Stand on Zanzibar

Superpowers UK coverThe plot: probably the least interesting aspect of the whole book, but here you go. There are two main threads, developing from the lives of two room-mates in 2010 New York, both of which involves first-world intervention in third-world nations. Norman House, VP at General Technics, ends up managing a huge investment in the (fictional) ex-colonial African nation of Beninia, at the behest of the ailing president; meanwhile, Donald Hogan, who works as an information synthesizer for the government, is “activated”, brainwashed with super-action-spy-skills, and sent to the (equally fictional) South-East Asian island nation Yatakang, where the government has announced they have the capability to create genetically enhanced supermen. Surrounding this narrative is a penumbra of vignettes, extracts from books, song lyrics, transcripts of videos, and much else, often but not always related to the main action in some way, which serve to flesh out the world.

What they thought then, part one: M. John Harrison, New Worlds 186 (January 1969):

… an application of the Dos Passos technique to the speculative field, a massive collage of a book that offers a broad fictional extrapolation from current events. Brunner presents as his protagonist an unbalanced society, consumer oriented and consuming itself to death. Violence and the special poverties of utopia set the tone; race riots; genetic control, and an East-West confrontation are balanced by ephemeral close-ups of personal frustration. Admass manipulators attempting to peg the status quo demolish human dignity from above while guerilla-action and anarchy attack it from below. This is a well-conceived book — a satisfyingly complete vision — marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited. And his solution of the violence problem, though clever, is superfluous — it might have been more effective simply to state the problem.

What they thought then, part two: It won the Hugo in 1969, beating Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin, Nova by Samuel R Delany, Past Master by RA Lafferty, and The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak.

Commentary, part one: Harrison is surely right about the completeness of Stand on Zanzibar‘s future being its most satisfying aspect; as is the way in any multi-threaded novel, not every thread is equally interesting all of them time, but every thread in is interesting at some point. The sheer number of trends extrapolated is staggering, and not just because some of the predictions seem spookily accurate, but because they’re integrated in a way that makes them seem part of the same society, and because Brunner is quite bold in connecting his present to his future — there’s even a complete history of fashion, at one point. I’m not sure, though, that the balance is completely satisfactory — I would have liked to believe that the world was the true character, say, but Hogan and House kept getting in the way — and I’m not sure that I buy Harrison’s take on the ending, which is surely powerful precisely because the solution it identifies is beyond the reach of the characters to grasp.

I haven’t read any of the other novels on that year’s Hugo shortlist, but it strikes me as a worthy winner.

The structure: There are four types of chapter, which largely do what they say, although there is some fluidity of material and style between different types. “Context” provides, typically, an extract from a book, or some other document, or a transcript of something or other, which explains the background of this 2010. “This Happening World” is about tracking the real-time of the world, and mixes thing up: a couple of lines of dialogue, an advertising slogan, a couple of lines from an article of some kind. “Tracking with Closeups” are the character vignette chapters, minor characters who may appear later in the main Hogan/House plot, or who may just be glancingly affected by some aspect of it. And “Continuity” is the meat of the story. As many will tell you (the detractors, cheerfully so), the style is more or less lifted from John Dos Passos’ USA; but for obvious infodump-related reasons, it’s a style extraordinarily well-suited to science fiction (and to this type of science fiction), and Brunner makes good use of it. It’s a steal for honorable purpose.

Vocabulary, a selection: Zecks (executives); Codders (men); Bleeding (swearword); Sheeting (ditto); Mucker (someone run amok); Block (never quite worked this one out); Shiggy (sort of a professionally single woman); Afram (African American); Hole (swearword, replaces “hell”); prowlie (police car); orbiting (getting high). Some of this works, some of it doesn’t. While the thought behind, say, “bleeding” is good — it’s replaced words like “bastard” and “bugger”, which are now considered purely descriptive without stigma attached to them, while hemophilia, as a heritable disease, is something to be ashamed of — I could never quite hear anyone saying it with the necessary force. In general I admired Brunner’s attempts at stylistic diversity, without thinking all of them equally successful.

What they thought a bit later: Brian Aldiss, p 367 of Trillion Year Spree (1986):

This sort of unlikely and unpleasant melodrama militates against the lively intellectual dance going on elsewhere, and eventually overwhelms it. Before that, Brunner conducts a teach-in on modern moralities, aided by Chad Mulligan, a sort of hippie philosopher. As with all Propter-figures, as with Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw, Mulligan wearies, being an author mouthpiece. He puts us all to rights and even out-talks Shalmaneser. The book becomes too long. … But it is an interesting experiment, because it marks a stage along the road, midway between pulp and social commentary.

