Stand on Zanzibar
Author: John Brunner
Stand on Zanzibar won the 1969 Hugo Award for best novel, beating (among other books) Rite of Passage which was a book I really enjoyed. While Stand on Zanzibar was much more ambitious than Rite of Passage, I preferred Panshin’s book to Brunner’s though Zanzibar was still much better than several other award winners from that era (sorry Delaney).
The first thing that strikes a reader beginning this book is the unusual structure Brunner uses to tell his story. Instead of solely advancing a narrative, Brunner utilizes a macro-micro type of setting similar to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but with four separate styles of chapters. The chapter styles alternate between:
- Continuity – This is the basic narrative advancement
- Tracking with closeups – This follows secondary characters, and then eventually becomes a second main plot passing through the book
- The happening world – This is a scattershot macro section where rapid fire paragraphs give headlines, slogans, conversations, etc. to funnel a ton of information and create a sense of atmosphere
- Context – Similar to the appendices tacked onto the end of Dune, these chapters just provide additional world building.
The plot of Stand on Zanzibar follows a few main threads that all deal with the overpopulation epidemic of the future (of the distant year of 2010!). A super computer owned by a General Electric type company is used to direct decisions by the most powerful company in the world. A small country in Africa has the very unusual characteristics of no murders or border conflicts for years and is looking for a new leader to replace their dying President. A genetics specialist in Asia claims to have developed the secret to creating super babies for those so inclined; the United States sends a spy in to determine the truthfulness of the claim.
While this was a book that took me awhile to get interested in (it doesn’t really pick up or steer the plot until a long cocktail party chapter told through rapid fire conversation switches) I actually ended up really enjoying it by the end. The science stuff actually holds up better than one would expect from the subject matter, as Brunner’s writing ends up having a kind of internet/twitter vibe with all the rapid fire information. The interconnection of politics and major corporations also was well done. Although some of the racial politics of the book have a very 1960’s slant, unfortunately some of the issues (police relations, representation at the corporate level) are still very relevant today.
If I had a main criticism of the book it’s that the characters are pretty flat, with only one of them being particularly interesting. Donald is a spy sent to the small Asian country by the United States. **Slight spoilers though the rest of this paragraph** Before he goes he is basically reprogrammed Jason Bourne style to also be an assassin. His character’s storyline is the most exciting one in the book, but that’s more a statement on the lack of competition by the supporting cast. Norman is probably the main protagonist of this book, the lone black man on the board of the big company and the man most responsible for the super computer becoming the new president of the small African country. Most of the tension in this plot line is whether the transition will be profitable for the company or not.
While I’ll probably remember this book as one that took a long time to get into and focused on style (unusual chapter structure) over substance (character development), I should point out that this was also the type of book that draws you in as it progresses. The fact that not all of the plot threads end up connecting is actually a good thing as the two main characters start out roommates and too many connections at the end would have felt forced.