Stand on Zanzibar

Superpowers UK coverThe plot: probably the least interesting aspect of the whole book, but here you go. There are two main threads, developing from the lives of two room-mates in 2010 New York, both of which involves first-world intervention in third-world nations. Norman House, VP at General Technics, ends up managing a huge investment in the (fictional) ex-colonial African nation of Beninia, at the behest of the ailing president; meanwhile, Donald Hogan, who works as an information synthesizer for the government, is “activated”, brainwashed with super-action-spy-skills, and sent to the (equally fictional) South-East Asian island nation Yatakang, where the government has announced they have the capability to create genetically enhanced supermen. Surrounding this narrative is a penumbra of vignettes, extracts from books, song lyrics, transcripts of videos, and much else, often but not always related to the main action in some way, which serve to flesh out the world.

What they thought then, part one: M. John Harrison, New Worlds 186 (January 1969):

… an application of the Dos Passos technique to the speculative field, a massive collage of a book that offers a broad fictional extrapolation from current events. Brunner presents as his protagonist an unbalanced society, consumer oriented and consuming itself to death. Violence and the special poverties of utopia set the tone; race riots; genetic control, and an East-West confrontation are balanced by ephemeral close-ups of personal frustration. Admass manipulators attempting to peg the status quo demolish human dignity from above while guerilla-action and anarchy attack it from below. This is a well-conceived book — a satisfyingly complete vision — marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited. And his solution of the violence problem, though clever, is superfluous — it might have been more effective simply to state the problem.

What they thought then, part two: It won the Hugo in 1969, beating Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, Nova by Samuel R Delany, Past Master by RA Lafferty, and The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak.

Commentary, part one: Harrison is surely right about the completeness of Stand on Zanzibar‘s future being its most satisfying aspect; as is the way in any multi-threaded novel, not every thread is equally interesting all of them time, but every thread in is interesting at some point. The sheer number of trends extrapolated is staggering, and not just because some of the predictions seem spookily accurate, but because they’re integrated in a way that makes them seem part of the same society, and because Brunner is quite bold in connecting his present to his future — there’s even a complete history of fashion, at one point. I’m not sure, though, that the balance is completely satisfactory — I would have liked to believe that the world was the true character, say, but Hogan and House kept getting in the way — and I’m not sure that I buy Harrison’s take on the ending, which is surely powerful precisely because the solution it identifies is beyond the reach of the characters to grasp.

I haven’t read any of the other novels on that year’s Hugo shortlist, but it strikes me as a worthy winner.

The structure: There are four types of chapter, which largely do what they say, although there is some fluidity of material and style between different types. “Context” provides, typically, an extract from a book, or some other document, or a transcript of something or other, which explains the background of this 2010. “This Happening World” is about tracking the real-time of the world, and mixes thing up: a couple of lines of dialogue, an advertising slogan, a couple of lines from an article of some kind. “Tracking with Closeups” are the character vignette chapters, minor characters who may appear later in the main Hogan/House plot, or who may just be glancingly affected by some aspect of it. And “Continuity” is the meat of the story. As many will tell you (the detractors, cheerfully so), the style is more or less lifted from John Dos Passos’ USA; but for obvious infodump-related reasons, it’s a style extraordinarily well-suited to science fiction (and to this type of science fiction), and Brunner makes good use of it. It’s a steal for honorable purpose.

Vocabulary, a selection: Zecks (executives); Codders (men); Bleeding (swearword); Sheeting (ditto); Mucker (someone run amok); Block (never quite worked this one out); Shiggy (sort of a professionally single woman); Afram (African American); Hole (swearword, replaces “hell”); prowlie (police car); orbiting (getting high). Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. While the thought behind, say, “bleeding” is good — it’s replaced words like “bastard” and “bugger”, which are now considered purely descriptive without stigma attached to them, while hemophilia, as a heritable disease, is something to be ashamed of — I could never quite hear anyone saying it with the necessary force. In general I admired Brunner’s attempts at stylistic diversity, without thinking all of them equally successful.

What they thought a bit later: Brian Aldiss, p 367 of Trillion Year Spree (1986):

This sort of unlikely and unpleasant melodrama militates against the lively intellectual dance going on elsewhere, and eventually overwhelms it. Before that, Brunner conducts a teach-in on modern moralities, aided by Chad Mulligan, a sort of hippie philosopher. As with all Propter-figures, as with Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw, Mulligan wearies, being an author mouthpiece. He puts us all to rights and even out-talks Shalmaneser. The book becomes too long. … But it is an interesting experiment, because it marks a stage along the road, midway between pulp and social commentary.

