Stand on Zanzibar is the Hugo award-winning novel of global politics in 2010. One of many late-60s and early-70s novels to present a decidedly pessimistic view of the United States in the 21st century, Stand on Zanzibar is possibly the most disturbingly prescient.
Brief plot description
Stand on Zanzibar follows two roommates, Donald Hogan and Norman Niblock House. The world is overcrowded and is increasingly under the control of supercomputers that may or may not be self-aware. House is the vice president of a company that seeks to help modernize the quasi-fictional African nation of Beninia (The country now known as Benin was called Dahomey at the time the novel was written). Hogan is an undercover intelligence analyst who fears being forced into active duty. A scientific breakthrough in a fictional southeast Asian nation becomes cause for concern for the United States, and our heroes become more involved than they would perhaps like to be.
So how is it?
This is the most terrifying book I have ever read. It’s prescient, touching, and deals with a wide variety of social issues with a pinpoint accuracy that is perhaps unprecedented.
It’s very difficult to talk about Stand on Zanzibar without discussing how eerily accurate its depiction of 2010 society is, so I’ll get that out of the way before I discuss anything else. It’s true that the world featured in this novel is much, much closer to the “real” 2010 than any other book I have ever read, even books written in the 80s and 90s. Brunner accurately predicts the world population, a fashion through the decades themed party features on-the-nose depictions of 70s, 80s, and 90s fashion trends, etc. etc. I’ll be coming back to examining science fiction for its predictive power in my next post.
Those are superficial details, but there are other accurate “predictions” that bear mentioning. Spree killings are on the rise and have become a notable problem. While society is largely integrated, racism is far from “over”. House is forced to “play white” to succeed at his career, and frequently ends up becoming the friend in the classic “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” defense. While sexuality is significantly more open than in the 20th century, there is still a large double standard when it comes to how men and women are judged.
To only examine Stand on Zanzibar from a predictive perspective does the book a disservice. Nobody judges 1984 on how accurate it portrays the 1980s, and the fact that Stand on Zanzibar features more similarities than the vast majority of science fiction tends to obscure the work’s other merits. Like Orwell, Brunner devotes large sections of his work to excerpts from in-world documents, and like Orwell’s masterpiece, Brunner’s novel is an effective work of socio-cultural criticism. Brunner’s observations remain relevent today. The novel’s exploration of the “why” behind mass killings parallels modern media examinations of the same topic. House’s internalized racism and struggle with his own identity is a central theme in the novel. The presentation of mass media and pop culture in the book is heavily informed by McLuhanism, especially his perspective on TV (on p. 8-9 of Understanding media, quoting Shakespeare) “It speaks, and yet says nothing”.
The structure of the novel is highly disjointed, with narrative portions interspersed with headlines and news stories and extended, “overheard on the street” style mélanges of dialogue. This provides a very rich portrayal of Brunner’s society, but at the expense of the reader’s immersion into the story. Still, later events in the novel are so intense that the degree of distance provided by the structure is probably welcome. The edition I read provided two tables of contents, somewhat along the lines of the more recent Self-reference engine. One table of contents is the traditional chapters in chronological order format, while the second presents the chapters organized by topic – all of the narrative chapters listed together, the documentary chapters listed together, etc. I’ve only read it once, but it would definitely be worth checking this out a second time, reading the chapters in order the first time and then reading each type of chapter all together the second time.
As is standard for 1960s sf, even that set in the near-future, there is a great variety of invented language. Much of this is probably to enable characters to use profanity and discuss more “controversial” topics without alienating readers (bisexuality, increasingly accepted by society, is referred to as “bivving”). From a 2014 perspective, the invented language ends up coming across as corny instead of futuristic.
Paints a disturbingly accurate picture of society in 2010
Trenchant social criticism that retains its impact almost 50 years later
Presents a gripping plot of global politics and societal unrest
Disjointed structure can be confusing
Long sociopolitical discussions prevent the plot from being fast-moving
Occasionally stumbles when it comes to dealing with issues of gender and sexuality
It’s definitely not a “happy” book
Stand on Zanzibar is good for fans of classic Science fiction but also for fans of “literary” fiction that features strong undercurrents of sociocultural criticism. It’s as good as 1984 or Brave new world in its presentation of a troubled future society.
My brother-in-law and I kind of recommended this book to each other, both of us hesitant to start it for some unknown reason. Both of us enjoyed it greatly.
I’ve recommended this book to a number of English-professor types who were looking for something they had previously overlooked. It’s gone over fairly well there.
My recommendations are fairly similar to those of The space merchants, and for that I apologize. I’m told Dos Passos is a good read for fans of Stand on Zanzibar, but I haven’t read him and I will only recommend books that I have personally read here.
Brave new world / Aldous Huxley
The lathe of heaven / Ursula K. Le Guin (unless you need scientific rigor in your futuristic dystopias, in which case you will probably just be annoyed by this one)