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.
You try not to let it happen, but some degree of complacency often creeps into your life, over time. It’s hard to cope with a day-to-day routine without falling into the proverbial rut and just following it along. The pattern provides structure, and structure appeals. It can even be productive. For me, four of the past five years fell into a comfortable pattern that provided several hours each weekday in which to write. I’ve made good use of that pattern and produced four novels, a couple of short stories, and a brief memoir while following it. Unfortunately, the complacency encouraged by a comfortable pattern can come back to bite you without warning. In January of 2015 I started the fifth and last volume of the War of the Second Iteration series, ready to swing through that comfortable routine and get another book done by the end of the year. I was a month into it when the pattern suffered the first of a series of disruptions, turned on me, and bit hard.
At the end of January, 2015, my father died. His health hadn’t been great the previous year, but the last time I talked to him there was no indication that things were getting worse. I very much suspect he was keeping things to himself, in a misguided effort to avoid worrying us. In the middle of the month I received word that he was in the hospital, and barely a week later, in a hospice. I got to Phoenix in time to have a talk and say goodbye. I brought a copy of my latest book release, knowing he’d been looking forward to seeing it. He took the copy from my hands, clearly delighted. He’d read all three existing volumes, by then, and set aside the new book after examining it, “To read later.” And of all the sources of pain that tangle together and equal the loss of a parent, the thing that rose then to wrap around my throat and choke me up was the realization that he would never know how the story ended. Not the most rational response to watching a parent die, perhaps, but what reason is there in grief?
His death a few days later shut me down. Some writers can work through grief, but I’m not one of them. It took a long time to catch my breath and resume work on Book Five. The comfortable pattern seemed restored.
In short order, however, the pattern was twisted twice more. My wife took a tumble and broke a wrist. Not a horrific injury, though it required surgery to repair, but it caused us both great distress and took her out of action for several weeks while leaving me to take up the slack. I did this without question; that’s what you do, and she has certainly not counted the cost when I was the one down and out. This time the creative energy wasn’t balked so much as diverted, since I needed so much energy, and time, to keep things on an even keel for all concerned. While we were coping with the wrist injury, we were in a traffic accident. This left me with an injured leg that shut down a lot of activities, and slowed me down to the point that I could barely keep up with any obligations. The process of writing the book became a less organized and cohesive activity, with lengthy gaps between writing sessions that often left me feeling that I’d lost the thread of the story. I’d certainly lost that comfortable pattern, that’s for sure.
I did the only thing I could. I kept picking away at it, hoping that I’d be able to sew it all up into one neat bundle – eventually. For surely this run of bad luck couldn’t go on indefinitely – could it?
And in a way, it didn’t. Something more insidious took the place of accidents and injuries as the summer passed, a slower distortion of life’s pattern. My wife’s 89 year old father’s condition began to deteriorate, a slow but steady downhill slide that saw us spending ever more time and energy helping him cope. The pattern of daily hours for writing, barely re-established to begin with, became rather shallow. For a time, it was all at least predictable, and an adjustment could be made. Things moved slowly forward yet again. The first draft was finally completed and sent off to beta readers. While they worked it over, her father lost the ability to drive, which upped the ante quite a bit. Memory impairment also worsened, requiring more of our time still to help him manage. Then, as 2016 started to unfold, his physical health declined to the point that hospitalization was required and, ultimately, the dreaded “change in residence” loomed over us all.
This, as the revision and copy editing process began in earnest. I kept revising, in fits and starts. My wife, who does the proof reading (and is very good at it, as those who have read my books may have noticed) kept at it when and as she could. With her father in a tough spot, the book assumed a decidedly secondary status.
As you might imagine, this all added up to a year and more of ongoing frustration, and not just as a writer. Frustration, but no anger. No one (except the driver of a certain green SUV) was in any way culpable. These things just happened, and happened to string together in a series of disruptive events and circumstances. All you can do with such a run of bad luck is, well, put your head down and run with it. Rearrange the priorities appropriately to do what must be done, then just keep going. I did that, or at least, did so to the best of my ability, writing and revising only when I was free to do so. It made for slow progress, but the work did move forward.
Lately I’ve I found myself looking back on that year of disruptions and circumstances, thinking that I really need to be less dependent on any given pattern of hours and days for writing. There was a time in my life when I was able to write whenever an hour or two became available. I didn’t need that much structure – the writing was always right there, ready to go, for a paragraph or a page, whatever the moment permitted. But even as I began to chide myself for having grown so complacent, I thought about Book Five – so near, now, to release – and realized that this is exactly what I spent the past year doing. The pattern was thoroughly disrupted, and yet somehow, the book happened anyway. In paragraphs and pages at a time, writing when I could, without leaving the people in my life feeling like they were secondary priorities. Perhaps the complacency hasn’t set deep roots after all. I find that reassuring, and I cling to that reassurance. I need to be able to write that way, because you never know what comes next, and 2016 already promises to be its own sort of adventure. I’ll need all the flexibility I can muster.
