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Literature / Stand on Zanzibar

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Stand on Zanzibar is a Hugo Award-winning dystopian novel by John Brunner, often considered one of the best works to come out of the New Wave Science Fiction movement of the 1960s.

It's set in the year 2010, when the population of Earth has reached 7 billion. The Soviet Union is defunct as a superpower, but China is rapidly industrializing and increasing in power. Giant corporations have large enough economies to control entire countries. In-vitro fertilization and genetic mapping are becoming a reality. A computer the size of a large book is more powerful than the most massive supercomputers of the Sixties. Personalized digital avatars of yourself feature in everyday entertainment. Religious denominations are rapidly polarizing on moral issues like abortion. And ordinary people suddenly snap and go on killing sprees in schools, workplaces, and malls.

Sound familiar? Did we mention this book was written in 1968?

On the other hand, New York is encased in a giant dome, Puerto Rico and part of the Philippines are U.S. states, eugenics legislation has passed in 48 states, and the West has cured its addiction to oil.

Stand on Zanzibar isn't your ordinary dystopian novel; the plot is secondary to an intense worldbuilding experience and exploring the many consequences of overpopulation. The chapters alternate between:

  • Context, background information, Paratext, incomprehensible transcripts of TV shows, and excerpts from the writings of rogue sociologist Chad Mulligan.
  • Continuity, the main plot, which follows roommates Corrupt Corporate Executive Norman House and mild-mannered perpetual student/spy Donald Hogan, as House tries to fix a computer and modernize an African nation, and Hogan infiltrates an Indonesia Expy to kidnap/rescue a brilliant scientist.
  • Tracking With Closeups, which gives vignettes about various ordinary people and their lives.
  • The Happening World, which gives brief updates on the status of the many, many, characters. Strangely prescient of Twitter. Also may contain random snippets of exposition thrown in, well, randomly.

SCANALYZER (all rights reserved) has prepared the following trope examples.

  • Absurdly Huge Population: With the world population reaching seven billionnote , society is definitely beginning to feel the stress of the huge population, but, as pointed out in the comment that gave the book its name, you could still fit them all, standing shoulder to shoulder, on the island of Zanzibar.
  • Anyone Can Die: Ten among the many characters are dead by the end of the story. Quite violently, too.
  • Badass Boast: The General Technics motto. See Mega-Corp entry below.
  • Balkanize Me: Inverted: several groups of African countries have merged into larger states.
  • Bittersweet Ending/Earn Your Happy Ending: They discover the secreted chemical that makes Beninia so peaceful, but Dr. Sugaiguntung is the one man who could have successfully spliced Shinka genes into everyone else, and Donald killed him. They can still synthesize and mass-produce the chemical to ensure world peace, but this is basically an admission that humanity can't be saved by its own devices without resorting to dystopian means.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Heavily implied between Pierre and Jeannine, especially during the final chapter featuring these characters.
  • Bulungi: Beninia. Dahomalia and RUNG, too, but these latter two are conglomerations of already-extant IRL nations.
  • Cyberpunk: Contains enough elements to be considered a proto-example.
  • Decade-Themed Party: In an exaggerated form, there's a "Twentieth Century Party". The confusion about whether 2000 C.E. counted as Twentieth Century or Twenty-First was referenced, one of the many predictions the book got right.
  • Domed Hometown: The 2010 New York.
  • Emotion Bomb: A key plot point, as the Shinka have a pheromone that makes people less aggressive. At the end, the characters contemplate replicating it to create world peace.
  • Fantastic Drug: Triptine, Skullbustium, Yaginol and "Truth or Consequences" all of which are described as 'lifters' (uppers), and all of which seem to have at some hallucinogenic effects.
  • Future Slang: The book includes many terms like shiggies, codders, bleeders, muckers, Aframs, etc.
  • He's Back!: When we first meet Chad Mulligan, he's a drunken, surly wreck who hates everything. After learning about the situation that crashed Shalmaneser, he springs into action, fixes the world's most powerful computer in less than fifteen minutes, and is reinvigorated with life for the rest of the book. And then he spirals back into despair in the last two pages.
  • Homage: The style is inspired by John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy.
  • Humans Are Flawed: But Chad loves them all anyway.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Chad says this after solving the Shalmaneser problem.
  • Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: Shalmaneser is rapidly approaching artificial intelligence as it gains processing power. Right now, he's at the level of The Stoner.
  • Master Computer: Shalmaneser, a helium-cooled supercomputer capable of managing the economies of entire countries.
  • Mega-Corp: General Technics. "The difficult we did yesterday. The impossible, we're doing right now."
    When we say "general" at GT we mean GENERAL. We offer the career of a lifetime to anyone interested in astronautics, biology, chemistry, dynamics, eugenics, ferromagnetism, geology, hydraulics, industrial administration, jet propulsion, kinetics, law, metallurgy, nucleonics, optics, patent rights, quarkology, robotics, synthesis, telecommunications, ultrasonics, vacuum technology, work, x-rays, ylem, zoology ...
    No, we didn't miss out your speciality. We just didn't have room for it in this ad.
  • My Beloved Smother: Sasha Peterson and her son Philip. Their first chapter is even called "Smotherlove". It doesn't end well.
  • Neural Implanting: Being EPTified, or Educated for Particular Tasks.
  • Overpopulation Crisis: The central theme of the book is overpopulation and the social stresses it inflicts on society.
  • Population Control: Eugenics is rapidly becoming the norm in developed countries, banning children of carriers of colorblindness, hemophilia, and other genetic disorders.
  • Superpowerful Genetics: The Yatakangi claim that they will create genetic supermen, which sets off a panic equivalent to Sputnik in other countries.
  • That Man Is Dead: At the end, Donald claims this of himself after a mental breakdown and refers to his previous self as "the other Donald Hogan". He still uses the name, since he figures the dead Donald won't complain.
  • Title Drop: "You could stand us all on the six hundred forty square mile surface of the island of Zanzibar."
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Between Donald and Norman's plots, which form the story of the book. Though there's several hundred pages unrelated to either of them in the book as well.
  • Walking the Earth: Chad Mulligan traveled around as a bum for a while. Funnily enough, he shows up in person less than halfway into the novel, walking into a first-class salon in NYC, fully bearded and covered in dirt. He waves a big wad of cash, demanding a bath and haircut. Only a business card verifies his identity.
  • Wham Line:
    Shalmaneser: Christ, what an imagination I've got.