Stand on Zanzibar (SF Masterworks No15)
by John Brunner (Orion Millennium, £6.99, 650 pages, paperback; first published 1968; this edition published 26 August 1999.)
There is an art to SF extrapolation, the teasing out of current trends in science, technology, politics and history and extending them forward into near-futures that are both interesting and plausible. John Brunner was a master in the field, as books like The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider prove. But his best work was undoubtedly Stand On Zanzibar, a chilling, funny, fascinating and exciting view of the early 21st Century as seen from the late 1960s. First published in 1968, Stand On Zanzibar quite rightly scooped the Hugo for best novel, and still stands up as a remarkable work thirty years on.
Of course, Brunner didn't get everything right - he missed the collapse of the communist states in Europe, for example, and computing in Stand On Zanzibar is still at the mega-big centralised computer stage (and trawling through multi-page printouts, no doubt on green-lined computer paper - what memories that brings back), rather than distributed desktop systems. But he did have a high strike rate for things like the role of huge multi- national corporations, of television's impact , and the growing differences between rich and poor states. Indeed, one of the 'plots' of the book is hinged around that difference, with a major corporation having the financial power to 'buy' a small African state, and use it as a tool to enhance both their own profits, while at the same time improving immeasurably the lot of the Africans.
Where Brunner really scores is in fusing a number of different storylines together to give a picture of a future that is familiar enough to be recognisable and nightmarish enough to be disturbing. Thirty years on, Brunner's future 'dystopia' is close enough to reality to have considerable power for the modern reader. That it is available again for new readers to find is marvellous. If you've never read it, make a bee-line for it. If you have, it stands the test of time well, so why not read it again?
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© John D Owen 15 January 2000