The 60s were a period of experimentation in science fiction as well as in the rest of arts and society, and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar certainly fits in with that spirit. I was reminded more of the post-modern work of Thomas Pynchon, Don Dellilo and David Mitchell than any book I’ve read on this list.
While Stand on Zanzibar does have a clear central narrative, this narrative is surrounded by a variety of alternate materials – short vignettes focusing on side characters, factual information, philosophical tracts, African folktalkes, poetry, etc. There are actually different types of chapters with different functions (“continuity” follows the plot while “context” provides ancillary materials, for instance), and the first few chapters contain a flood of brief snippets from media around Brunner’s future world; it’s almost like listening to a radio while scanning with the tuner. It’s frustrating and intimidating, but the novel does settle down a bit from there.
The novel takes place in the early twenty-first century (right about now) on a vastly over-populated Earth (7 billion people, not far from the present population). There are two central characters, roommates Donald Hogan and Norman House, who are each drawn into storylines concerning fictional developing countries. The United States drafts Donald to investigate an advanced genetics program in the Asian island nation of Yakatang, while Norman is supervising a corporate investment in a poor but peaceful African nation of Beninia. Each story revolves around a moral question: 1). is it right to play with our genes, especially on a world of controlled breeding and eugenics? 2). Why is Beninia so peaceful? What does this little state have that the rest of the world does not?
I’m afraid that I can’t report that the answer to either question is particularly satisfying. Beyond that, the plot is slight and the characters even slighter. Brunner clearly intended to draw a contrast between the roommates, but the contrast feels too simple: Norman is black and successful, Donald is white and seems to have less control over his own fate. Still, Brunner creates an incredibly rich world and manages to achieve more in the realms of social analysis by hewing close to contemporary events. This is the first of these novels that does a really good job of portraying global inequalities and the future of the first world vs the third world. Overall, as a work of futurism, Stand on Zanzibar is surprisingly solid. We’ve dealt with an expanding population better than expected (at least so far), and the specter of communism isn’t quite as strong as imagined. Brunner misses the personal computer and the internet as well, though computers do play a central role. But, he’s more right than most on the general geopolitical situation. Also, he’s right on with the importance of genetics, and he must have been paying close attention to developments in the '60s.
Stand on Zanzibar is a somewhat difficult work in its construction and its lack of focus, but it is an ambitious work that provides a richly drawn world that poses interesting questions about the near future of human society. It’s a worthwhile read if you don’t mind some post-modern stunts. Once again, I’d take the Hugo winner over the Nebula, though it’s a bit tighter this time.