Friday, September 24, 2010

Stand on Zanzibar

Today is Friday, 24 September 2010.

Today is the birth date, in 1934, of John Brunner, one of the most gifted of “science fiction” writers. (Brunner died 26 August 1995.)

Many consider science fiction a “genre” niche, and therefore inferior in some sense. Same goes for mystery, espionage, etc. This attitude reflects a failure in how we consider and discern fiction.

The standard should not be the “genre”, but how a particular piece of fiction deals with the human condition.

Consider the “science fiction” of J. G. Ballard. His concern was with what he called “inner space”, how people act and react intellectually and emotionally. The future or alternative worlds in which his novels and stories are set were armatures on which he constructed perspectives on the human condition. This is, in fact, the case with all fiction. Should one degrade, say, War and Peace, as mere “historical” or “costume” fiction, simply because its setting is actual history? Of course not, for the setting is merely the background for what happens to the people. Same with Ballard, Chandler, etc.

And note how differently Ballard’s “straight” novel, Empire of the Sun, based on his experiences while interned in Japanese camps as a child in World War Two, was often treated, critically and academically, as compared to his lyrical “science fiction” short story, “The Voice of Time”.

Brunner wrote four particularly fine novels. The Squares of the City (1965) concerns how humans react to urban political turmoil. (The structure is almost unique, being based on a famous chess match from 1892). The Sheep Look Up (1972) concerns how humans react to ecological disaster. The Shockwave Rider (1975) is concerned with human reaction to swift and massive technological change. Stand on Zanzibar (1968), his masterwork, is concerned with human reaction to overpopulation, and its many attendant perils. The structure of the latter reminds many of the U.S.A. trilogy, by Dos Passos.

I recommend Stand on Zanzibar very highly.

From the dust jacket:

"There's a belief still current among British schoolchildren, that you could stand the entire human race on the 147-square-mile Isle of Wight, elbow to elbow and face to face.

Well, that may have been true around the time of World War I, although nobody was keeping records accurate enough for us to be certain. However, right now, in the 1960's, you'd have a tough job packing us on the 221-square-mile Isle of Man.

And by 2010 - the time this book takes place, you'd need an altogether larger island - something like the 640-square-mile surface of Zanzibar!"


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