Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner

Of all of the major SF writers of the “New Wave” period that spanned from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, few (if any) matched the productivity of the British novelist John Brunner (1934-1995).* He published a large number of standard-looking space adventures, but he is remembered for a handful of ambitious and serious volumes, including The Whole Man, The Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and most of all, Stand on Zanzibar (1968). A couple of years ago I started reading Brunner’s work, after encountering the rich stack of reviews on the sites Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations and Potpourri of Science Fiction.

Before SoZ, my favorite Brunner had been his 1974 novel Total Eclipse, about a large team of scientists working under the growing realization that their government was abandoning them. The feeling of doing hard research under the pressure of a dissolving support structure was deeply familiar. So when it came time to tackle Brunner’s award-winning magnum opus, I took the job seriously enough to first pick up and read John Dos Passos’ volumnous U.S.A. trilogy.

U.S.A. is the 1930s literary work whose stylistic inventions where adapted by Brunner for SoZ. The experimental sections of structureless stream-of-consciousness prose amounted to little more the interference, but on the whole I found U.S.A. to be an impressive monument to the people of the early 20th Century. Brunner follows Dos Passos’ lead in chopping up character-driven narratives with newsreel-type segments, quotes (from fictional works of the future) and side stories, but with more control; I didn’t feel the need to skim over any segment, except for a couple of truly odd passages.

STNDNZNZBR1968_SA_Summit_Inc

Cover by S.A. Summitt, Inc. for Doubleday. isfdb.org

As keenly pointed out in the blog Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it, the stylistic advances of SoZ have been celebrated but are less important than its substance. I add here that Brunner also drew inspiration from U.S.A. when it came to investing an impressive amount of detail into building his Earth of 2010. Just as Dos Passos utilized the lingo, prejudices and other characteristics of the WWI-era Americans, Brunner came up with a whole variety of technologies, social trends and neologisms to paint the future.

SoZ tells the story of a future (2010) world adapting to a crisis of overpopulation, with all developed countries enforcing a strict one-child or two-child policy for citizens, who also must qualify through rigorous genetic screening. The institutions of government lack the competence necessary to control crime and educate the public, who appear to be slipping into a cultural dark age. The continent of Africa is replacing its failed post-colonial democracies with warlords and dictators, creating refugee crises and widespread chaos.

However, hope arrives in two forms: the emergence of a small African country seemingly liberated from the violence and tyranny of the states surround it, and a possible breakthrough in genetic engineering that would free the world from many diseases. Two New Yorkers are recruited by different entities to exploit these phenomena, either for a company’s profit or the American government’s strategic advantage. By the end, their actions decide whether future humanity secures these last opportunities, or squanders them.

Right and Wrong

I’ve had my copy of SoZ sitting around for many years, having picked it up when (to me) it was merely a name on the Hugo-winners list. I doubt that it will ever regain more than a fraction of its popularity, due to its heft and tendency to discuss uncomfortable home truths about our present (its future). Highlighted in a short 2013 article for its predictions about the world in 2013, SoZ certainly got a number of things right:

  • terrorists who attack civilian targets inside the United States
  • China displacing the Soviet Union as the main geopolitical rival to the United States
  • an unsteady alliance of European states
  • short-term sexual partnerships replacing marriage in younger generations
  • random acts of violence, sometimes taking place at schools
  • affirmative action benefiting some connected individuals but failing to resolve racial tensions

The 2013 article also makes some hay out of the Brunner’s portrayal of inflationary pressures and a figure named President Obomi, but by 2013 the United States had been in a long period of exceedingly low inflation, and the Obomi of SoZ is the leader of a small Africa country–not the leader of the free world.

Brunner also included speculative technologies that seem familiar by description:

FOCUS: the prowlie. White-painted, trapezoidal vehicle thirteen feet long by seven wide, its wheels out of sight underneath for protection against shots, dispersed around the flat slab tank of the fuel-cell powering it. . .

Also, he anticipates our reliance on technologies for truth:

“. . . If a U.S. ambassador can’t be trusted, who can?”

“They don’t trust anybody, literally,” Elihu shrugged. “Except computers.”

