Classic Novel Review: Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner’s proto-cyberpunk dystopia won the Hugo back in ’69, and it holds up reasonably well. Sure, we have neither a base on the moon nor a dome over Manhattan, but his world of 2010– , wherein the west encounters terrorism and random violence, a computer system puts you in touch with information, Detroit has declared bankruptcy, China is the ascendant superpower, documents are printed by laser, gay/bisexual relationships are mainstream (if not tolerated by everyone), social drug use has general acceptance, and racism has simmered but remains present, should be a little bit familiar.

The plot concerns overpopulation and eugenics. Two roommates find themselves drawn into international intrigue—and one must confront his role as a sleeper agent.

Title: Stand on Zanzibar
Author: John Brunner

First published in 1968.
ISBN: 0765326787
Available from, and


In an overpopulated world… Way too much happens to summarize, but Norman House gets sent by the company to a oversee the corporate takeover of a tiny Third World nation with an inexplicable lack of violence, while Donald gets activated and must examine an Asian nation’s claim that it can breed superhumans.

High Points:

Brunner creates a complicated, messy twenty-first century that serves his various themes and subjects well, yet he also has plots that more-or-less cohere by the conclusion. That setting remains impressive, even now that we’ve reached its time. Of course Brunner gets many things wrong—every speculative writer will. I’m amazed his novel makes so many accurate predictions. They almost make up for his The Sheep Look Up (1970), which expects us to believe that, by the 1980s, we’d have environmental crises, people would pay for bottled water, and the President of the United States would be a former actor whose main skill is looking good on television.

Low Points:

The book’s most distinguishing characteristic—its mad, sprawling plot, filled with minor characters and asides and cleverly– written excerpts from imaginary sources—- makes it at times a trying experience. In particular, many readers will find the opening slow-going, and the futuristic slang a little silly.
Given its length (nearly 700 pages), I wish more of the characters had been better developed. I know the basic beliefs, racial backgrounds, and personalities of protagonists Norman House and Donald Hogan, but they still feel curiously detached from any real personal history.

The Scores:

I was in Detroit last week and that’s the most eerie place I ever did set foot. Like a ghost town. All those abandoned factories for cars. And crawling with squatters, of course. Matter of fact I went to a block party in one of them. You should hear a zock group playing full blast under a steel roof five hundred feet long! Didn’t need lifting—just stand and let the noise wipe you out.

Originality: 5/6 While the world had seen dystopic novels and population concerns before, Brunner’s fragmented approach to the topic remains fresh.

Imagery: 6/6 Brunner has created a rich world.

Story: 4/6

Characterization: 4/6 The book features many individual voices but the people feel like ideas rather than human beings.

Emotional Response: 5/6 ….However, he’s far more interesting in presenting plausible social developments and related themes in their complexity, and the book accomplishes at least that much.

Editing: 5/6

Overall score: 6/6

In total, Stand on Zanzibar receives 36/42