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Stand on Zanzibar
John Brunner
Orion Millennium Books, 650 pages

Stand on Zanzibar
John Brunner
John Brunner was born in 1934 in Oxfordshire, England. He attended Chelternham College then Oxford to receive a bachelor's degree in modern languages. In 1953, he published his first story, "Thou Good and Faithful," in the March issue of Astounding. After school, he enlisted in the RAF for 2 years before moving on to the Industrial Diamond Information Bureau in London. Beginning in 1958, he started writing full-time -- a career that would span more than 40 years until his death in 1995 in Glasgow.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

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Brunner's Hugo-winning 1968 novel about individual responsibility and the dangerous consequences of social apathy returns to print at an excellent time. I first read Stand on Zanzibar as a university student back in the early 80s. It was an "old" book then, but it never really read like one. Now, a decade later, it still doesn't.

Readers who're used to a nice tight linear narrative will need to do some work to get into Zanzibar. But that's okay, because it will force you to think, and thinking is exactly what this book wants you to do. Brunner's story unfolds as a somewhat structured montage, an interwoven series of linked sections; the style is similar to the work of high-tone literary writer John Dos Passos, whose short, quick scenes cobbled together seemingly at random produce a synergy of mood and story. Brunner's structure is slightly more complex, but in many ways easier to follow, since each wide-flung piece really does connect plotwise to all the others.

The novel opens by setting Context with a powerfully thematic quote from Marshall MacLuhan. In short:

"A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding."
Brunner plunges us into the novel's dysfunctional, overcrowded, media-saturated world via a random channel flip across the story spectrum with SCANALYZER, providing an "INdepth INdependent INmediate INterface" between the reader and "the happening world."

The core of the novel focuses on NYC apartment mates Norman House and Donald Hogan. Like everyone else in this world, although they share living quarters, and sometimes even girlfriends, they really don't know each other. Norman is an up-and-rising young exec at super-mega-international-corporate-conglomerate General Technics (current motto: "The difficult we did yesterday. The impossible we're doing right now"), home of the most powerful supercomputer in the world, the celebrated Shalmaneser. Through subtle and not-so-subtle manipulation, Norman has used his African-American heritage as a politically correct lever to unlock company doors his brains and experience might not otherwise open. Now that he's reached the upper echelons on the company, however, he can't shake a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, a worry that there must be more to things, that somehow he's missed something important.

One secret he's missed is that Donald Hogan is a spy, one of the rare "Dilettanti" recruited by the government for their skill at synthesizing information, the ability to sort and cross-reference ideas and discover patterns. Mild-mannered and quiet, with an obscure degree in history and biology, Donald would never draw suspicion. He's spent the last ten years of his life, every work day, at the New York Public Library reading a little bit of everything, filing regular reports on patterns he's noticed, all very low-key. In the back of his mind is the concern that someday he might be "activated," called on to serve in a more active capacity in one of the world's political hotspots, like Yatakang, a socialist island empire off the southeast coast of China -- but why worry about something that will probably never happen? Still, Donald's innate pattern-matching instincts can feel something is up. Pieces are pulling together. Wheels are being set into motion. The world is going to change. Big-time.

Brunner sets the story in motion with two seemingly unconnected discoveries. The first is the change of power in the tiny African country of Beninia, (pop. 900,000) where refugees of civil war from three neighbouring countries have settled, all members of tribes hostile to one another -- yet Beninia has known nothing but peace since it was granted independence from British colonial rule. The credit for this has gone to Beninia's president, Zadkiel F. Obomi. But once he retires, who will lead and protect this tiny country with no war, but also no literacy, industry, or technology?

Elihu Masters, the US Ambassador to Beninia as well as Obomi's friend, approaches the board of General Technics with an offer. If GT will help educate the population and build the needed infrastructure, Beninia will allow them sole rights to exploit the vast, untouched mineral and oil reserves offshore for a period of time. Before he knows it, Norman is in Beninia, where murder is practically unknown; where the closest word the language has for anger means "insanity."

But then the second discovery is announced. In a crowded US where reproductive privilege is offered only to those with a clean genotype, babies are a rare and jealously hoarded luxury. But now the Yatakang government announces that famous geneticist Dr. Sugaiguntung has invented a way for everyone, even those with the most undesirable genes, to have perfect children. US citizens being the privileged souls they are, of course they want to know 1) When can we get access to this technology? And 2) Why didn't the US discover it first?

Donald finds he's finally been activated. Next thing he knows, he's been flown to a military base in Asia for eptification (from 'EPT,' that is, 'education for particular tasks' -- in this case, assassination). Donald's mission is to prove Sugaiguntung's so-called discovery is a lie and to sway the Yatakangi people to dump their current leader and replace him with a US-backed rebel who's been leading a guerrilla war for several years. Donald isn't sure he wants to do any of this, but then his brand-new reflexes start doing the thinking for him...

From the misty depths of the late 60s, Brunner gives us the ultimate dysfunctional society, a world of decadence spilling into decay, of high tech advances and the loss of common sense. There's a good bit of cyberpunkish foreshadowing here. The drugs, the mean streets, the ragged suburbs, and Mr and Mrs Everywhere on your TV set, who can be programmed to look just like you; through them you can attend the most exclusive parties, visit the most scenic places on Earth, meet the rich and famous, all at the flick of a remote control.

But some of Brunner's book is also very much "today," where genetic engineering is a viable business, muckers go postal and take out their frustrations with indiscriminate murder, and more than one pundit has accused the US of "government by public apathy."

The novel's title comes from a point Brunner notes early on: "If you allow for every codder and shiggy and appleofmyeye a space of one foot by two, you could stand us all on the 640 square mile surface of the island of Zanzibar." With the US population at 400 million and growing, and the global population hovering around 8 billion, Brunner uses myriad points of view to capture a world on the brink of human critical mass. A world in desperate need of some clear thought and common sense, and most of all, some direct action. Otherwise they'll all end up like crazy Bennie Noakes, perpetually tripping on Triptine, staring at the boob tube and frequently heard to say "Christ, what an imagination I've got!" He thinks the world is a dream. Nothing could be like this. But it is.

Copyright © 2000 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.


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