Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner
Stand on Zanzibar Cover

Stand on Zanzibar - whale dreck


Stand on Zanzibar is a difficult read. It seems as if it were made so deliberately. John Brunner calls it a non-novel. It certainly seems like he tried to make it so, but there is in fact a story in there that could be a novel, were it not so disjointed.

The structure is four chapter types: Context, Continuity, Tracking with Close-ups, and The Happening World. I suppose, to get Stand on Zanzibar the way Brunner intended it, one must read the chapters as they are presented. To get the story, one can ignore Context and The Happening World. The stories of Donald Hogan and Norman House diverge and finally come back together in the Continuity chapters (I think) and other sub-plots are in Tracking with Close-ups. There is some overlap, I think. (I wasn't keeping track as I read.) Probably to get Stand on Zanzibar, one must read it more than once, but I don't think it really warrants rereading.

This breaking up of the story with chapters that don't advance the plot is a literary device not unique with John Brunner. John Steinbeck used a similar form, and Ursula K Le Guin used it beautifully in The Left Hand of Darkness, published at about the same time. With Brunner though, it seems more like obfuscation, a gimmick.

There is one element which, to my mind, doesn't help the book: Brunner's use of made-up slang. We occasionally come across this in science fiction set in the future. I usually find it silly and somewhat annoying. It certainly is silly and annoying in Stand on Zanzibar. To use Brunner's own ersatz vernacular, "It's not worth a pint of whale dreck." Just another gimmick.

Stand on Zanzibar has long been on my to-read list and I'm glad I finally got it behind me. I don't share the high regard in which it is so widely held. Only towards the end did I finally decide that I didn't completely dislike it.