Illuminatus! Trilogy scrubbed of all the conspiracy nuttiness*, a fictionalized parable of Toffler's classic Future Shock, a finger-wagging sermon about the evils of overpopulation, and a whacked-out Jeff Noon media scramble, Stand on Zanzibar is one of the coolest bits of New Wave science fiction a reader could pick up.
A lot of people who pick up a John Brunner novel -- or indeed any older science fiction novel -- in the 21st century get hung up on either the eerie prescience the author seems to have had about our contemporary world (the book was written in 1968 but set in 2010) or on what the author got wrong about it, but to do either is to miss the point here. Good fiction is good fiction, whether or not someone guessed there would be smart phones; ditto good social criticism. Stand on Zanzibar is both.
The title comes from an observation made by a wag/sage of the novel's world that the world's current population of 7 billion (yes, one of things he got right; we hit that number pretty close to the same time he projected) if stood together in one place shoulder-to-shoulder, would take up the area of the island of Zanzibar (when the book was written, the world's population could fit on the Isle of Man, a much smaller bit of land). The world he depicts will remind fans a bit of that in Soylent Green**; its be-domed New York might also make one think of the be-domed city-as-spaceship New York in Cities in Flight. And as I suggested above, I kept thinking of Jeff Noon's fiction, particularly Channel Sk1n.
The plot Brunner chooses from among the billions of possible stories on that/this overcrowded world concerns a mega-corporation that is getting ready to buy a country, the men chosen to spearhead the project (which takes a long view of a Third World nation's economic development into a new kind of global economic powerhouse as just another opportunity to increase shareholder value -- eerily, kind of the way our modern private prison industry works!), and some of their friends. Because the nation in question is in Africa, the company's single African-American (abbreviated "Afram") vice president, Norman Niblock House, gets the nod, along with the U.S.'s equally Afram ambassador to that little nation, Elihu Masters, who's been best friends with the country's president-for-life for some twenty years. Said president*** being a tired old man now, who has been pretty much single-handedly holding his little nation together since the British abandoned the whole colonialism thing and more or less forced him into the role of someone to whom they could hand off all their problems. But there is no good prospect for a successor, so why not bring in a corporation? The project is not viewed as the president selling out so much as a father with hundreds of thousands of helpless dependents trying to secure a future for them. Believe me, it sort of works.
This is largely because there is so much else going on in this novel, which is apparently modeled on John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy ****, at least structurally, for the narrative, plot forwarding chapters are interspersed with all sorts of non-narrative interludes of pure, hypermediated texture, including extended excerpts from the works of one Chad Mulligan, sociologist, who is this novel's Austin Train figure (see The Sheep Look Up), a wise man who has gone ignored but may now be called somewhat resurgent, but only because drinking himself to death in disgust is taking too long and is actually kind of boring.
But wait, there's more!
Because Norman has a white roommate, Don, a guy with a freak gift for pattern recognition who has spent the last ten years in deep cover as a member of the U.S. Army's "Dilettante Corps" in which his job is basically being a sort of Cayce Pollard for the government. In the course of the story, Don gets called up and has to go overseas to help out with an international problem involving a fictional Pacific Rim nation with whom the U.S. is in a seemingly endless and bitter Vietnamesque war. Said country having made an announcement regarding a Great Leap Forward in eugenics and genetic engineering that holds incredible possibility and also, of course, incredible threat to the rest of the world.
For the reaction of the First World to the planet's overwhelming population problem is to plunge into eugenics with all enthusiasm. Laws governing who may have children and how many children they may have get stricter and stricter all the time -- and in the United States, differ from state to state, so, for example, Nevada is close to a free-for-all whereas Louisiana is flirting with the idea of not allowing anyone to breed who can prove three generations of residency in that state in addition to the standard prohibitions on anyone with genetic defects of any kind reproducing. As the novel opens, the latest trait under fire is color-blindness. But what everyone is really afraid of is that someday producing too much melanin is going to be a prohibiting factor.
Which is to say that racism -- and sexism, which I'll get to later -- are prevalent elements throughout the text. As the U.S. is at war with an Asian power, plenty of anti-Asian sentiment and offensive slang gets slung about (which, about the slang, get ready for that. The slang in Stand on Zanzibar could be the subject of a whole big and fascinating paper, to be pored over like that in A Clockwork Orange, but unlike Burgess' novel, all of Brunner's slang is derived from English), and blacks don't get any better treatment. It's all presented very matter-of-factly, even casually, which can be shocking but which is part and parcel of the societies we're examining. Kinship and tribalism and associated inter-group violence, sociologists tell us, tend to come very much to the fore in cases of crowding.
As is, apparently, a very casual, even cavalier, attitude towards women, the young and attractive variety of which are referred to in this world as "shiggies" and are passed around like party favors, traded like Magic the Gathering cards, apparently happy with this state of affairs and the nomadic, uncertain life they lead on the "shiggy circuit." Older women are only ever noticed if they happen by some freak of affairs to have somehow achieved serious corporate power, with a depressing few exceptions, and even the one younger-than-the-alpha female executive type who crosses our path is at first dismissed as on the scene just because her boss got tired of sleeping with her. To the slight credit of the man making this internalized observation about her, he does eventually include that she might be there on her own actual merits as well, perhaps. Partly. Ugh.
The only other reason a woman might matter, of course, is as breeding stock. But only if she's genetically OK. But hey, at least the potential father has to pass genetic muster as well. So I guess there's parity somewhere. Ugh.
But hey, all of literature has taught me how it sure do suck to be female, so I can hardly single out this book for special castigation. Especially in a year in which I have taken on Robert Silverberg. I do not cry out for a fan-edit of Stand on Zanzibar from which my gender has been removed, but, you know, yuck.
That aside, this is a pretty fantastic read, a worthy companion to Brunner's other blisteringly awful masterpiece, The Sheep Look Up. But where we could sort of, kind of, desperately cling to the idea that The Sheep Look Up was a self-denying prophecy, Stand on Zanzibar still feels like it could happen, is happening.
But we already knew that, didn't we?
Sing it, Pete.
*Which, I hasten to assure you, is still a very entertaining, if somewhat depressing, thing.
**Itself based on a novel by Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! that came out two years before Stand on Zanzibar.
***Whose name is Zadkiel Obomi, and I'll refer you to the rest of the internet for points of view on that amazing coincidence/prediction. Yawn.
****Which I haven't read but now really want to.