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Big, Ambitious and Experimental: BBC Culture on John Brunner

Thursday, June 13th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Stand on Zanzibar-small Stand on Zanzibar 1976-small

John Brunner was one of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th Century. Unlike many of his peers, however — like Philip K. Dick. Ursula K. Le Guin, Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein — his star has dimmed considerably since his death in 1996, and virtually all of his fiction is now out of print. So I was very pleased to see this May 10th feature story on Brunner at the BBC Culture site, focusing on his uncannily on-target predictions, especially those in his brilliant novel Stand on Zanzibar.

If some of his predictions now read like wacky sci-fi clichés, others have proven spot on. For instance, in his 1962 novella Listen! The Stars! he conjured up the ‘stardropper’, an addictive portable-media-player-like gizmo. In 1972, he published one of his most pessimistic novels, The Sheep Look Up, which prophesies a future blighted by extreme pollution and environmental catastrophe. And his 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, created a computer hacker hero before the world knew what one was. It also envisaged the emergence of computer viruses, something that early computer scientists dismissed as impossible. He even coined the use of the word ‘worm’ to describe them…

[Brunner] won, too, almost every sci-fi prize worth winning, including the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel, which had never before gone to a Brit. Nevertheless, Brunner’s gripes about heavy-handed editing and in-fighting within the claustrophobic sci-fi scene gave him a prickly reputation. By middle-age, much of his work had fallen out of print in the UK, and he’d been forced to sell his London home and move to Somerset… Today, his name is little known beyond sci-fi aficionados, and he’s chiefly remembered for Stand on Zanzibar. Big, ambitious and formally experimental, it’s a science-fiction thriller that depicts a world confronting population control. By 2010, Brunner declared, the world’s population would top seven billion (he was a year out – this actually happened in 2011).

In his June 2 article on classic dystopias here at Black Gate, Joe Bonadonna made some similar observations.

This novel was part of 1960’s New Wave of science fiction. Published in 1968, the book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention in 1969, as well as the 1969 BSFA Award and the 1973 Prix Tour-Apollo Award. Stand on Zanzibar was innovative within the science fiction genre for mixing narrative with entire chapters dedicated to providing background information and world-building, to create a sprawling narrative that presents a complex and multi-faceted view of the story’s future world. Such information-rich chapters were often constructed from many short paragraphs, sentences, or fragments thereof — pulled from sources such as slogans, snatches of conversation, advertising text, songs, extracts from newspapers and books, and other cultural detritus. The novel’s story is overpopulation and its projected consequences. Brunner remarked that the 3.5 billion people living in 1968 could stand together, upright and shoulder to shoulder, on the Isle of Man, 221 square miles, while the 7 billion people whom he (correctly) projected would be alive in 2010 would need to stand on Zanzibar, 600 square miles. The story is set in 2010, mostly in the United States. A number of plots and many vignettes are played out in this future world, based on Brunner’s extrapolation of social, economic, and technological trends. The key main trends are based on the enormous population and its impact: social stresses, eugenic legislation, widening social divisions, future shock, and extremism.

Stand on Zanzibar was enormously influential on me when I first read it back in 1979. What struck me at the time, of course, wasn’t the accuracy of the predictions, but its ambitious and brilliant structure, coupled with edge-of-the-seat plotting.

I’m not the only one to have noticed, however. Recent articles here at Black Gate include:

Standing on Zanzibar by David Neil Lee
A Tale of Two Covers: Stand on Zanzibar
A Personal Look at Dystopian Fiction — Part One, by Joe Bonadonna

Our previous coverage of John Brunner includes:

Robert Silverberg on the Tragic Death of John Brunner
A Desperate Battle Against an Alien Enemy: Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner and Damien Broderick
Temporal Surges and Shapeshifting Invaders: Rich Horton on Threshold of Eternity by John Brunner and The War of Two Worlds by Poul Anderson
Disasterville U.S.A. : The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Space Stations With Secret Passages, and Snow White in Space: Rich Horton on Sanctuary in the Sky by John Brunner/The Secret Martians by John Sharkey
A Tale of Two Covers: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Aztec Empires, Amazons, and the Spanish Armada: Rich Horton on John Brunner’s Times Without Number
Martian Pirates, Brain Creatures, and Hive Minds: Rich Horton on Ray Cummings and John Brunner
Vintage Treasures: The Best of John Brunner
Vintage Treasures: Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick/ The Skynappers by John Brunner
Vintage Treasures: The Great Steamboat Race by John Brunner

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.


  1. Thanks for the shout-out, John! John Brunner was indeed a prophetic novelist. The Sheep Look Up, and To Stand on Zanzibar are, for me, his two masterworks.

    Comment by Joe Bonadonna - June 13, 2019 9:48 am

  2. For me was the Shockwave Rider, awesome title and influential work. While out of print most of his catalog available for $2-3 through open road media digital!

    Comment by WillW - June 13, 2019 10:23 am

  3. “Zanzibar” is an ambitious, interesting book. But for my money, Brunner’s masterpiece is “The Compleat Traveller in Black.”

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - June 13, 2019 5:00 pm

  4. > The Sheep Look Up, and To Stand on Zanzibar are, for me, his two masterworks.


    THE SHEEP LOOK UP has been on my TBR pile for the last 21 years… I need to give more priority to Brunner, that’s for sure.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 16, 2019 9:33 am

  5. > While out of print most of his catalog available for $2-3 through open road media digital!


    You’re absolutely right — I should have mentioned that. Open Road has kept a LOT of my favorite writers in print digitally, including Clifford D. Simak, Brunner, Octavia Butler, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Andre Norton, Katherine Kurtz, and Joe Haldeman.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 16, 2019 9:38 am

  6. > for my money, Brunner’s masterpiece is “The Compleat Traveller in Black.”


    That’s another Brunner classic I should have mentioned — thanks for the shout out.

    Anyone on this thread read THE JAGGED ORBIT? That’s another ambitious Brunner novel I hear a lot about.

    Comment by John ONeill - June 16, 2019 9:42 am

  7. It’s a horrible shame that Mr. Brunner has become one of those “best SF writers that you have never read” fellows. He wrote an insane amount of stuff published back in the 60s that are every bit as entertaining as his classics like Rider, Zanzibar, ans Sheep.

    Has anyone else ever noticed how much that show “The Pretender” ripped off “Shockwave Rider”?

    Comment by Douglas Draa - June 19, 2019 3:25 am

  8. Doug,

    I’m not familiar with “The Pretender”… what’s the premise?

    Comment by John ONeill - June 19, 2019 11:21 am

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