Review- Brunner, “Stand On Zanzibar”

John Brunner, “Stand On Zanzibar” (1968) – I’ve heard it argued that the “New Wave” of science fiction that came about in the 1960s and 1970s is better in theory than in practice- that it was a nice idea that didn’t produce all that many works that stand the test of time. I’m agnostic about that: I’d need to read more to find out, though Dhalgren stands up pretty well. As for Stand On Zanzibar… well, one of the things that people seem to evaluate when seeing whether or not a scifi book “holds up” is predictive ability. On that score, Stand On Zanzibar does pretty well for a 1968 book talking about 2010. People “dial up” computers to get information (no GUI, but what can you expect). Genetic engineering is a thing: more of a thing than in real 2010, or at least in different directions. This volume gets it right that people are a lot less fixated on space fifty years on from the Apollo missions than a lot of people in the midst of space race enthusiasm thought they might. People still have very earthly concerns, in Stand On Zanzibar.

It is very late sixties in a lot of ways. Sexual politics is one- a lot of male fecklessness disguised as sexual liberation. More prominently, its Club-of-Rome style concern with overpopulation, the idea that seven billion people would be a problem due to overcrowding (and not, say, climate change). Brunner makes use of cut-up techniques, interspersing the action of the novel with “context” chapters showing what’s going on in the way-out happening world of 2010, and it’s all grim stuff involving megacorps and baby-farming. They also, unfortunately, involve the rantings of a sociologist proclaimed by the author as a genius, who dispenses edgy bromides about people being animals in dated-hip language. Don’t proclaim the characters who dispense your extraneous thoughts on the world as geniuses, authors (Robert Anton Wilson was another one for this). It doesn’t work.

The plot also doesn’t work particularly well. A megacorp is hired to take over an African country and make it a paying concern. Much of what kept me reading was curiosity: would Brunner (a Brit, fwiw) go full neocolonial and see this is as a good or workable idea? He comes close, but a weird biochemical deus ex machina gums up the works. A secret agent tries to uncover the truth about genetic engineering in a militant Indonesia-ish country. The two plots converge, sort of, at the end. There’s some interesting stuff here, but ultimately the edgy posturing and lack of substance grates. I’m curious about Brunner’s other “Club of Rome” novels, but mostly for historical purposes. **’

Review- Brunner, “Stand On Zanzibar”

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