Stand on Zanzibar

stand-on-zanzibarStand on Zanzibar is about the societal implications of overpopulation. Like the famous experiment where rats fell into a “behaviour sink” from excessive overcrowding, it is easy to see where Brunner got his inspiration. “Muckers” or acts of random deadly violence are commonplace as people simply snap from the pressure. These singular acts would often act as a catalyst for others teetering on the edge of sanity and a full blown riot would ensue. Drug use to control anxiety or lighten the mood was ubiquitous. With the growing population came the eugenics legislation. Only approved people could breed, and even then the number of children was strictly limited. Those seen as contributing to the overpopulation problem were subject to social ostracization or worse. While these societal problems offer the main backdrop for the story, Brunner offers up many more details that are surprisingly prescient. Stand on Zanzibar was written in 1968 and set in 2010. The novel is well known for the number of uncanny predictions it actually got right about the new millennium.

  • President Obomi  (of the fictional nation of Beninia)
  • Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools
  • The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States.
  • Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)
  • The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.
  • Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives.
  • Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.
  • Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.
  • Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).
  • Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society.
  • Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors.
  • Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city.
  • TV news channels have now gone global via satellite.
  • TiVo-type systems allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule.
  • Inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat.
  • People rely on avatars to represent themselves on video screens — Brunner calls these images, which either can look like you or take on another appearance you select — “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere.”
  • Computer documents are generated with laser printers.
  • A social and political backlash has marginalized tobacco, but marijuana has been decriminalized.

Additionally I would add corporate hegemony since General Technics (GT) literally buys small African countries for the strategic purposes of corporate profiteering (Beninia project).  

The main characters are Norman House, a black GT executive  in charge of the Beninia project, his roommate and academic synthesist Donald Hogan, who has been psychologically programmed by the government to be an assassin, and Chad Mulligan a rich and famous alcoholic author of subversive books, who appears to be a proxy for Brunner himself.  

Oddly women don’t figure into Stand on Zanzibar at all beyond being sexual playthings. Sure, the ailing head of General Technics (“GT”) herself is a woman but it seemed that gender assignment was tokenary at best. Then there’s Guinevere Steel the fashion setter behind Beautique, but these are very minor parts.

Hogan is activated to investigate and kill a Yatakangi Dr. Sugaiguntung who claims to be able to genetically improve the population. Meanwhile Mulligan discovers that the Beninians calming effect on others is genetic. This final conclusion implies that happiness and society’s problems can largely be addressed by genetic manipulation in an effort to adapt humanity to ever more confining living conditions. Yet the government’s execution of Sugaiguntung at the hand of their programmed assassin implies that would not be in the best interests of the United States.

I read an interesting commentary that within the 549 page Stand on Zanzibar there is probably a good 300 page book lurking in there. I would have to agree. Brunner has definitely experimented with the traditional structure. There are chapters devoted to telling these sad tales of ancillary characters. Other chapters offer fragmentary images of life in 2010 like flipping through TV channels and never landing on one for more than a minute. Then there are the excerpts from Chad Mulligan’s collected works of wisdom. The intent of all of it is to paint a convincing future. Some of this effort is worthwhile and effective, but some of it can be simply tossed out for the sake of brevity. I found that it really interfered with the flow of the main plot and as a result I had a hard time getting engaged by this novel. This explains why it took me three months to finish.  Another problem was that I disliked Chad Mulligan.  I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one. David Collins explains it best:

I found Chad Mulligan to be a pompous self-righteous prick, which won’t be a problem if the book didn’t treat him like a genius and prophet.

I couldn’t say it any better myself. He and his work appears with annoying frequency and yes, he basically figures out the whole Beninian mystery.


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