Stand on Zanzibar

Monday, January 28, 2013


Stand on Zanzibar
John Brunner, 1968

Hugo Winner - 1969

Premise: A fractured look at an overpopulated dystopia. It mostly focuses on how the decisions of two men in New York affect events in two small countries on opposite sides of the world.

I fell asleep. Literally. I literally fell asleep at least three separate times while reading this book, never when it was late at night, or I was particularly tired. So it should come as no surprise that my take on this book can be summed up in three words: Slow, Long, Boring.

This book is written in a “groundbreaking” style that was appropriated from an earlier work of historical fiction. It consists of different types of chapters: some follow the main characters, some follow minor characters who may or may not appear again, and some provide worldbuilding. I guess the latter are supposed to feel like information overload, but really I just read enough to get the idea (i.e. the next four-ten pages are examples of future advertising or examples of people dying stupidly or etc.) and then skipped ahead.

Because frankly, life is too short for this book.

The future postulated proposes a lot of societal and governmental shifts based on the problem of overpopulation, but really they’re either not really fully explored, like legislation on who can have kids, or they are heavily colored by the 60’s/70’s, like uses of “future drugs” and a free-sex culture.

For me, in 2012, this book has the problem that it wasn’t written long enough ago to be “classic” science fiction, but neither is it modern. What I mean by that is the projected dystopia (set in 2010), isn’t charming or intriguing to me, the way some of the early, more ambitious Hugo winners were. Neither is it moving or realistic the way I expect from modern work. The characters are unlikable, the plots vague and hard to follow. It neither seems to be making a point or purposely not making one.

The pace picks up, finally, in about the last third, but at that point I just wanted it to be over. The ending is okay, I guess, but the resolution was weak. I felt as though the author wasn’t sure whether to ‘save’ his future world with some deus ex machina or let them go to hell in a handbasket, and in trying to take a middle road, the whole thing falls flat.

There are some developments that the book predicts that sort of came to pass, although earlier and far differently than is presented, and that doesn’t help me take it seriously. And there’s always the question of whether you can suspend your disbelief so far as the ‘future’ having super-fast trains and supercomputers and magic memory polymer weapons, but not cell phones or the interactive internet. For me, this goes back to the charm factor. In some stories, the idea being addressed or the characters involved are interesting enough for me to laugh off or enjoy the idea of putting punch cards into a future supercomputer (see: Asimov). Some, like this, just don’t come together enough.

The last third did have some interesting ideas and developments, but not enough to save the experience for me.

1 Star - Didn’t Like It.

(For much more interesting near-future worldbuilding, try Facsimile. Yes, I edited it, but I am not being partisan here. It’s So Much Better.)

List of Hugo Winners

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