For toDAY third of MAY twenty-TEN ManhatTEN reports mild spring-type weather under the Fuller Dome. Ditto on the General Technics Plaza. But Shalmaneser is a Micryogenic® computer bathed in liquid helium and it’s cold in his vault.
So begins John Brunner’s visionary 1968 science fiction novel Stand on Zanzibar, which utterly captivated me when I first encountered it at age fourteen, and continues to delight me (though now in different ways) on my more or less biennial re-readings.
I think I’ve spoken previously about the overriding factor which attracted me to books at that age, which was size. I belonged to that special subspecies of weird kid for whom smartness is both a badge of honor and something to be performed. (Picture a Jewier, corduroy’d Martin Prince and you’ll have the general idea. Scary, I know.)
I read fast, too, so given my limited allowance I had to make careful estimations of ROI for book purchases. Dropping $4.95 on a 650-page tome that would take me a week or two to get through represented much better value to me than the $1.95 I’d have spent on single-ply toilet paper like Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.
So not just to the bookstore, but to the science-fiction section — or, more usually, shelf. And not just to that shelf, but to the thickest volumes on it, the ones that really weighed it down. In 1982 or so, at least, this turned out to be not such a shabby heuristic: it’s how I found Chip Delaney’s Dhalgren, that other chunktastic favorite of mine, for better or worse it’s how I chose Dune, and it’s what brought Zanzibar into my life. (Didn’t hurt matters in the slightest that Brunner’s Ballantine/Del Rey editions of the mid-’70s all sported that irresistible dorkbait typeface.)
So here I was in the drabbest Philadelphia suburbs — years before I’d hear of either Archigram or Marshall McLuhan, have much sense of the British New Wave, or understand the seductive fascination Pop America held for British writers of a certain bent — with a concentrated blast of NEW/FAST/NOW/YES.
As a work of fiction, Zanzibar‘s “about” overpopulation, and technology, and biology, and language, and consumer culture, and neoimperialism, and all the other real-world concerns that furnish the tastier sort of science fiction with such a rich loamy substrate. But it’s really an astonishing meta-document, Brunner’s attempt (almost successful, in my opinion) to fuse John Dos Passos’ jazzy, impressionistic crosscutting, McLuhan’s “Innis mode of perception,” and the sociosomatic concerns of mid-’60s New Wave SF in one bravura performance.
A few years down the road, in The Shockwave Rider, he’d subject Alvin Toffler to the same treatment, but here it’s the work of Marshall McLuhan providing Brunner with a skeleton on which to hang his story. In a neat little hall-of-mirrors maneuver, Brunner cedes him the book’s very first words, in the chapterlet dubbed context (0). Here’s the original passage from which context (0) is lifted:
There is nothing willful or arbitrary about the Innis mode of expression. Were it to be translated into perspective prose, it would not only require huge space, but the insight into the modes of interplay among forms of organisation would also be lost. Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of the urgent need for insight. A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding. As Innis got more insight he abandoned any mere point of view in his presentation of knowlege. When he interrelates the development of the steam press with “the consolidation of the vernaculars” and the rise of nationalism and revolution he is not reporting anybody’s point of view, least of all his own. He is setting up a mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight…Innis makes no effort to “spell out” the interrelations between the components in his galaxy. He offers no consumer packages in his later work, but only do-it-yourself kits…
“Do-it-yourself kits”? Where have we heard that before? Oh, yeah: Archigram. Time and again, Zanzibar‘s putatively futuristic immersion in the praxis of fragmented perception winds up taking it to places the visionary architects had already been. Right down to its very last, indelible words (“This non-novel was brought to you by John Brunner using Spicer Plus Fabric Bond and Commercial Bank papers interleaved with Serillo carbons in a Smith Corona 250 electric typewriter fitted with a Kolok black-record ribbon”), the sensibility is the very same.
It isn’t just that Brunner’s prefiguring William Gibson’s trick of using brand names and other consumer detritus to nail a mood. Beyond the specific brands involved, however resonant they may have been, these products were markers of allegiance to convenience, America, technology…to speed itself. Instant coffee, fast cars, electric typewriters. In an England still shaking off the last lingering effects of post-war austerity, I can only imagine how been incendiary this all would have been. So much so, apparently, that Bryan Ferry could still dine out on it a decade later, or at least on the frisson of morning-after ennui these things produced in the wake of their passing.
And definitely so much so that I could still feel the moment’s power a decade and a half later, and six thousand miles away. Beyond its inherent value as a document of a given cultural instant, I now realize that my encounter with Zanzibar molded my own life choices way beyond the other paperbacks I bought in those summers or, for that matter, anything Brunner ever intended. I could go on and on about the impact one of the book’s protagonists, poor anodyne Donald Hogan, had on me: how his occupation as “synthesist” inspired one whole phase of my life, and his sudden transition from that occupation to “eptified” operator another. (As for Hogan’s affair with a gorgeous young widow from Bombay, and what that did to me…well, I’ll spare you the visuals.)
Given the history of my personal engagement with the book, it’s never been all that easy for me to understand that in the world at large, Zanzibar was and is a cult object at best — the product of a minor literature even within the contours of an already-marginalized genre. Maybe it’s down to the book’s complexity, the degree to which Brunner’s abilities fall short of his ambitions, or the occasionally ludicrous images called up by his straight-line extrapolation of 1968, but it just doesn’t seem to have captured the popular imagination as much as some contemporary texts I might name. (How’s that Bucky-domey thing working out for you, anyway?)
And that’s a shame. If I’m happy to admit that — like all the most effective science fiction, and as we’ve discussed before — Stand on Zanzibar is above all concerned with the moment of its own crafting, there’s still not a month that goes by without some contemporaneous event reminding me of it. As with so many other things of its time, Brunner’s kaleidoscope of a book offers more than its share of corny and awkward images…but unlike most artifacts of a similar vintage, you can still use it to catch a sidelong glimpse of the present.