Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner

stand-on-zanzibar-by-john-brunner coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ballantine
Published: 1968
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by Bluejack

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It is often observed that when Science Fiction appears to predict the future, in fact, it is only speaking about the present. George Orwell’s 1984 was a mirror on the world of 1948 (reversal of digits); Philip K. Dick’s psychedelic futures were often as sixties as it gets; William Gibson’s early cyberpunk was all about the free-rein corporate greed and social alienation of the Reagan Era.

In 1968, John Brunner wrote Stand on Zanzibar, describing the world in 2010. I don’t think he set about composing a work of inspired prophecy, but reading it today reveals exactly that.

Sure, he got a few things wrong: he couldn’t predict AIDS, of course, and the sex=death end of the free love culture. More importantly, he didn’t really get feminism, although by 1974 he had already admitted as much — claimed it was the biggest flaw in the book.

But Brunner nailed about a thousand other trends, some large, some small. Who in 1968 would have thought that Russia would no longer be a noteworthy threat, but China would be the up and coming rival to American hegemony? >From cloning and genetic manipulation to the nature and role of the media in everyday life to international and corporate politics, Brunner’s masterpiece is visionary. Although he fails to predict the technologies that have brought computers and the internet to everyday life, he unquestionably predicts the phenomena.

Against the backdrop of a badly overpopulated, media-saturated, road-rage-prone culture, Brunner weaves the story of two New York men. Norman House is an ambitious african american quite consciously using his skin color to advance his career, leveraging white guilt to his own benefit. Donald Hogan is a professional dilettante — no, really: he works for the government doing just a little of everything, awaiting activation as a spy. He’s a pattern recognition ace, and when he jumps to a conclusion it’s usually the right one. These two men are roommates at the top of a supremely decadent and jaded first world economy. Things are going along just fine, although neither man knows the other particularly well, and each finds his life somehow indefinably lacking.

Intercut at MTV tempo with tracking shots of unrelated or peripheral lives; shot through with contextual materials such as television headlines, snippets of conversation from a party, (and most astonishing of all, excerpted ideas for terrorism, including flying jumbo jets into skyscrapers); and interspersed with excerpts from one garrulous essayist who reads like part Henry Miller, part Abby Hoffman, and part Norman Spinrad; Stand on Zanzibar brilliantly achieves both fast paced, character driven story and an immense cultural tapestry.

Hogan and House find their lives overturned when events outside their elite New York circles suddenly intrude. A tiny African nation calls upon House’s corporation for an unusual investment, while a discovery in a small pacific island threatens to destroy the fragile stability of the over-populated superpowers. The talents — and the humanity — of these two men are put to the test, with mixed results.

If it were for the visionary nature of this work alone, Stand on Zanzibar would be an important novel. But the Prophecy According to Brunner is more like an Old Testament prophecy: he’s not just predicting what will happen, he shows why. ‘Why’ in moral, ethical, teleological, eschatological, and, though I am not sure he would approve the term, spiritual dimensions.

When it first came out, Stand on Zanzibar won the Hugo Award for best novel. It was hailed as a true dystopian classic. But thirty five years later, now that we live in the predicted dystopia, the book may have even more to say to us.

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