The Hugo Project: 1969 – Stand on Zanzibar

22 Jul

Previously on the Hugo ProjectSoporific Beauty.

I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This week we travel to the not-so-distant past future time of 2010 and an overpopulated planet Earth. Keep your elbows to yourself and try not to jostle your neighbor as we continue our journey through sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!

Stand on Zanzibar

John Brunner
published in 1968


The year is 2010. Overpopulation, eugenics laws, and spontaneous mass murders are the new normal. Norman House and Donald Hogan are two regular New York bachelors, Black and White, respectively – or so they seem on the surface. Thanks to the manipulations of America and her largest corporation, General Technics, the two find themselves far-flung to Oceana and Africa, tangling with genetic engineering, the aftermath of colonialism, and the social powderkegs of overcrowded cities.


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

The short version: woah.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Brunner had an incredibly well-rounded vision of the year 2010, and while he certainly didn’t get everything right (unless we went and passed laws against bearing color-blind offspring while I wasn’t looking – No? Okay then), he didn’t get everything wrong, either.

Admittedly, we’ve passed the magic number of 7 billion people alive on planet Earth without imposing strict laws and taboos on procreation. We’re currently far too pro-creation at the moment, what with the way the GOP is restricting women’s reproductive rights right, left, and center, but I digress. What we do have is starving, overpopulated cities, chaos in an Africa still trying to undo the damage of colonialism, and domestic terrorism, up to and including Brunner’s “muckers” – people, usually young men, so frustrated with their circumstances that they explode into acts of public violence, killing many before killing or being killed themselves. Sound familiar?

More familiar still is the omnipresence of technology. The forms we use today are different from those Brunner envisaged, of course (he didn’t anticipate the internet, but rather an expanded and more sophisticated television service), but the role is similar. A new model every year, obsolete almost before it’s released…increasing personalization of news and advertisements…and, above all, too much information.

Brunner’s prediction of the information overload of the 21st century really hit home with me as an educator. One of the protagonists, Donald Hogan, is a “synthesist” – his job, basically, is to read a whole bunch of information on a wide variety of subjects and make connections that most people wouldn’t, because they’re trying instead to read everything they can on one very narrow subject.

We’ve seen the need for this kind of thinking in real-world 201- America, too. The new Common Core State Standards and related frameworks such as the Next Generation Science Standards – my bailiwick, as much as I can claim an understanding of any of it – are predicated on the idea that education in the 21st century is not a matter of deciding what volumes of information to pour into the heads of our students. What our students will need to navigate the over-saturated Information Age is skills that help them process the flood of information they receive each day. They need to know how to evaluate it, organize it, select from it, and make connections among it – how to decide what is and isn’t important, how to find what is, and how to synthesize it all into a coherent mental framework.

Sweet mother of the eternal flaming hedgehog, it’s finally happened. My homework has taken over my blog. Seriously, I think I stole that last paragraph from one of the essays I wrote a few weeks back for ED640. I’m not sure whether this is awful or awesome.

Anyway, there’s a lot going on in this book, and it’s definitely worth a read. Since I’ve mostly talked about tech and information, I think it’s high time we got on to the social review!

Race: Oh my wallabies, this book actually talks about racism. What the what? Of course, as a white woman, I am not remotely qualified judge what constitutes a good discussion of racism, but Brunner doesn’t shy away from acknowledging and representing the racial tensions present in the US and throughout the world (there are a lot of racial epithets thrown around, towards Whites and Blacks and Asians and everyone else, though the n-word isn’t one of them. Even in the 1960s, intelligent people knew not to use it). He doesn’t draw any conclusions, either – his characters are influenced by their race (or more accurately, how they are seen and see themselves because of their race) but not defined by it. Also, one of the two biggest characters is an African-American (or Afram, as Brunner’s 2010 slang would have it)! I think that needs more exclamation points. He’s Black!!!! A good bit of the plot revolves around Africa, too. (Note that, as the book agrees, there is a big difference between being Afram and being African.) The storyline flirts dangerously with White saviorism for a while, but manages to avoid it, I think.

Gender/Sexuality: The book is less brilliant in this department, although there is widespread social acceptance of homosexuality and polyamory and interracial romance in Brunner’s 2010, which is awesome. Less awesome is the lack of development of the female characters, who are mostly mother and/or sex figures for the men (including one woman who has leukemia but is apparently only concerned with pleasuring Donald to distract him from his manpain). There are some good observances surrounding the aged female head of General Technics (“Old GT”). For the most part, however, the book’s discussions of sex and reproduction and the like are boringly male-gaze-y.

Other: Cheerful acceptance of many religions, hooray! Nothing weird about being a Muslim or a Buddhist or following the native religion of your tribe/nation/ethnic group, or even all three at once! Except maybe if you’re a Catholic, in which case there may be mocking. (We’ve established that I’m totally okay with this.) There’s obvious ableism in the eugenics laws being passed by developed nations, but since Brunner doesn’t explicitly endorse or condemn the laws, the issue is mostly just ignored, which is unfortunate but perhaps understandable given how long the book is already.

In the end, I was very impressed with the depth of the world that Brunner built, and all of the things he got right – the important things; the details of technology and geography are just window-dressing. Highly recommended, and definitely going on my re-read shelf.

OVERALL RANKING: 9 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).

Leave a comment

Posted by on 22.7.2013 in Books


Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: