Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner

standonzanzibar1It opens with a television advertisement. Stock cue SOUND. Stock cue VISUAL. Plug cue. Script cue. Best news program anywhere. Starring Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere. Lots of loudness. Lots of promises. Promises of things. Things we didn’t know we need.

…Excerpt interjection by Abbie Hoffman type. Rhythm and more loud. IMPORTANT THINGS TO SAY.

…Followed by fragmented introductions of cast. We don’t know anybody. Yet. Some adverts here and there.

…Problem in small African nation. (Did he say President Obama? Obami. Obami.) Shady things going on. Doesn’t look good.

…More TV. Editorial news. Slang and baby farming.

… Norman as he takes down a woman with liquid helium when she attempts to destroy the predictive AI computer Shalmaneser. Her limbs freeze off. Justice in the modern world reminds him of his grandfather’s slave days.

… CHROME NAIL POLISH!

Then bits and bites of conversations. Snippets of inflammatory political digests. An incestuous brother and sister. Interracial roomie arrangement. Repeat cycle.

[It’s like when I go to Chili’s and the TVs are really loud and on different channels and I am mesmerized by the noisy, moving pictures and can’t even pay attention to the person I’m with.]

This is sensory overload. Polemics in the form of ADHD. Part oracle, part Anarchist Cookbook. A graduate of The Space Merchants Academy, hold the cheese.

But it’s a cohesive distortion, more readable than I’m letting on. Pieces of a world just barely different from our own, a pasted together collage that forms a complete picture, Monet-style. Named after the idea that the entire human population of Earth in 2010 can stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the island of Zanzibar. Brunner is correct, but he said it in 1968, mind you.

Overpopulation, globalization, corporate hegemony, isolation, pressure, militarism, technology—all adding up to the depersonalized state of future shock eptification. That’s a new word, too.

And that’s all the synopsis you’re getting from me. Sheeting deal with it.

We’ve always cared more about property rights than human rights in this country. [93]

standonzanzibar4Perhaps the most direct commentary of the novel comes from its structural strand: the roommate relationship of interracial pair Donald and Norman. Two professional, highly educated men with secrets. They can never feel at peace with one another, not because of their secrets, but because of each other’s skin color, and because of their persistent attraction to women of each other’s race. “I wonder if we’ve been around each other long enough for him to think of me as Donald-a-person instead of Donald-a-WASP,” Donald wonders (61). An expression of the social tensions of post-Civil Rights-era integrated society, this tense relationship doesn’t resolve itself with buddy-buddy palling around– not because Brunner is cynical about integration, but because he believes the scar of the past is too deep to heal quickly, as evidenced by Norman’s preoccupation with his grandfather’s bondage.

…excessive fertility had been allowed as grounds in a Nevada court. [102]

Population limits and state-mandated reproductive controls are also prime targets for Brunner; we see it in The Whole Man (1962), too. It feels strange in this vocally pro-choice era to see such a cunning, leftist mind display such paranoia about population control, clearly a WWII holdover that my generation pays no mind. “Sometimes I wonder how you’d make out in a genuinely nonracial society” “There aren’t any. Give you another generation, you’ll add the genes for dark skin-pigment to the list of—“ [50] It’s an important conversation, but not one we hear nowadays, and Brunner’s message feels somewhat insidious to the generations that value our reproductive rights. Part of this fault is due to the relative unagedness of the novel. It feels so relevant, it feels like a criticism of today. The few things that don’t quite apply might be misinterpreted.

…remote-controlled Nipicaps… there were few more ego-undermining things a woman could do to a block than let it be seen how her erogenous tissue lost interest. [51]

And speaking of things amiss, we can’t go on without discussing the “shiggies,” the homeless, scantily clad women who trade sex for shelter until the guy turns her out to find another place to crash in exchange for sex. It’s one of the most frightening aspects of Brunner’s speculation, where the status of women has been downgraded to the point where even “the oldest trade” is no longer part of underground commerce, but an even flimsier arrangement. In general, shiggie is just slang for “woman,” as many women have managed long-term domestic arrangements with their “codders,” which resemble common fifties-style marital roles. A criticism of marriage in that respect, but in either form, Brunner paints male/female relationships as a less than respectable Quid pro quo arrangement.

Only one woman in the novel has managed to earn legitimate financial independence, due to her cosmetic and fashion empire, where women wear “two tight tubes of shimmering gold to thigh-height,… and a heavy gold fringe three layers deep hanging form a cord stretched hipbone to hipbone” (74), “Maximal access is no exaggeration when you spell it MAXESS,” the latest and greatest of groin-baring shiggie fashion (5). But even her example is less respectable than her male peers, with her achievements built on the arched backs of female sexualization and discomfort. A veritable economic cannibal.

