Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Stand on Zanzibar is set in the 2010s which, in 1968, was the relatively near future. The world has become severely overpopulated, which has serious effects on everyday life. Internal combustion engines are banned in most large cities and have been replaced by fuel-cell and fly-wheel vehicles. Almost everyone has to share housing, even the rich. In jails, prisoners are tranquilized and stacked on bunk beds, one on top of another, which can be pulled in and out of cells like drawers in a filing cabinet.

Rich countries have enacted various forms of eugenic legislation to control birth rates. In the US, for example, you are forbidden to have children if you have genes for certain hereditary conditions like hemophilia, diabetes, phenylketonuria, or color-blindness.


There are two semi-intertwined main plots, each centered on one of the two somewhat asocial main characters, Donald Hogan and Norman House. Donald and Norman are roommates and are also probably as close to being friends as would be possible for either of them.

Norman is black, Muslim, and a VP at General Technics, the world’s largest technology firm. His company sends him to Beninia, a remote African country, to work out a deal to allow GT to mine Beninia’s natural resources before its neighboring countries can invade and do so. While there, Norman finds that Beninians are very strange – no wars, no murders, not even lost tempers – and he sets himself to learning why.

Donald is white, Christian, and a spy for the US government. He gets sent to Yatakang, a remote Asian country, which has announced that it is developing the technology to clone embryos, select out the ones with undesirable traits, and then implant the best in any woman. This may have disastrous consequences for governments as it will allow anyone to get around eugenics laws and have a child. Donald’s mission is to either expose their claim as a fraud or, if it is not a fraud, to make it not come to pass.


Reading Zanzibar is a little like reading Shakespeare or A Clockwork Orange in that it is pretty hard to follow at first. Brunner creates a whole new vocabulary for this future dystopia that you have to get used to. Some of the new terms are abbreviations (“dicty” for “addict”); amalgamations (“Afram” for “African-American”); free-associations (“codder,” from “codpiece,” for “man”); or just plain slang (“shiggy” for “girl”).

But if you persevere, by the time you’re halfway through the book, you can read and understand a sentence like “Sheeting hole, Frank, I’ll never forgive those bleeders!” without batting an eye.

Even the table of contents is wacky. Chapters are listed not in chronological order but by category, of which there are four:

“Continuity” (the main plot)
“Context” (explanations of the main plot)
“Tracking with Closeups” (side stories about minor characters)
“The Happening World” (jumbles of ads, gossip, conversations, and news)

The four types of chapters are interwoven throughout the book. It is a little chaotic, but that is part of what Zanzibar is all about. The combination keeps the plot going, helps you understand it, provides detail and color, and gives you an idea of the volume of stimuli constantly bombarding the populace.


Stand on Zanzibar is similar to Neuromancer in many ways. It has a trippy style and a unique vocabulary. It has advanced technology such as fuel-cell cars and internet-like, real-time global media. It has widespread use of hard-core drugs. It has a massive self-aware computer that controls many everyday operations for all of humanity worldwide. And it even has a woman with metal eyes (in this case, chromed contact lenses).

The main difference (aside from the fact that Zanzibar came out 16 years earlier) is that it is less about the self-aware central computer and more about humans coping with each other in a crazy, overcrowded world. Brunner is bitingly sarcastic and cynical and, at the same time, handles complex issues with a lot of sensitivity and understanding.

Brunner’s main focus is how the loss of privacy and property affects us psychologically. Humans are social animals – until we get overcrowded, and then we turn on each other. The world of Zanzibar is full of violence: individual killing sprees, terrorism, riots, and war. Many people try to escape from it with drugs, most of which are legal or at least tacitly allowed; everything from marijuana to powerful, laboratory-synthesized hallucinogens with names like Triptine and Skulbustium.

Brunner also explores how the pressure created by overpopulation exacerbates the gap between rich and poor and, at the same, binds them more closely. His main message (sent primarily through the character of the popular, cynical sociologist/commentator Chad Mulligan) is that even though you may think you are rich, you are not, really, if the rest of the world is horribly poor. Mulligan points out that water is eleven times more expensive than it was fifty years ago; that all our foods are prefabricated in factories; and that the fanciest new building being built in the world is a jail.

And throughout the whole book runs a perceptive debate about reproduction. In an overpopulated world, choosing to have a child is itself a political statement. And whether or not you want a child, you have to deal with complex emotional issues. Some people desperately want to have a child but are not allowed to because one partner has a bad genotype. Some have good genotypes but are infertile. Some people have excellent genotypes but don’t want children, and are constantly questioned (and constantly question themselves) why they don’t.

There are a million different ways to have a child: donor eggs or sperm, externally-fertilized ova, adoption, cloning. Each option brings anxiety and pain. And when the Yatakangis announce their cloning program, it brings up new issues about tailored babies. Is it right to breed for certain traits and against others? And do parents really want children who are more advanced than them?

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