Science-fiction is often given the false laurels of being predictive. The books in that genre hardly ever are, except for through the loosest definition of the word. A book that often gets this thrown at it John Brunner’s 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar, a book that succeeds in being interesting regardless of its soothsaying prowess.
The year is somewhere around 2010 and the world is facing an overpopulation problem. A powerful computer, which may or may not be sentient, is making world-impacting decisions, while a doctor in Asia has perfected a process for perfectly genetically modifying children. In Africa, a long isolated and underdeveloped country is in fear of being once again subjugated by neighbouring forces as their president finds himself in failing health. This country is the only one which seems not to be plagued by the random occurrences of flash violence that seem to occur everywhere else.
Does all that seem hard to put together? It does so surprisingly clearly, so long as you don’t mind stringing threads together yourself. Brunner writes this in a strange piecemeal fashion that works well to give you the feeling that you are being invited to learn of this other world via channel surf. You get snippets at a time, but they come together to weave a pretty clear whole. To what extent that is enjoyable is really going to come down to the reader. I, however, well and truly liked it.
What’s strange about this book is just to what extent it manages to feel both dated and not, all at once. Here it may be worth talking about the books so-called prophecy, as it mentions a population of around seven billion, the decreasing popularity of cigarettes vs the acceptance and legalization of marijuana, electric cars, school shootings, films being shown on planes, and a president named Obomi. This is not anywhere near prophecy, and shouldn’t be mistaken as such. But it is eerily similar, and somewhat fits the same shoes as ours. But the tone is way, way off. The whole book feels like the 1960’s was stretched out for fifty years. It is literally still a “happening world” in this book, and that makes it feel very dated. Not in a terrible way, and not nearly as much as even other science fiction books from the same era do. In a respect, it feels like listening to one’s grandparents trying to describe something in the modern world, and while not exactly failing, getting it slightly wrong in a way that is pretty easy to chuckle at.
Still, the book is an absolute Masterclass in world-building, and is recognized as a classic in the genre for a pretty good reason.