Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner
Stand on Zanzibar Cover

What an imagination he's got


It opens with a television advertisement. Stock cue SOUND. Stock cue VISUAL. Plug cue. Script cue. Best news program anywhere. Starring Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere. Lots of loudness. Lots of promises. Promises of things. Things we didn't know we need.

...Excerpt interjection by Abbie Hoffman type. Rhythm and more loud. IMPORTANT THINGS TO SAY.

...Followed by fragmented introductions of cast. We don't know anybody. Yet. Some adverts here and there.

...Problem in small African nation. (Did he say President Obama? Obami. Obami.) Shady things going on. Doesn't look good.

...More TV. Editorial news. Slang and baby farming.

... Norman as he takes down a woman with liquid helium when she attempts to destroy the predictive AI computer Shalmaneser. Her limbs freeze off. Justice in the modern world reminds him of his grandfather's slave days.


Then bits and bites of conversations. Snippets of inflammatory political digests. An incestuous brother and sister. Interracial roomie arrangement. Repeat cycle.

[It's like when I go to Chili's and the TVs are really loud and on different channels and I am mesmerized by the noisy, moving pictures and can't even pay attention to the person I'm with.]

This is sensory overload. Polemics in the form of ADHD. Part oracle, part Anarchist Cookbook. A graduate of The Space MerchantsAcademy, hold the cheese.

But it's a cohesive distortion, more readable than I'm letting on. Pieces of a world just barely different from our own, a pasted together collage that forms a complete picture, Monet-style. Named after the idea that the entire human population of Earth in 2010 can stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the island of Zanzibar. Brunner is correct, but he said it in 1968, mind you.

Overpopulation, globalization, corporate hegemony, isolation, pressure, militarism, technology--all adding up to the depersonalized state of future shock eptification. That's a new word, too.

And that's all the synopsis you're getting from me. Sheeting deal with it.

We've always cared more about property rights than human rights in this country. [93]

Perhaps the most direct commentary of the novel comes from its structural strand: the roommate relationship of interracial pair Donald and Norman. Two professional, highly educated men with secrets. They can never feel at peace with one another, not because of their secrets, but because of each other's skin color, and because of their persistent attraction to women of each other's race. "I wonder if we've been around each other long enough for him to think of me as Donald-a-person instead of Donald-a-WASP," Donald wonders (61). An expression of the social tensions of post-Civil Rights-era integrated society, this tense relationship doesn't resolve itself with buddy-buddy palling around - not because Brunner is cynical about integration, but because he believes the scar of the past is too deep to heal quickly, as evidenced by Norman's preoccupation with his grandfather's bondage.

...excessive fertility had been allowed as grounds in a Nevada court. [102]

Population limits and state-mandated reproductive controls are also prime targets for Brunner; we see it in The Whole Man (1962), too. It feels strange in this vocally pro-choice era to see such a cunning, leftist mind display such paranoia about population control, clearly a WWII holdover that my generation pays no mind. "Sometimes I wonder how you'd make out in a genuinely nonracial society" "There aren't any. Give you another generation, you'll add the genes for dark skin-pigment to the list of--" [50] It's an important conversation, but not one we hear nowadays, and Brunner's message feels somewhat insidious to the generations that value our reproductive rights. Part of this fault is due to the relative unagedness of the novel. It feels so relevant, it feels like a criticism of today. The few things that don't quite apply might be misinterpreted.

...remote-controlled Nipicaps... there were few more ego-undermining things a woman could do to a block than let it be seen how her erogenous tissue lost interest. [51]

And speaking of things amiss, we can't go on without discussing the "shiggies," the homeless, scantily clad women who trade sex for shelter until the guy turns her out to find another place to crash in exchange for sex. It's one of the most frightening aspects of Brunner's speculation, where the status of women has been downgraded to the point where even "the oldest trade" is no longer part of underground commerce, but an even flimsier arrangement. In general, shiggie is just slang for "woman," as many women have managed long-term domestic arrangements with their "codders," which resemble common fifties-style marital roles. A criticism of marriage in that respect, but in either form, Brunner paints male/female relationships as a less than respectable Quid pro quo arrangement.

Only one woman in the novel has managed to earn legitimate financial independence, due to her cosmetic and fashion empire, where women wear "two tight tubes of shimmering gold to thigh-height,... and a heavy gold fringe three layers deep hanging form a cord stretched hipbone to hipbone" (74), "Maximal access is no exaggeration when you spell it MAXESS," the latest and greatest of groin-baring shiggie fashion (5). But even her example is less respectable than her male peers, with her achievements built on the arched backs of female sexualization and discomfort. A veritable economic cannibal.

Overall, Brunner depicts a world in which women have lost mobility, demoted from second- to third-class citizenry, becoming sexual chattel temps, despite this being written at the height of a vocal and strident feminist movement. It's an odd depiction, suggesting that Brunner was either completely ignorant of, annoyed with, or had no faith in, the feminist movement of the sixties. I doubt the first two, but I'm confused by it. Thank goodness he got that one wrong.


Fighting in an army is a psychotic condition. [65]

For your eptification: Brunner plays with terminology in ways that makes me wonder why some of these words haven't caught on. "Bleeder" replaces "bastard" as THE birth-related insult because hemophilia is the enemy in a eugenically-driven nation. Chad C. Mulligan, radical author of The Hipcrime Vocab, gives us "The New Poor," "people who are too far behind with time-payments on next year's model to make the down-payment on the one for the year after," [268] (which actually has caught on, my googling skills discover). And A.M. and P.M. are replaced by "anti-matter" and "momma-poppa." (I'm officially adopting these.) (Okay, maybe not "momma-poppa," but definitely using "anti-matter.")

Eerily familiar, with so much of our domestic goods being produced in underpowered, overwhelmed nations, what's most interesting about Stand on Zanzibar is not its prescience, but what didn't transpire and what it says about our world, particularly the United States. (Funny that this comes from a British author.) Liberal in its economic blood thirst and militaristic ventures, yet complicatedly prudish, today's U.S. is much like SoZ's U.S. society, although different issues hit nerves differently in either society. Our U.S. is more tolerant of same-sex issues (not equitable, just MORE tolerant than), and slower to adopt SoZ's attitude toward marijuana and hetero sex. Today, we're eager to display the sex characteristics of women on glossy mag covers at the grocery store checkout line, but don't you dare dress that way in public. Slut. That disturbs my comfortable visions of nuclear family homogeneity. MAXESS-style fashions are not common in daily life just yet.

BUT CHROME NAIL POLISH! Never mind. He nailed it.

And he also predicted our too late; just postpone guilt:

...the entire human race seemed momentarily united in a single entrancing dream- the hope that the next generation they would bequeath to Mother Earth would be whole, healthy, sane, capable of making amends for the rape they had inflicted in olden days. [358]

Christ, what an imagination he's got.

Highly, highly, highly recommended.