Tuesday, 14 March 2000

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar (1969)

Edition: Arrow, 1971
Review number: 450

The most famous of Brunner's dystopian novels of the near future takes the overpopulation of the earth as its theme. The title comes from this: it was once said that the whole human race could stand on the Isle of Wight. This, Brunner says, may have been true in 1900 but by the time this novel was written, the Isle of Man would be needed instead, and by 2010 when it is set the seven billion people then living would fill the island of Zanzibar. (It is still quite conceivable that the population of the earth in 2010 will reach that figure, so Stand on Zanzibar is no less topical than it was thirty years ago.)

The world that Brunner depicts is disturbingly familiar. Set mainly in the US, Stand on Zanzibar features run down cities, lives dominated by television's holographic successor, vandalism, mass murders, random killings, and desperate unsafe neighbourhoods. A constant state of involvement in minor wars drains the economy - the novel was of course written during Vietnam. All these things are related to overpopulation, though the US has been lucky compared to parts of the third world where society has completely broken down.

It is the style of Stand on Zanzibar which is its most obvious feature. It is clearly derived from dos Passos' USA trilogy and Brunner went on to use variations of it in later novels. The table of contents reflects the structure with its division of the content into a variety of categories, such as "context", "close-ups" and "tracking". A large number of characters are dealt with briefly, the reader is presented with snippets of popular culture (song lyrics, excerpts from underground magazines, news programmes and so on), and comments from controversial, perceptive sociologist Chad Mulligan. Mulligan is perhaps the most important character, being used to argue the inevitability of the type of society portrayed in Stand on Zanzibar in an overpopulated world.

Compared particularly to The Sheep Look Up (a similar dystopia based around the theme of pollution), Stand on Zanzibar is a relatively optomistic novel. Its most chilling aspect is the sense that time is running out for the human race, which is provided by statements like "Around the coast of Zanzibar, thousands are now standing knee-deep".

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