Thursday, March 7, 2013

1969: Stand on Zanzibar

              The year is 2010. The world is overcrowded and, as a result, most nations have implemented strict eugenics program and children have become a rarity. A scientist in the socialist nation of Yatakang has discovered a way to eliminate genetic defects. The United States is fighting a Vietnam-style war with the Chinese. Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere dominate television. The tiny African nation of Beninia contracts its development to multinational conglomerate General Tectonics. Men are called “codders” and women are known as “shiggies”. This is the world of John Brunner’s 1969 Hugo Award winning novel Stand on Zanzibar.
                And what a world it is. Whatever feelings I have for Stand on Zanzibar (and I have many and they are often in conflict), Brunner created an interesting and complex world which is impressive considering that I read the book in 2012 and it was mildly amusing to think that the book’s future setting was actually two years in the past. That being said and as I mentioned earlier, I have conflicting feelings about this book. I found it, at times, to be each of the following: brilliant, silly, clever, annoying, very realistic, and absolutely ridiculous. Let’s start with the plot and then start deconstructing my feelings on the book.
                The plot is mostly focused on two characters: Norman House and Donald Hogan, two gentlemen that share an apartment (and occasionally shiggy) in New York. Norman is an African American (called an Afram in this book) Muslim who used his race to become a vice president in the General Tectonics (GT) conglomerate at the age of 26. That is not to say that Norman is stupid or untalented, for he neither of those things. Rather he is very ambitious and not afraid to use whatever means he can to succeed. For example, early in the novel, Norman personally stops a “mucker” (slang for a person running amok) that is attacking the GT computer by freezing her arm off with liquid hydrogen. Norman is a tough guy and he eventually takes of GT’s administration and development of Beninia. Brunner sums up Donald in one sentence: “Donald Hogan is a spy.” At the beginning of the novel he is more of a spy in waiting and is later activated for a special mission to Yatakang, a fictional country that is a combination of Indonesia and Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand. Until he is called up, Donald is meek and bookish and seems unsuited for his role. While Donald and Norman are roommates they aren’t actually friends and their paths cross in strange ways once they move to their eventual roles.
                While what I described is the main plot, it is hardly the only one. The novel is broken up into a number of sections titled "Continuity"  (Most of the linear narrative is contained in these chapters), "Tracking with Closeups" (focusing closely on ancillary characters before they become part of the main narrative, or simply serve to paint a picture of the state of the world), "The Happening World" ( These chapters consist of collage-like collections of short, sometimes single-sentence, descriptive passages), and  "Context" (These chapters provide a setting for the novel). From what I have read this is similar to the structure of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy, a series of novels that I have not read. The structure works, for the most part, though not all side stories are created equal. Some feel needless, or worse, seem to be setting up a side story that goes nowhere. But it gives a good feeling for the world that Brunner has created.
                What I just mentioned was some of the good elements of the book but there are others as well. Brunner’s writing is good. Dialogue is believable and it doesn’t have some of the clunky workmanlike sentence structure and pacing that I noticed in earlier Hugo winners. In general I liked the story except there were a few sections that went on needlessly long such as at a party where it jumps around to different conversations for nearly 50 pages. Or at least what I imagine was 50 pages. I read Stand on Zanzibar on my Kindle so judging pages can be difficult.
                Slang in science fiction is a tricky thing. Often times it feels dated, silly, or annoying or all three at once such as fracking in the new Battlestar Galatica. Or anything from the Jetsons. That said, the slang in Stand on Zanzibar is mostly pretty good. There is a slight 60s vibe to some of it but for the most part it seems reasonable. Saying “whereinole” for “what the hell” feels right and I absolutely love Afram for African American. Since the correct word has changed so many times of the last few decades Afram seems very logical to me. “Shiggy” as a word for a woman works well in the book, though I would not recommend it for daily use. My wife was not too keen when I called her my favorite shiggy.
                What I disliked was how dystopian the book is. Nearly every aspect of this future is terrible. The U.S. government has become increasingly authoritarian with strict eugenics rules and forced conscription for what feels like any ongoing Vietnam War. Not that those are ideas for a novel but Brunner doesn’t really give an explanation on why this is. He mentions overcrowding and a U.S. population around 400 million but that hardly seem justified for the draconian measures taken by the U.S. government. George Orwell’s 1984 was bleak but at least we knew why. With all the world building that takes place in Stand on Zanzibar some explanation seem necessary. I find it hard to understand a great deal of science fiction takes place in the near future is so dystopian rather than being like the present, some stuff is good and some stuff is bad.
                Another aspect I found somewhat maddening was the character of Chad Mulligan. Chad himself does not appear until a good way into the book but excerpts from his books are fixtures of The Happening World sections. I found Chad Mulligan to be a pompous self-righteous prick, which won’t be a problem if the book didn’t treat him like a genius and prophet. Everyone has met someone like Chad: an individual who spouts garbage on how the world really is and if we only opened our eyes we would see it like they do. Personally, I find Rand Paul supporters to be like this. Even the titles of his books are self-important. What would you think of a person whose books are titled things like You’re an Ignorant Idiot and You: Beast?
                While Stand on Zanzibar is not my favorite Hugo winner, I did like it and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a different, more literate science fiction. It is worth your time.
                That is it for the 1960s. For my next blog I will write about the decade as a whole and what I thought of it. Spoiler alert: for the most part the 60s were better for Hugo awards than the 50s.

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