Commentary, part two: I don’t disagree with Aldiss’ assessment of the way House/Hogan’s story gradually becomes overpowering (see above), but I thought Chad Mulligan livened up the book considerably, something I emphatically cannot say about the Heinleinian equivalents. Perhaps it’s because I never did feel he was an author mouthpiece, at least not in the sense that I believed Brunner believed everything he had Mulligan say, or that I was expected to believe it; in the sense that Mulligan was a way of spinning out notions in front of an audience, maybe. Perhaps, also, it’s because I feel that Mulligan gets to put his finger on the heart of the book when he asks Shalmaneser what it would take for the computer to believe in Beninia. Suspension of disbelief is a key question for any book that positions itself anywhere along the utopia/dystopia line: what would it take for us to believe in the possibility of a better world, or better people?

Predictions, part one: accurate. Implanted contraceptives. Hyperactive media. Gay marriage. TiVo. Genetic modification (and industrial pharma, to an extent). Privacy, or lack thereof, as a key social issue. Puffa jackets. Globalisation.

Genre descendents: Big chunks of cyberpunk; maybe The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson; Counting Heads by David Marusek; River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Predictions, part two: inaccurate. The reliance on big central computers. The absence of peak oil and climate change. Continuing cold war-esque paranoia. The introduction of eugenics laws to control population growth. Sexual mores.

On shiggies: I have to say, I didn’t find the gender roles nearly as outdated or troubling as I’d been led to expect, which is not to say the book is unproblematic in this area. On the plus side, the shiggies — essentially the free love movement extrapolated into a whole social class — were depicted, so far as I noticed, without a trace of disapproval, and there were numerous female characters in prominent and powerful roles (not least the head of General Technics). What was missing, though, was a sense of balance, which in a way is a microcosm of my reservations about the novel’s overall structure, which is to say that although lots of female characters are mentioned, and have speaking parts, none of them are central in the way that Hogan, House and Mulligan are. Similarly, I’d have expected there to be male shiggies as well as female shiggies, and I didn’t notice any.

What they think now, part one: Adam Roberts, p.248 of his Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006):

Other titles from the decade now seem less significant, despite being praised extravagantly in their own day. The British author John Brunner’s (1934-1995) Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is a lengthy disquisition layered over a sort of spy plot, set in a monstrously overpopulated world. But its choppy, “experimental” style, lifted directly from the work of the American Modernist John Dos Passos (1896-1970) seems second-hand and over-boiled, and the premise of the novel has a phlogistonic lack of contemporary bite (overpopulation had not brought the world to a standstill by the start of the twenty-first century, and will not do so by the start of the twenty-second either). Of course, Brunner was not alone in thinking his premise sharply relevant: many writers in the 1960s and 1970s adopted positions of Malthusian gloominess on the subject of overpopulation; a better treatment of the theme than Brunner’s (better because rooted in a Pulp terseness rather than a High Modernist prolixity) is Harry Harrison’s (b.1925) Make Room! Make Room! (1966).

What they think now, part two: Geoff Ryman, in SFX 168 (April 2008) [pdf]:

Every page has both a great SF idea and an emotional twist to the story. Its technique is kaleidoscopic … This wouldn’t work if Brunner wasn’t so good at different voices. This age’s hip commentator, Chad Mulligan, is quoted from at length. To an extent he’s Brunner’s mouthpiece (and a great way to info-dump) but he also convinces as a radical and original thinker … The world feels pretty much like now — which is when it’s set, not in 1968, the year it was first published … there is no other British SF novel I can think of with this breadth of invention, character and setting. There is something of Dickens in the vast panorama, the mix of wit, terror, sentiment, and satirical characters.

Commentary, part three: I find myself somewhere between messrs Roberts and Ryman. I don’t think the kaleidoscopic view is entirely successful; but nor do I think it by any means stale, particularly early on, when the disorienting effect of immersion is at its most powerful. Roberts is right to point out that the concerns about overpopulation don’t feel as pressing as they apparently did when Brunner was writing the book, but the way in which it asks what it is about humans that limits our ability to live together, that seems to make terrorism or solipsism such common responses to living in Brunner’s future, chimed with me. It also seemed to me a novel provocative on the subject of racial issues and interactions (much more so, actually, than on gendered ones; take that as you will), asking valid questions about postcolonial global relations. What it takes for countries to live together, if you like, and whether benevolent intervention is even possible (whether or not desirable). Which is to say that in many ways it did still feel like now; an alternate version of now, admittedly, but a tomorrow I could recognise.

See also: Wikipedia page here; Karen Burnham’s take here.