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A 1969 New Wave Sci-Fi Novel That Made Correct Predictions (themillions.com)
78 points by gasull on Apr 18, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

It's hard to say if something is a valid prediction without establishing a baseline comparison. It could also be that he's predicting things wouldn't change from the 1960s.

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

In 1966 Charles Joseph Whitman went to a tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin and murdered 16 people and wounded 32 others.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_shootings_in_the... lists many acts of violence that took place at schools in the 1960s.

In terms of a prediction, the amount of 'random' violence has gone down since the 1960s.

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

The book was written in the 1960s, in the free love era between effective treatments for VD and AIDS. Compare with the movie "Alice's Restaurant", from the same year as "Stand on Zanzibar", Arlo Guthrie (played by himself) is asked by a teenybopper he just met if he want to have sex with her. He turns her down, ostensibly because he doesn't want to catch her cold. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=c0... .

In terms of a prediction, has the amount of short-term hookups increased since the 1960s? Or stayed the same or decreased? I don't know.

But I'm willing to assert that the author of this piece (which was repeated on many sites) doesn't know either.

> (10) Motor vehicles increasingly run on electric fuel cells.

Really? I thought they increasingly run on batteries, not fuel cells. Wikipedia says:

> As of early 2014, there is limited hydrogen infrastructure, with 10 hydrogen fueling stations for automobiles publicly available in the U.S.,

I haven't read Stand on Zanzibar for a long time and it's not in my collection, so I can't investigate the other claims in any detail.

Once in a while you stumble on an artist who leads you down a different road from your usual tastes. Harry Chapin did that for me, with his rendition of the UTA shooting. Quite powerful stuff (as was Chapin's own death, actually).


I've read a number of Brunner's books, one that stuck with me was "The Sheep Look Up" [1] which was pretty much a composition of everything bad that can happen all happening and none of the potentially good things actually coming to pass.

Of course as an author you choose the things that move the story along and create tension. Not necessarily the boring things which keep things stable :-).

Sometimes though, having read a lot of SF in my life, I really do feel like I am "in the future" now as opposed to say in 1995 when folks were explaining what the Internet was on TV, and perhaps that is the source of the author of this article's observation. A lot of things that science fiction has imagined over the last 50 years have come to pass. That is pretty amazing.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/The-Sheep-Look-John-Brunner/dp/1932100...

Sheep is a great, underrated novel.

I love its structure, and how it constantly undermines narrative expectations through bathos and dramatic irony; every character in the book seems to be positioning themselves for misfortune and irrelevance. People you've been led to think are major, leading characters are suddenly and unceremoniously killed off (I like to think that George R. R. Martin read Brunner years before he used the same tactic in ASOIAF), while the novel's ostensible hero, Austin Train, a legendary environmental activist leader who has gone into hiding and spends the book preparing to mysteriously re-emerge, turns out — well, I don't to spoil things; not what I expected, anyway.

Even more than character development, the sense of impending doom lies thick. My favourite part of the novel is the tech guy who for years has spent spare computing processing at his computer company to build an accurate socioeconomic model of the world, and his conclusion is summarized in a single sentence which seems to be playing out in real life exactly as he's uttering it.

Some of the "environmental" predictions are admittedly a bit off and dated; sonic booms from hypersonic airplanes posing a danger to avalanche-prone mountain resorts, for example. But it's forgivable in a novel that, 42+ years ago, got so much right.

>Sheep is a great, underrated novel.

Brunner is a great, underrated writer, well ahead of the curve on cyberpunk, econo-politics, and libertarian dystopias - and even further, on ideas that are so far into the future they aren't even part of the futurology zeitgeist yet.

I agree about The Sheep Look Up being an underrated novel. I read it in 1984 or '85. Until the end of the book, I was thinking it was a parody or satire or projection of Ronald Reagan's presidency. When I finished, I looked at the copyright date, and realized Brunner was projecting Richard Nixon's presidency forward.

Sort of unrelated, is it me or does every other John Brunner book kind of suck? The Sheep Look Up, is good, so is Stand on Zanzibar, but then Brunner wrote real stinkers like Children of the Thunder, which also predicts a world of Usenet, UUCP-like email, and climate change. None of thse things have anything to do with that book sucking mind you.

I have a pretty strong opinion that The Shockwave Rider does not suck, even if the protagonist is a bit of a Mary-Sue.

In terms of prescient details it gets some things wrong. But it gets a lot of the subtleties of a dystopian dataveillance society very, very right.

If you read it you'll see what I mean. The idea that pretty much every institution you deal with knows you by your dossier and makes unaccountable decisions based on that knowledge. That this power is unequally distributed and that the data you need to make competent decisions about your future is deliberately hidden from you.

