An off-the-cuff remark in a post last week informed me that a number of our readers, who definitely include a disproportionate share of science fiction fans, have not read John Brunner's epic near-term SF novel Stand on Zanzibar. As I think highly of this work, and am flabbergasted at how well it stands up in the fortieth year after its publication, I write in the hope that you will remedy that.
The title comes from an old British school lesson, in which children were taught to calculate on what island the entire population of the world could be stood, if everyone were given a foot of breathing space. When the lesson was current, it was the Isle of Man. In 2010, when the novel is set, it's the much larger island of Zanzibar. (By the end of the novel, it's the island of Zanzibar and a number of people standing in the surrounding ocean.)
The main themes of Stand On Zanzibar are overpopulation and, almost 30 years before Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, the disconnection between the individual from his neighbors and society created by dependence on technological media (a supremely cool form of television figures in Brunner's future, as DARPANET had just been invented, but the futuristic tv he describes is so weird and cool I want it now! whether it's a dystopian opiate or not).
The themes are related. When John Brunner was born, it was possible for most people to know their neighbors, or even most people in their town. In 2010, in Brunner's world or our own, that isn't possible for most people, who may know more about the lives of celebrities than about the lives of their neighbors across the street.
God damn! that sounds boring, you say. Well, you're wrong, and here's why: all that sociological McLuhan-Malthus shit is in the background. Think of that as the background for a dystopian role-playing game like Paranoia. You won't even know it's there, until you get to the shattering and utterly out-of-left field climax. That stuff is mere setting, not story.
Zanzibar, in actuality, is a greasy spy novel.
The novel itself, the story itself, is a weird combination of Ian Fleming, Arthur Clarke, Michael Lewis, Robert Anton Wilson, and James Thurber, in which Donald Hogan, the ultimate mild-mannered scholarly researcher for the government, is eptified to become the most dangerous killer on earth, while his friend Norman House, the token black vice president of the largest corporation on earth, is assigned by virtue of his race to oversee the first merger between a multinational corporation and a nation itself, becoming the most powerful man on earth with the help of Shalmaneser, a supercomputer disturbingly reminiscent of HAL 9000 and AM, the computer featured in Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, on which Skynet from the Terminator movies was based.
Interspersed with all this spy stuff and corporate intrigue you'll find Devil's Dictionary-quality satirical commentary from a number of imaginary books (the internet, which was in its infancy, is the only technology Brunner didn't see coming) some of which is so funny I wish Brunner had actually written them.
And in the end, despite their triumphs or failures, the world keeps going to hell.
But Hell is an interesting place, while Heaven is boring. And Zanzibar comments, in many ways, on our current hell as well as future hells yet to come.
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