Commentary, part two: I don’t disagree with Aldiss’ assessment of the way House/Hogan’s story gradually becomes overpowering (see above), but I thought Chad Mulligan livened up the book considerably, something I emphatically cannot say about the Heinleinian equivalents. Perhaps it’s because I never did feel he was an author mouthpiece, at least not in the sense that I believed Brunner believed everything he had Mulligan say, or that I was expected to believe it; in the sense that Mulligan was a way of spinning out notions in front of an audience, maybe. Perhaps, also, it’s because I feel that Mulligan gets to put his finger on the heart of the book when he asks Shalmaneser what it would take for the computer to believe in Beninia. Suspension of disbelief is a key question for any book that positions itself anywhere along the utopia/dystopia line: what would it take for us to believe in the possibility of a better world, or better people?

Predictions, part one: accurate. Implanted contraceptives. Hyperactive media. Gay marriage. TiVo. Genetic modification (and industrial pharma, to an extent). Privacy, or lack thereof, as a key social issue. Puffa jackets. Globalisation.

Genre descendents: Big chunks of cyberpunk; maybe The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson; Counting Heads by David Marusek; River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Predictions, part two: inaccurate. The reliance on big central computers. The absence of peak oil and climate change. Continuing cold war-esque paranoia. The introduction of eugenics laws to control population growth. Sexual mores.

On shiggies: I have to say, I didn’t find the gender roles nearly as outdated or troubling as I’d been led to expect, which is not to say the book is unproblematic in this area. On the plus side, the shiggies — essentially the free love movement extrapolated into a whole social class — were depicted, so far as I noticed, without a trace of disapproval, and there were numerous female characters in prominent and powerful roles (not least the head of General Technics). What was missing, though, was a sense of balance, which in a way is a microcosm of my reservations about the novel’s overall structure, which is to say that although lots of female characters are mentioned, and have speaking parts, none of them are central in the way that Hogan, House and Mulligan are. Similarly, I’d have expected there to be male shiggies as well as female shiggies, and I didn’t notice any.

What they think now, part one: Adam Roberts, p.248 of his Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006):

Other titles from the decade now seem less significant, despite being praised extravagantly in their own day. The British author John Brunner’s (1934-1995) Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is a lengthy disquisition layered over a sort of spy plot, set in a monstrously overpopulated world. But its choppy, “experimental” style, lifted directly from the work of the American Modernist John Dos Passos (1896-1970) seems second-hand and over-boiled, and the premise of the novel has a phlogistonic lack of contemporary bite (overpopulation had not brought the world to a standstill by the start of the twenty-first century, and will not do so by the start of the twenty-second either). Of course, Brunner was not alone in thinking his premise sharply relevant: many writers in the 1960s and 1970s adopted positions of Malthusian gloominess on the subject of overpopulation; a better treatment of the theme than Brunner’s (better because rooted in a Pulp terseness rather than a High Modernist prolixity) is Harry Harrison’s (b.1925) Make Room! Make Room! (1966).

What they think now, part two: Geoff Ryman, in SFX 168 (April 2008) [pdf]:

Every page has both a great SF idea and an emotional twist to the story. Its technique is kaleidoscopic … This wouldn’t work if Brunner wasn’t so good at different voices. This age’s hip commentator, Chad Mulligan, is quoted from at length. To an extent he’s Brunner’s mouthpiece (and a great way to info-dump) but he also convinces as a radical and original thinker … The world feels pretty much like now — which is when it’s set, not in 1968, the year it was first published … there is no other British SF novel I can think of with this breadth of invention, character and setting. There is something of Dickens in the vast panorama, the mix of wit, terror, sentiment, and satirical characters.

Commentary, part three: I find myself somewhere between messrs Roberts and Ryman. I don’t think the kaleidoscopic view is entirely successful; but nor do I think it by any means stale, particularly early on, when the disorienting effect of immersion is at its most powerful. Roberts is right to point out that the concerns about overpopulation don’t feel as pressing as they apparently did when Brunner was writing the book, but the way in which it asks what it is about humans that limits our ability to live together, that seems to make terrorism or solipsism such common responses to living in Brunner’s future, chimed with me. It also seemed to me a novel provocative on the subject of racial issues and interactions (much more so, actually, than on gendered ones; take that as you will), asking valid questions about postcolonial global relations. What it takes for countries to live together, if you like, and whether benevolent intervention is even possible (whether or not desirable). Which is to say that in many ways it did still feel like now; an alternate version of now, admittedly, but a tomorrow I could recognise.