Winner of the Hugo Award, 1968
In the late 1960s change and turmoil swirled around me, and I took almost no notice. I knew as little of real world affairs then as I did about science fiction. The only news that registered on my mind was that regarding the “space race,” and for me science fiction was all about Tom Swift Jr. and the occasional Heinlein young adult novel about teenagers skating down the frozen canals of Mars or navigating swamps on Venus. Well, of course, there were the black-and-white B movies, watched when the weather didn’t permit outdoor activities. This was Illinois, so in the winter at least, I spent a lot of time watching macho dudes fighting bubble-headed aliens and giant insects. I suppose that counts as sci-fi on some level. That the world was changing, and changing rapidly, around my small rural town, was invisible to me. The same was true of the steady evolution of science fiction as it was influenced by and reflected those times. The genre was expanding its reach, and bringing in ideas from an ever-widening set of sources. A case in point, the winner of the 1968 Hugo for Best Novel, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I was all of twelve years old, that year.
In Lord of Light, Zelazny tells the story of an alien world on which human settlers have used Hindu mythology as the framework for their civilization. Exactly why the original colonists chose this frame of reference never came clear to me, but the consequences were so well-realized that I wasn’t much troubled by this. The resultant civilization is ruled by Hindu gods and goddesses who are actually humans rendered immortal and given extraordinary powers through advanced technology. In general, this technology is kept from the rest of the human population, although reincarnation through the transfer of minds into new bodies can be earned by the faithful. This is not seen as technology, of course. It’s divine intervention. Centuries have passed since the original colonists arrived and tamed the world, a process that included the near extermination of the original sapient species discovered there. The battles that took place in that earlier era are recounted in the manner and style of epic Hindu myths and legends. Some of these indigenous inhabitants still survive, but are now considered demons and other manifestations of the supernatural. Almost everything about how humanity came to live in this place has been forgotten, a cultural amnesia encouraged by the “gods,” some of whom were the original colonists to settle the world.
One faction of the immortal population wants to reintroduce lost technology, with the goal of improving the lot of humanity on this world. The other gods, jealous of their privileged positions, want nothing of the sort. The novel is about the conflict between these factions. The book opens with the resurrection of a man named Sam, a clever fellow who dates back to the original colony, and something of a hero to those who would restore humanity to its full potential. How he came to be dead in the first place makes up the main body of the book, which is essentially one long flashback. (I missed this at first, and for a while the narrative had me a bit confused. Watch for an early chapter that ends with Sam sitting back and reflecting on his life.) The tale of Sam’s efforts to unseat the selfish gods of his world unfolds quickly and smoothly, a very different work from Zelazny’s previous Hugo winner, but clearly a work of the same mind and imagination.
The use of a non-Western mythological frame of reference was a departure for science fiction of the time, though Zelazny may not actually have been the first to do so. It was, however, one of the first novels to win the Hugo while recognizing the validity and utility of other mythic traditions for the sake of story-telling. (The other was Frank Herbert’s Dune.) That the book was written when it was is surely no coincidence, as the counter-culture inspirations of the ‘60s were at that time spilling out into the general public in a big way. The Beatles weren’t the only ones playing sitars and practicing transcendental meditation at that point. Anyone alive in that time would have been aware of how these “exotic” ideas were being embraced – and resisted – by the people around them. For those of a creative nature, it was all raw materials, grist for the mill. The science fiction genre certainly partook of these possibilities, and Lord of Light is one result. It’s a novel that remains very readable, having “aged” well, but is clearly a product of its time, as books so often are. The product of times that passed me by almost unnoticed, even as they changed the world.
I’ve always thought that the trickiest part of blazing a trail in the real world is trying to decide how to best make your way through the landscape. If the idea is to make the trail worth following for others, you need to lay it out in a way that appeals, and draws future travelers forward. That goal hangs in the balance every time you confront an obstacle. You can seek a path of least resistance, of course. That might get you where you want to go, and the trail you leave behind will surely lend itself to being followed by others. But if it misses the more eye-catching parts of the landscape and offers nothing of interest, no challenges, why would anyone bother? Should you cut through this thick underbrush or go around it? Do the latter and you might miss something wonderful hidden in the trees and shrubs. And then there’s that steep slope. Go around, or carve a switchback and hope the view will be worth the effort for later travelers? There’s a right answer each time, but the only way to find it is to make a choice, a commitment, and move forward. Each decision has consequences that affect the trail you leave behind, sometimes diverting it from the course you meant to follow. Turns out just making the start, the trailhead, isn’t the toughest part after all.
