Classic review: Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner has been lauded as a visionary.  In particular, his book Stand on Zanzibar is choke-full of predictions that seem to have come true more than fifty years after the its publication.  His difficult, but addicting writing style has further cemented this work as one of the most important science fiction novels of the twentieth century.  I’m here to discuss Brunner’s achievements, but also the shortcomings (which are sometimes overlooked) of Stand on Zanzibar.

This book is quite difficult to get into.  It begins with a chapter that reads like a script for a crazy used car sales commercial.  It then introduces characters that will be inconsequential to the story.  A few more chapters, and we finally meet one of the main protagonists, Norman House.  Thanks to affirmative action, the African American House had become a junior vice-president in one of the world’s largest companies, General Technics.  Soon, we’ll also meet his roommate, Donald Hogan, who seems to bumble through life, doing nothing.  As time progresses, Brunner introduces a myriad other characters whose stories go nowhere, even though a few of them are at least a little intertwined with House and Hogan.

To get to this point in the story, however, the reader will become exhausted.  Brunner mixes four different styles in his chapters.  In addition to the narrative, he spins short unrelated stories, the description of his world and society in whole.  He does so via less traditional means: sometimes as a script to commercials, other times as a poem or snippets of conversation.  In one memorable chapter that takes place at a party, he writes out single sentences or short paragraphs from disconnected conversation, as if he was walking through the crowd and caught a word or two here and there.  Brunner’s writing is powerful enough, however, to explain a great deal about his world though these snippets.

The book’s narrative takes a long time to pick up.  House is sent by his employer, GT, to take over Beninia, one of the poorest countries in Africa.  Its President is dying and is afraid that the country’s neighbors would invade once he’s gone, and so he struck a deal with GT to build up infrastructure and education in exchange for mineral rights.  The greater mystery here, however, is how Beninia managed to survive previous attempts at subjugation, while remaining strictly pacifist.  Hogan, who turns to be a sleeper agent, is activated, reeducated (which wipes his previous personality and ultimately drives him mad) into an assassin, and sent to the country of Yatakang to perform espionage into a genetic program.  Both storylines will leave the reader deeply dissatisfied.  The conclusion of one is too vague and abrupt, and the other narrative is too depressing.  We can forgive Brunner, though, as this is not a book about overreaching stories.

Stand on Zanzibar is a worldbuilding book, full of predictions of technological and societal changes resulting from overpopulation.  It is also a book of short personal stories of protagonists who rarely last for more than a handful of short chapters.

Brunner’s world faces an overpopulation crisis.  The book title alludes to an idea that if all people stood straight, shoulder to shoulder on the island of Zanzibar, they’d fill the entire island.  As the book progresses, people stand deeper and deeper in the water, off shore of Zanzibar.

Due to overpopulation, the US has instituted eugenics boards, which rule whether people are allowed to have children.  Any kind of genetic defect, be it as small as colorblindness, disqualifies people from being parents.  Still, the crush of people makes some of them go mad.  They go berserk and start murdering indiscriminately around them.  The rest of the society undergoes a change where many people forsake traditional marriage and switch to fast and loose relationships, while others form a breakaway conservative Catholic church.

To further placate the populous, satellite TV is ubiquitous, with the main actors being lifelike avatars of the viewers.  And while tobacco is extremely frowned upon, recreational drugs and marijuana are everywhere.  The state, and even large corporations, play a very minor role in the book; most people are docile enough to not cause any trouble.  Then there is a small category of people who get their adrenaline high by causing terrorist acts, but those are far and between.  So let’s list the major areas where Brunner’s predictions have come true:


  1. Public apathy. Brunner states that developed countries are governed by public apathy. I felt this simple sentence to be by far the most insightful piece in the novel.  It not only hits the target as a futuristic prediction, but also greatly explains the society in the book.


  1. Affirmative action. One of the two main protagonists is a beneficiary of this, but also thinks it creates tension. He feels he didn’t achieve his position through his work and is left unfulfilled.  His peers see him as an unqualified opportunist.


  1. Entertainment systems. In-flight entertainment, video on demand, augmented reality where the characters in the programs take the appearance of the viewers. All these already exist and are increasingly popular.


  1. Legal marijuana, marginalized tobacco. While we’re not there yet, the trend moves in this direction. As a side note, House smokes marijuana to relax, since as a Muslim he is unable to drink.  He is a convert from Christianity; something that had become much more prevalent in the years since the publication of the book.


