Standing A Little Too Close to Reality   Leave a comment

Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, Winner of the 1969 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Science fiction and fantasy are sometimes dismissed by a certain form of literary elitist as “mere” escapism, as if an escape from “reality” is unique to modern-day genre fiction. That this is a foolish oversimplification is obvious to most of us. All fiction takes you away from this world; it’s just a matter of how far you travel. With science fiction and fantasy, you often find yourself traveling a long way, right off the edge of the map.

Sometimes you wonder if you’ve gone anywhere at all.

That was my overall reaction to rereading John Brunner’s best known work, Stand on Zanzibar. This is a dark, clever, inventive novel that challenged readers when it appeared in the late 1960s, and continues to do so now. The story unfolds through overlapping sections that build the world of the novel in layers of description and anecdote, even as the characters and their situations develop. There’s a lot to this book, and if you don’t familiarize yourself, through the table of contents, with how it is structured, it could leave you a bit confused. Brunner doesn’t spoon-feed readers in this one. Impatient readers and others with impaired attention spans might think the book a hopeless muddle. Patient readers who pay attention will be not be sorry they stayed the course. It’s a powerful book, well-written and full of dry, cynical wit, imaginative world building, and fascinatingly flawed characters. Through it, Brunner examined the chaotic changes taking place in the Western world of his time, and tried to extrapolate the consequences into the future. The none-too-distant future, in fact – the year 2010. He imagined us, in this first decade or so of the 21st century, living in a world with dangerously sharp divisions between those with wealth and those lacking it, between people with an education and those without, and those with political power and the disenfranchised. He envisioned a world in which scientific progress has been hijacked for short-term profit without regard to consequences, and where the concept of what’s “fashionable” has greater weight than social progress. It’s a world where people occasionally lose all self-control, surrender to violent impulses, and kill anyone within reach until they, themselves, are taken down.

If that all sounds distressingly familiar, you can probably guess where I’m going with this.

I wondered, as I read the book, if Brunner was trying to predict a dystopic future for Humanity, or merely saying that nothing would improve between the late 1960s and the early 21st century. I’m not sure which interpretation would be more depressing. Either way, he called so many elements of the current world correctly that even some of the more obvious inaccuracies lose much of their weight. And even when he’s wrong, he’s only wrong in the details. Western civilization seems unable to define itself without an adversary, and in the ‘60s it was Communism, especially the form showing itself in Asia. So Brunner has us in an interminable conflict with an imaginary Asian power, a logical choice since, at the time of the writing the Vietnam War appeared to be endless. In our modern “real” world that adversary isn’t Asian, its Islamic extremism, a conflict that appears to be every bit as intractable. Wrong enemy, but the prediction that there would be an enemy was all too accurate.

This is a troubling vision of the future as seen from an earlier, turbulent time. Reading it now, so many years later, is a strange experience. It feels less like a late ‘60s period piece than a summary of current events. If our world isn’t doomed, as the political fear-mongers so often imply, we certainly do live in the proverbial “interesting times.” If you want to escape them for a few hours or days, this is not the book to read. This is not to say you should never read it, for it is an important work in the genre, one with much to say about the times in which Brunner wrote, and how science fiction served as a reflection of that world, one from which many people could not look away. And how, years later, that same mirror has maintained its focus. It’s eminently worth the time and trouble.

Just don’t read it right after watching the evening news.

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