The Zanzibar Parallax

Parallax — when an object appears as if it is positioned differently when looked at from different angles or different positions.

If I didn’t like reading reviews, I wouldn’t spend so much time writing them. Usually, after I knock off a book, I write my notes up, do a review — and then I go looking for what other people had to say. (When I attempt criticism, I look at the reviews before writing.)

Sure, in all the reviews on Amazon and the rest of the Web of a Million Lies, there will be lots of low grade stuff, repetition of what I know, observations of the unobservant. But you find gold sometimes, reviewers who make you see a book from a different perspective or consider new arguments and theories — even if you end up disagreeing with them.

When I finished my review of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar in September 2009, I’m not sure I did look up other reviews. (It was a particularly difficult month in a difficult and troubled year.) And From the Couch to the Moon‘s review wouldn’t have been around anyway. But I would have been glad to see it.

Which of us was “right”? I’d have to go back and look at the book again. Those who have read it can make up their own mind. Those who haven’t will, I think, benefit from reading both.

Think of it as a case study in what the service we obsessive book bloggers provide.

My Review

Sure it’s frequently called a classic science fiction novel, but it’s also one of that variety that can date horribly fast: the near future novel. Is it still worth reading 40 years later? On the whole, yes.

The novel surprises for what it isn’t. For a novel with the reputation of being about overpopulation, it doesn’t have the squalid and packed future of Harry Harrison’s classic (if extrapolatively dishonest) Make Room! Make Room!. There isn’t a lot of mention of scarce commodities. Technology continues to develop. Wars continue to be fought. New entertainment media still is invented. The effects of overpopulation mainly seem to be an extensive adoption of worldwide government eugenics programs to ensure only the healthy procreate and the appearance of “muckers”, people driven into mass killing sprees by the pressures of overcrowded living. And, from the author who went on to write the famous polluted dystopia of The Sheep Look Up, there is little talk about the effects of overpopulation on pollution.

The plots involving the main characters are pretty straightforward. Hogan, a seeming layabout who spends all day reading, is activated as a spy. The American government wants him to discredit or stop the announced program of the Yakatang government to edit human genes. It fears the population pressures resulting from the millions, denied the right to reproduce, suddenly allowed to via gene editing. House, an angry, young black executive (and, in this future, living space is expensive enough where even corporate executives have to share apartments) gets put in charge of his company’s collaboration with the American government to bootstrap the poor African country of Beninia into prosperity, protect it from its neighbors, and use it to process ore from deep sea mines. Along the way, he has to find out why the impoverished Beninia is so lacking in the social pathologies of wealthier countries. Oddly, their stories lag a bit at times when, in the second half of the book, they arrive, respectively, in Yakatang and Beninia.

Like Brunner’s literary model, John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. Trilogy, the joy and interest of the book is when the focus is off the main characters. Their lives are covered in the Continuity chapters. Brunner alternates those chapters with others labeled Context (usually news reports), The Happening World (a scattershot of vignettes and quotes from books, ads, and tv as well as just brief statements of fact about the world and various characters), and Tracking with Closeups (following several minor characters and their lives). To my mind, this Dos Passos technique is perhaps the most dramatic, interesting, and effective expository method a science fiction writer can use to show off his world building.

And there is an impressive amount of world building. I suspect that Brunner’s serious look at the possibilities of genetic engineering (allowing for changes in terminology, they seem pretty accurate predictions) and pheromones was among the first in science fiction. The man who is credited with inventing the computer worm in the The Shockwave Rider gives us the beginnings of artificial intelligence and sort of an internet service (asking questions via phone of an automated service).

Some of that world building, though, is bound to be dated and especially so given its origin in the 1960s. Like so many other authors of the time, he thought the future would hold many new and bizarre art forms. Instead, the computer game is really the only new art form of the last 40 years. His picture of Communist China was too kind, his opinion of the tractability of African problems too kind. He thinks too much of Marshal McLuhan.

Critic John Clute has contended every novel has three dates: when it was written, when it was set, and the year it’s really about. Brunner’s style makes this novel enjoyable even though it’s now more a time machine back to the late sixties than any credible view of the future. But it is a glorious example of a technique still not used enough by writers.

