Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner

A big sprawling sf novel from 1968 which I’ve long been uneasily aware that I should have already read, given that I love the weirder reaches of the new wave. The kaleidoscopic structure, which interleaves excerpts of in-universe texts and high-speed montages of headlines and advertising slogans with more straightahead narrative chapters, make it seem more experimental than it actually is, but also make it more fun than your average dystopia, and a lot less of a slog than it otherwise could be. (It does get to be a slog toward the end, as one subplot turns into a sort of spy thriller, a genre I always find hard work.)

It’s set in a 2010 in which world population has reached seven billion. Apart from this one spot-on prediction, it would be a bit tiresome to list exactly which technologies and social changes Brunner did and didn’t get right, but the flavour of his overcrowded and stressed world is weirdly familiar enough to make it cut thorough the layer of ersartz-nadsat-futurespeak which is one of the book’s most dated features. But no-one, as someone observed on Twitter, ever gets future slang right, and everyone in the 60s thought that pop music in the 21st century would be much weirder than it actually turned out.

Being an ambitious 60s sf novel, there’s a Big Author Mouthpiece, a macho pop sociologist with the very BAM name “Chad C Mulligan”: another thing that 60s sf in general got wrong was that the future would have even wilder gurus, whereas we ended up with squares like De Botton and Gladwell.

Overall, it’s impressive and thought-provoking, and I was right to feel guilty: I should have read it years ago.

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