Stand on Zanzibar
is a dystopic New Wave science fiction novel
written by John Brunner
and first published in 1968 (ISBN 0-09-919110-5). The book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel
at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention
A lengthy book, it was innovative within its genre for mixing narrative with entire chapters dedicated to providing background information and world building
, creating a sprawling narrative that presents a complex and multi-faceted view of the story's future world. Such information-rich chapters were often constructed from many short paragraphs, sentences, or fragments thereof - pulled from sources such as slogans, snatches of conversation, advertising text, songs, extracts from newspapers and books, and other cultural detritus. The result is reminiscent of the concept of information overload
The narrative itself follows the lives of a large cast of characters, carefully chosen to give a broad cross-section of the future world. Some of these interact directly with the central narratives, while others add depth to Brunner's world. Brunner appropriated this basic narrative technique from the U.S.A. Trilogy of John Dos Passos. On the first page of the novel, Brunner provides a quote from The Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan that approximates such a technique, entitling it "the Innis mode" as an apparent label.
As in Dos Passos's work, the chapters are headed by one of several rubrics. These are as follows:
Most of the linear narrative is contained in these chapters.
Tracking with Closeups
These are similar to Dos Passos's Camera sections, and focus closely on ancillary characters before they become part of the main narrative, or simply serve to paint a picture of the state of the world.
The Happening World
These chapters consist of collage-like collections of short, sometimes single-sentence, descriptive passages. The intent is to capture the vibrant, noisy and often ephemeral situations arising in the novel's world. At least one chapter of the narrative, a party where most of the characters meet and where the plot makes a significant shift in direction, is presented in this way.
These chapters, as the name suggests, provide a setting for the novel. They consist of imaginary headlines, classified ads, quotations from the works of the character Chad C. Mulligan, and in one chapter, actual headlines from the 1960's.
Explanation of the novel's title
The novel's main driver is overpopulation
and its projected consequences. Its title refers to an early twentieth century
claim that the world's population could fit onto the Isle of Wight
(area 381 km²) if they were all standing upright. Brunner remarked that the growing world population
now required a larger island—the 3.5 billion people living in 1968 could stand together on the Isle of Man
(area 572 km²), while the 7 billion people whom he projected would be alive in 2010 would need to stand on Zanzibar
(area 1554 km²). Throughout the book, the image of the entire human race standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a small island is a metaphor for a crowded world where each person feels hemmed in by a prison made not of metal bars, but of other human beings. By the end of the book, some of that crowd is (metaphorically) knee deep in the Indian Ocean
surrounding the island.
Books within the book
Quotations from books by Chad C. Mulligan, an iconoclastic social commentator, appear throughout the novel. The quotes illustrate or contrast plot points.
The books are:
- The Hipcrime Vocab, which is like the Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. "Hipcrime" is one of Mulligan's own neologisms. Its only definition is "You committed one when you opened this book. Keep it up. It's our only hope."
- You're an Ignorant Idiot, a series of pieces poking holes in "common sense" and received wisdom.
- Better ? than ?
- You : Beast
The story is set in 2010, mostly in the United States
. A number of plots and many vignettes are played out in this future world, based on Brunner's extrapolation
of social, economic and technological trends. The key main trends are based on the enormous population
and its impact: social stresses, eugenic
legislation, widening social divisions, future shock
, extremism. Certain of Brunner's guesses are fairly close, others not, and some ideas clearly show their 1960s mind-set.
Many futuristic concepts, products and services, and slang are presented. The Hipcrime Vocab and other works by the fictional sociologist Chad C. Mulligan are frequent sources of quotations. Some examples of slang include "codder" (man), "shiggy" (woman), "whereinole" (where in hell?), "prowlie" (an armored police car), "offyourass" (possessing an attitude) and "mucker" (a person running amok). A new technology introduced is "eptification" (education for particular tasks), a form of mental programming.
The book centres on two New York men, Donald Hogan and Norman Niblock House. House is a rising executive at General Technics, one of the all-powerful corporations. Using his "Afram" (African American) heritage to advance his position, he has risen to vice-president at age twenty-six.
Hogan is introduced with a single paragraph rising out of nowhere, "Donald Hogan is a spy". Donald shares an apartment with House and is undercover as a student. Hogan's real work is as an analyst, although he is a commissioned officer and can be called up for duty.
The two main plots concern the fictional African state of Beninia (a name reminiscent of the real-life Benin, though that nation was known as the Republic of Dahomey when the book was written) making a deal with General Technics to take over the management of their country, in a bid to speed up development from third world to first world status. A second major plot is break-through in genetic engineering in the fictional Australasian nation of Yatakang (which seems to be a disguised Indonesia), which Hogan is soon sent by the U.S. government ("State") to investigate. The two plots eventually cross, bringing potential implications for the entire world.
Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science
The country of Yatakang is described as being spread over more than 100 islands, the largest of which is Shongao, area 1790 sq mi. Shongao is also described as being shaped like a sword. The description closely matches Palawan, which lies between the main Philippine Islands and Sarawak. This location is consistent with small scale "aqua-bandit" guerilla attacks on the Philippines from Yatakang.
Several "post-colonial" countries in Africa have merged to remove the artificial borders imposed by the colonial powers. Examples include Dahomalia (Dahomey, Upper Volta, and Mali), and RUNG, or the Republican Union of Nigeria and Ghana. However these new countries have become economic and military rivals. The fictional country of Beninia is caught between them.
In the United States of America both Puerto Rico and the Philippines are full members of the Union. Puerto Rico is referred to by the nickname "Junior-but-one State". The Philippines are under attack from neighboring Yatakang and the USA is thus involved in a Vietnam-like anti-guerilla war there.
The central question asked at the end of the book was posed by one of the characters, Chad C. Mulligan, when he said, "What good is it to be human if it takes a machine to save us?" The question here refers to the machine Shalmaneser
, a super-computer owned by General Technics. As the two major plot lines intertwine we find that mankind's hope of breeding out violence in subsequent generations has been lost. While it might be possible for man to achieve and implement a limited solution, Norman House suggests that the problem be handed over to Shalmaneser and solved.
The reader will however have great reservations about House's proposal, as there are several "Utterances of Shalmaneser" separating sections of the novel, and even within context, it is quite clear that the Supercomputer, while certainly sentient, is also equally psychotic in personality. Entrusting the fate of humanity to it is an endeavour fraught with peril.
John Brunner, however, has often espoused the view that entrusting the fate of humanity to a single system inevitably results in such disaster, and therefore the argument is consistent within his work.