STAND ON ZANZIBAR – John Brunner (1968)

Stand On ZanzibarJudith Merrill called Stand On Zanzibar “the first true SF novel”, and in his introduction to the 2011 edition Bruce Sterling calls parts “radically antinovelistic” and the book in general a “unique formal achievement”. Let me assure you, dear reader, such hyperbole statements are bollocks. I’ve written about some SF-readers’ real literature frustration before, and I won’t repeat all that here. It seems that some people still need to be told that what they are reading is really True Art, and really worth Their Time.

Sterling goes on to compare John Brunner’s first non-pulp novel to George Perec’s 1978 La Vie mode d’emploi in an attempt to make Brunner’s book more formally visionary than it actually is: it predates the English translation of that ‘real’ literature masterpiece by 20 years. While doing so, he almost casually brushes aside the formal comparisons to Dos Passos’ U.S.A., a trilogy from the 1930s that uses the same narrative techniques. Sterling claims Dos Passos doesn’t really count, as he was an “naturalistic” writer, and Brunner “antinaturalistic”. Content is not form in my book, so “unique formal achievement”? Yeah right. And in Dutch Louis Paul Boon already wrote an even more radical cut up book right after WW2.

Maybe it was unique in the context of SF. Brunner might have been the first speculative writer to put all these techniques together in one book: I’m not widely enough read in pre 1968 SF to verify this. But its partial techniques were tried & tested, in speculative fiction too. I’m guessing books that alternate the big storylines with smaller storylines or vignettes can be easily found. The habit of inserting made up texts from the future period somebody is writing about is not unheard of either: just look at this list of fictional books Frank Herbert quoted from in the Dune series. Asimov did the same in the early 50ies. And Tolkien had fictional song and verse too.

All this is not to shit on Stand On Zanzibar, as Stand On Zanzibar is a masterpiece.

It is merely to shit on all the exaggerated claims surrounding the book. Brunner himself contributed to it by calling his book a “non-novel” in the final chapter. What is a novel anyway? Wikipedia anyone? “A novel is any relatively long piece of written narrative fiction, normally in prose, and typically published as a book.” Well, check, check, check, check and check.

So, what’s the deal with this formalistic experimentalism? Stand On Zanzibar has chapters alternating between:

  • the linear narrative about two protagonists: a government spy and a vice president of a big company,
  • chapters focusing on side characters that may or may not become part of the bigger narrative – providing depth to the world,
  • chapters consisting of collages of various snippets of dialogue, etc.
  • and chapters consisting of imaginary headlines, adds, quotations for imaginary books, etc. – providing more depth & context

The different types of chapters feed into each other, and there’s quite a lot of cross-pollination, so it is not a mere cacophonous, random affair, as some reviewers seem to suggest. Brunner took his time to construct this book.

What about that antinaturalistic claim of Bruce Sterling? Depends on your definition of antinaturalistic. For my money, there’s an awful lot of truth in Stand On Zanzibar. Truth about the human condition, truth about human societies, truth about politics, truth about science. Truth about our nature, so to say – Brunner is no advocate of the free will notion, btw.

The book is set in 2010 – 40 years after its publication date – and managed to predict quite a lot of stuff: most notably a nearly exact figure about population rise and the rise of the influence of big companies on politics. As for gadgets: yes, there are smartphones – “an encyclopedia connection on his phone”!

Obviously Stand On Zanzibar is not entirely right about everything, but that’s no argument against it: the text remains a powerful, must read critique on today’s 21st century affairs. Brunner shows a keen mind, with a big scope: he presents a dense, global vision.

This is not a book for everyone, but it is by no means a difficult book – narrative formalities aside, it is more or less straight forward, and the asides and interludes are just that, and recognizable as such. They provide depth and variation, so the reader never gets bored. Some have complained about the slang Brunner invented, but also that shouldn’t scare readers away. The few words that are important to understand what’s going on – bleeder, mucker, shiggy – are clear enough early on, and the rest again provides extra depth and variation. But yes, agreed, some of the slang feels a bit dated at times: linguistic idiomatic evolution is simply impossible to predict.

