The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Stand on Zanzibar

Mike Davis surveys a Planet of Slums
Sometime in the next year, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima's innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact event is unimportant and it will pass entirely unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human history. For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural. Indeed, given the imprecisions of Third World censuses, this epochal transition may already have occurred.
I've just picked up a copy of John Brunner's SF classic Stand on Zanzibar and flicked through it. It's a novel that, once read for the spy-thriller plot, repays flicking. Its structure is experimental, neatly threading multiple viewpoints with numerous infodumps. The crisp tabulation of the Developed, Developing and Underdeveloped worlds has dated in its details, but still resonates: 'Govt by public apathy: Govt by 'revolutionary parties': 'Broken-backed' govt' is one line in the matrix. Judith Miller called it 'the first true SF novel', and she may have been right. It remains one of the best, a piece of sociological hard SF that tries to imagine an entire future Earth. The real hero is a gonzo pop sociologist who I wish had some real-life counterpart. Published in 1968, set in 2010, it fails utterly to predict the world in which we live, but prophesies it uncannily. The title refers to a calculation made near the beginning of the novel that the entire seven billion of the human race could find standing room on Zanzibar; by the end, despite much attrition, 'the human race by tens of thousands would be knee-deep in the waters around Zanzibar'.


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