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Stand On Zanzibar
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We look to fiction for eternal truths about our world and timeless insights into the human condition – either that or giddy escapism. But sometimes, in striving to achieve any or all of the above, a novelist will use the future as their backdrop; and just occasionally, they’ll predict what’s to come with uncanny accuracy. They can sit down at their desk and correctly envisage, for instance, how generations to come will be travelling, relaxing, communicating. And in the case of John Brunner, a sci-fi author who grew up in an era when the word ‘wireless’ still meant radio – the specificity of his imaginings retains its power to startle.
In his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, for instance, he peers ahead to imagine life in 2010, correctly forecasting wearable technology, Viagra, video calls, same-sex marriage, the legalisation of cannabis, and the proliferation of mass shootings. Equally compelling, however – and even more instructive – is the process by which Brunner constructed this society of his future and our present.
Born in 1934 in the Thames riverside hamlet of Preston Crowmarsh, Oxfordshire, John Kilian Houston Brunner was just six years old when he discovered science fiction. As Professor Jad Smith relates in his comprehensive study, John Brunner, with World War Two raging, the family moved to Herefordshire, where Brunner’s father intended to support the war effort by running a farm. In the chaos of the move, his grandfather’s rare 1898 edition of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds ended up shelved in the playroom. Brunner devoured it and from that moment, as he would later explain in a short autobiography, was imprinted by the genre “as permanently as one of Konrad Lorenz’s geese”.
Aged nine, he wasn’t only reading sci-fi, he was writing it too – specifically, the story of a Martian named Gloop. His first rejection letter came just four years later. He was still only 17 when he finally broke into print with a page-long story, The Watchers, and his first sale to a US magazine was made before he turned 18. By then, he’d dropped out of his private school and given up a scholarship to Oxford in order to focus on his writing.
He used the pen name Ellis Quick, an anagram of ‘I Sell Quick’
And yet, fear of failure dogged him, and in years to come, his staggeringly prolific career would swing between award-winning highs and penurious lows. He considered a good working day one in which he bashed out at least 5,000 words on his Smith Corona electric typewriter, and pseudonyms enabled him to contribute multiple stories to sci-fi magazine Science Fantasy. Trevor Staines, Keith Woodcott, John Loxmith, and Henry Crosstrees Jr – they were all Brunner. In total, his backlist numbers more than 80 novels and short story collections.
In his early 20s, Brunner placed an ad in the personal column of the London Weekly Advertiser and met his wife, Marjorie Sauer, a divorcee 14 years his senior. Within four months of meeting, they’d moved in together. Until her death, she was crucial to his career, acting as a business manager and even working as a jobbing gardener to help support them, because while Brunner could claim to have sold around two million paperbacks worldwide by the time he turned 30, the realities of the science-fiction market made making ends meet a constant challenge. And, though he dabbled in poetry, fantasy and horror, even trying his hand at erotic fiction (he used the pen name Ellis Quick, an anagram of ‘I Sell Quick’), sci-fi was where his heart lay. It was, he said, “par excellence the literature of the open mind”.
Brunner’s best writing is turbo-charged with ideas. He grappled with some of the key themes of his era: artificial intelligence, racism, drugs, the environment, space travel, and hi-tech warfare. He and Marjorie were early, active members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), whose marching song Brunner even wrote the lyrics to. “Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s thunder/Echo like the crack of doom?” its opening lines ask.
He fed his powerful imagination – of which vivid nightmares seem to have been a lifelong manifestation – with journals such as New Society and The New Scientist, and if some of his predictions now read like wacky sci-fi clichés, others have proven spot on. For instance, in his 1962 novella Listen! The Stars! he conjured up the ‘stardropper’, an addictive portable-media-player-like gizmo. In 1972, he published one of his most pessimistic novels, The Sheep Look Up, which prophesies a future blighted by extreme pollution and environmental catastrophe. And his 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, created a computer hacker hero before the world knew what one was. It also envisaged the emergence of computer viruses, something that early computer scientists dismissed as impossible. He even coined the use of the word ‘worm’ to describe them.