See also: Wikipedia page here; Karen Burnham’s take here.

39 Responses to “Stand on Zanzibar”

  1. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Just a small point, but you are aware that ‘bleeding’ was used as a swear word around the time the novel was written? Like ‘blooming’. It was a way of swearing without swearing and was used very extensively at the time.

    And I think Roberts is completely wrong about the book. To suggest that Stand On Zanzibar was a failure because the fears it expressed hadn’t actually come to pass 40 years after the book was published is a pretty weak assault. Over-population was a major concern in both the literature and the politics of the time, and I think Stand On Zanzibar is a very well realised expression of those fears.

  2. Niall Says:

    you are aware that ‘bleeding’ was used as a swear word around the time the novel was written?

    Yes, and to an extent it’s used now. But I’ve only ever encountered it, as you say, as a way of swearing without swearing — I’ve never heard it or understood it with the really offensive connotations Brunner wants to give it here.

  3. David Moles Says:

    I don’t see the Counting Heads connection at all — Marusek seems to me to have a lot more in common with Vonnegut than with Brunner. Care to expound?

  4. Niall Says:

    Whereas I’m slightly boggled by the idea of comparing Marusek to Vonnegut … Counting Heads seems to me in the same tradition as Stand on Zanzibar to the extent that it depicts a crowded, information-saturated, urban future, presented, in energetic language stuffed with neologisms, as a serious attempt at extrapolation. Basically, they seem to line up as books that are interested in sf as a mode of realism. Vonnegut — the couple of books I’ve read, anyway — not so much.

  5. Simon Bisson Says:

    I’d say that the Three Californias relationship is the closest, especially when you consider all three (four, if you add in the Toffler and Whole Earth Review inspired Shockwave Rider) of the Club of Rome novels.

    By showing three alternatives that came out of the then influential Club of Rome report, one world dealing with violence, one with pollution, and one with over-population, Brunner was using SF as a tool for exploring popular culture concepts – and culling techniques from a wide range of experimental fiction for each book in the sequence.

    I don’t believe you can look at Stand on its own – it has to be seen in context to the documents it’s a response to, and also alongside the rest of the sequence.

  6. kev McVeigh Says:

    I haven’t read that particular Simak but that was a good Hugo shortlist that year. You really should read Nova and Past Master for two radically different examples of late 60s SF at its best.

  7. Karen Burnham Says:

    Niall – I finally finished the very last Masterclass short story last night. I’m officially done. W00T! How’s your tally coming? (I’ve got a few more stories in the Strahan anthology to read, but should be all set to review it when I get back home in July.)

    Thanks for the review (and the link). I particularly like John Harrison’s comment about the future being the protagonist. That rang true. Although I liked the actual “plot” parts of the book a bit better than you did.

    I thought the views of Beninia were interesting. In the 60′s the African nations were throwing off colonialism and had a lot of promise. Now we view that continent through the lens of all the violent warlord leaders who failed to live up to that promise. I’m not sure anyone could write such a romanticized view of an African country today.

  8. Niall Says:

    Simon, kev: there is little more dispiriting than writing a long post about a book only to be told I need to read more books. But I’ll bear your recommendations in mind anyway. [g]

    Karen:

    How’s your tally coming?

    Er, not as far along as it should be? I’m just about done with Gary Wolfe’s reading (there may be a post about the Strahan book later this week, if I can find the time to whip my notes into shape), and I’ve read all of Geoff Ryman’s reading, but I’m only about half way through Wendy Pearson’s reading. Still got most of The Child Garden plus several articles to go.

  9. kev McVeigh Says:

    Niall: Sorry, it should be a given, you/I/We always need to read more books *g*
    My main point though is that whereas some years there is a standout Hugo nominee (not always winner) amidst mediocrity, Stand On Zanzibar beat off some very tough competition.

  10. Niall Says:

    Oh, and:

    I thought the views of Beninia were interesting.

