Stand on Zanzibar Critical Essays

John Brunner


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

A summary of the plot makes Stand on Zanzi-bar seem less innovative than it was when published and less complicated than it will appear to some readers. To tell the story, John Brunner relies on such techniques as the collage and jump-cut, usually associated with film narrative and with modernist writers, especially John Dos Passos. The 145 chapters of the novel divide into four interwoven sets. The lengthiest of these, “continuity,” contains the lead story line summarized above. Another, “tracking with closeups,” tells eight other stories, most of them ending in the death of the protagonist. Some of these stories tie into the lead story, and others do not; all reflect in some way the dehumanizing cir-cumstances of ordinary lives in the twenty-first century. These circumstances include overcrowding, deprivation, and aggression. Another group of chapters is “context.” These chapters gather quotations, letters, reports, and speeches, mostly social commentary and mostly from the pen of Chad Mulligan, whose voice in them seems close to that of the (implied) author. The final group, “the happening world,” consists of assorted news items and advertisements, mostly presented as television scripts, that serve to convey the background for all the rest.

Stand on Zanzibar is thus a richly layered narrative of manifold voices, strenuously avoiding the monologue style of much science fiction, in which the narrator and the main character (and sometimes other characters as well) are merely authorial mouthpieces. Brunner’s decentering of narrative authority is clear from his treatment of Mulligan, the main social commentator, who is for the most part an uncivil, ineffectual, verbose, and drunken dropout. The failure of the author’s apparent stand-in, who plays the role of chief social critic in a novel of social criticism, tends to undercut the authority needed for such criticism. The stylistic fragmentation of the novel, its mixture of discourses, also invalidates any claim to stylistic authority. Thus in an anarchic, discordant polyphony of languages Brunner finds a world lacking any remnant of faith, hope, or love. The achievement of Stand on Zanzibar is that its bleak dystopian vision is perfectly embodied in its exuberant linguistic form.