Overall, Brunner depicts a world in which women have lost mobility, demoted from second- to third-class citizenry, becoming sexual chattel temps, despite this being written at the height swelling* of a vocal and strident feminist movement. (*See comments for explanation of strikes.) It’s an odd depiction, suggesting that Brunner was either completely ignorant of, annoyed with, or had no faith in, the feminist movement of the sixties. I doubt the first two, but I’m confused by it. Thank goodness he got that one wrong.

Kardashawho?

Fighting in an army is a psychotic condition. [65]

For your eptification: Brunner plays with terminology in ways that makes me wonder why some of these words haven’t caught on. “Bleeder” replaces “bastard” as THE birth-related insult because hemophilia is the enemy in a eugenically-driven nation. Chad C. Mulligan, radical author of The Hipcrime Vocab, gives us “The New Poor,” “people who are too far behind with time-payments on next year’s model to make the down-payment on the one for the year after,” [268] (which actually has caught on, my googling skills discover). And A.M. and P.M. are replaced by “anti-matter” and “poppa-momma.” (I’m officially adopting these.) (Okay, maybe not “poppa-momma,” but definitely using “anti-matter.”)

StandonZanzibarEerily familiar, with so much of our domestic goods being produced in underpowered, overwhelmed nations, what’s most interesting about Stand on Zanzibar is not its prescience, but what didn’t transpire and what it says about our world, particularly the United States. (Funny that this comes from a British author.) Liberal in its economic blood thirst and militaristic ventures, yet complicatedly prudish, today’s U.S. is much like SoZ’s U.S. society, although different issues hit nerves differently in either society. Our U.S. is more tolerant of same-sex issues (not equitable, just MORE tolerant than), and slower to adopt SoZ’s attitude toward marijuana and hetero sex. Today, we’re eager to display the sex characteristics of women on glossy mag covers at the grocery store checkout line, but don’t you dare dress that way in public. Slut. That disturbs my comfortable visions of nuclear family homogeneity. MAXESS-style fashions are not common in daily life just yet.

BUT CHROME NAIL POLISH! Never mind. He nailed it.

And he also predicted our too late; just postpone guilt:

…the entire human race seemed momentarily united in a single entrancing dream– the hope that the next generation they would bequeath to Mother Earth would be whole, healthy, sane, capable of making amends for the rape they had inflicted in olden days. [358]

Christ, what an imagination he’s got.

Highly, highly, highly recommended.

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34 thoughts on “Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    … And I didn’t even talk about the politico-corporate hegemonic side of this tale. Which is kind of the central point.

    Just read it.

    Like

  2. Wow. Now THAT is how you write a review for Stand.

    Not that I’ve actually finished it or anything—Stand on Zanzibar readings: Couch (not a real couch) 1, Admiral (not a real admiral) 0. I tried to read it when I was first getting into SF, and immediately realized I was a bit out of my league (would have been in my early tweens).

    But you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head based on everything I’ve read, without spoiling anything, while making me want to buckle down and give it a real go. (Also, I assume Joachim will be pleased since it’s his fave book EVAR fullstop.)

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      But you’re Mr. Dos Passos evangelist. I figured you’d be all over this once you got to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        Ah, but early tweens. You should probably try it again. Like tomorrow.

        YOUR TWEENS? I’m afraid to even think about what I was reading back then.

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        • You should probably try it again. Like tomorrow.
          Well, you’ve raised the bar so high that my review will probably be “I read this book, go here and read Megan’s review.”

          YOUR TWEENS? I’m afraid to even think about what I was reading back then.
          Yup, tweens, coming straight off a run of bad fantasy so bad that the Wheel of Time was the “good part.” Nobody has good taste in their tweens.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            In my tweens, I think I read a couple of Michael Crichtons, so yeah, bad taste. But I also watched Heathers, on repeat, so my viewing choices were pretty rad.

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      • I read Dos Passos in college… that whole “getting older” thing seasoned me to real books with complex narratives and non-linear structures.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Yeah, my favorite novel gets one of the best reviews ever 😉 Way to go.

    Like

  4. marzaat says:

    While my review (at http://www.librarything.com/work/21041/reviews/83093560) was very different), we both mentioned Brunner’s fashion sense.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Hmmm, we do disagree! You found it dated, while it felt quite fresh to me! I am amazed that he dreamed up mesh skirts way before 80s MTV.

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  5. Well holy shit. Seriously, I think you could convince me to read anything. But this sounds amaaaazing. Hey wait is this on the SF Masterworks list? (Sounds like it should be.) Because if so I have all of those in my ebook file, just waiting for the moment to strike….

