Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stand on Zanzibar (1969)

Subgenre: Population explosion / eugenics; experimental

Up until now, I've covered mostly recent novels, where for "recent" you should read "after I was born." For the next few articles, I'm going to delve into ancient history (this sentence is designed to make my parents feel old). I'm going to talk a little bit more about how science fiction ages in a later post on Fritz Leiber's "The Wanderer," but let me delay that, because Stand on Zanzibar does not feel like old sci-fi. Part of the reason for this is the storytelling style, which owes a great deal to the idea of a montage, and (apparently) to Marshall McLuhan. I mention this mostly to be able to show this scene from Annie Hall:

Stand on Zanzibar also has, in my estimation, the single best Hugo-winner title. I saw this title ten or fifteen years ago (I think on my parents' bookshelf) and have been planning on reading it ever since. That's how you choose a title. Its only competition would be To Your Scattered Bodies Go,since The Stars My Destination was (horrifyingly) passed up for a Hugo. The relevant section of the book, which I'll quote for flavor, is:

Bennie Noakes sits in front of a set tuned to SCANALYZER orbiting on Triptine and saying over and over, "Christ what an imagination I've got!"

"And to close on, the Dept of Small Consolations. Some troubledome just figured out that if you allow for every codder and shiggy and appleofmyeye a space on foot by two you could stand us all on the six hundred forty square mile surface of the island of Zanzibar. ToDAY third MAY twenty-TEN come aGAIN!"

From that quote, you can see almost everything coming down the pike - a wide array of characters, a society hemmed in by overpopulation, new slang and new culture. Procreation is prohibited for those with imperfect genotypes (hemophilia down to colorblindness); temporary violent insanity is so common it's a part of the language. The central threads of the plot focus on potential disruptions of these two nightmares - the possibility of genetic manipulation to "cure" defective embryos, and the chance of peace, coming out of a destitute but inherently sane and peaceful culture, the imaginary African country of Beninia.

Frustratingly, Beninia is yet another example of a well-worn trope - the poor utopia. Somewhat paradoxically, science fiction seems to be just as susceptible to waxing lyrical about the poor but honest types as any Republican pitching "small town values." In fact, just taking a quick gander at the Hugo list I see three or four other books featuring this sort of culture - A Case of Conscience, Hominids, Foundation's Edge, and The Dispossessed. I was also strongly reminded of Cat's Cradle's San Lorenzo.

The best of Stand on Zanzibar is remarkable, and its society is well-captured, even predicting some features of our society (the "new poor," who can afford televisions but not health insurance, for instance). However, especially at the beginning, the collage of characters and narration and television cut-ins end up distracting from the novel, and I feel as if it was unnecessarily over-the-top - perhaps because I, in the real 21st century, don't need to be beaten over the head with media omnipresence.


  • Zanzibar actually invented Rock Band: " old hobby of vicarious music... I don't have the talent to go through a Cage score on my own jets, and I do love the feeling of actually creating the sounds with my fingers."
  • Some of the Chad C. Mulligan "hipcrime" epigrams are priceless: "POPULATION EXPLOSION: Unique in human experience, an event which happened yesterday but which everyone swears won't happen until tomorrow."

Hugo-worthy? I think so - though this form of experimental storytelling seems to have dropped out of science fiction (possibly for good reason), Stand on Zanzibar is an apt and influential dystopic vision, and once the plot kicks in, it's quite a good read on top of that. B+.

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