Brunner writes great lines throughout the 550 pages:

At his back, the huge empty nothing of the Sahara – the best part of a thousand miles away, yet so monstrous and so dominant it loomed in his brain like a thunderhead.


People who hate in concrete terms are dangerous. People who manage to hate only in abstracts are the only ones worth having for your friends.


From her desk she picked up its only ornament, a conch-shell of exceptionally vivid coloring, and threw it at the window overlooking the busy city. It fell in pieces to the floor. The glass was unmarked, and the universe outside was still there.


The past reached out and closed a dead hand on Victor’s brain.

It’s not always highlighted, but Stand On Zanzibar has a clear satirical component. Brunner invented Chad C. Mulligan, a sociologist he quotes throughout the book. These fragments have a lot in common with Kurt Vonnegut’s tone & wit, and are – likewise – a treat to read.

If there’s one thing Brunner didn’t envision fully it’s that the progressive forces of the 1960ies lost a bit of steam. Brunner’s most naive vision may be the existence of hordes of ‘shiggies’: easily available women who don’t own or rent housing, but simply drift from man to man and provide sex for shelter & food. It’s probably the books biggest fault – not only from the predictive stance, but also from a feminist point of view.

Other themes miss the mark as well, but hit closer to home. It may not be Brunner’s 2010 yet, but it seems society is slowly catching on with the possibilities of genetic engineering – check these recent Washington Post and NYT articles here and here. (For those wanting to read an interesting discussion on the ethics of genetics I would recommend Peter Sloterdijk’s 2010 essay Rules For The Human Zoo.)

The same goes for illegal drugs: the UN has dismissed the war on drugs as counterproductive, and cannabis is legal in 9 American states at the moment – 12 others allow medical use. In 2001 Portugal has decriminalized all drugs, both hard and soft, and has fewer addiction problems as a result.

Stand On Zanzibar won the 1969 Hugo & BSFA. Brunner wrote 3 more dystopian novels: The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Sheep Look Up (1972) and The Shockwave Rider (1975). There are already physical copies of those books on my TBR.

Sterling ends his introduction with a Walter Benjamin quote – the ultimate in serious cultural capital. Stand On Zanzibar doesn’t need that. It’s strong enough on its own.

Highly recommended: it’s a new favorite!



14 responses to “STAND ON ZANZIBAR – John Brunner (1968)

  1. As usual, Bart, a good post. I agree with most of what you say except – well, I just did not like Zanzibar that much, personally. For me, the overall result does not justify the length and complexity. Same for the Perec and Dos Passos novels. I guess I currently value directness more than modernistic stylings… .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks!! Haven’t read the Perec nor Dos Passos. I feel this book gets too much credit for its form instead of its content. I expected something much more experimental than it actually is. But I can understand that you didn’t like it. It’s one of those books that need to click.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! My single favorite SF novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I know, you advocating it is one of reasons it got on my reading pile!


      • Woo hoo!

        I think it’s one of the more perfect examples of form wedding structure — if you want an information overload future, then what better way then fragments of media…. And also the integration of current events from Brunner’s own day (the 1968 shooting at The University of Texas for example) suggest the information overload is part of his own present…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, there’s more in it from his own time than one might think. From what I can gather his predictions weren’t that outlandish if you had a keen and broad perception. The fact that a lot checked out kinda proves that.


  3. It’s been a long time since I read Stand on Zanzibar – at least 35 years – so many of the details are now obscured by the passage of time and an increasingly faulty memory 😀 but what I remember is the impact it had on me both for the unique narrative style and the kind of society represented there. Looking at the “predictions” listed in the page you linked, I was amazed at the author’s skill in using the period’s trends to formulate future developments in politics and customs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In a way it’s a blessing to read it just now, and being able to see his visionary power, but on the other hand it must have been an even more aweing experience reading it 45 or 35 years ago!

      Liked by 1 person

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