Somehow, John Brunner's 1969 Hugo winner has fallen out of print. That's a terrific shame, because Stand on Zanzibar is maybe the smartest, most engrossing piece of fiction I've read all year.
For me, this is due in part to the fact that the book opens with a quote from Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (from 1962's The Gutenberg Galaxy), who is maybe the smartest, most engrossing thinker I've read in my entire life. McLuhan — among other things, he coined the phrase "the global village," which doesn't mean exactly what most people think it means — is hard to read and even harder to fully understand. You just sort of have to dive in and press on and trust that everything he says will make more sense on the second or third or fourteenth read. Stand on Zanzibar isn't quite so mystifying, but you're gonna want to bring your brain along. Ender's Game this is not.
The novel — or "non-novel," as Brunner refers to it, thanks to its offbeat structure* — is close in spirit and style to Neal Stephenson's oeuvre from Snow Crash on. It's spattered with future-slang that sounds as accurate as it does goofy, and wheels back and forth across the globe to peer into the lives of characters with off-the-wall names and diverse ethnicities, whose stories all connect even when they never meet. And it doses us with fictional data that make the world of the story feel fleshed-out, and factual trivia that makes our own world seem like a place we don't know as much about as we thought.
But Zanzibar is bleaker than anything of Stephenson's. There's some lightness in the tone (and a few great terrible puns: one protagonist, Norman House, is an Afram zeck, or African American executive, working for the world's largest supercorporation — that is, he's nominally and literally a house Negro), and the main characters are likable and real enough to keep the sense of overwhelming despair at bay for much of the book. The narrative just teems with grim irony, though, and unrelenting, ugly pressure emanates almost tangibly from the pages.
The driving force for that pressure is the planet's overpopulation problem. When the book opens — in no less eerily coincidental a month than our own May 2010 — a rattled-off factoid claims that every man, woman, and child on Earth could stand together on the African island of Zanzibar; by the time the story ends a few months later, the population has grown too large to fit.
And it was too big to begin with: In first-world countries, real estate is at such a premium that all but the wealthiest people are crammed into blocks of apartments, and plenty of folks are homeless. More dreadful still are all the eugenics laws, prohibiting anyone with a hereditary disorder — anything from disease to color blindness — from breeding with someone who could pass the bad recessive DNA on, and limiting the number of children a couple with clean genotypes can have.
The laws have turned kids into status symbols, and made parents with special dispensation to raise more than two the object of bitter envy. But there is good reason for the legislation: The globe is so crowded, it can barely bear the strain of the people it already holds. Not only are resources disproportionately expensive, there's an awful dearth of physical and psychological private space.
And as Zanzibar's sociologist Chad C. Mulligan points out, that's why so many "mucker" attacks are breaking out. Muckers are so called because they run amok — getting pushed too far without release and suddenly bursting into rage, Michael Douglas in Falling Down–style, gunning or hacking down their fellow citizens in public places. (It's also why those people who don't muck out rely on a constant intake of drugs, from legal weed and prescribed tranquilizers to illicit psychedelics, to remain relatively sane.)
Mulligan is maybe the best part of the book, a McLuhan 2.0** who's angrier and more frustrated than his predecessor ever was but no less astute when it comes to analyzing the artificial, largely invisible environment humanity has constructed for itself. Like McLuhan — who was no uncritical fan of electronic technology, despite being adopted as a mascot by many modern-day geeks — Mulligan wants to shake his readers awake in the hope that they'll look around and realize what they're doing to themselves.
What they're doing to themselves is really what Stand on Zanzibar is about. Sure, overpopulation is the ostensible theme, but Brunner is just using a tried-and-true literary device there: exaggerating one aspect of something so that other aspects of it become easier to see.
The point of the McLuhan quote that opens the book (you can read it here; it's the one that starts "There is nothing willful...") is that cultural and historical events can't be broken down and explained sufficiently by simple linear cause and effect — they're the result of an environment with multiple moving parts, and if you look at how the moving parts relate, you can see why the happening world happened the way it did.
Brunner conveys a sense of this directly by using so many characters and translating into prose such a variety of other media — that's obvious. More important is that when you look at the ultimate configuration of his book, it's clear that rather than mere Malthusian apocalypse, what he's actually talking about is precisely our inability to see all the moving parts around us and how that environment isn't just shaped by us, but shapes us as well. Perhaps it's selfish genes at play, but by and large, the book's characters are too self-centered, and too constrained by society, to step outside their own points of view.
The second-most brutal irony of Stand on Zanzibar is that in a world where offspring are a precious good, life is disgustingly cheap. The constant pressure makes it tedious at best, drudgery most of the time, and lethal at worst. Experiences are entirely packaged (Brunner anticipates Rock Band with kits that allow the user to sculpt a famous statue or play a famous song just the way the creator did), and thanks to marketing, even experiencing them is actually a bit redundant (avatars called Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere, automated to look just like whoever's watching them, are inserted into every commercial). Soldiers' lives are being thrown away on a pointless war between the U.S. and China, the same way most clothes or other possessions are thrown away after one or two uses. Instead of having steady boyfriends, many young women ("shiggies") hop from guy to guy ("codder to codder") in an endless string of semi-casual encounters, such that prostitution isn't so much legalized as institutionalized. And when a new scientific development in a developing Asian country called Yatakang promises to make it possible for everyone on Earth to conceive healthy kids with not just clean but superior genotypes, the primary reaction is material jealousy.
In the most straightforward and linear of the book's narratives, Norman House's story and that of the other protagonist, his white roommate Donald Hogan, mirror each other: Norman starts out detached and mechanical, kills someone, and then gradually come to feel as if he's really beginning to live. Donald starts out aching for more of a connection with the real world, and then ends up killing numerous people after being turned, literally, into a deadly fighting machine by his government superiors, through a process called eptification (or EPT, for "education for particular tasks").
With both characters, and with the myriad others scattered throughout Zanzibar, Brunner demonstrates that the great tragedy of treating each other on a macro scale the way we treat artificial products, is that on a micro scale, every life is important to someone. (He says a lot more, too, of course — and basically predicts the future we live in now more aptly than any other author I've encountered — and I'll just preemptively apologize here for not mentioning whatever part of the book is your favorite, if you've read it. Sorry, there's just too much to pack into one post.)
The great triumph of the book, however, is that it doesn't come down on the simple-minded side of endorsing some kind of pure, romantic, purely organic and old-timey notion of humanity over the mechanized dystopia its characters inhabit. In its most brutal irony, Chad Mulligan discovers at the end exactly why it is that the fictional African country of Beninia has remained peaceful and humane despite its extreme poverty. The answer might let you down — it's supposed to let you down, I suspect — but it won't be what you're expecting.
It's a very McLuhan-esque touch, an acknowledgment that deep, intangible mysteries can yield mundane solutions, depending on the quality of our perception. And in another such touch, I think because Brunner's, like McLuhan's, point was not so much that any particular choice is in and of itself superior to any other — one of Mulligan's books is titled Better ? Than ? — the second-to-last chapter ("Tracking With Closeups 32: The Cool and Detached View") turns the brutal irony about Beninia on its head. Maybe he's not so much bleaker than Stephenson after all.
"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin, from 1970.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.
*When Stand on Zanzibar was first published, its structure — about which more here — was presumably not just offbeat but groundbreaking-ish. Forty-one years later, though, the ground now ably broken, I don't think it's especially baffling or hard to follow for the thoughtful reader.
**His name is an anagram of "Lg acid McLuhan," for what that's worth.