Tomorrow Through the Past: Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar

by John Brunner

(Arrow, 1971, 576p)

Stand on Zanzibar is probably John Brunner’s most famous single work.  SF often claims to investigate possible futures.  In the late 60s Brunner took it upon himself to undertake something that SF has done surprisingly rarely–explore probable futures, and unflinchingly (or as unflinchingly as Brunner’s innate need for a driving pulp SF plot would allow).  Brunner’s ‘big four’ novels of this period together form one of the most sustained efforts of disciplined imagination the field has seen.  They are Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider.  They all share strengths and flaws.  Here I’m taking a look at Stand on Zanzibar, the first of them and winner of Brunner’s sole ‘Hugo’.

Its title, related to how much space the (human) population of Earth would need if standing shoulder to shoulder, suggests it is an overpopulation story, which to some extent it is; but it conflates that with racial tensions, eugenics, and a dozen other extrapolations, and embeds it in a story of espionage and politics.  The core of the book is the twin narrative of Donald Hogan and Norman House as they become central figures in important events, and this narrative (the sections labelled ‘Continuity’ in the book, as distinct from ‘Tracking with Closeups’, ‘Context’ and ‘The Happening World’) could be extracted and published as a pretty good novel–indeed, when I go back to read the book I think I’ll read these sections only and see how it comes together.  That may well benefit the book, since the other sections occasionally explain overmuch.  The other sections do, though, broaden the view of the early 21C world Brunner imagines, illustrating it through vignettes or adverts or lists or essays (by renegade sociologist Chad C. Mulligan), all of which are carefully linked in some way to the main narrative and serve to flesh it out, view it from a different angle, or establish back-story for a figure who is to appear only briefly in the main story.  Most of the minor characters sketched out in these sections have their own complete arcs, illustrating some aspect of the horribleness of the future.  Most of them end in death or at least misfortune.  The structure is apparently inspired by Dos Passos’s books, particularly the U.S.A. trilogy.

Unusually for a book of this length, it makes a good case for being of this length.  A shorter book would not have let Brunner explore his world in enough detail to give the central narrative its significance-through-context.

Having said all that, I have to mention Brunner’s neologisms.  A couple work pretty well.  Yaginol, one of his recreational drugs of the future, sounds OK (skullbustium, though?  Really?).  Shaggable girls become ‘shiggies’ and guys on the make ‘codders’.  A bit dodgy–maybe these terms sounded more likely in 1968 than they do now.  The standard curse is ‘sheeting hole’ which does not sound quite as bad in context but still sounds unconvincing.  And then there’s satellite broadcaster Engrelay Satelserv.  Brunner simply cannot have ever said that out loud.  Can I make a suggestion to authors coining neologisms?  Read the scene out loud.  Record it.  Play it back.  Listen to it.  Then listen to it again.  Listen to it as many times as the phrase appears in the story.  Then ask yourself if it still sounds cool and futuristic, or if it just sounds naff or clunky.

In summary, the book can trip up your eyeballs while you read, leave you wondering how the author can have thought that that phrase or invention was a good idea, and at times seem gloomy.  On the other hand, the core narrative is a page turner, Brunner has taken real pains to embed it in a plausible future, and he has thought hard about sociology as well as technology, lending the book many strengths that too few SF novels can boast.  Indeed, if you can look past the anachronisms inevitably resulting from incorrect technological predictions, the book has a lot to say to us now.  That says much about the depth and thoroughness  of Brunner’s vision and thinking. This is serious SF, and at the same time it is seriously entertaining.  **Recommended**

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

4 responses to “Tomorrow Through the Past: Stand on Zanzibar

  1. Joachim Boaz says :

    “In the late 60s Brunner took it upon himself to undertake something that SF has done surprisingly rarely–explore probable futures, and unflinchingly (or as unflinchingly as Brunner’s innate need for a driving pulp SF plot would allow)” — Look, this is my favorite SF novel of all time with an incredibly brilliant experimental structure etc. BUT, the premise, i.e. a “probably future” which is overpopulated is not at all original to Brunner.

    So, in short, there are tens and tens and tens of works that explore a similar “probably” future. But, I would hardly call the plot of his work “driving pulp SF” because it’s only a small aspect of the work — there are many non-pulp mini-plots occuring as well. The one pulp-esque plot is so secondary, so tangential…

    Intriguing review. If you are curious about other overpopulation novels before this one please ask — I have a list but hate posting links on people’s walls unless they ask for it 😉 My favorite SF theme for sure.

  2. Darren says :

    Hi Joachim. I’m not saying overpopulation is original to Brunner, or that no-one has tried to take the future seriously. I am trying to say, perhaps badly, that of the vast amount of SF that has been produced, by today or by 1968, relatively little of it tries to take a serious look at the near future, and much more of it is really fantasy with different props and terminology, or set far enough away in time and/or space that the rules get relaxed. Even a lot of ‘hard SF’ is still really military adventure or takes a few technological shortcuts (faster than light, etc) so it can tell its story, or is essentially technological (e.g. Prelude to Space) and does not tackle social change. Perhaps I should say ‘Brunner is disciplined in a way that is rarely the case’. And perhaps my reading habits are skewed. Thanks for taking a look. – Darren

    • Joachim Boaz says :

      See, I disagree with you. A lot of science fiction DOES try to look at the near future — Brunner included. Obviously pulp science fiction (which Brunner also wrote) and space opera (which Brunner also wrote) does not — but it never has… But yes, there are crutches that authors resort to but there are thousands of near future novels placed on Earth which don’t resort to such things.

      I recommend Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up — one of the better ecological disaster novels.

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