Science fiction has the distinction among fiction genres of periodically re-inventing itself. The “Gernsback formula,” in which the science was the story, gave place after World War II to a more human-centered approach — and not a little dystopian future fiction — as writers re-evaluated the benefits of technology after Hiroshima. In the 1960s came the New Wave, first in England and very shortly thereafter in America, when a new generation of writers seemed determined to turn what had been either escapist fiction or social satire (and there were some biting examples of that in the 1950s) into a real literary form. One notable feature of the New Wave, aside from the emergence of exciting new writers, was the way in which older, more established writers moved into the movement with breakthrough novels. Thus, Robert Silverberg produced Thorns and Dying Inside, while John Brunner moved from novels such as Secret Agent of Terra, which is just what it sounds like, to stunning books dealing with cultural issues in a very sophisticated and, dare I say it? — literary way. Thus, The Sheep Look Up and, what most writers consider one of the masterpieces of the genre, Stand on Zanzibar.
Looking back on this one, any discussion of the plot (or in this case, “plots”) only distracts from the work itself. Let it suffice to say that the story, although centered on two men —Norman Niblock House, a rising executive at General Technics, and Donald Hogan, a spy, who share an apartment — follows a group of characters, some of whom interact, some of whom are used more to establish context. It’s the context that’s important here: the world in 2010, a dizzying place of mega-corporations that are practically nations in their own right, nations that are sometimes wholly-owned subsidiaries of those corporations — or are seriously considering it — and constant input from the media: information overload.
Bruce Sterling, in his Foreword, spends some time discussing the predictive aspect of Brunner’s novel. That’s always been a big thing in traditional science-fiction, predicting the future, and quite a few people still judge an sf story by how accurate it is. In this case, while the actual forecasts are no more or less accurate than one might expect, given that the novel was published in 1968, what’s breathtaking is the accuracy with which Brunner depicts the feel of the time — the fragmentation, the constant input, the casual and ephemeral nature of relationships (mediated by electronic media), the dog-eat-dog climb to the top. Remember that the key element of that “predictive” thing is extrapolation: science fiction has traditionally worked from current trends and projected them into the future. In this case, the trends are not about landing men on the moon, or ordering genetically tailored babies, but about what everyday life is like.
It’s dizzying, reflected most effectively in the structure of the book: the “story” is interspersed with passages devoted to setting the milieu, quotes from the the “Hipcrime Vocab” and other works by the (fictional) sociologist Chad C. Mulligan, inclusion of current slang terms (a “codder” is a man, a “shiggy” a woman, “bivving” is bisexuality, which is not at all frowned upon). “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere” are part of interactive news programs. And the procreation so beloved of our contemporary religious fanatics is licensed.
It’s this last that is key: most of the social stresses that underlie the story rest on overpopulation, revealed in widening disparities in social and economic status; extremism, including acts of terrorism, whether by organized groups or free-lancers; eugenics laws; and more.
This is really a novel that’s about the milieu more than any of the characters, which is probably fortunate: the characters are not particularly appealing. House is cold, self-absorbed, and something of a racist (he happens to be “Afram,” African-American). Hogan is, by necessity, duplicitous. Jeff Young is one of those free-lance terrorists, but he really only makes and sells the means of sabotage. The women are little more than objects, and invariably come to abrupt and unpleasant ends. As far as predictive accuracy, it’s not important what Brunner got wrong, and there are specifics that are off-base. What’s important is that he got the feel way too right.
Stand on Zanzibar is a novel that any student of science fiction has to know. It’s not a pleasant book — not one I would recommend for a cold gloomy evening, cheerful fire or no. But it’s good. It’s really good.
(Orb Books, 2012)