Friday, March 2, 2007

Review of “Stand on Zanzibar” novel by John Brunner

Drawing influences from the experimental British sci-fi New Wave, the “cut-up” technique developed by John Dos Passos and the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Brunner created the first classic of multi-perspective world-building SF. The book was written in 1968 and runs 500+ pages with information interweaved from two central plots, short 5-minute glimpses into the lives of minor characters, newscasts, contextual data, local legends and more.

Plot Summary:
I used to think that Brunner’s novel was a military SF work, extrapolating from the title that some desperate last stand was taking place on the tiny island of Zanzibar. In truth, the enigmatic title refers to the idea that if the 7 billion citizens alive in 2010 were given a 1-foot by 2-foot plot of land to stand on, they would all fit onto the title island. By the end of the story, many must metaphorically be treading water near the shore.

As the title concept suggests, Brunner tackles overpopulation as his primary target. In the dense urban chaos of 2010 strict eugenics legislation restricts couples to a maximum of two children and only if both parents are free from congenital disorders. As the book opens (in an exhilaratingly confusing sequence of difficult mixed-media passages), color blindness is being added to the list of restricted items. Jealousy of reproductive rights and the extreme crowds, often prone to spontaneous riots, have led to outbreaks of muckers: regular citizens who fly into berserker rages and kill as many people around them as possible.

As the fabric of society begins to deteriorate, two roommates (African American Norman House and WASP Donald Hogan) find themselves drawn into the inextricable mess of foreign policy. House becomes involved with the struggling, anomalous African country of Beninia while Hogan is sent against his will to the controversial communist island nation of Yatakang (both fictional countries). A third major character, Chad Mulligan, is introduced through his works as a cynical gonzo sociologist.

House and Hogan provide approximately a quarter of our knowledge about this future earth (comprising the chapters labeled “Continuity”). Other chapters are classified as “Tracking with Close-ups” (brief peeks into the lives of a variety of random citizens), “Context” (background information from encyclopedias, reports, books, songs, etc) and “The Happening World” (patched together streaming data similar to modern day RSS feeds, blogs and news tickers).

There is no doubt that much of Brunner’s concept for the book was far ahead of his time. This includes his innovative story structure with the division of multiple sources as described above. His attempts to use any and every medium at his disposal (and many that he makes up, effectively predicting modern technologies and sources of information) to build a virtual future with believable culture, politics, communication, economy, legislation, history, fashion and more are highly successful and foreshadow many of the techniques in postcyberpunk.

However, it is probably not surprising to find that most of the book’s other elements don’t always measure up to the ambitious structural achievement. The primary plot threads of House and Hogan run fairly slowly and without local climaxes, very steadily rising until all the action explodes in the final third. While the conclusions of both threads are well-developed, intriguing and thematically relevant, the first two-thirds of the book are forced to simmer on the backburner so that all the best narrative material can be served in the finales.

While the auxiliary stories, sources and perspectives are fully interesting and worthwhile, Brunner is hampered by occasional short-sightedness and sometimes runs against the limits of his creativity and talent. There is a certain question as to whether an author should be retroactively judged on the accuracy of his predictions and in general I think this is mildly unfair. (Certain cases are gratuitous. A further discussion can be found at the first “Dos and Don’ts” article.) Nevertheless, Brunner’s 2010 is often mired in 1960’s trends with the cold war still cruising along, racial tension still running high and computers restricted to super-powerful machines that understand human grammar and are only owned by rich meta-national corporations.

Brunner does tend to be more right than many of his contemporaries, my precious Philip K Dick and Vonnegut amongst them. His futuristic fashion trends are actually quite believable and interesting; his supercomputers have correctly been miniaturized even as they improve in speed; his interest in genetics remains curiously apropos in our present society.

Only two aspects regularly induced cringes: Brunner’s woefully cheesy 60’s-inspired future slang (he ain’t no Burgess) and alarmist attitude towards a population of 7 billion. It will have to get a lot higher before we see the phenomena the author predicts. Nonetheless, “Stand on Zanzibar” is easily one of the best books to deal with population issues.

What had a more significant impact on my final grade for the book is that Brunner’s reach often exceeds his grasp. Though I can’t fault him for trying to mix in every format and medium, he isn’t quite as creative as he thinks he is, leading to some songs, poems, commercials, social commentary and humor which fall flat or feels amateurish.

Grade: B+


Ira said...

Just noticed this review when looking for something else. Ya know, the Cold War is still cruising along and race relations ain't so hot right now. Just sayin'...

FilmWalrus said...

Good point. Brunner probably did a better job predicting the 2010s in 1968 than I did in 2007!