The Weird 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel that Correctly Predicted the Current Day

March 25, 2013 | 4 books mentioned 53 6 min read

coverStand on Zanzibar is that rarity among science fiction novels — it really made accurate predictions about the future. The book, published in 1969, is set in the year 2010, and this allows us to make a point-by-point comparison, and marvel at novelist John Brunner’s uncanny ability to anticipate the shape of the world to come.  Indeed, his vision of the year 2010 even includes a popular leader named President Obomi — face it, Nate Silver himself couldn’t have done that back in 1969!

Let me list some of the other correct predictions in Brunner’s book:

(1) Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar.

(2) The other major source of instability and violence comes from terrorists, who are now a major threat to U.S. interests, and even manage to attack buildings within the United States.

(3) Prices have increased sixfold between 1960 and 2010 because of inflation. (The actual increase in U.S. prices during that period was sevenfold, but Brunner was close.)

(4) The most powerful U.S. rival is no longer the Soviet Union, but China. However, much of the competition between the U.S. and Asia is played out in economics, trade, and technology instead of overt warfare.

(5) Europeans have formed a union of nations to improve their economic prospects and influence on world affairs. In international issues, Britain tends to side with the U.S., but other countries in Europe are often critical of U.S. initiatives.

(6) Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.

(7) Although some people still get married, many in the younger generation now prefer short-term hookups without long-term commitment.

(8) Gay and bisexual lifestyles have gone mainstream, and pharmaceuticals to improve sexual performance are widely used (and even advertised in the media).

(9) Many decades of affirmative action have brought blacks into positions of power, but racial tensions still simmer throughout society.

(10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells. Honda (primarily known as a motorcycle manufacturers when Brunner wrote his book) is a major supplier, along with General Motors.

(11) Yet Detroit has not prospered, and is almost a ghost town because of all the shuttered factories. However. a new kind of music — with an uncanny resemblance to the actual Detroit techno movement of the 1990s — has sprung up in the city.

(12) TV news channels have now gone global via satellite.

(13) TiVo-type systems allow people to view TV programs according to their own schedule.

(14) Inflight entertainment systems on planes now include video programs and news accessible on individual screens at each seat.

(15) People rely on avatars to represent themselves on video screens — Brunner calls these images, which either can look like you or take on another appearance you select — “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere.”

(16) Computer documents are generated with laser printers.

(17) A social and political backlash has marginalized tobacco, but marijuana has been decriminalized.

coverOther science fiction books have occasionally made successful predictions, from Jules Verne’s Around the Moon (1865), which eerily anticipated many details of the Apollo program, to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) with its descriptions of cyberspace and hackers. But Brunner’s work stands out as the most uncanny anticipation of what would actually change — and what would stay the same — in the decades following its publication. Certainly, there are many details, large and small, that Brunner got wrong. But even when the particulars don’t ring true, the overarching theme of Stand on Zanzibar, which is the hidden cost of our obsession with human perfectibility, is just as relevant today as when Brunner wrote his novel.

In this book, each of the major characters is on a mission to improve the human race, and in ways that are all-too-familiar to us today. Sometimes this preoccupation manifests itself in legislation and regulation; politics — both national and global — increasingly manifests itself as a competition between different schemes for human improvement in Stand on Zanzibar. Certainly that attitude shows no sign of going out of style in the current day. Even minor characters in Stand on Zanzibar distinguish themselves by their zeal for upgrading the species, whether through writing books filled with advice and indictments, or business investment in impoverished regions, or implementing ambitious software programs that improve the efficiency and quality of life, or just good, old psychological manipulation. These too are still part of our everyday life. But the most popular — and controversial — method of human improvement in the fictional world of 2010 presented by Brunner draws on biotechnology and the potential for tinkering with our DNA.

A few days before I wrote this essay, I ran across an article about a Harvard professor who proposes placing Stone Age genes in a human embryo, then implanting it in an “adventurous woman” who would serve as surrogate mother for the the resulting Neanderthal baby. This scenario sounds like something lifted straight from the pages of Stand on Zanzibar. In Brunner’s novel, a prominent professor named Sugaiguntung is working on a comparable line of research, and hopes to create superhumans by drawing on his experiences manipulating the DNA of orangutans. Indeed, the sci-fi story sounds more plausible than the news story.