Moreover, the world of 2018 has seen additional changes that are also depicted in SoZ:

  • a decrease in the number of people owning cars
  • advances in genetic engineering and gene manipulation
  • widespread adoption of technology to experience false experiences, as digital avatars — Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere
  • increasing reliance on artificial intelligence to make business decisions
  • the availability of news over an international satellite network, with the caveat that much of the information is rumor and innuendo

Not only has Brunner shown many aspects of today’s society, but our world appears to be having more in common with that of SoZ as time passes.

The largest incorrect prediction of SoZ is the one encoded within its title: the world’s population increase has not been met with widespread increases in starvation, lawlessness and government control — with the notable exception of China’s One Child Policy from 1980. Brunner was following the enlightened thinking of the time, popularized by Paul Erlich’s famous The Population Bomb: I doubt he would have won the Hugo and other accolades if he didn’t build his future world around this fashionable pessimism.

Undoubtedly, credit for our present defiance of neo-Malthusian projections goes to many scientists and engineers working in the 20th Century. At minimum, anyone who can comfortably and reliably find bread at their table (almost all of us) should know the name of Norman Borlaug, whose tireless efforts in modernizing wheat cultivation have saved upwards of a billion individuals from hunger and millions of acres from conversion into low-yield farmland. See Johan Norberg’s 2016 book Progress for an appreciation of this and other reasons why we are not living in the world of SoZ.

STNDNZNZBR1969_ppk

Ballantine Books edition. Featuring a blurb from Judith Merril, who would omit Brunner from her 1968 anthology England Swings SF.

Actors and Bystanders

Like a volume within the U.S.A. trilogy, the main narrative of SoZ is split between two principal characters, in the chapters labeled “Continuity.”

  • Norman House is an African-American, or “Afram” corporate professional whose company places him in charge of an ambitious modernization project in an idyllic African backwater republic. This happens after Norman killed a lunatic “mucker” who had broken into the corporate building and was attacking people with an axe.
  • Donald Hogan is a nondescript white “cobbler” whose ordinary-looking existence conceals his true identity as a government-trained sleeper agent. After accidentally inciting a race riot, he gets “activated” by the military and sent to East Asia to spy on a reported breakthrough in genetic manipulation.

Norman and Donald share a small apartment and trade girlfriends, but they hardly know each other. Their inadvertent encounters with violence set them on their own separate paths, as if (by chance alone) they each had stepped outside the completely passive roles reserved for everyday citizens.

There are arguably a set of four additional characters who have significant roles in the story:

  • President Obomi, the benevolent leader of Beninia, the poor but peaceful African republic. He is close to the end of his life and must prepare his loyal cabinet to manage without him. To secure its independence from neighboring powers, he allows Norman’s company (named General Technic Corporation, or GT) to establish an immense commercial operation within its borders.
  • Chad Mulligan, a loquacious and supremely knowledgable sociologist who provides several chapters of satirical explanations of the world around him. Cynical about the human condition, he appears to be a mouthpiece for many of Brunner’s political and philosophical opinions, in a fashion reminiscent of Robert Heinlein’s conveniently placed loudmouths.
  • Shalmaneser, a massive computer owned and operated by GT to provide predictions and recommendations for all of the company’s operations. Modeled after the earliest theories of artificial intelligence, this computer was operated by the digestion of massive data, followed by verbal question-and-answer sessions. Shalmaneser was the primary target of the axe-wielding mucker’s attack, and was saved by Norman. Later, it gets frozen in its analysis of the unusual sociology of Beninia, until Chad Mulligan more-or-less miraculously asks it the right questions to rescue it.
  • Dr. Sugaiguntung, the brilliant scientist who works as a university scientist inside Yatakang, an ambitious East Asian country ruled by a Communist Dictatorship. Sugaiguntung’s work in genetics has already improved the lives of his people, but the government is now boasting of his purported ability to engineer ideal humans at the embryonic stage. Donald, after his activation, his disguised as a journalist to find access to Sugaiguntung and establish the true state of his progress.

