Hugo Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

I started out disliking Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner almost immediately. I didn’t know enough about it to dislike it on any merit at this point, but I did not like the style. The problem that any story in which one of the first things you notice is style is automatically in a hole for me. Stand on Zanzibar did manage to dig itself out of that hole though and I even enjoyed the style to some extent, though it still felt to me as if it would have been better if written in a more traditional way rather than constantly reminding me of the author through its style.

This book is set in an overpopulated world of the future in which the eugenics movement has gained popularity as in many parts of the world you have to have genetic testing in order to have children and having more than one or two children can get you lynched.  In addition there are a number of other science fiction elements including a supercomputer which they hope can help solve all the problems and eptification which is a sort of mental programming giving people the ability to learn huge amounts of information and difficult skills very quickly. Yet the primary focus is on genetics and the country of Beninia which has claimed to be able to allow anyone to have a perfect child even if they have bad genetics. This is a process which is potentially possible in other parts of the world but far too expensive and difficult to actually be done in any great numbers. One of the main characters is then sent to this country to discover whether they are telling the truth or not, as well as to let the author explore the country of Beninia which has no murder and no real word for anger except insanity.

There are a lot of ideas in this story that feel like they could have been written today and a lot that feel very much like they came out of the 1960’s. The terror of the draft is something that doesn’t really exist like it did in the 1960’s and the racism is a bit to obvert in many cases, but there are other times when you wonder how he knew that. The biggest suspension of disbelief for me was in the population issue itself. Coming from Montana I am more aware of just how much open land there is in the world. This doesn’t mean that overpopulation is not a problem, but the problem of actual room to move is far less of an issue than resources at least in the USA which this book begins. In Japan or India I am certain this is much more believable.

This is a book that is not designed to be easy or even all that much fun to read. Instead it wants you to think. In most cases books like this fail because the author doesn’t have as many brilliant points as he or she thinks that she has so you’re reading a book of marginal ideas that are written as if they are stunning revelations, but this book overcomes that. This is a book that can only be explained in part because the plot is only a small part of the story and if you’re up for a challenge it is well worth picking up.