December 16, 2019

Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner.

A Sci-Fi Classic!

This week, we’re reaching into our science fiction “way back” machine to review a perennial classic. Hey, eventually, we do get to ‘em all…

7 BILLION…A recent National Geographic front piece announced. That’s an estimate of how many living copies of Homo sapiens are projected to inhabit our fair planet this year. In passing said milestone, we thought it high time to read John Brunner’s 1968 classic, Stand on Zanzibar. Winner of the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novel, Stand depicts a dystopian world culture in the early 21st century where the human population has reached said magical number. The thriving mass of humanity has done so via massive genetic engineering projects as well as by creating a world of tailor-made drug and behavior modifications that would have made Huxley proud. Sound familiar? Reach for another Prozac, and read on…

Some of Brunner’s predictions for social mass-marketing and what we would recognize as a global internet community are eerily familiar; he even makes mention of mobile phones with touch screens! True, while no science fiction author may have predicted the rise of Twitter or Ebay, Stand on Zanzibar is one of the few novels that hasn’t become overly dated with time, but still has a message that rings true today.

Should technology continue as a blind juggernaut? Can the throngs of humanity survive without it? Does the complex answer lie somewhere in between? Once the genie is out of the bottle, it can be both wonderful and scary to see what folks will do with new found tools that tech affords us. Like Orwell’s 1984Stand on Zanzibar serves as a warning, a frightening world of sensory overload and a caging of the human spirit that may come to pass when we fail to heed the author’s warning. The book itself is written in snapshot style, a sort of beatnik-prose that alternates between exposition, immersive snapshots, and traditional narrative. The title of the book itself comes from the descriptive passage that at 7 billion plus humans, we could no longer stand shoulder to shoulder on an area the size of the island of Zanzibar. Read this as the tipping point between the Have’s in the “Happening World” and the Have-Not’s in terms of the exploited. In Zanzibar, the state disparately tries to curb control and growth through a series of social engineering experiments in Asia and Africa (notably the fictional country Beninia) with disastrous results. Sound bites courtesy of the Hip-Crime Vocab are again pure Orwell, a political slogan generating machine worthy of the Ministry of Love.

Can we shape our future, or are we destined to be shaped by the blind forces around us? And if we can control our destiny as a species, who gets to decide that for us? Certainly, the world of Stand on Zanzibar is far from perfect, with its “Muckers” and forced “Eptification” in the form of mental programming. Do give it a read as one of the great social commentaries of the 20th century… we compare it to the works of Orwell and Huxley for a reason!

Next week, we return to modern cutting edge sci-fi (sort of!) with The Restoration Game, a retro-Soviet bloc computer sci-fi thriller!



  1. [...] now nearing seven and a half billion humans on the planet, well past John Brunner’s magic Stand on Zanzibar number from 1969 envisioned for the year 2011. Every day, we add about 300,000 souls, about the [...]

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