|Cover artist||S. A. Summit, Inc.|
|Genre||Science fiction, dystopian|
|Media type||Hardback & paperback|
Stand on Zanzibar is a dystopian New Wave science fiction novel written by John Brunner and first published in 1968. The book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention in 1969, as well as the 1969 BSFA Award and the 1973 Prix Tour-Apollo Award.
Stand on Zanzibar was innovative within the science fiction genre for mixing narrative with entire chapters dedicated to providing background information and worldbuilding, to create 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 in-world sources such as slogans, snatches of conversation, advertising text, songs, extracts from newspapers and books, and other cultural detritus.
The narrative itself follows the lives of a large cast of characters, 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 USA Trilogy, by John Dos Passos. On the first page of the novel, Brunner provides a quote from Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy that approximates such a technique, entitling it "the Innis mode" as an apparent label.
The primary engine of the novel's story is overpopulation and its projected consequences. The title refers to an early twentieth-century claim that the world's population could fit onto the Isle of Wight—which has an area of 381 square kilometres (147 sq mi)—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 square kilometres (221 sq mi)], while the 7 billion people who he projected would be alive in 2010 would need to stand on Zanzibar [area 1,554 square kilometres (600 sq mi)]. 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.
As in Dos Passos's work, the chapters are headed by one of several rubrics:
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 and extremism. Certain of Brunner's guesses are fairly close, others not, and some ideas clearly show their 1960s mindset.
Many futuristic concepts, products and services, and slang are presented. A supercomputer named Shalmaneser is an essential plot element. 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 armoured police car), "offyourass" (possessing an attitude), "bivving" (bisexuality, from "ambivalent") and "mucker" (a person running amok). A new technology introduced is "eptification" (education for particular tasks), a form of mental programming. Another is a kind of interactive television that shows the viewer as part of the program ("Mr. & Mrs. Everywhere"). Genetically modified microorganisms are used as terrorist weapons.
The book centres on two New York men, Donald Hogan and Norman Niblock House, who share an apartment. 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 a "synthesist", although he is a commissioned officer and can be called up for active duty.
The two main plots concern the fictional African state of Beninia (a name reminiscent of the real-life Benin, though that nation in the Bight of Benin 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 a break-through in genetic engineering in the fictional South East Asian nation of Yatakang (an island nation and a former Dutch colony, like Indonesia), to which Hogan is soon sent by the US Government ("State") to investigate. The two plots eventually cross, bringing potential implications for the entire world.
Quotations from books by Chad C. Mulligan, a former sociologist turned iconoclastic social commentator, appear throughout the novel to illustrate or contrast plot points. The books are:
Algis Budrys declared that Stand on Zanzibar "takes your breath away," saying that the novel "put[s] itself together seemingly without effort [and] paints a picture of the immediate future as it will, Brunner convinces you, certainly be." James Blish, however, received the novel negatively, saying "I disliked everybody in it and I was constantly impeded by the suspicion that Brunner was not writing for himself but for a Prize. ...A man of Brunner's gifts should have seen ab initio that U.S.A. was a stillbirth even in its originator's hands".
Thirty years after its initial publication, Greg Bear praised Stand on Zanzibar as a science fiction novel that, unusually, has not become dated since its original appearance: "It's not quite the future we imagined it to be, but it still reads as fresh as it did back in 1968, and that's an amazing accomplishment!" In a retrospective review for The Guardian in 2010, Sam Jordison found the novel a "skilfully realised future dystopia", writing that it allowed Brunner "to express his most interesting ideas regarding corporate ethics, free will, the question of whether scientific progress is always good for humanity and the conflict between the individual and the state". Ursula K. Heise declared that "Stand on Zanzibar, to some extent, sets the tone for literary texts from the 1980s and 1990s that reengage the issue of population growth against the background of a multitude of interacting political, social, economic, ecological, and technological problems".
In his 2021 book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, historian Niall Ferguson lauds Stand on Zanzibar for foreseeing the future better than more popular novels such as Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, Anthem, or the like. He writes:
Yet, on further reflection, none of these authors truly foresaw all the peculiarities of our networked world, which has puzzlingly combined a rising speed and penetration of consumer information technology with a slackening of progress in other areas, such as nuclear energy, and a woeful degeneration of governance. The real prophets turn out, on closer inspection, to be less familiar figures—for example, John Brunner, whose Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is set in 2010, at a time when population pressure has led to widening social divisions and political extremism. Despite the threat of terrorism, U.S. corporations like General Technics are booming, thanks to a supercomputer named Shalmaneser. China is America's new rival. Europe has united. Brunner also foresees affirmative action, genetic engineering, Viagra, Detroit's collapse, satellite TV, in-flight video, gay marriage, laser printing, electric cars, the de criminalization of marijuana, and the decline of tobacco. There is even a progressive president (albeit of Beninia, not America) named "Obomi."
In a 2021 article regarding the prognostic ability of novelists, The Guardian pointed out that Stand on Zanzibar had accurately predicted the European Union, the rise of China as a superpower, the fall of the Detroit auto industry... and the inauguration of a... President named "Obomi."