Wednesday, December 2, 2009

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is his wild book. I have this theory that writers have one wild book inside them, one in which they let go and break all the rules. Frequently they aren't received well by critics and scholars, and the general reading public doesn't appreciate them to any great degree either. Melville wrote one called Mardi which only critics and scholars are aware of and generally ignore. On the other hand, Brunner's wild one seems to have been accepted to a much greater degree by critics and the reading public. While I haven't read everything by Brunner, I don't remember any of his other works resembling this one to any extent at all. If someone knows of another by him that resembles this book, please let me know. I will definitely go look for it.

To begin with, its structure is unlike anything I've seen in Brunner so far. It is closest to John Dos Passos' USA trilogy (1930-36) and Fred Pohl's Gateway (1977). Brunner, like Dos Passos and Pohl, avoids providing the setting in long narrative prose sections. Instead they use headlines, advertisements, and brief short news items to convey the significant cultural and social issues prevalent in the USA at that time. While this doesn't provide the in-depth coverage that some writers and readers feel is necessary, it does give the flavor of those times and perhaps does it in a more interesting way for those readers impatient to get on with the plot and care little if anything for the background. It's not immediately evident, but Brunner first introduces and then provides significant information about his characters, especially the secondary characters, in the inter-narrative portions of the novel.

While Pohl, in Gateway, restricts his narrative to one major character, Dos Passos has at least 3 or 4 major character lines, and Brunner has two, with several important secondary characters.
Dos Passos' structure is more traditional in that, by the end of the first novel, The 42nd Parallel, his major plot lines have converged.

Brunner attempts something different. His two major characters, Norman Niblock House and Donald Hogan, are roommates at the beginning of the novel and events conspire to force them along separate paths to very different destinies. But, in order to keep readers happy, Brunner has several significant secondary characters--Chad Mulligan and Elihu Masters--whose separate paths eventually converge. Mulligan is a best-selling, rogue sociologist who has dropped out, while Masters had been a highly respected member of the US diplomatic corps who requested a post in the small impoverished African country of Beninia. He is thought to have ended a potentially brilliant career in the State Department by his action.

In addition, Brunner also provides several sub-sub plots that involve two families who are victimized by the major problem of the day--overpopulation; another minor plot focuses on a gang of young toughs on their way down into the underworld, and yet another on a young man who has just been drafted into the US military, and even one that gives a picture of the lives of the rich and powerful, and those striving to reach that level.

Norman House is an Afram who works for General Technics (GT), one of the largest, if not the largest, corporations in the world. It is large enough and rich enough to buy up small countries if it so desires. That's the major plot line which House becomes unwittingly enmeshed in. The problem is the small African country of Beninia, which has been ruled for decades by Zadkiel F. Obomi, its only president, since it emerged from its colonial status. Obomi knew he hadn't long to live and feared what would happen when he died.

Beninia, although one of the poorest countries in Africa, has a magnificent natural harbor which his neighbors coveted. He could hear the official statements that would emerge after his death. Each of his neighbors was not invading Beninia for conquest but to "protect" it from those other greedy neighbors.

Obomi and Masters work up a scheme in which General Technics would invest heavily in Beninia to realize certain commercial objectives. The Beninian government would rely on various advisers provided by GT. The US State Department would monitor the situation to ensure that GT lived up to its promises of building the educational, medical, governmental, and transportation infrastructure that would vastly improve the lives of the citizenry of Beninia. The only real problem is Shalmaneser, the super computer that comes close to running GT and, therefore, a powerful influence in the US.

Shalmaneser can't accept that such a country as Beninia exists and rejects the plan. Beninia hasn't had a murder in over 15 years and doesn't even have a word in its vocabulary for "angry." "Insane" is the closest word it has to "angry." Beninia has barely a million inhabitants, yet it was able t0 absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees several decades ago without any conflict between the refugees and the inhabitants. Without Shalmaneser's estimate of the possibilities of success, GT will not act.

