John Brunner – Stand On Zanzibar

Wednesday 18th June: …and another of the SF Masterworks range is completed…

Stand On Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1969)

Brunner’s novel of an over-populated dystopic Earth of the early 21st century is probably the most experimental book I have ever read. Although 600+ pages long and containing what are essnetially two parallel plots, it is more than half-filled with chapters that are vignettes showing various aspects of life in the then future, either by following minor characters or presenting advertisements, extracts from other (fictional) books and newspapers and many more disparate items. The whole possibky gives a fuller picture of life in Brunner’s imagined future than simply including ideas in the main body of the novel and it is worth ignoring the temptation to skip over these seemingly inconsequential chapters.

The main story follows roomates, Donald Hogan and Norman House. The former, it turns out is a spy who is eventually despatched to Yatakang to investigate claims that one of the country’s chief scientists is on the verge of a break through in genetic engineering. The latter is a rising star at General Technics, an American company making a deal with an African nation to take over the management of that country.

Brunner’s future is decidedly bleak – the population crisis leading to strict birth controls not just of the type seen imposed in China a few years back (only one child per family) but of a nature which prevents potential parents with any form of hereditary defect from having children. The bleakness makes it even more frightening when you realise how close this future is to our own present, not in the extreme cases but, even so, a lot of Brunner’s predictions were very close to the mark. (One line that did make me chuckle was along the lines of the British PM standing firm behind America as the latter started meddling with another countries, politics, while the rest of Europe was a little more guarde.) About the only thing missing is the current fuel “crisis”, something which I personally hope will date this blog as badly as our present dates the future predicted in some forty-year-old SF.

Despite the bleakness, there is a degree of (maybe false) hope as U.S. citizens are given the opportunity to move to a “better” life in Africa, even if that life isn’t quite what they expect – one vignette follows a young, pregnant couple whose baby is born prematurely shortly after they are relocated to Africa.

Stand on Zanzibar is not the sort of novel I would have picked up if it wasn’t part of the Masterworks line (no spaceships, ray-gun’s and alien races, although there is a hyper-intelligent A.I.) but I have to say it is one of the better books in that range. Well worth a read.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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