Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Published : Doubleday, 1968
Awards Won : British Science Fiction Association and Hugo Awards
Award Nominated : Nebula Award

The Book :

Norman Niblock House is a rising executive at General Technics, one of a few all-powerful corporations. His work is leading General Technics to the forefront of global domination, both in the marketplace and politically—-it's about to take over a country in Africa.  Donald Hogan is his roommate, a seemingly sheepish bookworm. But Hogan is a spy, and he's about to discover a breakthrough in genetic engineering that will change the world...and kill him.  

Stand on Zanzibar is a cross-section of a world overpopulated by the billions.  Where society is squeezed into hive-living madness by god-like mega computers, mass-marketed psychedelic drugs, and mundane uses of genetic engineering.” ~BarnesandNoble.com

This is the first novel I’ve ever read by John Brunner, and I hear some people consider it his masterpiece.  Sounds like a good place to start, right?   I actually bought this one on a whim, because it was the only English-language ‘SF Masterworks’ novel stocked at my local bookstore that I hadn’t read.  While it was difficult to get into at first, I ended up happy that I’d grabbed this one, even at Swiss prices!

My Thoughts :

At the end of Stand on Zanzibar, Brunner describes it as a ‘non –novel’, and I can definitely see why.  The story is broken up into four different kinds of chapters.  ‘Continuity’ chapters contained what I eventually recognized as the main plotlines of the novel, featuring Donald and Norman.  ‘Tracking Through Close-Ups’ were typically short accounts of events in different people’s lives, told with an eye towards showing some element of Brunner’s future society.  ‘Context’ chapters usually featured some kind of fictional media, such as an essay by the sociologist Chad Mulligan.  ‘The Happening World’ was usually random snippets of information or news about the lives or societies of people that were mentioned at one time or another.  These chapters often reminded me of a Twitter or Facebook newsfeed.  I think this worked well to eventually give a feeling of immersion in Brunner’s imagined future world, but it made it difficult to initially get into the novel. It took me a while to really get a sense of what the main plots of this non-novel were going to be about.

In addition to the format, Brunner’s world also featured a large amount of future slang whose meanings were sometimes, but not always, obvious.  For instance, it took me a while to realize that poppa-momma and anti-matter were slang for p.m. and a.m.  Others, like “Ellay” for L.A.,  ‘prodgies’ for children, or ‘codder/shiggy’ for man/woman, were easier to understand for me. It took some time to get used to how Brunner's characters spoke, but I liked that he went so far as to create new conversational language and pop culture for his world.   After all, I would have expected the English language to have changed and developed in a story set so far in the author’s future.

Speaking of the future, Stand on Zanzibar takes place in 2010. It’s not exactly the future anymore, is it? I think that science fiction novels tend to be judged by their degree of accuracy in predicting the future, especially once that future has become the past.  However, Brunner’s world-building was so thorough and interesting that it was easy to appreciate as a fictional society, even if it didn’t get all that much right about today’s world.  That's not to say that he didn’t get some predictions correct.  His SCANALYZER program seemed similar to the news aggregate sites that many people read. Also, some of the overcrowding issues seem fairly relevant to major European cities, like Paris.  Altogether, though, I think Stand on Zanzibar speaks more to what people in the 1960s might have feared the future would be like. 

While the world was really engrossing, the main characters were less so.  I wasn’t really any more interested in the ‘Continuity’ characters (Donald and Norman) than I was to any of the minor ‘Tracking With Closeups’ characters.  Their stories--- a corporate takeover of an African country and a spy infiltration of an Asian country— were fun to read, but seemed relatively standard and straightforward.  I got the feeling that Norman, Donald, and all the others existed to showcase the world that Brunner had imagined, instead of the other way around.  If that was the goal, then I think Stand on Zanzibar was a success!     

My Rating : 4/5

Stand on Zanzibar gives an immersive look into a fictional future (2010) society as imagined by an author in the 1960s.  It’s not terribly accurate, but it’s full of tons of interesting ideas and details.  It took a while for me to really get into the swing of this non-novel, but I think it was worth the effort.  From the neat future slang to the vignettes highlighting various aspects of Brunner’s future society, I was completely hooked.  I didn’t feel like the characters or plot really lived up to the world-building, however, and I found myself caring more about the view into the society that the characters provided than their own success or failure.  I’m glad I read this one before Brunner’s future slid too far into the past!


  1. I'd agree that the world was much more interesting than the characters. In fact I found it actually something of a chore to try to care about them at all. I could have done with more from Chad Mulligan. He felt like the 60's version of Tyler Durden :)

  2. Yeah, I never really cared much for pretty much any of the characters, either. I could see Chad Mulligan as a 60s Durden :). I think he was probably the most memorable character in the book, I would have liked to see more of him and his work, too.

  3. I got totally hooked when reading this. I somehow found the novel's stylistic form incredibly awesome. I thought the experiment of all the information dumps did create a real feel for the dysfunctional, overcrowded, media-saturated world of "Stands." Almost like channel hopping on the television. Information overload in its crudest from. Apart from that, it also raised some serious questions with regards genetic engineering.

    And what a very prescient quote this turns out to be: ""A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding."

  4. I'm glad to hear you liked it, too! I agree that the form of the story really helped create an immersive feel for the world. With all of the questions Brunner raises about the effects of overpopulation, eugenics legislation, genetic engineering, and so forth, there's definitely plenty of food for thought (and discussion) that I didn't have room to go into in the review. :) That quote's continuing relevance is a little depressing, but I think that will always be the case in any human society.