    Yes, I think this is the aspect I’m most looking forward to talking about. I think Brunner handles it pretty well, for the most part. I don’t think he romanticises Africa per se — it seemed fairly clear to me that Beninia was an exceptional island in a more troubled ocean — but there is the question of whether Beninia is romanticised to a damaging extent. (And a related question of, if you accept that the basic idea is worth writing about, where would you put your Beninia equivalent?) I haven’t made up my mind on any of this, but I think it really helps that you have Yatakang, as well as the USA, as comparator datapoints, and that you get several different viewpoints on just about everything.

  11. Tony Keen Says:

    I first read Stand on Zanzibar more than fifteen years ago (it must have been, as I was sharing a flat with Steve Mowbray at the time, and borrowed his copy). I can remember vague impressions, and some scenes proved familiar when I reread it, but much of this was fresh in my mind. And I mean fresh – one of the things that strikes me is how modern the novel seems in some respects. I can imagine Jon Courtenay Grimwood or Richard Morgan writing something similar (and I think Brunner justifies his 600 pages better than Morgan does in Black Man). If the style seems a little stale, it’s only because others have revisited it since (although my brain right now won’t produce any examples, I am sure that they exist).

    But the novel is also very much a product of its time – the late 1960s projected forty years into the future. One can see this particularly in the attitudes to race and to women. In the former case, it’s interesting to see how far we have actually progressed in comparison to Brunner’s projection. No person of colour in 2008 could possibly be addressed with such overt racism (e.g. the constant use of the term ‘brown-nose’) that is used towards Norman House by other characters in the novel. Sadly, Brunner was nearer the mark when it came to ghettoization of poor black neighbourhoods and their antagonistic relationship to the forces of ‘law and order’.

    As for women, yes, ‘where are the male shiggies?’ is a legitimate question. As you rightly say, it’s a projection of ‘free love’, and, as Greer (I think) and others pointed out, that movement often favoured men more than women. And I think this comes across in Zanzibar – Brunner is no racist, but I think he is something of a chauvinist. (It’s also hard not to read this in the light of Brunner’s own personal life, which can be read about in #7 and #8 of Prolapse .)

    The novel also won the first (for various definitions of ‘first’, but lest’s not get into that now) BSFA award, BTW.

  12. Karen Burnham Says:

    Niall – And a related question of, if you accept that the basic idea is worth writing about, where would you put your Beninia equivalent?

    I felt like the basic concept, the pheremone thing, was a bit of a cop-out. I was surprised to find such a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak story. It almost felt like something an editor made him tack on, except that Beninia itself was so central to the book.

    Given that concern, I was thinking of the modern-day setting and immediately found myself thinking of the Nepal/Tibet/Bhutan region. Obviously the region has trouble, especially Tibet, but it has been similarly romanticized. Especially Bhutan with it’s “Gross National Happiness” index.

    Tony: Brunner is no racist, but I think he is something of a chauvinist.

    One thing that I said in my review that I feel pretty strongly about: “One thing it highlights is the fact that progress was made towards improving race-based civil rights far ahead of gender equality. In this book there are a couple active women, notably the head of GT, but they’re barely characterized. All the other women in the book are cardboard stereotyped whores (‘shiggies’ in the slang of the novel). Compare that to the black VP and international diplomat who drive the action of much of the book. You can see why the Civil Rights Act passed and ERA didn’t, and why Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee for President and Hillary Clinton isn’t.”

    I was surprised that Niall saw so many more active women than I did. To me the only two who were memorable were the head of GT and the female reporter in Yatakang.

  13. Andrew Says:

    “Predictions, part two: inaccurate. The reliance on big central computers.” I’d say that we are becoming more and more reliant on such things – or, strictly speaking, on big central server farms. For example, vectoreditors is one of millions of blogs at WordPress.com (and my main blog is another). The last sentence in the post assume that big, central Wikipedia is available. And so on.

  14. Niall Says:

    Tony:

    and I think Brunner justifies his 600 pages better than Morgan does in Black Man).

    Pfft. :-p

    Karen:

    I felt like the basic concept, the pheremone thing, was a bit of a cop-out. I was surprised to find such a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak story.

    As I said in the main post, I don’t think it detracted from the ending because ultimately, with the death of Sugaiguntung, it’s a ray of sunshine they can’t do anything about. That even makes it more painful, in a way.

    I was surprised that Niall saw so many more active women than I did.

