Review of Stand on Zanzibar (1968)


John Brunner (writer).

Read in 2019.

Read in the SF Masterworks edition. Page numbers refer to a 2003 printing thereof.

2010 CE: A time when the number of people on Earth is so large—seven billion—that they would fill the island of Zanzibar standing shoulder to shoulder. With the aid of a supercomputer hovering on the edge of artificial general intelligence, the General Technics corporation hatches the idea of running a developing country in the Bight of Benin as an economic hothouse for profit, removing the diminished nation-state from colonialism. A General Technics VP who takes charge of the project isn’t rich enough to live alone in NYC. His flatmate gets sent off on a wild goose chase in a fictional (non-extrapolated) country whose authoritarian regime has announced it will go beyond eugenics and family planning—already ubiquitous in the US—to genetically manipulate the next generation.

“The rest is just exposure to information, and why should anybody look at one wave on the sea?” (page 433).

Mostly, but not entirely, wholesale extrapolative SF. This is the definitive Apollo-/Woodstock-era SF novel. It is clearly marked by its origins: Fifty years after it was written it is one of William Gibson’s “worlds behind you”—a phrase he adopted from The Velvet Underground song “Sunday Morning”—an alternative past that no longer seemed possible when we passed it by. Slide rules are still relevant, computers are still huge and centralized, the AI is patterned after the 1959 General Problem Solver, there is no Internet and despite the central importance of genetic manipulation to the story there is no editing of genes as with He Jankui’s abuse of CRISPR, merely stochastic “tectogenetics” equivalent to pre-GMO radiation bombardment. Palmistry may be efficacious and there are unspecified native organisms on the Moon (page 424).

In a more intimate form of failure, population density causes maniacal killing sprees, known as runnning amok, hence the slang term “muckers”. The 2019 Kyoto Animation arson incident took place during my reading, and you won’t find an event more strongly reminiscent of Brunner’s muckers, but Brunner was clearly wrong about the psychological effects of overcrowding and he was wrong in a boring, spectacle-centric fashion. He also doesn’t explain the crowding itself: He mentions that personal cars are no longer needed in NYC but he gives no concrete reason for the apparent lack of housing construction projects.

Most of the time, sociologist Chad C. Mulligan is a flat and boring character, just an author-privileged cynic taking up space on the page, but in one of Brunner’s many fine chapters devoted to worldbuilding rather than story, Mulligan explains that US citizens are low on purchasing power due to resource constraints in the real economy (page 353f), including the water cycle. It’s a shame that Brunner did not develop this idea further, but it would hardly explain the housing problem. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why the efficient public transportation won’t serve a city growing apace, as it did in reality.

One part of the fictional society’s mitigation of the housing problem is the “shiggy circuit”, an intersection of the dating scene with the housing market, wherein physically attractive women will live with men for free, without commitment: Couchsurfing Netflix-and-chill as a popular lifestyle. This evidently borders on prostitution but raises no problems in the story. When Bronwen was introduced, I thought she was a honey-pot spy like Victoria, but apparently she is just a walking sexual fantasy to be taken at face value. Brunner did a lot better in thinking about race than he did about the future of gender equality or population politics. Vietnam clearly coloured his idea of “eptification”, but it works well enough.

Misses notwithstanding, the approach is excellent. In addition to the non-narrative chapters, starting with the brilliantly noisy opening, Brunner fearlessly dates himself by describing the fashions of the 1970s at Guinevere Steel’s party. He really committed to the worldbuilding and did an admirable job of it. Given his even-handed portrayal of equatorial Africa, with borders reshuffled to make fictional conglomerate states, it is surprising that he did not apply the same method to East Asia. The clearly fictional aspects of Yatakang’s history and its peculiar language are not needed. He could have used a real country—like Indonesia, Malaysia or the Phillippines, here a proxy war zone—to round out the feat of extrapolation, but I recognize that extrapolation is not an end in itself.

The full-immersion prose is good, not stellar, and some of the character writing is on the weaker side. Donald’s job as a synthesist is similar to the unemployed syncretist in “Master of None” (1962). Both Norman and Donald are unlikely action heroes and a lot of the supporting characters’ plots go nowhere even as the two main plots finally converge. Still, the sheer amount of thinking about the world is well worth the read. Brunner’s got a Common Europe not yet renamed to the European Union, a “Federal anti-litter law which forbade ephemeral publications to be printed on permanent stock for other than historical purposes” (page 331), a hip-hop music video (page 379) and a hundred other awesome little ideas. The big picture isn’t bad: Megacorporations, pacifying escapist entertainment (including an inverted reality TV), ubiquitous commercials, shadowy echelons of “State”, the grind of distant proxy war, and the pre-cyberpunk grunge of urban alienation.

References here: “The Very Edge of Happiness” (1973), The Forever War (1974), Neuromancer (1984), Eon (1985), The Postman (1985), The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Aliens: Nightmare Asylum (1989), “The Hunted” (1990), “Men Against Fire” (2016), Black Panther (2018).

text fiction