    Reading a review like this makes me even more excited to hear what you have to say about Iron Council. I am going to start “writing” reviews just by linking to whatever you have said about the books. “Megan: Reviewing Books so You Never Want to Say Another Word About Them Again, Because Perfect.”

    Anyway. Can’t wait to read this now.

    By the way, like that pretty book gallery in the sidebar with all the circle images. Pretty.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      “I think you could convince me to read anything.”

      Thank you, but it’s not me, it’s the book. I kept thinking “Nikki has to read this!” Speaking of Iron Council, when Mieville was recommended to me back in the 00s, I was expecting something strong and inflammatory like this. Nope. Iron Council did a better job of that, but not nearly as fun as this.

      I like the gallery, too! I’ve been playing with my sidebar lately. (I even added my name at the bottom there).

      Like

  6. Kirk says:

    My favourite part of Stand on Zanzibar was by far the television series featuring “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere” – and in our current world of writers/actors/directors live-tweeting during the first airing of a show, Mr. Brunner got a pretty exact look at entertainment in our era…

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I also liked that touch, although it also reminded me of Bradbury’s interactive soap opera from Fahrenheit 451, too.

      Thanks for commenting, Kirk. Nice blog you got there 🙂

      Like

  7. fromcouchtomoon says:

    *I have since been informed by @masterobscurity that the actual height of the Second Wave feminist movement occurred just after the publication of Stand on Zanzibar, so Brunner’s writing of this preceded the massive feminist public awareness campaigns of the late sixties. I wasn’t around at the time, but after looking into it more deeply, stuff was happening throughout the sixties, but primarily among white, upper class women, and the media didn’t cover it much until 1968, and then did a pretty terrible job of it. But if things don’t exist in the media, then they don’t exist at all.

    But I think that adds to the idea I cited above that Brunner, a leftist sci-fi writer, knew about the movement, but just didn’t have faith in it. Perhaps things didn’t change quickly enough for him feel that the movement would ever be embraced by the mainstream public.

    Major time-lapsed Twitter convo here:

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  8. Joseph Nebus says:

    I appreciate the review. This is one of those books I tried reading as a teen and bounced off of hard, what with it being all complicated and not like Star Trek novels where the away team is abducted while a menace menaces the ship menacingly for 232 pages and then things are finished. I should go back and try again.

    Like

  9. marzaat says:

    Reblogged this on MarzAat.

    Like

  10. […] Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner – A dystopic collage of media overstimulation and neocolonial globalization, this highly textured sensory experience of our own world, five years ago, predicted nearly 50 years ago. Most interesting is not what he got right, but the few things he got wrong. […]

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  11. […] was pointed out to me after my Stand on Zanzibar post that I might be trying to rush history faster than it actually occurred. (Feminism a ‘70s […]

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  12. Mike White says:

    I’m getting to this really really late, but I’ll second what everyone else said – a superb review that does justice to a complex book.

    You ought to check out The Sheep Look Up if you haven’t already – it really should be read together with SoZ. They both use the same Dos Passos style and both describe a dystopic society, but wow, are they different in tone and vision. Sheep is much darker and unrelentingly bleak. Brunner pulled off the same stylistic high wire act twice, to great effect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I do plan to read The Sheep Look Up, but I did not know they were linked until around the time I was reading Zanzibar. Based on what you and others have said, I’m looking forward to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] have been a tad more interesting if I hadn’t already read Brunner’s brilliant Stand on Zanzibar (1968). As for Bangporn, as he is now called in my house, well, I can see how Davy‘s themes […]

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  14. […] Squares of the City (1965) by John Brunner– not nearly as awesome as Stand on Zanzibar, but much better than the earlier The Whole Man. Like a more serious version of Vonnegut’s […]

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  15. […] Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner, by Erik Bergmann […]

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  16. […] bleeders might have missed it! (Holy crap, I think I forgot to toss in some Hip-crime Vocab from Stand on Zanzibar (1968) on that list! WTF is wrong with […]

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  17. […] of the best SF stems from incendiary doomsaying seeded by contemporary observation: Brunner’s overpopulation, Ballard’s evolutionary regression, Tiptree’s screwfly men. The point of this […]

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  18. […] in ever review, are her stylistic pastiches—for example, her review of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) in his style: “This is sensory overload. Polemics in the form of ADHD. Part oracle, […]

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  19. […] and list of earlier posts). Head over to her blog—do not miss her review of Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) written in his style and more recent rundowns of various award slates, the 2015 Kitschies […]

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  20. […] in every review, are her stylistic pastiches—for example, her review of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) in his style: “This is sensory overload. Polemics in the form of ADHD. Part oracle, […]

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