Secret Library

John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar: The Novel That Predicted Our World

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates one of the great science-fiction achievements of the 1960s

What’s the most prophetic book you can name? Nostradamus’ notebooks? In my book The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, which gave its name to this Friday books column, I proffered Jules Verne’s little-known 1863 book Paris in the Twentieth Century, which is set in the French capital in 1960, and describes a future world in which people drive motorcars powered by internal combustion and travel to work in driverless trains. Their houses are lit by electric light. They use fax machines, telephones, and computers, and live in skyscrapers furnished with elevators and television. Their criminals are executed using the electric chair. Greek and Latin are no longer widely taught in schools, and the French language has been ‘corrupted’ by borrowings from the English. People shop in huge department stores, and the streets are adorned with advertisements in electric lights.

But even Verne’s novel has to take second place to John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar (S.F. MASTERWORKS), which was published over fifty years ago, in 1968. However, it was set in 2010, and in Stand on Zanzibar Brunner got many things right about the early twenty-first century. He predicted that the world’s population would have exceeded 7 billion by 2010. In fact, he was only a year out: this happened in October 2011. Brunner also foresaw that Europe would form a collective union (i.e. the EU), and that China would rise to become a competitive world power.

As if all that isn’t prescient enough, it even has a character called President Obomi, and predicts the Euro, electronic music, Honda cars (at the time they were known as a motorbike manufacturer; their first car came out a year after Stand on Zanzibar was published), the decline of the popularity of tobacco, the decriminalising of marijuana, the desolation of the city of Detroit, global news channels, the TiVo or Sky box, the video phone call, Viagra, laser printers, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. People go on mad shooting sprees, especially in American high schools, before turning the gun on themselves (these people, because they run amok, are known as ‘muckers’). Whilst Stand on Zanzibar didn’t exactly predict 9/11, terrorism in Brunner’s 2010 has become a major concern in the United States, with several terrorist attacks having been carried out on American buildings.

The main theme of the novel is overpopulation. The title Stand on Zanzibar is an allusion to this: in the early twentieth century it was calculated that every single member of the world’s population could fit shoulder-to-shoulder on the Isle of Wight, but given the population growth since then, Brunner estimated that a bigger island, like Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean, would be required for 2010’s seven billion inhabitants. The book moves between storytelling and world-building, with some chapters dropping in bits of information about this future world in a variety of different textual forms. The book rightly won Brunner the 1969 Hugo Award, the top award in science fiction. The novel has been reprinted in the SF Masterworks series, so is still in print and available for a reasonable price.

All of this is very interesting, but is the book any good? Readers are divided over how ‘great’ a novel Stand in Zanzibar really is, with some finding it too self-consciously experimental and contrived, as though Brunner set out with the intention of bagging himself a literary award or two. Others simply find it unreadable. But then many people say the same about Ulysses, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. For me, Stand on Zanzibar is certainly one of the great science-fiction novels, and even one of the great novels of the century, full stop. It’s a masterpiece. If it is science fiction’s answer to Dos Passos, it is also that genre’s answer to Joyce’s Ulysses, a vast and sprawling book which broadens the form and genre to which it belongs, incorporating and then recasting various types of media, writing, and communication, both traditional and modern.

This is not to pretend that it isn’t sometimes a challenging read, especially the first few hundred pages. But the more you immerse yourself in Brunner’s extraordinarily vividly realised future world, the more you get carried along by it and become involved with the principal characters’ struggles, especially those of the two housemates: Donald Hogan, an undercover spy posing as a postgraduate student; and Norman Niblock House, an ‘Afram’ or African-American Muslim man who has risen quickly up the corporate ladder and is vice-president of the large corporation for which he works.

And then the novel seems to allow its modernist style to retreat into the background, allowing for a classic pulp-style plot – the sort that Brunner cut his teeth on at the start of his career with his early, largely conventional space operas – to come to the fore. In a sense, Stand On Zanzibar (S.F. MASTERWORKS) gives us the best of both worlds: fresh and new stylistic experimentation and page-turning action narrative. But you have to become well-acquainted with the former before Brunner will allow you the latter.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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