Stand on Zanzibar is that rarity among science fiction novels — it really made accurate predictions about the future. The book, published in 1969, is set in the year 2010, and this allows us to make a point-by-point comparison, and marvel at novelist John Brunner’s uncanny ability to anticipate the shape of the world to come. Indeed, his vision of the year 2010 even includes a popular leader named President Obomi — face it, Nate Silver himself couldn’t have done that back in 1969!
Let me list some of the other correct predictions in Brunner’s book:
(1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar.
(2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States.
(3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)
(4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.
(5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives.
(6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.
(7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.
(8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).
(9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society.
(10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors.
(11) Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city.
(12) TV news channels have now gone global via satellite.
(13) TiVo-type systems allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule.
(14) Inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat.
(15) People rely on avatars to represent themselves on video screens — Brunner calls these images, which either can look like you or take on another appearance you select — “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere.”
(16) Computer documents are generated with laser printers.
(17) A social and political backlash has marginalized tobacco, but marijuana has been decriminalized.
Other science fiction books have occasionally made successful predictions, from Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (1865), which eerily anticipated many details of the Apollo program, to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) with its descriptions of cyberspace and hackers. But Brunner’s work stands out as the most uncanny anticipation of what would actually change — and what would stay the same — in the decades following its publication. Certainly, there are many details, large and small, that Brunner got wrong. But even when the particulars don’t ring true, the overarching theme of Stand on Zanzibar, which is the hidden cost of our obsession with human perfectibility, is just as relevant today as when Brunner wrote his novel.
In this book, each of the major characters is on a mission to improve the human race, and in ways that are all-too-familiar to us today. Sometimes this preoccupation manifests itself in legislation and regulation; politics — both national and global — increasingly manifests itself as a competition between different schemes for human improvement in Stand on Zanzibar. Certainly that attitude shows no sign of going out of style in the current day. Even minor characters in Stand on Zanzibar distinguish themselves by their zeal for upgrading the species, whether through writing books filled with advice and indictments, or business investment in impoverished regions, or implementing ambitious software programs that improve the efficiency and quality of life, or just good, old psychological manipulation. These too are still part of our everyday life. But the most popular — and controversial — method of human improvement in the fictional world of 2010 presented by Brunner draws on biotechnology and the potential for tinkering with our DNA.
A few days before I wrote this essay, I ran across an article about a Harvard professor who proposes placing Stone Age genes in a human embryo, then implanting it in an “adventurous woman” who would serve as surrogate mother for the the resulting Neanderthal baby. This scenario sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of Stand on Zanzibar. In Brunner’s novel, a prominent professor named Sugaiguntung is working on a comparable line of research, and hopes to create superhumans by drawing on his experiences manipulating the DNA of orangutans. Indeed, the sci-fi story sounds more plausible than the news story.
The plot is deliberately fractured and presented in fragments by Brunner, who modeled his work on John Dos Passos’s similarly structured (or rather unstructured) U.S.A. Trilogy. Like Dos Passos, he interjects headlines, bits of news stories, song lyrics, self-contained background interludes, and other cultural bric-à-brac into his narrative. But unlike Dos Passos, Brunner finds ways of pulling the different threads together into extravagant new shapes — most notably in the final pages, when a novel that seems too disparate to cohere surprises readers by the elegance with which all the pieces come together. And though there are many things to admire in this prickly, unconventional book, perhaps the most impressive feat is our author’s ability to maintain tight control with a clear sense of purpose and direction even when the narrative appears the most anarchic and chaotic. Put another way, what originally comes across as a free-spirited 1960s novel, long on attitude but short on clarity, turns out to have more in common with those artful new millennium novels, such as Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Gods Without Men, in which all the storylines converge, the colorful subplots fitting together into a brilliant and unexpected mosaic.
Two diverging plot lines dominate the novel. Norman House is an African-American who has joined the senior management of GT, a multinational corporation akin to General Electric. To advance his career and staunch his growing alienation, House signs on to an ambitious project in Africa that promises both to make bundles of money and also improve the quality of life for the citizens of a desperately poor Third World nation. At almost the same moment, House’s roommate Donald Hogan embarks on an even more challenging project — one that requires him to operate as a spy in a hostile Asian country, loosely based on Indonesia, where amazing breakthroughs in genetic research have been announced.
These two plot lines will eventually come together, but Brunner takes his time in this big, discursive book, and much of the appeal from Stand on Zanzibar comes from the subplots and minor characters. A bohemian author named Chad C. Mulligan provides both insight and comic relief in equal doses, and is such a persuasive figure that he deserves to star in a novel of his own. Guinivere Steel, the hard-edged leader of a boutique chain, is another compelling figure who only gets a bit part. Her specialty is throwing extravagant society parties in which the entertainment is built around her humiliation of the guests, especially those she doesn’t want to invite to her next soirée. And, staying true to a time-honored sci-fi tradition, Brunner includes one top-notch digital character, the computer Shalmaneser, which is to the GT Corp what that chess-playing electronic brain Deep Blue is to IBM.
As I look back at the remarkable burst of experimentation in science fiction during the 1960s, led primarily by the younger New Wave authors, I am frequently disappointed by how few of them hold up nowadays. Too often, bold techniques that promised to open up new terrain to SF during the 1960s and 1970s ended up as stylistic dead ends by the time we got to the 1980s and 1990s. But Brunner, older than most of the other New Wave authors and in some ways the least likely to deliver a breakthrough novel — he had been churning out conventional genre books, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a single year, for almost two decades when he published Stand on Zanzibar — raised the ante further in these pages and won on his big bet. And he did so with a risky gambit, in which both form and content were stretched to their limits. That he managed to get so many predictions right along the way is to his credit, but hardly the only reason to read this one-of-a-kind novel.