The Zanzibar Parallax

Parallax — when an object appears as if it is positioned differently when looked at from different angles or different positions.

If I didn’t like reading reviews, I wouldn’t spend so much time writing them. Usually, after I knock off a book, I write my notes up, do a review — and then I go looking for what other people had to say. (When I attempt criticism, I look at the reviews before writing.)

Sure, in all the reviews on Amazon and the rest of the Web of a Million Lies, there will be lots of low grade stuff, repetition of what I know, observations of the unobservant. But you find gold sometimes, reviewers who make you see a book from a different perspective or consider new arguments and theories — even if you end up disagreeing with them.

When I finished my review of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar in September 2009, I’m not sure I did look up other reviews. (It was a particularly difficult month in a difficult and troubled year.) And From the Couch to the Moon‘s review wouldn’t have been around anyway. But I would have been glad to see it.

Which of us was “right”? I’d have to go back and look at the book again. Those who have read it can make up their own mind. Those who haven’t will, I think, benefit from reading both.

Think of it as a case study in what the service we obsessive book bloggers provide.

My Review

Sure it’s frequently called a classic science fiction novel, but it’s also one of that variety that can date horribly fast: the near future novel. Is it still worth reading 40 years later? On the whole, yes.

The novel surprises for what it isn’t. For a novel with the reputation of being about overpopulation, it doesn’t have the squalid and packed future of Harry Harrison’s classic (if extrapolatively dishonest) Make Room! Make Room!. There isn’t a lot of mention of scarce commodities. Technology continues to develop. Wars continue to be fought. New entertainment media still is invented. The effects of overpopulation mainly seem to be an extensive adoption of worldwide government eugenics programs to ensure only the healthy procreate and the appearance of “muckers”, people driven into mass killing sprees by the pressures of overcrowded living. And, from the author who went on to write the famous polluted dystopia of The Sheep Look Up, there is little talk about the effects of overpopulation on pollution.

The plots involving the main characters are pretty straightforward. Hogan, a seeming layabout who spends all day reading, is activated as a spy. The American government wants him to discredit or stop the announced program of the Yakatang government to edit human genes. It fears the population pressures resulting from the millions, denied the right to reproduce, suddenly allowed to via gene editing. House, an angry, young black executive (and, in this future, living space is expensive enough where even corporate executives have to share apartments) gets put in charge of his company’s collaboration with the American government to bootstrap the poor African country of Beninia into prosperity, protect it from its neighbors, and use it to process ore from deep sea mines. Along the way, he has to find out why the impoverished Beninia is so lacking in the social pathologies of wealthier countries. Oddly, their stories lag a bit at times when, in the second half of the book, they arrive, respectively, in Yakatang and Beninia.

Like Brunner’s literary model, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy, the joy and interest of the book is when the focus is off the main characters. Their lives are covered in the Continuity chapters. Brunner alternates those chapters with others labeled Context (usually news reports), The Happening World (a scattershot of vignettes and quotes from books, ads, and tv as well as just brief statements of fact about the world and various characters), and Tracking with Closeups (following several minor characters and their lives). To my mind, this Dos Passos technique is perhaps the most dramatic, interesting, and effective expository method a science fiction writer can use to show off his world building.

And there is an impressive amount of world building. I suspect that Brunner’s serious look at the possibilities of genetic engineering (allowing for changes in terminology, they seem pretty accurate predictions) and pheromones was among the first in science fiction. The man who is credited with inventing the computer worm in the The Shockwave Rider gives us the beginnings of artificial intelligence and sort of an internet service (asking questions via phone of an automated service).

Some of that world building, though, is bound to be dated and especially so given its origin in the 1960s. Like so many other authors of the time, he thought the future would hold many new and bizarre art forms. Instead, the computer game is really the only new art form of the last 40 years. His picture of Communist China was too kind, his opinion of the tractability of African problems too kind. He thinks too much of Marshal McLuhan.

Critic John Clute has contended every novel has three dates: when it was written, when it was set, and the year it’s really about. Brunner’s style makes this novel enjoyable even though it’s now more a time machine back to the late sixties than any credible view of the future. But it is a glorious example of a technique still not used enough by writers.

And Brunner was smart enough to know what his novel’s ultimate fate would be. There’s a scene at a party where the fashions from the late sixties until the novel’s year of 2010 are closely described. I like to think Brunner was brazenly rubbing it in that he wasn’t trying to be a true prophet, that he was going out of his way to risk looking silly someday – and was going to proceed anyway.


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