Saturday, February 7, 2004

Stand on Zanzibar

I just finished reading John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar. It was highly recommended by a number of friends, as well as being number 15 on the Gollanz SF Masterworks list. As brilliant as the book is, I must admit it was a rather hard slog to read. I would even be hard pressed to call it enjoyable.. but it was certainly powerful, original, inventive and thought provoking. Definately worth reading.

It's amazing to think that Bunner, who wrote this book in the mid 1960s could so accurately see the path our world was going down. There are some obvious things that aren't quite right (reading computer printouts, the "Afram" issues, the strange 60s take on sex). What he DID get right far outweighs the mispredictions. People "going postal" frightneningly predicted through Brunner's "muckers". The MTV style jump-cut editing of all information - and the terribly short attention spans that go with it. The "infotainment" concept. Corporations playing the role of government. Overpopulation. Genetic engineering and eugenics. Religious extremism. American colonialism. He writes about it all with frightning accuracy.

What I found most jarring was the page where he printed the extracts from a set of newpaper headlines. Each was uniquely disturbing. The catch? They were real headlines from the 1960s. Maybe we really haven't changed that much.

No discussion of Stand on Zanzibar would be complete without mention of his unique writing style - called the "innis mode". For those not familiar with it - this is the use of extracts from newspapers, TV, Radio, bits of converstation and whatever else in the place of a regular point of view. It's quite jarring and challenge to keep up with at first.. but it becomes easier in time, as you get accustomed to each point of view (or more correctly, source of information). Brunner also cuts back on this style and reverts to a more regular prose as the book goes on, as I imagine he intended it partly only to give the reader an idea of this 5 second attention span world, plus it was probably quite taxing for him to write.

To get back on my reason why I didn't find the book enjoyable as a novel.. It's mostly due to the fact that the whole book is basically a rant by the author (in the thin disguise of Chad Mulligan), but also because he's preaching to the converted. Perhaps when the book was written the dystopia was just a fiction.. but we're living in it now, and it's not so much fun to read. Thinking about this.. it's always hard when people so astutely point out your flaws...

As Hadleman said on this book : If the right people had read this book, and acted in accordance with it's precepts and spirit, our world would not be in such precarious shape today. Maybe it's time for a new generation to read it.

Somehow, I think this new generation is even less likely to read this book and heed it's warnings. And if we WERE to stand on Zanzibar?

Despite the foregoing, the human race by tens of thousands would be knee-deep in the water around Zanzibar.

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