And Brunner was smart enough to know what his novel’s ultimate fate would be. There’s a scene at a party where the fashions from the late sixties until the novel’s year of 2010 are closely described. I like to think Brunner was brazenly rubbing it in that he wasn’t trying to be a true prophet, that he was going out of his way to risk looking silly someday – and was going to proceed anyway.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

From couch to moon

standonzanzibar1It opens with a television advertisement. Stock cue SOUND. Stock cue VISUAL. Plug cue. Script cue. Best news program anywhere. Starring Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere. Lots of loudness. Lots of promises. Promises of things. Things we didn’t know we need.

…Excerpt interjection by Abbie Hoffman type. Rhythm and more loud. IMPORTANT THINGS TO SAY.

…Followed by fragmented introductions of cast. We don’t know anybody. Yet. Some adverts here and there.

…Problem in small African nation. (Did he say President Obama? Obami. Obami.) Shady things going on. Doesn’t look good.

…More TV. Editorial news. Slang and baby farming.

… Norman as he takes down a woman with liquid helium when she attempts to destroy the predictive AI computer Shalmaneser. Her limbs freeze off. Justice in the modern world reminds him of his grandfather’s slave days.


Then bits and bites of conversations. Snippets of inflammatory political digests. An…

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Another retro-review, this time from January 24, 2011.

This turned out to be one of those books you remember more for the central concept than any kind of plot.

Review: MetaGame, Sam Landstrom, 2010.MetaGame_

So is a book where “Life is the Game”, where our hero “must kill someone he’s grown to love” and is named D_Light worth reading? Is this just another improbable, game-obsessed society? A recap of Logan’s Run with this villainous computer possessing the boring, generic name Oversoul? Continue reading “MetaGame”

Ready Player One

Inspired by The Books That Time Forgot, I’m reposting some earlier materials.  Specifically, these are reviews I did for Amazon. Since Amazon occasionally screws up their formatting or just decides to lop the ends off with their cyber-cleaver, I’m going to start reposting them here with the original review date noted.

First up is Ernest Cline’s masterpiece, his novel for the ages, Ready Player One.

As you can see, I was less than enamored with it.

The universe (and Steven Speilberg) disagreed with me. Continue reading “Ready Player One”

The Plain Truth and British Science Fiction Writers


I’ve got plenty of reviews to write and a post-migraine brain only fit for web-surfing.

So …

You get a personal, elliptical bit of trivia about the Worldwide Church of God, Herbert W. Armstrong, and the uses two British writers of the fantastic made of them. I’ve mentioned the church in passing, and I assure you that a web or Wikipedia search for either the church or the man will give you some strange and scandalous reading.

And one Sir Terry Pratchett (whom I’ve never read) shows up on page 23 of the March 2015 issue of The Journal: News of the Churches. Pratchett’s novel Feet of Clay transformed the church’s magazine, The Plain Truth, into a magazine called Unadorned Facts.

Before Pratchett, Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novel A Cure for Cancer used a long excerpt from The Plain Truth, an article titled “Infection Exposed”, in his psychedelic collage. (Page 251 if you have the old Avon paperback omnibus The Cornelius Chronicles from 1977.) I’m not a big fan of the Cornelius books but that allusion endeared that one to me.

They Don’t Nuke’em Like They Used To

Reading I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War got me thinking. Does anyone write nuclear war stories now?

The bottom seemed to have fallen out of that particular literary market when the USSR’s flag was lowered for the last time on December 25, 1991. No more USSR, no more nuclear war seemed to be the popular thought.

It’s not that nukes went away. Continue reading “They Don’t Nuke’em Like They Used To”

Did Science Fiction Help Cause World War One?

There is a mountain of literature on what caused World War One and no general consensus.

I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War looks at one element of pre-World War One European culture, the science fiction sub-genre of the future war story. Nowhere, does Clarke make any bald statement about where all those stories fit in the chain of causation, whether they were cause or effect. He doesn’t even argue that you can consider all these tales of invasion by airship, Channel Tunnel, or by the sea as helping in any way to lay the rails for the train crash of European civilization.

He implies, though, they reflected and shaped popular opinions in France, England, and Germany about the nature and outcome of a coming war. Continue reading “Did Science Fiction Help Cause World War One?”

Lashing the Wind

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strengths.

Samuel Johnson

When I hear the word “trope”, I reach for my revolver.

Attention bloggers, podcasters, and reviewers:

Tropes are not themes. Tropes are not images. Tropes are not motifs.

Continue reading “Lashing the Wind”