Brunner draws an interesting contrast between the small government of Beninia, who rely on their own wisdom to resolve their problems, and the corporate drones of GT, who must consult Shalmaneser for everything. He makes the point that, whether its a company, a constitutional democracy or communist government, institutions grow ineffective as a consequence of their size and complexity. Without responsibility, the ability of bureaucrats to make decisions rots away. Norman realizes this difference when he visits Beninia and learns of their governance methods, after sitting at the boardroom table dominated by the CEO and the computer operators.

SoZ also features, in their own miniature chapters, the life stories of several minor characters. Everyday life in the overcrowded cities has turned into a kind of routine hell:

Through the flimsy wall separating him from the children’s room came the fractious squalling of the twins, neglected while Ariadne dressed Penelope ready for school. She was crying again too. How much longer before the hammering from the next apartment started? He cast a nervous glance at his watch and discovered that he had time to finish his drink.

When he presents the stories of ordinary people, Brunner usually ends them in some sort of tragedy. A life in routine is a life drained of vitality and purpose, although the influence of widely adopted secularism is mostly avoided.

Men and Women

On the other hand, Brunner confronted the Sexual Revolution of his time with impressive conviction. In the Western society of SoZ, young urban women are referred to as shiggies and drift between bachelor’s apartments. While they stay at someone’s flat, they provide regular sex and very little conversion, going out to socialize with other shiggies during the day. Shiggies are shared or swapped between friends and roommates with regularity, inhabiting social roles that are “liberated” in name only.

I speculated on this portrayal of the Sexual Revolution’s dark side before, but for SoZ my point feels like a safer bet. Brunner includes several female characters who are not shiggies but powerful figures in society. Guinevere, a fashion maven who objectifies her young models into living mannequins, has the influence to call anyone she desires into her costume parties. The CEO of GT is also referred to as GT, denoting her inseparability from the top of the organization. A senior cabinet member of Beninia is a woman, as is a canny Yatakangi detective tracking Donald. Clearly, there are roles of all kinds filled by the women of SoZ, but the responsibility-free shiggies seem to lead trendy but diminished existences.

One character occupies a place between the shiggies and the professionals: once he enters Yatakang, Donald encounters Bronwen, an attractive Briton who asks for his help negotiating her way past the immigration officials. They soon discover that they are booked in adjacent hotel rooms, and as befits the circumstances, enter into a fast relationship. Bronwen’s true role is left ambiguous, but her presence at key moments–and the availability of her bed at night–help Donald deal with the spies constantly around him. She appears to be more than the token female in the espionage plot occupying the second half of SoZ.


Given the variety of styles adopted and risks taken, not every chapter makes for compelling reading. After the first 50 pages, I understood what Brunner was attempting with SoZ but felt that it was, beyond anything else, a jumbled mess. After 100 pages, it was less of a jumbled mess but an uneven reading experience. However, from there on the main plot sequences took shape and the principal characters fell into place. Over time, Brunner’s ideas, setting and stylistic choices gel into a compelling and satisfying masterwork. 50 years after its arrival, this novel towers above its contemporaries in the New Wave. 9/10.

* Brunner’s inclusion into the “New Wave” is ambiguous. Before Michael Moorcock took over New Worlds, Brunner was celebrated as part of an upcoming generation of writers taking over for those whose careers peaked in the 1950s. However, editors such as Judith Merril considered Brunner too respectful of the classical SF genre (i.e., creating works meant to be entertaining and optimistic) to be included in anthologies like England Swings SF. The critic Charles Platt dismissed Stand on Zanzibar as “not New Wave,” “old school” and too American; none which makes any sense in retrospect. See John Brunner by Jad Smith for discussion of the novel’s critical reception.

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About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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18 Responses to Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner

  1. bormgans says:

    Excellent review that sheds additional light on my own reading experience. Your text makes me want to read two books: that Johan Norberg, and SoZ – again. But that reread won’t be for some time: first a couple of his other novels.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pete says:

      So far my positive reading Brunner experiences have been Total Eclipse and Jagged Orbit. I didn’t agree with the way Brunner ended Jagged Orbit, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was drawn into the story as it went along. His chess-game one, Squares of the City, was interesting but not compelling. A early work called Meeting at Infinity was a barely readable mess — but that may have had a lot to do with the terrible typesetting of the old Ace edition I had. Given the positive things written about it in other blogs, I was terribly disappointed with it.

