Norman, and the other characters in the novel, the novel is full of non-fictional matter. Advertisements for products. encyclopedia-like entries, snatches of news reports and much more fall in between sections of narrative. The quotations from books come from the works of the in-universe, especially from the multiple works of a character called Chad Mulligan. Chad is an extremely popular and influential pop-culture sociologist who reminds me, after the fact, of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. His bon mots are sharp-witted, intelligent and insightful. All of this non fictional matter reflects on the action, and provides a wonderful matrix to immerse oneself in Brunner’s world.

Stand on Zanzibars worldbuilding and sharp moments, scenes, and fragments make the novel a delight to read and re-read. Chad Mulligan himself makes an appearance as a character, in a memorable scene where he meets Shalameser. Donald Hogan’s misadventures in Southeast Asia provide a sense of levity to the novel. Genevieve Steel, whose real name is Dwiggins, has a penchant for nasty and cruel jests at her famous parties. And poor Norman, even with his brilliance and talent, is left to try and figure out the impossible secret of Beninia. And there are loads of other minor characters whose stories entwine Donald and Norman’s throughout the book. As this is a dark future…not all of them end well.

That dark future world of Stand on Zanzibar is strikingly and shockingly similar to our own. Science Fiction may not be a predicative medium, by intention or design, but the novel, set in 2010, gets a lot of our present right. Muckers, who commit acts of senseless, sharp violence in the novel, aside from mainly using weapons other than firearms, are startlingly similar to the gun tragedies plaguing America today. Gay, Bi and Transgender people of all stripes all have places and roles in Brunner’s 21st century. African Americans and other minorities have made great advances in America (Norman House is African American) but there are still racial tensions.

In Stand on Zanzibar, too, Marriages are decreasing in number, but hookups are extremely common among the young.  Detroit is a ghost town, hollowed out, broken, abandoned.  Europe is in a political and economic union that is in rivalry with the United States, but its the rising power of China that worries the world. Cars run on electric fuel cells. TV News has a global reach, and people have the capability to “time-shift” their watching of their favorite programs in a TiVO-like manner. And of course, there’s the prevalence of powerful, global corporations like General Technics. I’ve often joked that we’ve wound up in a future that is much more Brunner and Philip K Dick than the chrome, shiny rockets of Asimov and Clarke. Stand on Zanzibar is the proof of that.

And yet, even for all that the novel gets right about our future, it remains unique and fresh all the same, with things far different than ours. Puerto Rico is the 51st State, and the 52nd is a piece of the Philippines (which is where American military is based, rather than in the Middle East). Hallucinogenic drugs are advertised in media. There is a dome over much of Manhattan. Eugenic legislation has been passed in 48 states.

To misquote a line from the novel: “Christ, what an imagination Brunner’s got.”

Stand on Zanzibar is a novel whose style, layout and ideas has been rarely copied or carried forward (Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 is a notable exception), but the power of the novel, in its fractal, fractured, frozen look at an alternate 2010,remains unmistakable and undeniable. And it remains as a wonderful gateway to an author whose entire oeuvre (especially after this novel) is worth reading.

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5 Responses to “Mining the Genre Asteroid: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner”

  1. andreaspeed February 20, 2014 at 9:08 pm #

    This book, along with The Sheep Look Up, were amazingly prescient, and more people should be reading them. Brunner is criminally overlooked, I think.

    • shaunduke February 21, 2014 at 6:46 pm #

      I’m actually surprised at how little his name is discussed. He’s perhaps not on the level of an Asimov or Heinlein or Le Guin, but I do think his work deserves more attention, too.

      • andreaspeed February 22, 2014 at 6:54 am #

        It is strange sometimes which authors get boosted over others. I’ll admit Brunner wasn’t a great stylist, but I still remember his work long after reading it. Powerful stuff. He had something to say and he said it very well. Maybe the fact that it was so depressing worked against him. (It didn’t hurt Lovecraft, but that’s another genre entirely.)

      • shaunduke February 22, 2014 at 8:54 am #

        I was just talking to Fred Kiesche and Paul Weimer about this very point — the authors who get forgotten. It came after I wondered what had happened to Crawford Kilian, who is one of my favorite authors (read several of his novels while I was in the hospitable about ten years ago). I think it would be interesting if someone took up a project in which they looked at all those midlist and forgotten authors who published a bunch of books…what were they writing about? Were they good? Were they doing innovative things?

        I just don’t have any more time 😦 😛

      • andreaspeed February 25, 2014 at 7:33 am #

        Yeah, that would be interesting, but I totally understand the time thing. Still, thanks for talking Brunner with me. It’s one of those things I didn’t realize I was dying to talk about until you brought it up.

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