Stand on Zanzibar
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I read this decades ago, but probably a few years after it won a Hugo. This time through there were a few scenes I recalled, the spontaneous breakout of a riot in New York's Lower East Side, a notorious party thrown by a fashion maven, a few other random scenes. There were a few vague memories that didn't appear, so I think it's possible they are from another Brunner book, 1972's The Sheep Look Up, which I must have read around the same time. A blurb on my paperback copy of Sheep says it's a sequel to Zanzibar, which isn't confirmed by other searches, but they do share a similar theme and style. The latter takes the environmental disaster element a bit further, with this one focusing more on problems of over-population and the increasing need for legislation to curb procreation by those with proven genetic defects. The title refers to the fact that all the world's people, standing together, would fit on the island of Zanzibar. Updates on population gains throughout the book indicate more and more people would be getting their feet wet just off shore, with the last mentioning how many would be waist deep in the ocean.
It is set in 2010. Most of the technological and cultural trends were not accurate predictions, but he did get the population gain correct, around 7 billion. Manhattan is now protected by a 'Fuller' dome, and transportation advancements include sub-orbital rocket flights and 'instatrans' similar to the proposed hyperloop. Marijuana is fully legal, and many designer drugs are tolerated. Over-population and shortage of resources has led to high unemployment and homelessness, with ever-increasing incidents of 'muckers'. That term derived not from 'mugger' but rather amok, with random acts of violence and mayhem from people driven to the brink of despair. On top of that, there are multiple radical factions perpetrating sabotage through assassinations, bombings, and contamination of air, water, and food supplies.
In the midst of all the chaos is Shalmaneser, a revolutionary new computer system developed by General Technics, one of the world's largest corporations. Even they don't proclaim Shal to be a self-aware intelligence, but later events could be interpreted to mean it (he?) is. The main characters are Norman Niblock House, an up-and-coming GT executive, and his roommate Donald Hogan, whom everyone thinks is just a rich dilettante, but he's actually employed by the State Department. Content to spend his days in libraries pursuing a free-form education, Donald thinks of himself as a synthesist, but it's just a matter of time before he is activated and trained as a spy. We follow two different plot threads: Norman's recruitment into a project which will have GT overseeing the rebuilding of the African nation of Beninia, and Donald's assignment to aid in the defection of a prominent geneticist from the South Pacific island nation of Yatakang. Both of these countries are fictitious. Benenia is roughly in the same area as the real-world Benin (the Republic of Dahomey at the time the book was written), but its history is different, most especially that Beninia had no connection to the slave trade. Yatakang could be any number of island groups in the vicinity of the Philippines or Indonesia. It is an authoritarian dictatorship, but State is also aiding an exiled freedom fighter.
The book suffers from a lack of focus. It's fairly long, nearly 600 pages in hardcover, so he should have had time to explore the many different plots, but he failed to make any of them compelling. I would have preferred more details on the domestic problems of the U.S., leaving the forays onto foreign soil to other books. Or he could have concentrated on the action of those two threads, or further developed the computer sub-plot. Either way, the book would have been much better. He wastes time getting to the interesting action, with too many mentions of minor characters, interjections of news items, excerpts from books by a fictitious sociologist, and a lot of the social commentary contains objectionable material. Not saying they were Brunner's opinions, but there's a lot of sexist and racist thought and action. Norman is a rarity at GT, a successful Afram (African-American), but he knows there is a lot of prejudice against him and other 'brown-noses'. Note, this is not to be confused with the common American phrase 'brown-noser'. Brunner is British, so he might not have been familiar with that, so his 'brown-nose' is specifically about skin color (or rather colour as he would spell it). A lot of women are referred to as 'shiggies', with the implication of a quasi-legal form of prostitution, or at least women of high promiscuity, 'gold-diggers' if you will. There are only a couple of characters I consider admirable, both of them in Beninia, one being its President, the other the American ambassador.
I can't recommend this book. There are some intriguing ideas, but none are fully developed, and it's hard to care what happens to any of the characters. Of the other books from '68 that were nominated for a Hugo or Nebula, I've read all but two. Stand on Zanzibar is inferior to all of them.
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