      I too will get into more of Brunner’s work.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        I did that long project reviewing all of Donald Westlake because I found him addictive, because it was fascinating to see him coming up with so many cunning variations on the same basic themes, and because he’s a great percentage player. Very few out of the park home runs (you could make a case The Ax was the only one), but a whole lot of solid base hits. With his oeuvre, the whole is much more than the sum of the parts.

        Not everybody does it that way. Some are lousy percentage players, but just once they tear the cover off the ball, and send it screaming over the back outfield fence. Not saying that’s Brunner, or that his other work isn’t worth looking at, but it does happen, more often than you’d think, that somebody produces a truly amazing novel–and everything else is just prologue and epilogue. He was only 34 when this came out, but then again, he only lived to 60.

        Good thing he wrote it when he did. If he’d tried it at 50, he might not have made it to 60. Dos Passos completed the entire USA Trilogy in his 30’s (the first book came out when he was about 34, eerie!)

        And you know, we might think more kindly of him today if he hadn’t made it to his late 70’s. Goldwater and Nixon? Really, John? Dos Passos, I mean. I just don’t see that ever happening with Brunner.

        The great thing about great genre writers. They don’t get their sense of reality screwed with by critics, academics, and prize committees. They don’t have to worry about posterity. Which is terrible for one’s sanity, I’d imagine.

        Like

  2. bormgans says:

    I’ve read a bit on that Norberg, and I think I’ll pass – it seems in line with Pinker and Hans Rosling. I’m not debating things having improved, but I’m fearfull for the future. The current drought in much of Europe is frightening: the state of my garden could be considered statistically, but it feels very, very wrong, especially with the bigger picture in mind, like that extinction event going on atm. Thing is Belgian society logistically simply isn’t up for these changes, and if trends continue in the coming years, question is if we will be able to adapt quickly enough.

    Plus, what is progress? Percentages only get you so far as the absolute number of poor and people living in dire conditions (including large swats of Western poor, addicts, prisoners, etc.) has clearly grown since the 19th century. There are more poor people today than the total number of people in 1900.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fredfitch says:

      Things get better and worse, better and worse, that’s history. You lose things, you gain things, and it’s just a question of how much further the road runs, and whether we can build more when we reach the end. Are we looking at a potential collapse of world civilization (again) or a potential collapse of the entire biosphere? Nobody knows.

      Obviously climate change is something few were talking about fifty years ago, though there were some, and more attention should have been paid. Science is both blessing and curse, since it gives us more breathing space to figure things out, but suppose we spend that time playing video games and watching porn?

      The whole world isn’t overpopulated, just parts of it, and those are the parts that are experiencing some of the worst climate change, leading to people wanting to migrate elsewhere, as humans have always done. And there’s another crisis Brunner doesn’t predict. What, he’s supposed to be 100%? Who ever is?

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      • bormgans says:

        My comment was about Norberg’s book, not about Brunner, I’m a big fan of SoZ.

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      • fredfitch says:

        I didn’t interpret it as a criticism of Brunner’s book, which you clearly love. But as I said, nobody is 100% when it comes to predictions of the future. Brunner wasn’t really trying to predict the future. He was just seeing the world we were in, and imagining it a few years further on. It sounds like the same thing, but it’s not. Extrapolation is what futuristic stories tend to do, but extrapolation in most SF is just taking one or two specific trends and taking them to ludicrous extremes. Brunner seems to have taken a more holistic approach.

        Liked by 2 people

      • pete says:

        It’s true that environmental stress is not a major theme of SoZ. I don’t think there was enough room for it in what may have already been SF’s largest single novel to that point. A glance through his The Sheep Look Up tells me that Brunner used that book to tackle the consequences of pollution, in heavily dystopic fashion.

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      • fredfitch says:

        The NY Times just published a long troubling piece about how there was a concerted effort, beginning in 1979, to curb climate change. The basic idea that we could change the world around us in ways we did not like by burning too many fossil fuels was there before the start of the 20th century.

