Jun 02 2008

The Overpopulation Syndrome – on Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

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The year is 2010. The world is overpopulated. Not to the point of some human discomfort. To the point that people are living on top of each other and crisis is ever on the horizon (or beating citizens about the ears). ‘Muckers’, eugenic legislation, and intense political drama plague the world. This is what John Brunner has created in his novel Stand on Zanzibar. Readers are exposed to a roiling world of many, many people, personalities, and conflicts. Peppered with facts, random snapshots of passers by’s lives and headlines, Brunner uniquely weaves a story. These writing techniques that Brunner utilizes submerge readers in and represent the psyche of a member of Brunner’s overpopulated world.Novelists hope to affect their readers emotionally -without a character or society’s hardships or triumphs to connect to, readers would have no reason to follow the storyline. John Brunner raises the bar, and the extent to which he immerses readers in the feelings of his characters is much more than usual. The writing techniques, word choice, and structure drops readers directly into the psychological mind set of the citizen. Probably unbeknownst to the reader, they experience what a character in the world would experience. In that way, his writing technique becomes inseparable from his plot. The ability to empathize, or even simply comprehend, would not exist without his writing methods. He conveys a sense of density, information overload, and division through different writing techniques. While this represents the psyche of a citizen, it also “is a classic example of the overpopulation syndrome – poverty, influx of strangers who take a fat chunk of a small cake, lack of privacy, lack of property, et caetera.” (Brunner, 448) And as the citizens in the world are cramped for space this makes perfect sense, and makes Brunner’s way of writing inseparable from his plot.

John Brunner manipulates his readers in a visual and technical way. To begin, the chopped up method Brunner employs creates a lack of continuity. One can think of a normal novel as a straight line. One can easily walk this line and observe and comprehend whatever is occurring alongside the line. Stand on Zanzibar’s line doubles back on itself, has large gaps, and is crooked by different characters’ plot lines. When one walks this line, one must jump to and fro and it is much more difficult to observe what is unfolding alongside the line. When reading, one is forced to flip forward and back to make sense of the placement of an anecdote, or string of facts. While this makes for an interesting read, readers feels off-kilter, as if they can’t get a footing in this world of constant change. Information may be given too early or late, and there is a constant scramble to make sense. This is just one in which Brunner gives a sense of information overload. Information overload is “provision of information in excess of the cognitive and emotional ability of an individual to process that information” (

www.inspection.gc.ca/english/corpaffr/publications/riscomm/riscomm_appe.shtml). In other words, this is the overburdening of persons with an amount of information they are unequipped to compute. This can lead to stress, impaired judgement, and most important in relation to the chopped up method, confusion or frustration.The lack of context paired with seemingly random pages of facts or lyrics also further drive home the point of information overload. For example, this excerpt is found sandwiched between a meeting of the character Norman and his colleague, and Donald’s thoughts in Yatakang:

Pick up 7-beat bass below aud threshold Synch in five-beat WAH YAH WAH YAH WAH

Sitar picks up 5 7 beats ,express takeoff Octave up bass Bass up 2nd octave Bring in at 4-beat intervals tympani, Lasry-Bachet organ, pre-cut speech tape MANCH/total recall/ SHIFT/man that’s really someth/WHIP/ah whoinole cares anyway/GARKER/ garker/GARKER/garker (ad lib)

Snatch of Hallelujah chorus…(Brunner, 256)

Readers are made to process this strange string of gibberish, much as a citizen of Stand On Zanzibar’s world would be made to process all the new information coming out of Shalmanesar, or the constant spewing of new products or gadgets by companies.


Language provides a keyhole to which a reader may press his eye, and see the innermost workings. In a culture, especially teen culture, a mutation of language, slang, plays a very heavy role in everyday life. Through IM chats, conversations, television, etc., people are bombarded with bizarre words that have meaning that can only be understood by acquiring a large amount of knowledge related. It is, essentially, the secret code of a culture. If one is in with the secret code, one is in with the culture. Brunner uses this unique slang to create a special language, that always opens a window into the principles and values of the society of 2010. It also has readers feeling excluded until they are unable to clue into the meanings of the special language, which can represent the sects found in overcrowded space – small pockets of people within a large group.

Brunner developed a special set of slang-words for Stand on Zanzibar. ‘Bleeder’, ’sheeting’, ‘whatinole’, ’shiggy’, ‘codder’, ‘muckers’, and ‘prodgies’ are just a few examples of the American set of ‘code words’. Bleeder and prodgies were slang words created because of the eugenics law, or the focus on genotypes. Bleeder, a derogatory term, refers to the presence of anemia in a person’s genotype. Whether they actually display this trait or are merely carriers for it is irrelevant – they cannot have children, and are therefore inferior. Prodgies, which is used in place of ‘children’, is probably derived from prodigies. A prodigy, by text-book definition is either “something wonderful or marvelous [or] something abnormal or monstrous” (

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/prodigy). The advancements in eugenics make the ability to program a citizen’s soon-to-be-born children with talent is close at hand. But, with the problem of overpopulation, if a family goes over the limit of two children, the extra children are seen as abnormal and monstrous. Finally, ‘mucker’ is one of the most prevalent slang terms used in the book. A ‘mucker’ is one who has run amok meaning they have snapped under the pressure of the world. The outcome of this is a person with primal ferocity without any comprehension of what they may be doing. They are effectively, a killing machine. There is such a number of these ‘muckers’ that the term came into everyday usage.A contrasting example of this slang is Beninia’s basic language. Even their core linguistics are polarized from the U.S.’s plays on language. Beninia is a small country on Earth in 2010. They are deep in poverty and not up to snuff gadgetry-wise. They are the anomaly of the Stand on Zanzibar world. Their language and slang are entirely peaceful, as is their country. Take the word ‘angry’. In America, citizens have created a word especially for an overdose of anger – ‘mucker’. In Beninia, the word angry does not have the same connotations at all.