In the other plot, Donald Hogan appears to be unemployed and apparently possesses a small independent income that allows him to survive without having to work. However, he actually is an employee of an agency for the US Government. His task is to spend his time reading and absorbing information and presenting reports on what he's learned. Those familiar with van Vogt's readings might consider him a sort of a Nexialist, a generalist rather than a specialist.

Much to his dismay he gets activated and has to report for field duty. He is trained in the art of combat--martial arts and various weaponry. He is to travel to Yatakang, a country made up of numerous Pacific islands. Indonesia? Donald's two specialties are the Yatakanga language and genetics. He's called up because the Yatakanganese government has announced incredible breakthroughs in genetic engineering, both in the ability to correct genetic defects and to create "improved" humans--a superman, if you will. Hogan's task is to find out whether this is at all possible, since it is far in advance of anything anybody else on the planet can achieve.

Since my copy of the novel has approximately 650 pages, it must be obvious that I've only briefly and inadequately covered a few of the major elements and almost none of those secondary elements that create the background.

In spite of its diversity and richness and complexity and Brunner's skill in telling a story, I do not include it in my top ten SF novels. The problem is the ending. If you are the reader who wants a neat and tidy ending that wraps up the major conflict and perhaps eventually turns Earth into a peaceful paradise some time in the future, then you will love this novel. If not, then you might be disappointed, as I was. A great novel. such as this is for 99% of its length, deserves a better ending, one that fits, even if it is an ambiguous or inconclusive ending.

Overall Rating: a great novel, but one with what I consider a serious flaw. Highly recommended.


  1. Your comment on the disappointing ending raises an interesting question: Can a novel still be worthwhile if the ending is an aesthetic and compositional failure? I know my initial answer to that question, but perhaps this is a complex question that I need to think about and pursue later. In the meantime, I appreciate your generous, well-written critique, but I'm afraid your concern about the ending convinces me that my reading time ought to be spent elsewhere. Yes, I've heard about the novel, but never read it; perhaps I have not missed out on anything, especially since I tend to believe my answer to my previously proffered question is generally in the negative.

  2. R. T.,

    My answer would be yes in this case. There is so much else that is in the novel that I would still recommend it highly. This was a reread actually, and I intend to read it again.

    Ironically, one of the significant characters rails against the solution. He says: "But it's not right."

    I've wondered whether that's Brunner complaining about his ending.

    I recommend reading it for it's worth the time spent. Besides, you may disagree with me about the ending.

  3. Fred,

    I, too, have never read this book but have heard about it. Do you think it was a product of the sixties? Maybe the ending, too? I'm interested in your opinion, not having read it myself. From your description, do you think it was written as a commentary on the war in Vietnam and American political policies? ( I could be totally misinterpreting this.)

  4. Cheryl,

    I would say it's certainly influenced by the 60s, which would be natural since it was written during the 60s. The sexual mores in the novel are definitely 60s and clearly pre-HIV/AIDS.

    As for the political issues, I would say it is more a commentary on the Cold War in general and an extrapolation from the 60s into the future, rather than being a specific commment on Viet Nam.

    There's also a nod in the direction of Orwell's _1984_ with various blocs being more or less permanently at war with each other. The hostilities are not of a global extent but more of "hot spots" that flare up where the blocs rub up against each other.

  5. When I looked this novel up on Wikipedia, it mentioned that overpopulation and it's impact was a main focus of the plot. I was just wondering about how overpopulation was talked about alot in the sixties and early Seventies, but it's rarely talked about now. ( Maybe I'm just not aware of it, though.) Why do you think that is? Isn't it the threat they thought it would be?

  6. Overpopulation is still a problem, but the media doesn't focus on it anymore. Several factors, I think anyway, have slowed the population growth to some extent so that the timetable proposed back in the 60s needs to be revisited.

    I think those factors are genecidal wars, new methods of producing food crops, HIV/AIDS, and emigration. These have slowed the pop growth, but haven't come close to solving it.

    The solution is reducing the birth rate--a touchy subject in any culture.