covercoverThe plot is deliberately fractured and presented in fragments by Brunner, who modeled his work on John Dos Passos’s similarly structured (or rather unstructured) U.S.A. Trilogy. Like Dos Passos, he interjects headlines, bits of news stories, song lyrics, self-contained background interludes, and other cultural bric-à-brac into his narrative. But unlike Dos Passos, Brunner finds ways of pulling the different threads together into extravagant new shapes — most notably in the final pages, when a novel that seems too disparate to cohere surprises readers by the elegance with which all the pieces come together. And though there are many things to admire in this prickly, unconventional book, perhaps the most impressive feat is our author’s ability to maintain tight control with a clear sense of purpose and direction even when the narrative appears the most anarchic and chaotic. Put another way, what originally comes across as a free-spirited 1960s novel, long on attitude but short on clarity, turns out to have more in common with those artful new millennium novels, such as Cloud Atlas, A Visit from the Goon Squad, or Gods Without Men, in which all the storylines converge, the colorful subplots fitting together into a brilliant and unexpected mosaic.

Two diverging plot lines dominate the novel. Norman House is an African-American who has joined the senior management of GT, a multinational corporation akin to General Electric. To advance his career and staunch his growing alienation, House signs on to an ambitious project in Africa that promises both to make bundles of money and also improve the quality of life for the citizens of a desperately poor Third World nation. At almost the same moment, House’s roommate Donald Hogan embarks on an even more challenging project — one that requires him to operate as a spy in a hostile Asian country, loosely based on Indonesia, where amazing breakthroughs in genetic research have been announced.

These two plot lines will eventually come together, but Brunner takes his time in this big, discursive book, and much of the appeal from Stand on Zanzibar comes from the subplots and minor characters. A bohemian author named Chad C. Mulligan provides both insight and comic relief in equal doses, and is such a persuasive figure that he deserves to star in a novel of his own. Guinivere Steel, the hard-edged leader of a boutique chain, is another compelling figure who only gets a bit part. Her specialty is throwing extravagant society parties in which the entertainment is built around her humiliation of the guests, especially those she doesn’t want to invite to her next soirée. And, staying true to a time-honored sci-fi tradition, Brunner includes one top-notch digital character, the computer Shalmaneser, which is to the GT Corp what that chess-playing electronic brain Deep Blue is to IBM.

As I look back at the remarkable burst of experimentation in science fiction during the 1960s, led primarily by the younger New Wave authors, I am frequently disappointed by how few of them hold up nowadays. Too often, bold techniques that promised to open up new terrain to SF during the 1960s and 1970s ended up as stylistic dead ends by the time we got to the 1980s and 1990s. But Brunner, older than most of the other New Wave authors and in some ways the least likely to deliver a breakthrough novel — he had been churning out conventional genre books, sometimes a half-dozen or more in a single year, for almost two decades when he published Stand on Zanzibar — raised the ante further in these pages and won on his big bet. And he did so with a risky gambit, in which both form and content were stretched to their limits. That he managed to get so many predictions right along the way is to his credit, but hardly the only reason to read this one-of-a-kind novel.

writes on music, literature, and popular culture. His next book, Music: A Subversive History, will be published by Basic Books next year.


  1. Thanks for this. “Stand on Zanzibar” is a terrific novel, regardless of its predictive powers. I also recommend “The Sheep Look Up,” Brunner’s environmental collapse novel. Among other things, in it, he predicts the fad for organic produce — and that the term “organic” is just a corporate marketing scam. Sounds familiar.

  2. “Stand on Zanzibar” is only one of four novels (sometimes referred as The Club of Rome quartet) that Brunner wrote at the end of the 60s, inspired by the works of the first futurists.

    Each focused on one aspect that Brunner felt would shape the world in the early 21st century – so “The Sheep Look Up” explored environmentalism, “The Jagged Orbit”, violence, “Shockwave Rider”, the shape of a networked world (though one that reflects PLATO and Coevolution Quarterly as much as it does Alvin Toffler), and of course “Stand on Zanzibar” on population pressures and urbanisation.

    Great books.

  3. It might be fruitful to compare “Stand on Zanzibar” with David Brin’s “Earth.” Both are “fifty year prediction” novels, both aim at presenting a comprehensive portrait of their world. Brin’s, written ten years after Brunner’s, is more focused on environmental concerns, and is far more conventional in style/structure.

    I also read “The Sheep Look Up” but couldn’t finish because it’s too depressing. Its vision of a planet totally wasted by pollution is shockingly grim.

  4. Well done! Excellent fact-checking Mr. Gioia! Brunner was certainly a futurist. Wonder who the next futurist will be. Maybe The Millions could pick five books right now that fit that bill–and we’ll look back in twenty years and see if they were right–books that hint of untold agendas or enlightened frames of mind, body and spirit. I’m thinking sexuality is going to play huge role. A person can hope.

