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.
Author: Fritz Leiber
Release Date: 1964
** spoiler alert ** Now that I’ve read two of Fritz Lieber award winning books, I’m more confident saying I don’t care for his writing. This book focuses on three main stories after a new planet shows up near our moon. Plenty of spoilers follow. The primary story, about a group of UFO fanatics on their way to a military base, is OK at times but gets completely ruined by the fact that it ends up being about Margo finding herself as a woman after shooting an alien gun, and falling in love with a married man who knows how to talk I nonsense to her and abandoning her fiancé who was stuck on the moon when gravity tore it apart. This all takes place over about one day, and there’s also talk she might actually be in love with the head scientist that they meet for one paragraph at the end.
Both her fiancé, Don, and their best friend Paul are also in love with Margo, and both end up on the new planet. Paul falls out of love with her after having sex with a cat person alien (which began with him scratching under her chin). Don falls out of love on his way back to Earth, because, well why not. Those three are the main stories, but the destruction of the Earth needs to be shown, so about a dozen stories with cardboard characters are mixed in, including a couple screwing, three marijuana smokers, and some offensive depictions of African Americans and a lesbian that really wants screwed by a man as the world is ending.
As for the good stuff, the concept as a whole wasn’t bad. The mysterious man and second planet showing up both added some twists I didn’t see coming. The same plot outline with a different writer developing the characters could have made this a great book.
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Release Date: June 1963
I didn’t know anything about this book before starting it. The ploy – Enoch Wallace lives by himself out in the country and hasn’t aged since the Civil War. The mystery of his life opens the book, but is quickly revealed to be the story of a gatekeeper for visiting aliens. Pretty wild stuff, and for the first fifty pages I was really enjoying it.
The plot slows down at that point but still stays interesting as it details Wallace’s daily routine. The author continued to add science fiction elements but not all of them added to a good story. The “talisman” in particular was a complete deus ex machina and the holographic love interest never entirely fit.
This book was still one of the better early Hugo award winners, with some unique alien races and protagonist, but missed out on being great with an all too tidy ending.
A Canticle for Leibowitz
Author: Walter M. Miller Jr.
Release Date: 1959
This book is basically three separate short stories surrounding the same religious brotherhood in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland Earth. The first story was about a young monk finding a bomb shelter and the important “memorabilia” that could have originated from the title character of Liebowitz. This story ended up being my favorite of the three with the absurdity of the situation.
The second story time jumped and followed a new Abbot as the memorabilia was inspected and evaluated. It ended up being the least interesting of the stories due to the off screen drama of warring factions never really being clear or paying off. The final story brought it all full circle, as the religious order had to face a Cold War with rising nuclear tensions and a citizenry willing to euthanize those affected by the fallout.
Overall the book had an interesting theme throughout but the individual stories were just average. The religion got a bit heavy handed for science fiction in the end which also detracted from my enjoyment.
A Case of Conscience
Author: James Blish
Release Date: 1958
The early Hugo award winners have fallen into two groups for me: books with great ideas but average/poor execution (“The Demolished Man,” “They’d Rather Be Right,” and “The Big Time”) and books with smaller ideas that are really well written (anything by Heinlein). This book fell into the former category, with four Earth scientists having to make a decision on whether to open up an alien planet to Earth travel. The main character is a very religious man who faces… A case of conscience.
The problems are twofold. First, the initial dilemma is debated over about 8 pages total in the book, and the religious character doesn’t use any good logical rationale to support his belief in his position. Second, more of the book is devoted to a storyline about the **spoiler alert** alien they bring home who only wants to cause insurrection on Earth.
The idea of the serpent in the garden of Eden was in the back of my head while reading this and it did eventually get discussed (and then discarded by the sudden, violent ending). While I can’t call this a good book, it did have a cool initial concept and made me think a little, hence the three stars.
The Big Time
Author: Fritz Leiber
Release Date:March 1958
The plot of this book sounds awesome (two factions battling through time, the snakes and the spiders, each group made up of humans and aliens pulled from different time streams!) but the actual plot is very different though nearly as interesting sounding (a group is stuck in a locked room with a ticking time bomb and possible traitors in their midst!). BUT, the story that is told about these two plots is done from the perspective of an “entertainer,” in the war named Greta whose role is essentially part prostitute, part nurse as she hangs out at the brothel and observed customers and coworkers bicker over trivial matters.
The character of Greta is almost entirely reactionary, with the dialogue and motivations of a secretary in a tv show set in the 1950’s that’s not “Mad Men.” The supporting cast was equally bland. Nearly halfway through the book a character named Bruce tried to ask why they were fighting this war and it was remarkable how much more interesting that page or two was than the rest of the story. Of course that discussion was quickly shelved. The rest of the characters can be told apart by the following method: do they speak in an annoying to read Shakespeare-inferior dialect? are they an octopus? are they narrating the book? Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine on differentiating the characters.
I read a lot of Heinlein, and this is the type of story he would have made great. “Double Star” was similarly set in a crazy scifi setting but told a simple human story. The difference is that Heinlein’s book is full of fun anecdotes and had a narrator that earns your admiration. I enjoyed the concepts of this book but the execution was a total miss.