  1. New political order. The book describes a union of European countries, with the UK left out and allied to the US. The biggest threat to the US is China, not the Soviet Union.  While the beginnings of the EU were largely in place at the time the novel was written, Brunner saw its long-term viability and how the UK would stay out.  And even though China is waging real war against the US in the book, it’s still prophetic that it’s seen as a threat, while the USSR is barely mentioned at all.


  1. Genetic engineering. Brunner talks about changing the genes in a laboratory, not crossbreeding species.


  1. Sci-fi tropes. Some of these are only now coming to pass, and others are still heavily used in other sci-fi works. From fuel cells for cars, through monofilaments to iron-eating bacteria; this novel is a treasure trove of science fiction ideas.  Much of the technology is used by domestic terrorists and has little bearing on the narrative, but it is still highly visible.  The discerning reader may notice that Brunner created the idea of a monofilament cutting through a ship.  Simons had a raft cut by monofilament in the Endymion books, and Liu cut a ship with monofilaments in The Three Body Problem.  Those are just a few examples where later science fiction lifted scenes directly from this book.


However, as prophetic as Brunner is, I believe those were just some educated shots in the dark.  Stand on Zanzibar is so full of predictions that a few had to turn out to be true.  Statistic was skewed by the author’s astute observation of his world, but that doesn’t change that he was more wrong that right.

To begin with, Brunner assumed a continuing trajectory of the 60’s sexual revolution.  His world is full of bachelors who house short-term girlfriends and even share them among their roommates.  Parties descend into sexual orgies.  And nakedness is the new norm.

Brunner also missed his mark with the military technology.  According to him, supersoldiers may be programmed in a weekend course.  Enemy espionage is nearly perfect.  In this, the author displayed the 1960s cold war paranoia.  And all secret infiltration is done via submarines.

Brunner tried to predict linguistic changes, and failed here as well.  Some of his words dismissed present efficiency for something fancy, which would have never taken hold: “poppa momma” for PM, “anti-matter” for AM, or his most common curse word “whaledreck”, instead of the commonly used shorter words.  Other words, such as “bleeder”, were explained in the book, as a side effect of the overpopulation problem (“bleeder” was first a term for people with a certain genetic disorder, hemophilia, latter a term for people with any genetic disorder and later simply a curse word).  While not as prevalent and annoying as Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Brunner’s attempt at engineering a new language fell short of its mark.

However, the biggest misfire in the book was the portrayal of an overcrowded United States.  New York is a hellhole tucked under a dome to keep out air pollution.  Nobody can afford their own apartment.  It takes very little to spark riots, and the “muckers”, people who go insane from overcrowding, start killing everyone.  While some consider these killing sprees prophetic to today’s school shootings and terrorist attacks, those in the book acted out of blind insanity, while the mass killings today are being justified by their perpetrators.  Elsewhere, overcrowding is nearly as bad.  Nearly all US states (there are 52 of them in the book) ban people with genetic deficiencies from breeding.  People who have multiple children are harassed and in one instance even killed.  And this is happening with 400 million people in the US, and 8 billion worldwide, which is close to the actual number.  Brunner was way off target here.

The last element of the novel I’d like to mention is the computer Shalmaneser.  This is a supercomputer with hints of artificial intelligence, owned and operated by General Technics.  There are several similar, even though not as advanced computers in the world, usually operated by governments.  Their computing time can be rented by companies or countries, and they tend to calculate economic probabilities.  Shalmaneser, with its A.I., is also utilized to customize TV programming and for other more human-facing calculations.  This prediction is difficult to gauge.  Stand on Zanzibar was written way before the emergence of personal computers or the Internet, so it’s understandable that Brunner didn’t envision them.  Still, the A.I. and especially renting computing time by governments to help with budgeting and economic planning is visionary.  I’m surprised that this concept has not been copied in sci-fi more often.

Despite the challenging writing technique, lots of false predictions and an unsatisfying story, Stand on Zanzibar is one of the most important sci-fi books ever written.  It’s nearly as influential as Stapledon’s Star Maker, even though it’s just the opposite: where Stapledon was a mile wide but inch deep, Brunner was a mile deep in a space that was just an inch wide.  The book is very limited in its space and time frame, and yet is so full of concepts that even several careful readings may not pick them all up.  The novel has been hugely influential in later sci-fi works, and anyone seriously interested in where many current ideas are coming from should add Stand on Zanzibar to their library.

This entry was posted in Book reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.