Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Read by Erik Bergmann
Length: 21 Hrs 20 Min
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
Quick Thoughts: Despite my struggles and the fact that it took me nearly half the audiobook to get a grip on the overall narrative, I am glad that I finally fully experienced Brunner’s strange, troubling but beautiful novel. This is a book that is hard for me to recommend, because it takes a lot of investment by the reader/listener, but if you’re game, I’ll definitely cheer you on.
I am not too ashamed to admit that sometimes I am intimidated by books. It’s not that I don’t think I am smart enough tackle certain books, I just know what I enjoy. I like adventured filled science fiction, or fast paced complex but readable mysteries and thrillers. I’ve never been a foreign film guy, and prefer rock and Americana to classical music. Among the hundreds of books I have read, only 3 of them have won the Pulitzer Prize. You see, I like stories that I really don’t have to work at. I like to sit back, and be swept into a world. About 10 years ago when I began working my way through classic Post Apocalyptic fiction, I found two novels that just intimidated me stylistically. I attempted to read both of these novels a number of times, and I could never get my head suitably around them to get a good foothold into the story. These two novels where Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Recently, I read a novel by Jo Walton called Among Others. This novel centered around a young teenage science fiction and fantasy fan, who talked eloquently about many science fiction novels, including works by Brunner and Delany. So, yes, I was put to shame by this fictional young teenage character in a novel, who was able to complete these novels, at least in her fictional world that exists in the mind and on the pages of Jo Walton. This can not stand! So, I decided I should once again attempt to take on Stand on Zanzibar, which was the only novel of the two available as an audiobook.
Stand on Zanzibar is a near future dystopian novel about a world struggling with over population. It is also very, very strange. Sure, it’s brilliant, and complex, and in some ways, prophetic, but, for the most part, it’s downright weird. I really, really struggled with the novel, for a significant amount of the first half, Brunner tells the story using four formats, only one, called Continuity, contained the actual narrative. The other three are weird exercises in world building. In the “Tracking with Close-ups” Brunner tells us the story of minor characters, some connected to the overall narrative, and others not. In “Context” Brunner uses headlines, quotes for news stories and social commentary to show the political setting of the novel. In the weirdest, but most amusing section, called “The Happening World” Brunner uses pop culture, commercial references in a sort of stream of consciousness rapid fire tutorial on the social values of the culture of his novel. It all comes together in this weird, poetic frenetic hosh post of information that can be a bit confusing but eventually clicks together in a brilliant way. It’s daunting but worth the effort. One thing I didn’t like was his nonlinear story line. I found it a bit unsettling. He uses the nonlinear style not as an effective way to foreshadow the climax, but actually gives you the climax of the novel first, then sends you back to how it all started. For me, I was finally getting a grip on the novel, when BANG, we go back in time, and I’m confused all over again. For some, this may have been effective, but for me, it tore me out of the story, and I again had to struggle to get a foothold on the tale. Now, one of the things I really enjoyed was Brunner’s predictive use of future language. He invents and twists slang into a new way of speaking that is actually quite engaging even if it comes off as evolved 60s era hippy jingoism. The language itself, once fully ingested by the reader, is almost addictive, and I found myself wanting to start using some of the words in my everyday talk, along the lines of words like “grok” and “frak.” Despite my struggles, and the fact that it took me nearly half the audiobook to get a grip on the overall narrative, I am glad that I finally fully experienced Brunner’s strange, troubling but beautiful novel. This is a book that is hard for me to recommend, because it takes a lot of investment by the reader/listener, but if you’re game, I’ll definitely cheer you on.
I will proudly admit that I probably would never have finished this novel if it wasn’t available on audiobook and, one thing that made it even better was the utterly brilliant performance by Erik Bergmann. This was my first time listening to a book narrated by Bergmann, and I totally had a “where have you been all my audiobook listening life” moment. One of the major reasons I was able to make it through the early parts of the novel was his amazing reading of “The Happening World” scenes. Brunner uses a lot of Print tricks in the novel, from capitalizations to clever spelling and somehow Bergmann was able to reproduce the novelty of the language and structure vocally. Stand on Zanzibar is a world spanning international novel, with characters from all many differing regions, and Bergmann’s accents and speaking styles were spot on. There were so many standout moments of narrative excellence that I could probably spend another couple of hundred words pointing them all out, but I won’t. I sincerely hope that Bergmann will continue to be utilized as a narrator of science fiction, because I feel that is a genre where his skills will stand out.
Today’s Review is part of my weekly Welcome to the Apocalypse series: