Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

That was 600+ pages of sheer eccentricity! Not in a bad way, but wow. I love books like this, that push the boundaries in some way, play around with indirect narrative. As long as they know why they're doing it. This one did.


This book takes place in several different ways. Context is given from future encyclopedias, or other writings. The happening world places this world in, not context, but in an emerging flow of information, which generally manages to give immense texture to the world while being entirely devoid of plot. I kept going back to the first happening world section whenever a new character was introduced. Brunner also zeroes in on individual characters in small portraits, most of them inconsequential to the main narrative but not, naturally, to themselves. And then there are the continuity chapters, where the main story takes place.

This mishmash takes some getting used to, but is used brilliantly, and I felt energized every time I sat down to read it.

(the happening world)

Stand on Zanzibar was published in 1968.

Lady Bic Pens: Shiggies don't know how to write otherwise!

Umm...I'm trying, but I don't think I can emulate Brunner's style. So let's have some:


Two characters stand at the centre of this story, one, a black executive named Norman House, and a white dilettante, Donald Hogan. They share an apartment, as living space is expensive, and taking up more space a mark of extreme privilege.

Both find their view of the world upended: Norman, when he finds something that is more important than his personal advancement. Donald, when he finds out that signing up for government work might mean that they could scoop out his self and replace it any old time they wanted. Norman tries to plot the course for an entire country. Donald tries to divert the course of another.

(tracking with closeups)

This seems to stand firmly in the New Wave Science Fiction camp, if we're still using such terms, for its experiments in form, movement towards less hard science, and, I think, in theme.

Overpopulation and living space, you see, are key, and these seem like common themes from the time period, one I've run into in several previous books. Add to this a direct suspicion of urban living, and I think you have a main motif that several writers drew upon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Urban living, in these books, was literally driving us mad. We weren't meant to be living in such close quarters with others. We couldn't adapt. The impossibility of adapting would make us crazy, and this would be acted out violently, starting a cycle where the cities devolved into dangerous madness.

(Think late Heinlein books set on earth, Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination, Spider Robinson in several books, Robert Silverberg. I'm sure there are others, but those are the ones that popped to mind.)

Looking at it from several decades distance, this unspoken conviction that human beings could not live in cities and stay sane, and yet must, because there are too many humans, stands out sharply. We have overpopulation concerns now, but urban living in and of itself doesn't seem to be a focus of fear in the same way.


Brunner's world is heavily overpopulated, and most countries have coped with that by passing heavily restrictive eugenics legislation, with enforced abortion of defective children, and sterilization of those carrying undesirable genes. Few people seem to be fighting this in any organized way, although individuals rebel.

This is a world gone mad, where lack of ability to have children has driven some into despair, where urban living drives many to numbness, where modernity is coped with with drugs, where violence spawns randomly and terrifyingly. Two small countries may offer very different ways to change the world radically. Some, naturally, have an investment in the world as it is.

The sheer complexity of the book awes me, and the way in which Brunner paints such a rich portrait using unconventional techniques is jawdropping.

If you just want to read the continuity chapters, it's an excellent tale of politicking, spying, and jockeying for the future of the world. If you embrace the book as a whole, it is so much more. But it will not hold your hand. It will, in fact, take you out in the middle of the woods and deliberately abandon you there, and wait to see if you can find your own way out, or if you'll close the book and throw it across the room.

I liked being in those woods. I was sorry to come out.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees


  1. I watched some of the videos of the Oct 2017 Las Vegas shootings, and suddenly, all the details of this Brunner novel popped back into mind, despite me have read the book a very long time ago. Muckers. Brunner's vision, in "Stand on Zanzibar" is of a future (2010) that is not too far off from where we actually are.

    And I also recently read that awful "Southern Reach" trilogy, (which I see you are promoting) and thought it was absolute garbage - very, very clever writing, with all sorts of fine, tricky techniques to keep a reader engaged - but you end up feeling profoundly cheated - the Vandermeer book is a mish-mash of little more than clever literary trickery, which takes one no-where, and offers nothing - 600 pages of timewaste and hoo-haw, using an annoying combo of J. Le Carre spy-story tradecraft and H. P. Lovecraft Cthulhu-ripoffs.

    But the Brunner book was brilliant, and has stayed in my mind for so many years. The big AI, Shalmanezer, is on the verge of being built - probably using Google's TensorFlow and a big beowulf cluster. A bit scary...

    1. You're right, a lot of what Brunner says has resonance today.

      I disagree with you about Vandermeer's books, obviously, although I don't think we differ on what the books are and are not. It's just that I enjoyed what they are quite a lot, and was not bothered by what they are not.