  5. Commendable praise for an interesting old book, but it’s pity Mr Gioia gets the date of publication wrong: the novel was first published in 1968, not 1969. I remember reading lengthy pre-publication extracts from it in_New Worlds_ magazine in 1967.

    It’s also odd that the article doesn’t once mention “overpopulation,” surely the novel’s chief theme. Has the fact that the world John Brunner describes is overpopulated (compared to the time of writing, 1967) become somehow _invisible_ to today’s new readers?

  6. I’m rather surprised the article does also not mention the spectacular fall from grace of an Asian scientist who faked his research into human cloning. This singular event could have been directly lifted from Stand on Zanzibar.

    Re. The Sheep Look Up, the 2003 Benbella edition also has a detailed appendix of a whole raft of environmental disasters Brunner accurately predicted in that book.

  7. “Africa still trails far behind the rest of the world in economic development, and Israel remains the epicenter of tensions in the Middle East.”

    no prize for guessing that one. The rest was still pretty amazing though.

  8. The European Union thing isn’t especially prescient, The European Economic Community (EEC) was created in 1957.

  9. Ted Gioia must’ve never heard of a guy named Winston Churchill… who spoke and wrote at length of the planetary consequences of needlessly ending the British empire… especially after they had spent the previous century or three building the institutions of civil society around far flung parts of the globe and after they had bankrupted themselves saving civilization from the forces of barbarism.

    It’s not hard for someone as intelligent and knowledgable as Winston to predict what would happen in the world in the decades after the process of advancing civilization had come to a halt.

    He was far more prescient than a 1969 sci fi novel… but it’s understandable that a civilization in decline would prefer sci fi novels instead of pivotal world leaders and this thing called ‘history’.

  10. What I find remarkable is that when you look on the internet for the “Greatest Science Fiction Novels of All Time” Stand on Zanzibar (and The Sheep Look Up, The Jagged Edge, and Shockwave Rider) are somewhere down the list and Ender’s Game is number one. Stand on Zanzibar is by far the better novel, both as a narrative and as a model of what science fiction does best. Brunner is by far the better writer, the better story-teller, but somehow he’s fallen into neglect.

  11. Read most of Brunner’s works when I was younger. I still have no idea to this day why these masterpieces of fiction don’t get made into movies and the usually nonsensical ramblings of that nutcase Philip K. Dyck do…

    Maybe they were too close to real life :P

  12. @Flossy: Actually, civilization has somehow managed to advance over the last half century or so, after dismantling the empire that invented concentration camps.

  13. Read Stand on Zanzibar when it came out, put it down several times because I found it boring as hell. Never did care much for Brunner’s style. Most of his predictions echoed what other writers at the time were saying, he just assembled them into one long mashup of a novel without much of a satisfactory end to it.

    Robert A. Heinlein did a far better job of social analysis and predicted fully as many things that have come about, as did Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke foretold the global satellite network prior to Brunner, the avatar thing was common sci-fi fare, Heinlein predicted the opening of sexuality long before Brunner, as well as the ubiquity of microwave cooking.

    Brunner was a very pedestrian sci-fi author, really his only real innovation was to use the movie/tv writing format for a novel, a less than stellar effort in my opinion. In the end, Stand really didn’t have much to actually say, it was more obesrvational than anything, more like movie fluff, all style with very little substance.

    Maybe that’s why it was nevr turned into a movie.

  14. I read this book in college back in the early 80s. it was part of a Science Fiction course. I was both intrigued, and annoyed by the book, as it didn’t have a straight narrative that I was used to in SiFi. One of the prophetic things I remember about it was the Police using a “Bolt Gun” which was remarkably like a modern TASER.

  15. I read “Stand on Zanzibar” as a teen-ager in the 70’s and thought it was terrific. Brunner also wrote a sort of sister novel entitled “The Sheep Look Up” which is just as good. As I recall SoZ is concerned primarily with population issues, whereas TSLU is concerned with issues of industrial toxicity in the environment. My recollection is that the second book was even scarier than the first. Both are definitely worth a read.

  16. I read Shockwave Rider and then the newly published Neuromancer. It struck me at the time that both stories might have been set in the same universe, and at the same time. Shockwave Rider has the better claim to have been the first Cyberpunk novel.

  17. Yeah, Brunner really nailed our future, didn’t he?

    Fidel Castro dead, whales extinct, internal combustion engines banned, the draft still in effect, eugenics laws in all developed countries, you can’t reach anyone except by a land-line telephone, electronic devices so small you can barely see them yet computers are rare commodities, used mainly by governments and corporations (and they must be bathed in liquid helium, to boot). LOL!