“Facts are: [one] can say ‘annoyed’ or even ‘exasperated’, but both those words came originally from roots meaning ‘creditor’. Someone [one] get angry with owes [one] an apology in the same way [one is] owed money or a cow. [One] can say ‘crazy’ and put one of two modifiers on the front of it – either the root for ‘amusing’ or the root for ‘tears’. In the latter case, [one is] talking about someone who’s hopelessly out of his mind, sick, to be tended and cleaned up after. In the former, [one is] inviting people to laugh at someone who’s lost his temper, but will return to normal sooner or later.” (Brunner, 322)

Compare this to the term ‘mucker’, and one truly gets the sense of the desperate situation the ‘civilized’ world is in, and the division in the world.

Along with slang, Brunner has a heavy hand with abbreviation or acronyms in the novel. ‘Engrelay Satelserv’, ‘GT’ and ‘eptify’ are a few examples. ‘Engrelay Satelserv’ is the shortened form of English Relay Satellite Service, the main news source. ‘GT’ is short for General Technology, a large corporation. And ‘eptify’, or “[eptification] is derived from an acronym – EPT stands for ‘education for particular tasks’.” (Brunner, 188) The words themselves indicate the level of information citizens are bombarded with. More important though is the psychological effect of shortening so many everyday words. Abbreviation can have two effects. One, it can multiply the amount of information able to be sent in a space of time. Two, it can multiply confusion. The impact of the first is that a person must acquaint themselves with these acronyms and abbreviations and learn them, or process and translate them cold at a moment’s notice. The second consequence is that citizens are left with longstanding confusion that may build, and grow into resentment. And like plaque on the wall of an artery, accumulating resentment can lead to disastrous results.

The following quote, said by Chad Mulligan, a sociologist hailed as genius on Earth in 2010, applies to a consumerism point of view in interruption or information overload. He describes the new definition of poor by American standards as “[people] who are too far behind with time-payments on next year’s model to make the down-payment on the one for the year after” (Brunner, 220). Not only do people on Chad Mulligan’s planet need to keep up with the times, they must keep up before the times. To do this individuals must read advertisements, magazines, watch television, and watch the ‘trendy’ so they may emulate whatever it is that they ‘need’. This leads to another symptom of information overload : “[decreased] benevolence to others due to an environmental input glut” (http://www.gdrc.org/icts/i-overload/infoload.html). In John Brunner’s creation, like in many other dystopia cities, such as Orwell’s 1984 city, there is war. It may be with other countries, or it may be contained within the country itself (‘muckers’, or rebels). Those reading Stand on Zanzibar may be frustrated and get angry in the process of trying to make sense of the book.

The effects of overpopulation and its relation to Brunner’s writing techniques do not end there. To add, Stand on Zanzibar has brief intermissions from the main plot thrown in. During these intermissions, readers are introduced to a cast of random characters. They are given a glimpse into their lives which is very quick, but very informative. These ’snapshots’ of random lives gives the feeling of density to the novel, as there is no down time. In other novels, there are interludes during which the characters walk through a valley, or go through the daily motions. In Stand on Zanzibar, every thing that is mentioned has meaning, and the reader is forced to be constantly on their toes, lest they skip over some vital piece of information. For example, from page two hundred to two hundred and four, readers are given a rapid succession of stories of others killing others. During these pages, readers are also witness to a juxtaposition between the ‘truth’ of the news, and the brutality of the physically honest.

He glared at the cowering figure before him. “You’ve always wanted to be more of a daughter than a son!” he snarled. “See this razor? It’s going to give you exactly what you want! Now do you take off that dress or do I cut it off?”

The Missile and Weaponry division of General Technics offers graduates an exciting career with the continual challenge of work on the very frontiers of human achievement. (Brunner, 202)

Such a multitude of characters and their stories is much like the multitude of people’s lives without context in a cramped environment. When there are many people in a small space, little glimpses can be seen of other’s lives, but not whole stories. In the novel’s world, a person may walk by another, and listen in on a snippet of conversation. They are privy to a private moment of their life – but know nothing else. And this may happen twenty, thirty, forty times in a day – a fair barrage of personal information pouring over a person.


These writing techniques and word choices lead to a scrambled amount of data, much like what Donald Hogan would sift through prior to his espionage days, or what Shalmanesar would synthesize. The reader is left feeling overwhelmed, off-balance, and weary. This leads to the very core of a person in John Brunner’s world’s psyche. Chad Mulligan, as he has so many times before, puts it perfectly and enigmatically: “Norman, what in God’s name is it worth to be human, if [they] have to be saved from [themselves] by a machine?” (Brunner, 453) Because the amount of things- hatred, persons, information, gadgetry, and illusions is like Grandfather Lao – a volcano on the brink of eruption and consequently the destruction of human beings. One either goes the way of Donald during his Jogajong days and becomes entranced by the thought of destruction, or hopes for an outsider’s rope to fall down, to pull them from the lava.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “The Overpopulation Syndrome – on Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner”

  1.   jessetson 03 Jun 2008 at 4:01 am

    I know that I am currently at home, but I just wanted to let you know that if there’s anything I can do for the Education project for anthro that I am more than willing. I simply need to have an idea of what it is that you and Jen have done so far.
    Reply back to me on my blog if you can – Thanks!

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