Mark's Reviews > Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
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's review
Feb 07, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: sf

A hallmark of new age science fiction, with experimental prose (drawing heavily on John Dos Passos) and massively detailed world building coming together to create a vibrant tale of a overpopulated future with an omnipresent caldera of violence that frequently erupts forth at the cracks in society.

The book is structurally fascinating, but I will force myself to hold off and first lay out some of the plot. The stress of overpopulation has led to increasingly restrictive regulations. Couples are only permitted two children, and every region is constantly passing eugenics laws that disallow parents with an ever increasing list of genetic defects. Most people deal with stress through recreational drugs and fruitless promiscuity. An unstable Asian country Yatakang announces without evidence that its scientists can fix genetic defects and create a perfect population, and other nations are suspicious and displeased. The tiny African nation Beninia makes a bid to be protected from its neighbors by essentially selling itself to a huge multinational corporation, and other nations are suspicious and displeased. The two main characters encounter all of the above and more and...and...ugh, I'm not describing this well enough. Okay, breath, okay. Donald Hogan is wrenched from his life as a minor intelligence analyst to an unsuitable covert ops roles. Norman House takes a very different journey from a black executive in a white dog-eat-dog General Technics corporate world to a subtly yet strongly different leadership role in Beninia.

But the main character arcs probably are only one structural mode that probably doesn't make up much more than half the book. There are three other interwoven chapter sequences. One subset relates small stories from a vast array of minor characters. Another subset collects short paragraphs of news and analysis from pundits. The final subset contains brief snippets of conversation representing man-on-the-street reactions to the world. All four sequences entwine with one another. Donald Hogan meets people from the minor stories, is delayed by train sabotage described in a news paragraph, and attends a cocktail party that is also expressed as the conversation snippets section delineating the half way point of the novel.

It is so common in book (especially SFF) to know the main characters and the world within 500 meters of them, but have little sense of the 99.9999% of the world and people outside of that. Stand on Zanzibar with its multiple narratives and techniques really adds that flesh onto the usual plot skeleton. Images of a few powerful scenes and of the world as a whole are going to stand out in my mind for a long time.

Now, of course 5 stars doesn't mean "will work for everyone" or "without literary flaws". The book is long and the chapters of collected snippets or paragraphs can be a slog. I wouldn't call the novel dated but it is very much of its time (1968). Even after accounting for the intentional sexism of the depicted dystopian future, the female characters tend towards the shallow and shrewish. Finally, it is a difficult start until the separate contexts start to mesh together.
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Reading Progress

February 7, 2011 – Shelved
November 3, 2014 – Started Reading
November 10, 2014 – Finished Reading
November 23, 2014 – Shelved as: sf

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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William Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up were two of my favourite books at university, and the covers even appear in my Master's Thesis.

Brunner wrote a few truly awful sci-fi books, and then "something happened" and he wrote these two masterpieces. Truly Awesome books!

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