        Data collection began in earnest by 1957. There wasn’t any kind of major scientific consensus on how bad it could get by the late 60’s (though it was well on the way by then). So it’s really asking a lot of a lowly SF scribbler to figure all that out, and how to put it in his book, when he has more than enough material to work with already.

        The fact is, in the long run, Paul Erhlich may have been an optimist, as well as an alarmist. (You can be both.) Yes, improved cultivation methods and crop strains staved off the immediate crisis he so inaccurately prophesied, but that also staved off any serious attempt to deal with the long-term problems. Malthus was right about one thing–more food, more people to eat the food. We aren’t all that different from the mice in our kitchens. Except they don’t go around buying stuff they don’t need.

        Max Weber was right too, in saying that once people see an improved standard of living, they will control their family sizes more, to better enjoy it, plan for a future in which they don’t have to allow for most of their children dying, and see that those children are educated (which means you better not have ten of them). However, there is no way this planet can support a western middle class standard of living for everyone.

        And many aren’t even content with that! Trump isn’t only the President of the United States–he’s the President of Conspicuous Consumption. That’s part of why so many still like him. That’s what people go to movies and read celebrity magazines to see.

        I believe the answers to our problems exist. I’m not sure I believe we’re smart and organized enough to see and act on them in time. And neither was Brunner. So thanks for bringing this up. I, for one, am going to be reading it before the USA Trilogy. This seems more timely.

        Liked by 2 people

      • bormgans says:

        Here’s an excellent critique by Naomi Klein on the ideology of that NYT piece: https://theintercept.com/2018/08/03/climate-change-new-york-times-magazine/

        Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Human nature is the primary reason capitalism has repeatedly triumphed over socialism–and socialism, as practiced, hasn’t consistently addressed environmental issues, and has sometimes proven hostile to them–socialist influenced political movements tend to focus a lot on jobs. There is green socialism, to be sure–but it never really catches on with the working class, which resents constant changes in its way of life (that capitalism is also the reason for, much of the time).

        Yes, the capitalist bourgeoisie are the reason behind the industrial revolution, the rapid advance of certain technologies that threaten our planet–but Marx applauded them for that, said they had performed a ‘very progressive role.’ And now the forces of history demanded they turn that machinery over to the proletariat. And that did not turn out to be the case. (Brunner was a much better social prophet than Marx.)

        I don’t think it’s fair to say the whole article says nothing more than ‘human nature is the problem’ because that’s nothing more than a world weary philosophic flourish at the end of a very informative piece that much have required a many times more research than Klein’s huffy critique.

        Isn’t capitalism also part of the green revolution that at least temporarily staved off a global famine? Isn’t capitalism enabling renewable energy sources, green business? Is it really capitalism’s fault that a bizarre confluence of right and left wing political factions have decided, for purely short-term gain, to talk about how we have to bring back more industrial jobs, like coal mines and steel mills?

        And is China, the last major country on earth that at least claims to be socialist, a worse environmental offender than any western nation? The Chinese are extremely different in their culture, much more collective in their approach to things, they embraced a form of socialism/communism and–human nature. Basically the same. Everywhere. Always.

        Klein’s bete noire is ‘neoliberalism’ (???) and she’s angry at the piece for not blaming NAFTA. Geez, does everything have to be NAFTA’s fault? Who does that remind me of? Populism is not the same thing as socialism, you know. Well yes, you do. (Not sure about Klein.)

        I am having a hard time taking The Nation and its brand of socialism seriously after the way they gave Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein so much ink (one might say that backfired a wee tad). I guess Hillary was too much of a neoliberal. Whatever that is.

        But it’s human nature to fight over the right way to lower the lifeboats while the ship is going down with all hands.

        Liked by 1 person

      • bormgans says:

        Good points. I guess both approaches (blaming human nature / blaming capitalism) are mainly a matter of ideological perspective, as they are both blanket statements. Blaming capitalism maybe has the advantage of being more a more systemic, practical strategy, while blaming human nature easily leads to defaitism. Then again, also such a judgement is ideologically informed.
        Anyhow, I 100% agree that basically everything that humans do has human nature as its primary reason, I think both pieces operate with a slightly different scale defining ‘human nature’.

        Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      Thanks for the kind words — I felt your review did a good job demonstrating that Brunner was a creative and skilled writer, so I concentrated more on the ideas I wanted to highlight.