    I thought Poppy, Guinivere, Olive, and Sheena were all interesting characters. Not all equally successful, but interesting, and representative of a fairly wide range of personalities. (On the other hand, I wasn’t impressed by Bronwen at all.) But as I also said, I agree that the disproportionate amount of screentime they get is a problem.

    Andrew: interesting point, although surely it’s not quite the same? If Wikipedia vanished tomorrow, something else would spring up to replace it, because we have lots of computers all over the place.

  15. Karen Burnham Says:

    Andrew: I think the main difference is that we can all access Wikipedia from home. In Zanzibar’s universe, we’d have to travel to Wikipedia HQ to get our questions answered.

  16. Terry Weyna Says:

    Well, you couldn’t possibly be impressed with Bronwen — she’s a geisha, at best. I kept expecting her to turn into a spy or worse; it seemed the perfect set-up for such an outcome. But no, she’s just a sexual toy, as are most of the women in Brunner’s world. At least, the ones who aren’t used-up housewives and mothers, old maids married to their corporations, women exploiting other women who desire children, sisters lusting after their brothers, or women who want nothing in the world but to have children. There’s not a woman in this book who is a well-rounded character with a sharp mind and an actual life, or who thinks beyond her hormones. If you want to talk about something Brunner missed in his vision of the future, I’d say that feminism certainly didn’t hit his radar any more than the personal computer did.

    I’ve never been overly fond of New Wave writing, and this book was no exception, though I did find myself liking it more than I thought I was going to when I started reading. For the first 200 pages it was quite a slog, but then I got caught up in Hogan’s and House’s stories. I found the style off-putting until the rhythms settled in, and then I found them no more troubling than surfing the net. The style ultimately seems to play to the shortened attention spans we seem to have these days; the newscasts seem more like CNN than PBS, and just look who has the bigger audience in the present day. No wonder you can ultimately sink into this.

    And, yes, in some ways Brunner was quite prescient, including one way that hasn’t been mentioned yet: the use of pharmaceuticals to affect mood. While we don’t use marijuana for that purpose, sometimes it does seem that everyone’s on antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication or both, or something to control shyness or restless leg syndrome or potency or sleeplessness or what have you. I found his comments on our willingness to drug ourselves into feeling good, even when we prize the purity of our genes so greatly, to be very interesting indeed.

    I expect the concern with overpopulation would ring a bit truer to us were we Chinese, allowed to have only one child for each married couple. We probably don’t fear overpopulation enough these days, though there are folks like Ray Kurzweil who say that the earth can sustain any number of people we’re likely to produce given the technology that we can come up with.

    I can’t say I want to run right out and read The Sheep Look Up. Besides, I still have other reading to do for the master class! (Thank goodness the flight over the pond takes a long time from the West Coast.) But I doubt I would have gotten to this book had it not been assigned, and I guess I’m glad I read it — it obviously stirred up some thoughts and passions in me.

  17. Andrew Says:

    Niall, I forgot to add to my earlier comment: thanks for the post; and SOZ goes further up my “should reread” and “shouldn’t have sold” lists.

  18. Niall Says:

    Terry:

    But no, she’s just a sexual toy, as are most of the women in Brunner’s world. [...] There’s not a woman in this book who is a well-rounded character with a sharp mind and an actual life, or who thinks beyond her hormones.

    I don’t really want to bang on about this, not least because I do agree the book has problems in its depiction of women. But I’m not sure either of these statements is factually true. Of the named characters in the book, there’s only Bronwen and Victoria (and probably a couple of guests at Guinivere’s party I’m not remembering) who could be called “sexual toys”, vastly outnumbered (like, ten to one) by other named female characters; nor do I get the impression that the Shiggy class is actually that large. And isn’t one of the points of the book that nobody in it thinks beyond their hormones? On the general point of diversity, point taken, although I also think you have to stretch a bit to make the aspects of some characters that fit your categorie their primary aspects (e.g. Olive, who seems much more presented as an independent, if illegal, businesswoman). It seems fairly clear to me that Brunner was trying to imagine a future in which men and women had an equal stake in society, or at least a more equal stake than they did in 1969 — hence characters like GT and Deirdre. He just didn’t do a very good job.

    Andrew: You’re welcome!

  19. David Moles Says:

    …a serious attempt at extrapolation. Basically, they seem to line up as books that are interested in sf as a mode of realism…

    Ah, I see the difference. I didn’t read Counting Heads as a serious attempt at extrapolation at all, more a sort of satire, something like Stark or Sewer, Gas and Electric — though of course not as bleak as the former or as funny as the latter. I didn’t believe either the clone society setup or the corporate inheritance setup in the slightest, and didn’t think I was intended to — I hope I wasn’t intended to.

