Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Review - Stand On Zanzibar

Stand On Zanzibar
by John Brunner
1969 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

Starting in the early sixties there came a wave of doom saying which we hadn't seen before and hasn't let up yet. Each week brings us a new book or press releasing screaming that unless something is done right that second about its pet cause we would all be doomed by it within ten years. Some of these are based on actual problems that were wildly overstated by the fear mongers attempting to sell their books.

One of the biggest of these in 1968 was Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb that warned of expanding populations causing world wide famine and economic collapse by the 1980's. His primary theory was that population would continue to grow exponentially but food and raw material production was at its peak. Ehrlich wasn't the first one to suggest this, it was a popular theory at the time and you see it reflected in a lot of science fiction from the late sixties and early seventies and even in more popular culture like the film Soylent Green.

Stand On Zanzibar is one of those books built on that doom saying. It projects the bleak year 2010 where the world has been overpopulated with seven billion people. People are packed in tightly, starvation and disease run rampant, and the world is in political upheaval. People regularly are overcome by the pressures and descend into psychopathic rampages. The world is then thrown into further chaos when a small communist dictatorship announces that they have discovered a method for custom building children.

Stand On Zanzibar has a bit of a split personality. On one side you have a narrative that follows a handful of characters getting by in this dystopia. The actual narrative portions of Brunner's work are pretty good. He draws you into a fairly believable world through the characters as they work on a project to prevent a third world nation nation from collapsing or dealing with an espionage mission to find the secret of cloning and genetic engineering. If I had just read these chapters I would have enjoyed the book a lot more despite its problems. The other half is what damaged the book beyond recovery for me.

They typically feature some background on the setting told in a James Joyce style stream of consciousness. It's chaotic, meandering, and meaningless. I'm from the school of thought that believes that the writing should be almost transparent, a window to the story. The narrative sections do this well and I would have gotten the exact same understanding of the setting without the jumbled chapters. When a writer dips into such a radical stylistic it's like erecting giant billboards that say, "Look at what a clever writer I am! Get it! Get it!" You see this quite a bit in amateur work from college students since they tend to be going through that phase where they think being pretentious is a virtue and a good writer can take this and make the reader forget about the style. I'm not against experimenting with style but style should not be an end goal in itself.

I can hardly disagree that it is debatable if Brunner is successful at using this barage of text technique. Obviously I feel that he isn't but I recognize that some people may find it an effective way to convey overwhelming input. Of course, I happen to live at a time when I'm part of the overwhelming media input so it's a concept that doesn't carry a lot of weight for me. Still here is a sample paragraph so you can judge for yourself:

I saw scrawled on the corner of a wall scrawawawled on a wawawall caterwauled catty corner on the wawall what did I see scrawled on the wawl I forget so it can't be that important KNOW IN YOUR OWN HANDS WITH A POLYFORMING KIT THE SENSATIONS OF MICHELANGELO AND MOORE OF RODIN AND ROUAULT let us analyse your metabolism and compound for you a mixture that's yours and yours alone guaranteed to trip you higher further longer
It continues on like that with no paragraph breaks or punctuation for four pages.

Despite those terrible, pretentious sections of the book the other half really is good albeit dated. One character accidentally starts a race riot, for example, but it is a well depicted section as the reader can see the tragic series of events building. Brunner's muckers, people who have gone crazy and started attacking anyone around them, seem very prophetic but he extrapolated a sad trend that was already becoming visible at the time.

It's a problem for science fiction to be able to look back with the advantage of hindsight and say, "Boy was that wrong!" Forty years on with nearly twice as many people on earth and we're still not close to causing our immediate destruction through overpopulation. Stand On Zanzibar is a book firmly stuck in the late sixties with its concerns, style, and setting and in this case I don't think it is worth the effort of reading. I came away from it feeling worn out from reading the massive book but feeling like Brunner hadn't really said an awful lot.