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For Marjorie

of course




When one writes about an antique science fiction novel, it’s common practice to promptly trot out a list of “what he got right” versus “what he got wrong.” As if prediction were the point of the enterprise—and sure enough, Stand on Zanzibar truly revels in prediction. Few novels have ever had so much of that, layered on so thick.

However, the truly appealing things about this novel are not its predictions. They are certain things John Brunner achieved, which no one has done before or since.

Before he essayed this remarkable book, while in his early thirties, Brunner was a productive and disciplined professional science fiction writer. Brunner had pseudonyms galore, and could hammer out a paperback novel in a matter of weeks. A lifelong Briton, Brunner had also managed the considerable feat of cracking the American sci-fi market.

In his personal life, John Brunner was a rather irascible gentleman with strong political convictions and a genuine loathing for mystics, rascals, and phonies. But these inner demons weren’t often ventilated in his daily work.

However, in the mid-1960s, this canny veteran’s attention was caught by a New Wave arriving in science fiction. A period of great social turbulence had arrived. The genre’s tight conventions were splitting. This radical movement was clearly led by Britain.

Brunner was older and wiser than the hippie sci-fi kids clustered around London’s New Worlds magazine, the tie-dyed global focus of the New Wave. Through no fault of his own, Brunner had arrived at a roaring, out-of-control hashish party at somewhat the wrong time. Brunner was no longer young enough to be authentically spontaneous, naïve, flipped-out, and psychedelic. He had too much seasoned erudition and street smarts. He chose to jam all that into a paisley New Wave package—a package that split at the seams.

It’s impossible to repeat an adventure like that in cold blood. This is why nobody has ever equaled Stand on Zanzibar. It’s a book that should have been exceedingly modish. It missed that target, and it shot a hole in the clock. It became a timeless classic of temporal disorientation.

The book is a unique formal achievement, something like a science fiction cousin of Georges Perec’s haunting Oulipo masterpiece Life: A User’s Manual (La Vie mode d’emploi). It is Brunner’s complex, showy mode of writing-through-constraints that gives one the powerful sensation of being saturated in his invented world—of dissolving in it, of being assaulted by it.

Stand on Zanzibar is often compared to the work of John Dos Passos, due to its variant narrative modes, its multiple point-of-view characters, and its collages of newspaper clippings. But Dos Passos was writing a pragmatic and naturalistic American book. Brunner, who was a European like Perec, is antinaturalistic—he’s aiming for future-shock, for a moral freak-out, for the hallucinatory. It’s a book that is kindly toward Americans and sincerely admires them, yet it comes from the damp and haunted mansion of Orwell and Huxley.

The plot has the basic working armature of a sci-fi adventure. It concerns a young New York man rising through high-tech corporate intrigues, and his mild and scholarly roommate, who is a disguised spy. This scheme assures some publisher-pleasing segments of page-turning “action.” These action sequences are in fact the dullest parts of the book. They’re the easiest to read, but the least engaging.

The truly exciting, the wildly exceptional parts of the book, are the parts which are radically antinovelistic. Those exhaustive lists of apparent trivia, for instance, which presage the arch and surreal approaches of Georges Perec a decade later.

For instance, there’s a megacorporate help-wanted ad, which requests the aid of staff “in the following specialties”: Architecture, Transportation, Civil engineering, City planning, Law, Cybernetics, Plant erection, Water purification, Textiles, Ore refining, Plastics synthesis, Mining and mineralogy, Education, Communications, Mechanical engineering, Medicine (esp. tropical), Economics, Power, light and heat, Human ecology, Public health & sanitation, Agriculture, Production planning, Electronics, Printing & publishing.

Confronted by this burst of scary erudition, the reader feels a subliminal terror that some data-burst from any of these topics may gush onto the page. Because these gushes of exposition do flood in, repeatedly, with powerfully surreal effect. They’re almost always horribly convincing: they suspend readerly disbelief much more effectively than the plot or the characters do. They’re never the smooth verbal artifacts one expects from a proper novel. They’re aggressive debris from a disturbed world.

The book has one of the scariest mise-en-scènes in all of science fiction: a world that is a smothering, riotous tangle of human arms and limbs. Stand on Zanzibar is an information overload on topics that sensible people would never want to learn about. Even the characters fear what the book’s world is direly telling them: as the brightest among them rather pitifully remarks, “Whatever happens in present circumstances there’s going to be trouble.” Their world is a kaleidoscope of whatever. Its darkly troubled whateverness oozes from its walls with lysergic intensity.

The characters are remarkably unpleasant people. They are the native products of a taut and difficult world, and many of them come to bad ends. They are always under stress and are often violent, yet the book’s true emotional storminess is almost all in the exposition.

It’s that exposition, the violent and aggressive act of world-building, that bears the book’s true freight of rage, dread, and cynical bitterness.

The unseen author is making imaginative leaps of a kind he has never attempted before, leaps of a kind he was never allowed to perform. He is daring not just his readers, but even his much-threatened characters, to keep up with the terrific pace of his own invention. None of us do very well.

Our own future-shock forces us to identify with the shocking habits of the characters. All of them bear murder in their hearts. The stronger ones are given to cruel fits of violent riot. The weaker ones have surrendered to narcotic catatonia. The wisest ones are exceedingly wistful and sad; they suffer the homesick emptiness of “extemporates,” of outdated people burdened with the forlorn values of a lost world. They can never fit in. Conformity is no longer even an option.

It’s the women who especially suffer: especially the British women, who might have offered the text some sense of kindliness, warmth, and stability. One is Grace Rowley, a refined twentieth-century survivor (and the reader’s own contemporary). Jane is brusquely thrown from her cherished home by crass officials, who mistake it for an abandoned house. They instantly loot all of Jane’s cherished cultural antiques. A younger and more vital British woman, one of the few sweet-tempered innocents in the book, plummets to her doom in a delirium when she’s harassed by health inspectors.

Entire classes of women live as literal tramps, trading random sex for a roof and a warm place to sleep. The men in this book infallibly see these wretched demimondaines as attractive. Everything in their world tells them to do that. They all buy into that idea.

The erotic center in the book, the aptly named Bronwen Ghose, is a multiracial widow whose husband was murdered in senseless communal violence. The stateless, stricken Bronwen is slowly dying of leukemia. She is also much harassed by fierce immigration officials.

Bronwen should have been the book’s major love interest, for she personifies the world of Stand on Zanzibar as no one else can. She is the only woman in the book who can look her man in the face and tell him that he is rude, that he treats women badly. But Bronwen is luckless even in this brave confrontation, for her boyfriend is a brainwashed assassin. He cannot spare her a second thought.