Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, was first published in 1968.
This book had been on my TBR list for a while. I’d heard great things about it. I’d heard that it was one of the best science fiction novels ever. I’d also heard that it contains some amazing coincidences and predictions.
The story takes place in the future, in the year 2010.
The novel is presented in an unconventional style, more interested in worldbuilding than in a direct narrative. There are vignettes, Twitter-style news feeds, books within books, and a dictionary.
The book is divided into four sections: “context”, “the happening world”, “tracking with closeups”, and “continuity”. The book switches between the sections at the start of every chapter.
The population of Earth is 7 billion. It’s overpopulated. The wealth of the planet is inconceivably large, and, in Africa, the former British colony of Beninia is starving.
The Right Honourable Zadkiel F. Obomi is the first president of Beninia. He’s a popular and charismatic leader.
In the Southeast Asian country of Yatakang, Dr. Sugaiguntung is making breakthroughs in human genetic engineering. Yatakang is a political enemy of the United States of America.
The Soviet Union is no longer a world superpower. China and the USA are in direct competition, politically and economically.
The countries of Europe have joined together to form Common Europe.
Puerto Rico becomes the latest state to ratify the United States eugenic legislation. Nevada and Louisiana are now the only states that allow the birth of disadvantaged children.
In California, having more than two children results in higher taxes.
In America, tobacco is illegal. Marijuana is legal. Homosexuality is accepted, or at least tolerated, for now. Homelessness without a permit is illegal, but you won’t get arrested for sleeping rough – there isn’t enough room in the jails.
The genetic engineering of marijuana is a major industry.
In larger cities, stores are lowering operating cost by installing automated pay-out clerks.
Norman Niblock House is a twenty-six-year-old Afram (African-American). He’s one of twenty VPs at General Technics. He got his job through the Equal Opportunity Act, which mandates that the percentage of whites to Aframs at General Technics has to closely match that of the United States.
General Technics is a global corporation, selling a wide variety of consumer goods through many subsidiaries, covering every aspect of a person’s life, and holds strong political power in the USA. It has mining operations on the Moon and on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It also owns the world’s most powerful computer, named Shalmaneser, although some claim the Chinese government has a more powerful one, named K’ung-futse. Shalmaneser holds and controls news and information. GT claims that Shalmaneser is on the verge of attaining sentience.
The contents of the New York Public Library are held at a classified location. The New York Public Library now contains over a thousand Shalmaneser access terminals.
An encyclopedia can be accessed from your videophone.
Television broadcasts can be programmed for the individual user, and, for a higher fee, a viewer can have their own image inserted into the television image.
Donald Hogan is a spy. He works undercover as a university student. He’s Norman House’s roommate. Donald and Norman are both heterosexual. Donald is a WASP, and there is some racial tension between Norman and Donald. There is a high degree of racial tension between paleasses and Aframs in America.
There are frequent terrorist attacks occurring all over the world, from many different extremist groups, including the Right Catholics. Sometimes, the person behind a random act of violence is simply a mucker (a person run amuck). The fuzzy-wuzzies (police) in New York City patrol in prowlies (armored vehicles equipped with crowd-control weapons).
There are excerpts from books by a former sociologist named Chad C. Mulligan. The books are: The Hipcrime Vocab, Better ? Than ?, You: Beast, and You’re an Ignorant Idiot.
The Hipcrime Vocab defines “Hipcrime” as: “You committed one when you opened this book. Keep it up. It’s our only hope.”
The Hipcrime Vocab defines “Logic” as: “The principle governing human interaction. Its nature may be deduced from the two following propositions, both of which are held by human beings to be true and often by the same people: ‘I can’t so you mustn’t,’ and ‘I can but you mustn’t.’”
In the “tracking with closeups” section, we’re introduced to a diversity of minor characters, whose stories are both self-contained and tied into the larger story.
A central story forms in the “continuity” section, involving Norman House, Donald Hogan, General Technics, the nation of Yatakang, the nation of Beninia, and President Obomi. It’s a story of power, economics, and espionage.
The book explains its title, but I think Wikipedia explains it better: “The title refers to an early twentieth-century claim that the world’s population could fit onto the Isle of Wight—which has an area of 381 square kilometres (147 sq mi)—if they were all standing upright. Brunner remarked that the growing world population now required a larger island; the 3.5 billion people living in 1968 could stand together on the Isle of Man (area 572 square kilometres (221 sq mi)), while the 7 billion people who he (correctly) projected would be alive in 2010 would need to stand on Zanzibar (area 1,554 square kilometres (600 sq mi)).”
Stand on Zanzibar packs a lot into 550 pages. It tells its story on personal and global levels simultaneously, and it’s amazing.
This book is fascinating and clever. It’s unpredictable. The characters are believable, and, with so many people moving in and out of the story, I never knew who would live, die, or become important.
The details the book got right for 2010 (fashionable young women with their hair dyed unnatural colors) are as interesting as the things it didn’t get quite right (TV sets with knobs).
Stand on Zanzibar lived up to its reputation, I thought.
I loved this book.