May 23rd, 2010

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 5

  1. Meredith, Martin — The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (736 pages)
  2. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o — Wizard of the Crow (766 pages)
  3. Coetzee, J.M. — Life & Times of Michael K (182 pages)
  4. Saint-Exupery, Antoine de — The Little Prince (101 pages)
  5. Brunner, John — Stand on Zanzibar (661 pages)

Page count: 2446.

What does each of the books I've read so far this year have in common? Each takes place, in part or in whole, in Africa.

That said, the title Stand on Zanzibar can be a bit misleading as none of the story takes place on Zanzibar. It mostly takes place in the US, mostly in New York City, with bits in the fictional nations of Yatakang and Beninia. The title refers to an old quip that you could stand the entire population of the earth shoulder-to-shoulder on the Isle of Wight. In the 1960s, the expression was updated to reference the Isle of Man. Brunner uses it to point out that during the time of this story the island would be Zanzibar and some people would be ankle- to knee-deep in the Indian Ocean.

Stand on Zanzibar takes place in the first decade of the 21st century and deals principally with what an overpopulated world might be like. Brunner uses the Innis mode, a method of breaking up perspective and linear flow in exchange for greater context and understanding (as pointed out by Marshall McLuhan and quoted in chapter "Context(0)" of Stand on Zanzibar); i.e., chronological perspective is abandoned in preference for a comprehensive spatial or mosaic-like presentation meant to form an impression. While it took me about 80 pages to figure out what was going on, once I did everything was easy to follow and I found Brunner used this technique brilliantly to explore various everyday issues that arise in his overpopulated world: eugenics legislation, drug use, muckers (people who can't take the stress anymore and run amok murdering people), war, artificial intelligence, and more.

Throughout the novel I couldn't help think that Brunner's writing style reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson, especially in Cryptonomicon. (Apparently—and I didn't realize this till just now—Cryptonomicon also uses the Innis mode.) In addition to stylistic similarities, both novels take place in part in the islands of Southeast Asia and both involve codebreaking (although Stand on Zanzibar's code to be broken is the human genome). If anything (and I'm a bit reluctant to say this, because we all know Stephenson is brilliant), Brunner is like a smarter Neal Stephenson, with less geekery and more cynicism, social commentary, sociology, and psychology &mdash and much more satisfying endings!

There are four types of chapters in Stand on Zanzibar: "Context," which, appropriately enough, provides context for the novel often in the form of quoted publications (fictional and real), classified ads, headlines, etc.; "This Happening World," which consists of short passages meant to capture the feel of Stand on Zanzibar's world; "Tracking with Closeups," which zooms in on various characters or situations to give us a deeper understanding of their perspectives; and "Continuity," which carries the main narrative (which about 200 pages in splits off into two separate but strangely related plotlines, one taking us to the fictional powerhouse Asian nation of Yatakang and the other to the fictional backwater African nation of Beninia).

I've probably made Stand on Zanzibar sound terribly complicated and convoluted. While it requires a little more engagement from the reader than your average novel, it really isn't difficult at all. Rather, it is a fascinating, compelling, and thought-provoking page-turner.