Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar [zan-zuh-bahr] is a dystopian New Wave science fiction novel written by John Brunner and first published in 1968. The book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1969.

The story is set in 2010, mostly in the United States. A number of plots and many vignettes are played out in this future world, based on Brunner’s extrapolation of social, economic, and technological trends, such as an enormous population and its impact: social stresses, eugenic legislation, widening social divisions, future shock and extremism.

Stand on Zanzibar was innovative within the science fiction genre for mixing narrative with entire chapters dedicated to providing background information and worldbuilding, to create a sprawling narrative that presents a complex and multi-faceted view of the story’s future world. Such information-rich chapters were often constructed from many short paragraphs, sentences, or fragments thereof—pulled from sources such as slogans, snatches of conversation, advertising text, songs, extracts from newspapers and books, and other cultural detritus.

The narrative itself follows the lives of a large cast of characters, chosen to give a broad cross-section of the future world. Some of these interact directly with the central narratives, while others add depth to Brunner’s world. Brunner appropriated this basic narrative technique from the ‘USA Trilogy,’ by John Dos Passos, experimental series of novels that incorporating multiple narrative modes, including collages of newspaper clippings and song lyrics labeled ‘Newsreel.’ On the first page of his novel, Brunner provides a quote from Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’ that approximates such a technique, entitling it ‘the Innis mode’ as an apparent label.

The primary engine of the novel’s story is overpopulation and its projected consequences. The title refers to an early twentieth-century claim that the world’s population could fit onto the Isle of Wight—which has an area of 147 sq mi—if they were all standing upright. Brunner remarked that the growing world population now required a larger island; the 3.5 billion people living in 1968 could stand together on the Isle of Man (221 sq mi), while the 7 billion people who he (correctly) projected would be alive in 2010 would need to stand on Zanzibar (600 sq mi). Throughout the book, the image of the entire human race standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a small island is a metaphor for a crowded world.

Many futuristic concepts, products and services, and slang are presented. A supercomputer named Shalmaneser is an essential plot element. The Hipcrime Vocab (a satirical collection of dictionary pseudo-definitions similar to Ambrose Bierce’s ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’) and other works by the fictional sociologist Chad C. Mulligan are frequent sources of quotations. Some examples of slang include ‘codder’ (man), ‘shiggy’ (woman), ‘whereinole’ (where in hell?), ‘prowlie’ (an armored police car), ‘offyourass’ (possessing an attitude), ‘bivving’ (bisexuality, from ‘ambivalent’) and ‘mucker’ (a person running amok). A new technology introduced is ‘eptification’ (education for particular tasks), a form of mental programming. Another is a kind of interactive television that shows the viewer as part of the program (‘Mr. & Mrs. Everywhere’). Genetically modified microorganisms are used as terrorist weapons.

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