Writing a novel or short story works the same way. With the first pages or chapters of a rough draft set down, and the story begun, it’s tempting to say the hardest part is behind you. After all, you’ve made that start, and now you’re moving forward. But as you move away from that attractive opening, all the possibilities inherent in any nascent work of fiction begin to manifest in your brain. And that’s when the trouble begins. Bushwhacking through this metaphorical underbrush quickly proves more of a challenge than most people expect. To be sure, the way is sometimes very clear, and the view is immediately fantastic, exciting. Just as it is in cutting a trail in the real world, the ground is sometimes bare and all you need to do is stride forward, perhaps piling cairns of stones or laying a few branches along the side to guide the way. But it’s inevitable that obstacles will present themselves. Numerous choices arise, like a thicket of trees with dense, tangled underbrush. Go around it? But what might you miss inside? If you plunge in you must decide what to cut and what to leave growing beside the path you want to create. Each stroke of the machete, each decision, moves you forward by eliminating a specific shrub or plot option. Cut this branch – say you decide a character says “Yes” to a relationship instead of “No” – and the trail bends this way instead of that way. Is that the right way to go? The only way to know is to cut through the rest of the brush and see what lies beyond.
You do so. Now, is this where you want to be? Never mind where you might have intended to be at this point. The path you’re trying to cut will often take you in unintended directions and this can be a good thing or bad. If the result is acceptable you carry on, striding forward, nipping off a stray thought here, an idea there, leaving them on the trail behind you for later clean-up. If not, it’s back into the thicket of possibilities for another try. Fortunately, this is a fast-growing metaphor, capable of almost instantaneous regeneration. This, also, is both a good and bad thing at times. You remain unable to see exactly where it is you need to pass through the thicket, but now that you’ve glimpsed the other side, you’re not totally clueless. So on you go, cutting a new path and hoping this will be the correct route.
Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just good enough for now, and you move on anyway, and that actually is the best idea more often than not. You can come back to the awkward kinks in the trail and fix things for good and all later. It’s generally a good idea to keep moving whenever possible because some other feature of the story landscape, revealed later, might help resolve the situation. Looking back from higher ground can often be revealing.
The arm will grow weary of swinging the ax and machete. So will the mind while writing your way down a new trail to story’s end. Either way, it’s sometimes tough work cutting a trail through an untouched wilderness, even if that wilderness is “merely” an image in the mind’s eye or a sequence of ideas. But if you are true to this process, you will keep going until you reach the journey’s end. How long must you endure? Depends on the story in you, and the choices you make as you blaze the trail. In other words, it’ll take as long as it takes.
The War of the Second Iteration series is nearly complete, with four of the five volumes available and Book Five – Setha’im Prosh – entering the editorial/revision phase. It should be available in very early 2016.
What has gone before…
Book One, The Luck of Han’anga
For Robert MacGregor and the crew of the probeship William Bartram, it’s a dream come true. Theirs will be the mission that makes the long awaited First Contact with an intelligent nonhuman species, a race of humanoid beings called the Leyra’an. But the dream soon becomes something very different when the Leyra’an prove to be more than just humanoid. They are like us to a degree that cannot be explained by chance alone. As if that isn’t complicated enough, the Leyra’an are at war, locked in a conflict that soon threatens the safety of the William Bartram and its crew. First Contact was sure to be a challenge, but no one could have expected this!
Book Two, Founders’ Effect
While Robert and Alicia MacGregor, survivors of the ill-fated probeship William Bartram, work to rebuild their lives, the Commonwealth seeks a way to end the long, bitter conflict between the Republic and the Leyra’an. But the leaders of the Republic, suspicious of the motives that drive their long-sundered kin and faced with unrest among their own people, resist the changes that must come for peace to exist. And all the while, forces unseen by either side are at work, determined to force Humanity and the Leyra’an down the road to war.
Book Three, The Plight of the Eli’ahtna
On a mission to bring aid to a beleaguered star system, John Knowles and Eb’shra Wirolen have been hurled by a freak accident across countless light years, and are marooned in uncharted space. As they work to repair their damaged ship, the Eli’ahtna, and the friends they’ve left behind launch a desperate rescue mission to bring them home, the castaways discover that although they are truly lost, they are not alone.
Book Four, The Courage to Accept
Four years of research, using the combined resources of five species of sentient beings, have brought Alicia MacGregor no closer to understanding how Humanity’s sibling species came into existence. Who was responsible for redirecting the natural course of evolution on four living worlds? Why did they do it? And can she find the answer before the Faceless render all such questions moot? For the Faceless are back with a vengeance, and as implacable as ever. The Commonwealth has known nothing but peace for almost four hundred years. Now, war is upon them. How do you prepare for something no one alive has ever seen?
Coming in 2016…
Book Five, Setha’im Prosh
The Republic is failing in its defense, and Confederation is now under a determined assault. Former enemies close ranks against a merciless enemy, one bent on the utter extinction of Humanity and any who stand with them. Humanity does not stand alone, but will even the aid of the Sibling Species and the alien T’lack be enough to stop the Faceless, an enemy no one can predict or understand?