Stand on Zanzibar John Brunner

Jul 27, 2014 review (read between May 31, 2014 – Jul 27, 2014)

1st reading read review on Goodreads

I initially picked this book up because it won a Hugo, and I knew literally nothing else about it. I finally got around to reading it recently, and oh boy, I’m glad I did.

Stand on Zanzibar opens with some of the most inane chapters I’ve ever read. The incoherent lines of cues and random smatterings of facts and headline clippings, however, actually set the stage for the world the reader is about to be thrust int, and it’s not your typical science fiction world filled with aliens and spaceships and faster-than-light travel. Less fantasy and more speculative, Brunner’s vision of the future are grim. Brunner’s world is one so wrought with overpopulation that eugenics is in full effect; where acts of terrorism is a common occurrence; where social stratification has reached incredulous heights. Other prominent topics include the usage and acceptance of recreational drugs, the power of corporations, reliance on AI, and other socioeconomic and cultural issues that I would dare say has more relevance to our modern society than one might like to admit. All in all, it’s pretty fucking depressing.

There are unfortunate characters stuck in this crazy world, of course, and Brunner did a decent job in making the main ones likable. Their main purpose seems to be to give the reader an anchor, or a point of reference: how might a ‘normal’ person think, survive, and act in this seemingly bizarre environment? Brunner sends them off in their own little intertwined misadventures to illustrate this point, but to be honest, I didn’t find their tales to be as compelling as everything else the book is about.

The really interesting stuff happens in the inane chapters I mentioned earlier. They’re interspersed in the book, and they continue to be snippets of news headlines or excerpts from books or random quotes… but it’s through these passages that you get a sense of how unstable Brunner’s fictional world is. All side characters act as cautionary tales because their lives aren’t as rosy as the main characters’, and despite the fact that you see some of them only two or three times in the span of the entire book, you feel downright sad for some of them. While the main characters are the main characters of the book, the side characters are the main characters of Brunner’s world, if that makes any sense.

It’s certainly not an uplifting story, but how often are stories set in a dystopian future uplifting? That would go against the definition of ‘dystopic.’ The true beauty of Stand on Zanzibar is the marvelous world Brunner dreamed up. Dreamt up in 1968, no less! When people talk about older science fiction works, they often talk about how accurate they were in their predictions of the future. With Stand on Zanzibar, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the things Brunner predicted back when he wrote the book becomes reality a decade or two from now. In fact, if I was told that the book was a piece of speculative fiction written in the last decade, I probably would have believed it. Knowing that it was written 45 years ago just makes it that much more impressive.

“Christ, what an imagination I’ve got” is tossed around a few times in the book. I’d like to imagine John Brunner was thinking exactly that as he wrote; because seriously, what an imagination.