Brunner won plenty of plaudits. If the likes of Martin Amis were snooty about him (Amis declared The Sheep Look Up "a massive, chaotic, jangling hotchpotch"), plenty of others praised his creativity, clever plotting and philosophical acuity. He won, too, almost every sci-fi prize worth winning, including the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel, which had never before gone to a Brit.
Nevertheless, Brunner’s gripes about heavy-handed editing and in-fighting within the claustrophobic sci-fi scene gave him a prickly reputation. By middle-age, much of his work had fallen out of print in the UK, and he’d been forced to sell his London home and move to Somerset. He was also up against medical woes, and Marjorie’s death in 1986 dealt a painful blow.
‘Crystal ball gazing’
Today, his name is little known beyond sci-fi aficionados, and he’s chiefly remembered for Stand on Zanzibar. Big, ambitious and formally experimental, it’s a science-fiction thriller that depicts a world confronting population control. By 2010, Brunner declared, the world’s population would top seven billion (he was a year out – this actually happened in 2011), and in his fictional world, governments have responded globally with draconian eugenics laws, harnessing genetics to determine who can and cannot be allowed to have children.
The novel centres on two New York City roommates, Donald and Norman, the former a dilettante WASP who’s actually a spy, the latter an African-American business executive. Driving the plot is some international political intrigue surrounding a breakthrough in ‘techogenetics’ – the use of genetic engineering to create a super race. Meanwhile, extremism is rife. ‘Muckers’ go on killing sprees (there have been three mass killings in the US in the past four months, we’re told), politics has become bitterly partisan, and religious zealots frequently turn to violence. The oracle of the age is Shalmaneser, the first computer to be classified as a ‘megabrain’, and there’s a teeming social network that allows media organisations to put out hits of news and receive real-time fan feedback.
Though it divided critics on publication, Zanzibar has come to be regarded as a classic of New Wave sci-fi, better known for its style than its content. This seems a pity. When an excerpt appeared in New Worlds magazine in November 1967, an editorial claimed that it was the first novel in its field to create, in every detail, “a possible society of the future”.
There’s irony in some of what Brunner got wrong. He assumed, for instance, that the US would have at last figured out how to provide adequate, inexpensive medical care for all by 2010. Other inaccuracies are sci-fi staples – guns that fire lightning bolts; deep-sea mining camps; a Moon base. And yet, in ways minor and major, that ‘future society’ nevertheless seems rather familiar today. For example, it features an organisation very similar to the European Union; it casts China as America’s greatest rival; its phones have connections to a Wikipedia-style encyclopaedia; people casually pop Xanax-style ‘tranks’; documents are run off on laser printers; and Detroit has become a shuttered ghost town and incubator of a new kind of music oddly similar to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s.
So how did Brunner do it? To start with, he spent nearly three years reading up on topics from the role of genetic inheritance in disease to links between population spurts and urban violence. He also spent a month in the US in 1966, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Then, breaking with his usual work routine, instead of outlining his plot, he filled 60 pages with thoughts before hammering out a first draft.
As he went, he devised a series of ‘parallel thought exercises’ to generate ideas. As Smith describes it, he imagined a Victorian time-traveller pitching up in the 1960s, and then pondered how he’d go about explaining to them everything from the telephone to the sexual revolution. The first was relatively simple, but accounting for the vast differences in cultural mores required him to examine countless cultural assumptions. “Then, he reversed the process, asking himself what those assumptions might mean for the future, how present environments might already be making us aware of those to come”, Smith explains. For instance, the ‘hobby-type saboteurs’ that pop up throughout the novel, getting their kicks through recreational violence, came to Brunner after he clocked the prevalence of Peter Pan syndrome on both sides of the Atlantic, and then read about kids vandalising public transport for fun.
Ultimately, it is Brunner’s process that makes Zanzibar’s crystal-ball-gazing predictions so enduringly fascinating: he arrived at them via a combination of careful observation, listening and reading – that and a zany imagination. He was looking to the future, but it was only by being fully immersed in the present that he was able to see it with such unnerving clarity, effectively turning his typewriter into a time machine. He died in 1995, appropriately enough while attending a science-fiction conference.
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