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.
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.
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.