Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

This review is listed on, written by Joe Haldeman:
"A wake-up call to a world slumbering in the opium dream of consumerism; in the hazy certainty that we humans were in charge of nature.  Science fiction is not about predicting the future, it's about elucidating the present and the past.  Brunner's 1968 nightmare is crystallizing around us, in ways he could not have foreseen then.  If the right people had read this book, and acted in accordance with its precepts and spirit, our world would not be in such precarious shape today.  Maybe it's time for a new generation to read it."

When Stand on Zanzibar was recommended to me by a friend in GoodReads, I hadn't heard of it before.  I also hadn't heard of John Brunner.  This is particularly surprising considering my love of dystopian literature, and that is practically all he wrote, in slight variations.

It makes sense.  According to British Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers Since 1960, both John and his wife Marjorie were active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament starting in the late 1950s.  In the early 1960s they toured Europe and the United States with promotional displays, including poems, songs, and translations by John Brunner.

That may be one reason Brunner refers to Stand on Zanzibar as a "non-novel."  It is a portrayal of 2010 from the perspective of 1967-8, with the logical conclusion that he saw if we continued in the path we were on.  His 2010 is a land of information overload, omnipresent advertising, technological increases, overpopulation, and advances in genetic engineering that have led to bizarre body modifications as well as legislation about who may reproduce, and how much.  Some of it seems rather familiar. 

The (non)novel begins with chaos, a written portrayal of what information overload feels like that, and the reader is confronted with disjointed scenes that seem bizarre.  Eventually a narrative is formed out of the chaos, and the story ends up in Baninia, a country that is being set up to be led by artificial intelligence, just one more advance that has been made by 2010.  There are sections throughout the story that come from the writings of "Chad Mulligan," a sociologist, who ends up playing a key part in the story.  He is very specifically reprimanding the human race for giving up their privacy, for allowing technology to be too pervasive, and so on.  The greatest irony is that while his message may be important, it is lost in all the noise.

I got more curious about where Brunner was coming from.  I knew he only lived until 1995, when he died at WorldCon in Scotland, but that was a lot closer to 2010 than 1967 had been.  After some digging, I found an article written by John Brunner, from New scientist v. 138:1868, published 10 April 1993, two years before his death.

As to what inspired Stand on Zanzibar, he said:
"In 1966 it occurred to me to wonder how people would react, in an uncomfortably crowded future when they had painfully accepted the need for eugenic legislation to prevent children being born with transmissible defects, if scientists developed means to optimize the embryo so that any child could be an Einstein, a Mozart, a Helen of Troy, or whatever was flavour of the month."
He also talks about how corruption in government and fanaticism in religion has prevented the world from setting itself in a direction that would be restorative.  He actually predicted this in Stand on Zanzibar.  One of Chad Mulligan's writings addresses religion.
"In effect, applying the yardstick of extremism leads one to conclude that the human species itself is unlikely to last long."
Back to the article.  In other words, if Stand on Zanzibar had been his attempt at a warning, the world did not listen.

It ends with this:
"Science fiction used to be the most optimistic form of literature, apart from inspirational propaganda. That too has been taken away. I no longer believe in our glorious future among the stars. Too many of us are behaving too stupidly down here on Earth for those worn visions to be any longer credible. In consequence I don't write a lot of science fiction nowadays. I find I'm writing mostly horror."
Obviously, to Brunner, the future remained bleak, and humanity remained stupid.  It reminded me of a scene in the novel where Donald has accidentally caused a major riot, and is at the police station, waking up from being gassed.  The police chief is less than thrilled.
"I don't believe in God," said the captain. "I wouldn't care to believe in anyone who could make such a stinky lousy species as the one you belong to."
And later on, when SHALMANESER gets introduced (the artificial intelligence they hope to run a country with), Mulligan warns:
"They say he's as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn't really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave."
Throughout Stand on Zanzibar, Brunner warns that we are getting in our own way.

For further cheery reading, check out this article in the Guardian, published in 2010, when the book is set.  It discusses how much of his vision of the future turned out to be accurately predicted. Even if we are past his future, the book is well worth a read.  You do have to be willing to give over to the reading "noise" that you may encounter, but it is thought-provoking for sure. 

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