  20. Niall Says:

    the use of pharmaceuticals to affect mood

    Somewhere I now can’t re-find, I came across the suggestion that for this reason and a couple of others, you can put Stand on Zanzibar and Brave New World on the same timeline. Which is an interesting thought.

  21. Jo Walton Says:

    Something I noticed in my last re-read of SoZ that hadn’t stood out to me before was the way there wasn’t a Cold War. I mean there was the situation with Yatakang which is Cold War-like, but in most SF written in the sixties and seventies THE fact about the near future (and sometimes even the far future) was the world divided on USSR/USA lines. SoZ looks much more like very modern work like _Air_ and _River of Gods_ that’s looking towards the future of the third world than it does like for instance _The Mote in God’s Eye_ where the USSR and the USA are still making threatening noises at each other across interstellar empires in the 23rd century.

    There is possibly one male shiggy visible, the guy in drag at Guinevere’s party. But I think you’re right about the shiggy class not being that huge, or the appeal wouldn’t be to “Mr and Mrs Everywhere” (“a gadget on your screen makes them look like you!”) — which, incidentally, I just found out was coming from Winchell’s “Mr and Mrs America”.

  22. Terry Weyna Says:

    Niall — okay, I’ll give you that one of the points of the book — perhaps *the* points of the book — is that we’re all ruled by our hormones. And I’ll also give you Olive, though I detested her. But, contrary to your impression, I got the impression that the shiggy class was, in fact, very large, and in fact was the common class of young women. And women who were not portrayed as shiggies were, as a rule, portrayed as being obsesssed with having babies, to the exclusion of anything else (none of the mothers or want-to-be mothers had anything else going on in their lives). While I’m happy to attribute this to a failure of imagination (in 1969, stay-at-home moms were the norm, after all), I *do* in fact attribute it to a lack of imagination, and I still think that Brunner missed what was going on around him with the feminist movement (which really was well under way at that time — else why would I, a 13-year-old in a sheltered and conservative small town in exurban Illinois, have been thinking of becoming a lawyer?).

    I don’t think Brunner was trying to imagine a future in which women had an equal stake at all. I think he was trying to imagine a future in which women were somewhat more prized for their role as mothers. But that’s different altogether.

    I admit that this is one of my particularly sore spots, however, and I’m certainly open to further discussion and persuasion on the issue.

  23. Tony Keen Says:

    I don’t think that one can say that Brunner was unaware of the feminist movement, given that his wife had strong views on the subject. John Hall writes in Prolapse #7:

    She was however constant in her feminist ideals (though she disliked the term ‘feminism’, since she believed that it implied that there might be a ‘masculinism’, whereas she believed that equality for women ought to mean that we were not divided by gender) and was passionate about women’s freedom in relationships, the workplace and so on.

    So I think Brunner’s attempting to incorporate feminism into his outlook; but because he’s a bloke in his mid-thirties, brought up before feminism really hit home, he ends up having a less enlightened attitude than one could hope for.

  24. Niall Says:

    David: I haven’t read Sewer, Gas and Electric, but Counting Heads didn’t really strike me as being in the same territory as Stark. I can sort of see where you’re coming from if I squint, but to me the link with Brunner is still closer — I don’t think a bit of absurdity in the future (viz SoZ’s advertising slogans) changes the overall tone of the book. But it is now almost three years since I read Counting Heads, so I may have a different reaction if I went back to it now. (Anyone else out there want to comment?) Also, test case: where do you put The Space Merchants?

    Jo: Yes, that did occur to me; also China as the next enemy, as it were. I think there are still a lot of Cold War assumptions in the way the plot unfolds, particularly Hogan’s strand as you say, but it is quite a dramatic absence.

    Terry:

    I don’t think Brunner was trying to imagine a future in which women had an equal stake at all. I think he was trying to imagine a future in which women were somewhat more prized for their role as mothers. But that’s different altogether.

    Hmm, interesting. And plausible. I shall ponder, and we can take it up again at the weekend!

  25. Karen Burnham Says:

    One thing I thought of: There are several women of various class/power levels in SoZ, but none of them are sympathetic the way Norman, Donald, the ambassador or the sociologist are. In fact, many of the women are decidedly unlikeable altogether.

