Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
1969 Hugo Award Winner
Got it from: Our Library
(HIPCRIME You committed one when you opened this book. Keep it up. It’s our only hope.
(The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan)
No introduction. No preamble. You open your eyes and the world is teetering on the brink of population induced collapse. The response: mass hysteria, mass drug use, paranoia, eugenics. Cats and dogs are living together. Non-breeding sexuality has women living as second-class citizens. Abstracted pop culture and everything! creates superhuman, super-crazy “muckers”. There are too many people in the world and it seems we are powerless to do anything about it. I didn’t get the sense that things had eroded into Malthusian collapse yet, but stang were they right on the edge.
A damn frightening thing
A goodly portion of this book seems to be quite distinctly not SF. As it is hailed, it feels much more like a sociological thriller, giving special attention to scientific or astro-achievements, but to the supreme difficulty of making your way in not only the modern world, but an overpopulated one. So much of the book is devoted to worldbuilding and very little of that has anything to do with science. Instead they were (usually) short personal experiences or excerpts from some other text or pop culture phenomena. Sure there are some SF elements that are quite important, especially later in the book, but they are nothing compared to those worldbuilding elements.
But at the same time, it does have that SF outlook that I have come to recognize in the Hugo winners of the 50’s and 60’s. Namely, that within the realm of a wildly expanding field of science, anything is possible and given human nature, given our history, that can be exhilarating or it can be a damn frightening thing.
I wouldn’t dispute that this is a work of science fiction. Population dynamics, ecology, economics, psychology, etc., it’s all there. Especially in the case of the most modern of the sciences, SOZ certainly relies on a scientific understanding of the world, but how Brunner experiences that and makes sense of our place in the world seemed to me something else entirely. I’m also reticent to say it is the great sociological text that the back cover copy called it. To me it was something more of a mix of sociology, phenomenology and politics. Phenomenosociolitics. Coined it.
In all seriousness, SOZ is more akin to novelized science if that were a thing. Science has been warning of collapse and population bombs for many years and Brunner was no doubt aware and it shows. I don’t get the sense that Brunner was dreaming of what could happen. He was just painting the picture everyone had been talking about.
Reading SOZ is disorienting to say the least. The extensive worldbuilding not only does the job of places you within a context, but it also forces you to experience that context of a world gone nearly mad. The result is to pass along, so completely that feeling of alienation that many of the characters struggle with. The result is unique and I’m glad to have read it, but it also makes it quite difficult to trudge through sometimes. It felt like trying to watch a movie with a crowd of people shouting at you – which pretty much reflects how the characters were living.
The cover calls SOZ a “novel of the future”, but it is most unsettling because it is not actually a novel of the future. It exaggerates current (1960’s) trends and sometimes doesn’t even exaggerate them but placed in the context of an overpopulated earth (a very real possibility) they seem stupefying and horrific. How many people have not complained about the social bankruptcy of the times? Cynicism is always vogue. Every generation seems to see the next generation as hopelessly lost to the juggernaut that is “progress”. This is why, even though there are elements that are quite dated, the fear, the cynicism, the apathy comes through loud and clear and still cuts to the bone.
I’m pretty ambivalent about this book as a literary work. I thought the story suffered for the commitment to worldbuilding in that sometimes entire chapters were devoted to just experience the scatterbrained, over-stimulated, over-populated view of the world. And then some of those chapters might only be a paragraph long and the characters or sub-plots are so minor that it’s hard to really care about what’s happening. I do give Brunner credit for the experience he created though. I felt his world sufficiently built. I didn’t feel like I had read about an overpopulated earth and could imagine what Brunner imagined that place to be. I felt I had literally experienced the horror for myself. I was right there with him so much that I feel like I have this lingering sense of dread and pessimism that I can’t fully blame on just being over-tired. Check out some of my posts from this week to get a sense of how this book can read at times and just be aware of what you are about to step in before it’s already all over your shoe.
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Scientific Wonders 3/5
The die being cast…
This week’s book is Gateway by Frederik Pohl. Pohl’s name has been coming up ever since I started reading SF a few years back. For whatever reason, I’ve never gotten around to him though, so I am really excited to cross another name off my list.
Next week’s book is Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre. My first female author!