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John Brunner – Stand on Zanzibar

Title: Stand on Zanzibar
Author: John Brunner
Year: 1968

I have been introduced to Stand on Zanzibar as being one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time, which is one difficult expectation to fulfill. I am fairly convinced that it is not the best science-fiction novel I have read, but it remains to be seen how many others manage to beat it.

The title of the novel says very much about its contents. In early twentieth century, a claim was made that the entire population of the world could be fitted onto the Isle of Wight, provided that they were standing upright. Brunner extrapolates this idea and says that by 2010 (the year in which the narration is set) a much bigger island will be needed, such as Zanzibar. Overpopulation is the one thread which permeates the whole novel and glues its separate parts into a bigger whole. It is an imaginative and realistic picture of a future world in which other human beings is the threat of any other human being.

On the cover of by edition of Stand on Zanzibar, a quote from the London Sunday Times says: “…a vast uncontrolled explosion of a book…”, which describes its structure perfectly. Using many different kinds of chapters, Brunner depicts his vision of a future world in many ways that at first seems to be totally independent of each other. Some chapters consist of standard narration, while others consist of juxtaposed fragments of conversation, advertisement or excerpts from articles or journals. Yet others contain extracts from books within the book or give background information in various ways.

Two men sharing an apartment in New York City is the main focus of the story. Donald Hogan is a spy and commissioned US officer, posing as a student. Recalled to duty, he becomes involved with a foreign project to genetically create a superman. Norman House is an African-American rising rapidly in the hierarchy of one of the immensely powerful corporations. He becomes involved in a vast project when the corporation intends to launch a major industrial endeavour in the fictional West African country of Beninia. In the background looms the shadow of the almost omniscient supercomputer Shalmaneser, whose meddling in human affairs increases inexorably.

There are many things which are absolutely marvellous in John Brunner’s writing. Firstly, almost forty years have passed since he wrote it, but it feels like it could have been written yesterday (that might be a slight exaggeration, but I have never ever encountered such an accurate and time-less depiction of a future society). Secondly, it is wildly entertaining. Excerpts from The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad Mulligan are often spot on, cynic comments on contemporary society, as relevant to us as to the inhabitants of the novel’s world. When Chad himself appears, he is only one among many interesting characters.

My experience of Stand on Zanzibar can be illustrated by a v-shaped graph, with exhilaration on the y-axis and pages on the x-axis. The novel starts out in the most spectacular way imaginable and I was completely enraptured the first couple of hundred pages. As the book settled into a more steady flow, my enthusiasm dropped, but quite failed to sink to a level below “good”. At the end, the curve turned rapidly upwards and after having finished the novel and writing the review, I feel my appreciation of it increasing with every moment. I give it four and a half snails, but I should mention that I at least considered giving it five.

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  1. walium’s avatar

    Och jag som trodde att det var någon slags militärhistoria där “stand” betydde “Last stand”. Nåja, jag har inkluderat boken i min senaste Adlibrisorder i alla fall.