Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

It is forty years since this book was published and it is a sad indictment that is as relevant today as it was then. The world it describes, with its political turmoil, eugenics, genetic manipulation, social unrest, over dependence on computers, population problems, designer drugs, and casual violence is our world; it is what our world will continue to be.

Brunner was a prolific author. He was also an author who worked hard to raise his game. By the late 1960s he was writing blistering works of social commentary. Angry books that showed the injustice and hypocrisy of the world and its ‘masters’. Stand on Zanzibar is perhaps the best of these works. The style is innovative and ideally suited to the content; the story of social woes is told through the personal trials of a large cast of characters. With some we catch vicarious glimpses into their lives, much as we would see into the lighted windows of people from a slow moving suburban train at night. With others we experience the transformation of their lives as they are sucked into the destructive maelstrom of events.

Several stories and themes run parallel within the book – the political tensions between the United States (a dysfunctional and overcrowded land groaning beneath the weight of eugenics legislation) and a fictional Asian country that professes to have discovered a way of genetically manipulating human foetuses to produce perfect children; the corporate takeover of an entire African country and the discovery of how it has remained peaceful for so long; the pressures on individuals who are unable to cope with the pace of change; the ways in which governments dictate and manipulate individual lives.

This may seem a recipe for an earnest trudge through 650 pages of sociological lecturing, yet Brunner’s well-honed skill as a story-teller lifts the whole thing well above this. It is a highly literate novel that treats its readers with intelligence. Which is perhaps why it has never had any impact on those who lead us. Which is also perhaps why what may have been considered science fiction forty years ago is fast becoming the bleak reality of the world in which we live.