      I guess I’d rather be poor in America today than poor in America 100 years ago. The living standards and health expectancy are far better. I could have been more specific with my Norberg reference: his chapter on the dramatic reduction in violence over time does draw much of its material from Pinker. But the reduction of violence is only one of several ways in which the global standard of living has dramatically improved.

      Brunner’s speculated solution to violence — spoiler alert — involves genetic engineering in manner reminiscent of Borlaug’s creation of new wheat strains. Borlaug had revolutionized wheat production in Mexico (it went from a country of chronic famine to an exporter of wheat by 1964), so his omission from SoZ is glaring. Unless Sugaiguntung is meant to be an East Asian proxy for Borlaug. In any case, given the resistance, especially in Europe, to the idea of “GMO” foods, I would have thought Brunner’s genetic engineering proposal would have been the most criticized aspect of SoZ.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        The question Brunner is asking, best as I can see, could be reduced to “Is this world we’ve made for ourselves sustainable?” And the answer is, “No, probably not.” Something’s gotta give. We’ve got to get on the same page, and right now we’re on more different pages than there are in the damn book. Working at cross purposes, because human nature is inherently anarchic and self-seeking.

        We’ve become a global society without really believing in globalism. Hell, we actively rebel against it, and yet demand all the perks that come with it–like that gazelle Orwell wrote about in his essay on Marrakech, that takes a nibble of the bread Orwell offers it, then butts him, then takes another nibble. Probably its idea was that if it could drive me away the bread would somehow remain hanging in mid-air.

        Then a poor man working in the park Orwell is in humbly suggests he could eat the bread.

        Which I downloaded to my Kindle on the subway platform (didn’t predict that, Brunner!). Brilliant foreward by Bruce Sterling, who thinks the parallels with Dos Passos can be overstated–

        Stand on Zanzibar is often compared to the work of John Dos Passos, due to its variant narrative modes, its multiple point-of-view characters, and its collages of newspaper clippings. But Dos Passos was writing a pragmatic and naturalistic American book. Brunner, who was a European like Perec, is antinaturalistic— he’s aiming for future-shock, for a moral freak-out, for the hallucinatory. It’s a book that is kindly toward Americans and sincerely admires them, yet it comes from the damp and haunted mansion of Orwell and Huxley.

        So do we all. Except it’s a lot less damp in some places.

        Liked by 2 people

      • fredfitch says:

        (I could have written that a bit more carefully–added the bit about Orwell’s essay, which screwed up my segue to having downloaded the ebook, but what the hell, it wasn’t so brilliant to start with).

        Like

      • bormgans says:

        Fully agreed on better being poor now than 100 years ago – still, I’m a bit weary of those optimists. Then again: we’ll have to wait and see, as Fred says.

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        So, I did get to look at Sterling’s introduction to the new Kindle edition. I can see how contemporary readers might interpret the novel as he did, but I’m standing my ground on two points.

        He does understate the amount to which Dos Passos’ U.S.A. inspired SoZ. Not only does the SF novel inherit the stylistic devices, but also the emphasis on speech patterns and scope of the narratives. We know how the story ends for most of the everyday people Brunner writes about, not just what they’re doing during the time of the events of the main narrative. Form and content. (This echoes bormgans’ review).

        Sterling also emphasizes how tragic SoZ is for all the women, but I think I already refuted that point. The Western World has been turned upside down by the governments’ strict fertility policies, leaving many women without the option to become mothers. Some doggedly pursue every option they have to have families, some enter and flourish in the economy or government, and some become shiggies. Brunner doesn’t spend the entire novel lamenting the future status of women, but he does think through the consequences of a government-imposed disruption to their most traditionally prominent role.

        In any case, it will be interesting to see what you think of these topics when get done with this unequivocally rich novel. Maybe second only to Dune in its depth, as far as the 1960s are concerned.

        Like

  3. fredfitch says:

    The Ballantine edition is the one I had, and never read, and have now lost. It’s a large book, and paper is precious, so I’ll just get the Kindle edition.

    Anyway, sounds like we’ve already lived quite a bit of it.

    Like

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