Home > Book, dystopian, Genre, Review, scifi > Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

People flowing through tubes and standing in line.Summary:
In the near-future humanity is increasingly facing over-population and all its consequences.  In reaction to this, most world governments have established population laws and eugenics boards.  In this overly crowded, information overloaded, perpetually on the brink of war society exist Donald and Norman, healthy bachelors who must live as roommates due to the housing crisis.  Donald is a dilettante, an information specialist on reserve to be activated as a spy when needed for the US government.  Norman is a Muslim African-American working his way up the corporate ladder of the most important technology firm in the world–GT.  GT houses the world’s most brilliant computer named Shalmaneser.  The intertwining lives of these two oddly well-suited roommates gradually unfold amid digressions into the lives of those they come into contact with and information from the modern-day philosophies and advertizing.

Review:
What is most memorable and striking about this book is not so much the story, although that is fairly unique, but the way in which it is told.  Brunner does not simply tell the main storyline, he also immerses the reader into the world the characters live within.  To that end, the main storyline (continuity) is interspersed with chapters focusing in on minor characters (tracking with close-ups, essentially short stories), plunging the reader into the middle of the advertizing of the time (the happening world), and works of importance to the world (context).  The result is that, although it takes a bit of work to get into the book, in the end the world these characters exist in is much more vivid and clear in the reader’s mind, thus allowing her to more fully understand the characters.

Sometimes this method of writing is a bit difficult to read, of course.  For instance, one chapter takes place at a party, and Brunner simply streams all of the conversation together as you would hear it if you were at the party yourself.  You catch snippets of bits of different conversations taking place, but never an entire one all at once.  It’s the most immersive party scene I’ve ever read, but also took me an inordinate amount of time to get through.

It was also refreshing to have one of the main characters in a futuristic scifi book be a minority.  This in and of itself made Stand on Zanzibar a unique, interesting read, and I believe Brunner did a good job portraying both Norman’s struggles with still prevalent racism and presenting him as a well-rounded character.

The major themes of the book, beyond the incredibly meta presentation style, are the very real threat of the loss of privacy and the dehumanization of dependence upon artificial intelligence.

The dehumanizing affect of overpopulation is evident in the language employed by the characters early on in the book.

Not cities in the old sense of grouped buildings occupied by families, but swarming antheaps collapsing into ruin beneath the sledgehammer blows of riot, armed robbery and pure directionless vandalism. (page 52)

These are no longer human cities.  They are crawling ant-piles.  The vision of piles of swarming ants is simply not a pleasant one.  This concept of humanity as a pest is carried even further in a poem from one of the context chapters entitled “Citizen Bacillus,” which begins:

Take stock, citizen bacillus,
Now that there are so many billions of you,
Bleeding through your opened veins,
Into your bathtub, or into the Pacific
Of that by which they may remember you. (page 115)

Not only is this poem taking into account the increasingly suicidal tendencies of the human population in this future society (something that is seen in the animal kingdom when a population becomes overcrowded), but it also is blatantly calling humans a bacteria (bacillus).

The book repeatedly addresses through vignettes, samples of books of the time period, and the lives of the main characters that overpopulation leaves people without enough room to think and figure themselves out in.

True, you’re not a slave. You’re worse off than that by a long, long way. You’re a predatory beast shut up in a cage of which the bars aren’t fixed, solid objects you can gnaw at or in despair batter against with your head until you get punch-drunk and stop worrying. No, those bars are the competing members of your own species, at least as cunning as you on average, forever shifting around so you can’t pin them down, liable to get in your way without the least warning, disorienting your personal environment until you want to grab a gun or an axe and turn mucker. (page 77-8)

In the book “turning mucker” is when a person inexplicably loses their mind and attacks strangers near them.  This happens increasingly throughout the book.  Thus Brunner’s main point that humans are our own worst enemy is repeated throughout the book.

Added on top of this is the fact that artificial intelligence is outpacing humans.  The characters literally cannot keep up with the information overload.  They have nightmares about it.  They simultaneously depend on the computers and dread them.  When one goes awry, they hardly know how to continue on, but simply flounder around.  Chad Mulligan (one of my new favorite literary characters) sums it up eloquently:

What in God’s name is it worth to be human, if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine? (page 645)

Thus, Stand on Zanzibar through postulating an overpopulated future that is overly dependent on technology demonstrates the very real dangers humans pose to ourselves if we outpace either our own minds or our environment’s ability to house us.  It is a brilliant read for the meta-literature aspect alone, but the content is also challenging and thought-provoking.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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