    Looking forward to seeing you on Friday!

  26. Martin Wisse Says:


    a better treatment of the theme than Brunner’s (better because rooted in a Pulp terseness rather than a High Modernist prolixity) is Harry Harrison’s (b.1925) Make Room! Make Room! (1966).

    That one quote explains a hell of a lot about my difficulties with Roberts’ fiction and criticism both. How somebody can be so wrong about both Brunner and Harrison at the same time…

  27. Martin Wisse Says:

    I reread SoZ a year or two ago (and still need to write a review of it.) but what struck me about the gender relationships was that they seemed a straight extrapolation of the worst cliches of sixties counterculture: all free and radical and hip and liberal for the men, but with the women being there to pour the coffee and provide a good lay. The exceptions you name are noticable exactly because they are exceptions and at least one of them is described negatively because she is a career woman.

    In general most of Brunner’s view of the 21st century in SoZ seems very sixties however. For example, as Jo Walton says above, the Cold War between the US and USSR isn’t show, but instead there’s some East Asian war going on between the US and Chinese back guerillas, while at home there’s a draft dodging and sabotage movement. Not that dissimilar from what was happening at the time Brunner wrote SoZ, is it?

  28. Adam Roberts Says:

    “How somebody can be so wrong about both Brunner and Harrison at the same time…”

    It wasn’t easy, I can tell you. Child’s-play to be wrong about Brunner; not too difficult to be wrong about Harrison, but juggling the double-wrongness took some practice.

  29. Martin Wisse Says:

    Yes, that takes some considerable talent.

  30. SFF Masterclass, Summary « Torque Control Says:

    [...] well. Geoff Ryman’s sessions were about reading as a writer, first with a detailed look at Stand on Zanzibar, and then with sentence-by-sentence readings of the first chapter of Andreas Eschbach’s The [...]

  31. Baroque Cycle: Odalisque « Torque Control Says:

    [...] terms of interconnection and the flow of information; that’s a familiar approach in sf, from Stand on Zanzibar through cyberpunk to a work like River of Gods; and it’s not only sf that does this, but it [...]

  32. Recently Read 2 « Torque Control Says:

    [...] a touch of Ballard – but there are also, I think, some interesting comparisons to be made with Stand on Zanzibar. Like that novel, Everything is Sinister is set in 2010, and one way of describing the world in [...]

  33. Recently Read 2 - Torque Control - Quarter Zone Says:

    [...] touch of Ballard – but there are also, I think, some interesting comparisons to be made with Stand on Zanzibar. Like that novel, Everything is Sinister is set in 2010, and one way of describing the world in [...]

  34. A lost world « Heliophage Says:

    [...] The Andromeda Strain, was very much a thing of the sixties, flashed around in science fiction like Stand on Zanzibar and with roots in Dos Passos and the collage-y, found-art aspects of Burroughs and related beats; I [...]

  35. The Links We Share Without Knowing « Torque Control Says:

    [...] Jordison’s Hugo reading reaches Stand on Zanzibar (about which we had some good discussion a couple of years [...]

  36. Reading List « Torque Control Says:

    [...] the reading list from this year’s tutors. Last time I attended, I managed to blog some of the reading; this time around I’m going to try to be a bit more ambitious, in part because, with only [...]

  37. Joachim Boaz Says:

    This is by far my favorite sci-fi novel — and as a result I’ve been unable to do it justice in a review… Thanks for yours! Considering the genre at the time he wrote this novel — 180 page books with straightforward plots etc (well, Dune was a few years earlier) — this was a drastic departure…. And, considering Brunner’s previous works that rarely rise above simplistic pulp novels prior, Stand on Zanzibar is all the more shocking… Have you read The Sheep Look Up, the Jagged Orbit, or the SHockwave Rider?

  38. Niall Says:

    Thanks! A drastic departure for science fiction (if not for general literature), yes. Given its success, I do sometimes wonder why it hasn’t been more imitated. (Probable answer: because it’s hard.) And no, I haven’t read the others in the quartet, though I mean to … someday.

  39. Joachim Boaz Says:

    Well, Brunenr withdraws from the drastic approach of Stand on Zanzibar although retaining some elements — they are all wonderful (although not as good as Stand on Zanzibar). Unlike Poul Anderson and others who never really could rise from their 1950s magazine beginnings into full-fledged literary sci-fi novels (this might be too harsh) Brunner definitely does…


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