    Brunner’s works haven’t been made into movies because they’re boring, disjointed and depressing. His dictum seems to have been, “Never use a five-dollar word when you can task your reader with an obtuse fifty dollar word.” And yet, while he uses these kinds of words freely to describe situations and events, his characters seem barely literate at a high school level.

    He completely ignores a basic principle of writing: that every story must have a coherent beginning, middle and end. Stand On Zanzibar, has ten beginnings, a thousand middles and no conclusive end.

    His writing style is difficult to adjust to at first, but once you adapt you soon discover how stilted and formulaic his prose becomes. His characters are paper-thin, which I suppose is appropriate since the slightest disturbance causes them to fly off on some errand or quest without any apparent rational motivation.

    One of the ten best science fiction writers? More like one of the ten best bad examples.

  18. @albert Kedler…Those are no universal rules to writing. There are no rules to forming a narrative. The Odyssey starts in the middle, goes back (in a long flashback), then moves to the end. There’s no clear narrative structure to Naked Lunch, Hubert Selby’s The Room is more of a stream of consciousness free write than narrative…the only rules art of any kind has are what we give them. Literature has no inherent way of creation, except perhaps the use of words. If you want all stories to be done the same monotonous way, I suggest The New Yorker.

  19. I LOVED this article. It’s about time Brunner got his due. I agree with all the major points raised by the author, as well as some of the commentors.
    Along with the overpopulation theme, the author could have emphasized the “blip-vert” schizophrenic writing style that exactly mirrors our multimedia experience today, where everything is a short-term distraction.
    I read this book twice when I was much younger, and some of his others (not the “big 4), and I would love to read it again.
    WONDERFUL PIECE! Great writing!

  20. Stand on Zanzibar was published in 1968, not 1969—by Doubleday—and received the Hugo Award in 1969, a year later, beating out Nova by Samuel R. Delany, Past Master by R. A. Lafferty, The Goblin Reservation by Clifford D. Simak and Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin. The Zanzibar style anticipated the future, our present, in which linear time is chopped up by fragmentary impressions in the overflow of information—and people. Knowing Brunner, he probably also somewhere in the 60s or 70s predicted that the internet would be filled by conservative trolls typing out their hate-filled bile, longing for the days of Churchill and Heinlein, as we’ve unfortunately seen posted under this fine analysis by Ted Gioia. Along with the relevant social commentary of SoZ, The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Stone that Never Came Down (1973), and The Shockwave Rider (1975), other overlooked Brunner work deserving attention includes the well-turned psychological character studies The Whole Man (1964, as The Telepathist in UK), Quicksand (1967) and stories ranging from “Elected Silence,” “Protect Me From My Friends” and “The Iron Jackass” to the series of stories in the 1990s set in China, just to name a few.

  21. I read each and every comment carefully. I, unlike many of the other commentators, did not read Brunner’s work nor did I read anything written by the other author’s mentioned. For this I am thankful. If I had, maybe I would have ended up sounding like some of the idiots above.

    It was amazing to me to see how “whacked” some of those commentators sounded that had been brainwashed in high school and college by this crap. It’s ashamed that they were forcefully introduced to this garbage. Especially Carter Moody. You can just tell by his diatribe that he’s fed his mind with ca-ca like this his whole life.

    I guess the old saying holds true today as it did back in 1968 or 1969 (like it really freakin’ matters folks what year it was!)… “garbage in garbage out”!

  22. Stand on Zanzibar was a great read. When my girlfriend, who had really enjoyed it, recommended it to me. This was in 1969 and I have been telling my friends how accurate Brunner’s view of the future was for several years.

  23. Another excellent SciFi novel from the same year is “Superbaby” by Felix Mendelsohn. Chronicling the fictional life of a genetically superior human made up of culled-together genes from brilliant scientists, artists and athletes, alike. Interestingly cogent and surprisingly relevant today.

  24. Another author who deserves kudos for predicting some major items across his work is Arthur C Clarke. It includes the geosynchronous satellite and the iPod among others.

  25. I predict in 50 years we will be able to purchase a pharmaceutical drug that will increase our life span 100 more years. Also very good weed 100% THC.

  26. I read each and every comment carefully. I, unlike many of the other commentators, did not read Brunner’s work nor did I read anything written by the other author’s mentioned.

  27. Maybe The Millions could pick five books right now that fit that bill–and we’ll look back in twenty years and see if they were right–books that hint of untold agendas or enlightened frames of mind, body and spirit.

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