Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Science-fiction as social forecast: 1969’s Stand on Zanzibar viewed today

with 10 comments

The Younger Daughter pointed out Ted Gioia’s look at Stand on Zanzibar‘s predictions and find that they hold up well. I vividly remember reading this novel (by John Brunner) when it first came out. Terrific novel, and even better than I realized at the time. Inexpensive secondhand copies available here.

Stand 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 inStand 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) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2013 at 7:50 am

10 Responses

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  1. Why does science fiction need to accurately forecast the future? They forecast potentials if certain things happen? They speculate but are not works of prophecy! One of my major grips about people’s critiques of science fiction…. (sorry for the rant)

    Joachim Boaz

    27 March 2013 at 8:45 am

  2. No problem. I have my own bêtes noires. And the trigger (the opening sentence of the review, unfortunately) does seem to completely miss the point. But delete that sentence altogether, along with the semi-thought it expresses, and simply read the review as an interesting list of the several ways our actual current world matches the world Brunner portrays in the novel. I will tell you, based on personal experience, that the novel was totally fascinating reading because the world it portrayed was so … well, weird and far-out and totally unlikely, and yet the novel’s detail made it seem real in the context of the novel. There was certainly no thought, at least in the mind of this reader, that I was reading a novel attempting to make accurate predictions—more along the lines of reading a satiric novel in which things are taken to extremes to show their weaknesses plainly. And yet, here we are.

    LeisureGuy

    27 March 2013 at 8:57 am

  3. The book itself is my favorite science fiction novel…

    But, perhaps you noticed, some of the news clips he includes, for example the 1966 shooting at University of Texas are from his own time. So claims like “Random acts of violence by crazy individuals, often taking place at schools, plague society in Stand on Zanzibar” seem so incredibly general that they could work for any time, any place… And, were a reflection of Brunner’s current society as well. So he’s simultaneously commenting on his own time as much as he’s “extrapolating.”

    Joachim Boaz

    27 March 2013 at 9:15 am

  4. Yes, and as I point out, that’s how it was read (at least by me). I am intrigued enough, though, to have ordered a secondhand copy for a re-read. (Library doesn’t have.)

    LeisureGuy

    27 March 2013 at 9:36 am

  5. Definitely worth owning a copy — haven’t reread it myself. But, it hasn’t been too many years since my first read through.

    Joachim Boaz

    27 March 2013 at 9:40 am

  6. Yeah. I read it in 1969—it was big—and again around 1973, but not since.

    LeisureGuy

    27 March 2013 at 9:45 am

  7. I wasn’t born then… a late 80s baby 😉 I read it probably 6 or 7 years ago — blew my mind.

    Joachim Boaz

    27 March 2013 at 9:54 am

  8. Because of it I’ve put together an entire overpopulation themed sci-fi list — if you’re curious.

    http://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/science-fiction-book-reviews-by-author/sci-fi-novels-about-overpopulation/

    Joachim Boaz

    27 March 2013 at 9:55 am

  9. Imagine how I felt in 1969… 🙂

    Good list! Thanks.

    LeisureGuy

    27 March 2013 at 10:05 am

  10. If you know of any to add please let me know 🙂

    Joachim Boaz

    27 March 2013 at 10:14 am


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