The viewpoint that at the elite levels governments and corporations are indistinguishable in their criminality. One could imagine graduates of Tarnover stalking the halls at Google, Palantir and the NSA w/ equal ease.

It's actually reasonably fast paced and well plotted ( exceptionally so by Brunner's standards ); and it's an easy read.

I recommend it.

I read recently some commentary by a colleague and friend of his (I forget who; Silverberg, probably) that Brunner felt that after his "American trilogy" (Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit and Sheep) he'd said everything he had wanted to say, and he was disappointed that his work was not recognized to the extent that it deserved. Without knowing much about Brunner's life, it's possible to infer that he simply lost his passion.

On the other hand, between the first (The Squares of the City) and the last (The Jagged Orbit) of the books in his "golden period", he wrote 11 books that nobody talks about. As far as I can tell, his signal-to-noise ratio was higher than contemporary novelists such as Dick and Zelazny. One has to pay the rent, I suppose.

Not many people know that Brunner spent years working on a big, ambitious historical novel he hoped would put him on the map as a mainstream novelist, though from the subject matter alone you can pretty much tell it was doomed from the start: The Great Steamboat Race. Apparently it's quite good, but nobody noticed when it eventually came out.

Pretty much every Brunner novel I've read sucks, though I've not read The Sheep Look Up or Stand on Zanzibar. From what I recall after reading a few (whose titles I do not remember) the important thing for Brunner is that everything come out badly, no matter how contrived or tortured the plot becomes to achieve that end. It makes his work boring and predicable, as well as despressing, and the contrivance is unartful and awkward.

Brunner hated the possibility that technology might solve any problems: he was opposed to Cold Fusion before it became obvious it was nonsense because he thought it would enable cheap, easy, consumption with a small environmental footprint, so people like him wouldn't be able to tell the rest of us how aweful we were for enjoying ourselves. There is a great deal of Puritanism in his work.

With regard to these "predictions" I have to agree with the assessment that failed predictions are being touted as successful ones. Fuel cells are not batteries, for example. And the US is hardly "beset by terrorists": that is simply proganda by the security-industrial complex. There have been terrorist incidents, but far more people have been killed in the excessive and poorly thought out response to those incidents (the invasion and occupation of Iraq in particular) than were killed in them.

Likewise, extrapolating that Europe would be united when there was a blueprint and long term plan already underway to do this is not a great leap of the imagination. It's more curious that American SF authors tended to see the world as either having a single government or a bipolar distribution of power rather than a multi-polar world, which has long been more probable.

IMO, Brunner has written four outstanding classics: "Stand on Zanzibar", " The Shockwave Rider", "The Sheep Look Up" and "The Jagged Orbit", and one that was not quite in that league, but was great niche sf, " The Squares of the City". the rest is all what I term "minor sf" for want of a better term - I hesitate to call them potboilers, because some of them are very well written and entertaining, but they are the sort of book that sinks into the general background sea of science fiction, or are interesting experiments that did not quite click ("The traveller in Black", e.g.).

Reagan has been acknowledged as the inspiration for Prexy, as remember, but cannot find the source for that at the moment.

It's funny how the future kind of crept up on us. I'm at the right age to remember 8-bit computers as an oddity in just a few homes I knew about, to today's always on, always connected, satellite directed super technology ultra modernism. But I don't ever remember passing date where I was suddenly "in the future". I remember think it was going to be the 2000s, and here we are almost a generation in, and there doesn't seem to have been that kind of earthshaking revolution. It's like putting on weight, or getting grey hair, it just sort of happens gradually, and only when you look back and reflect does the magnitude of the change come into perspective.

But then I think back to how we used to do things and they seem almost inconceivable, even within my own lifetime. When I was an sci-fi reading 10 year old, could I have imagined going for a walk, thinking of something mundane like "I want something to eat" pull out my phone, find a place, read the menu, get dozens of reviews and recommendations, and then have my phone use satellites...in space to give me walking directions? Even the craziest sci-fi I grew up with didn't really predict that chain of events.

I recently took a job supervising a young crop of engineers, all born in the 90s. They never knew of life without the internet. It doesn't occur to them that you used to have to pick up the phone and call the movie theater to find out what was playing, or look up the playtimes in the entertainment section of the daily newspaper. Most of them have never even held a paper map, have no idea what a card catalog is, or any of that.

I'm reminded of my departed grandmother, who was born in 1900 before powered flight, and my father who was born after. It's not like early flight suddenly made the world available to her. It took decades for it to become something that she could directly benefit from. Yet my father can't remember not being able to buy a plane ticket to go pretty much anywhere on the planet, and neither can I. It's inconceivable that people would spend weeks on a boat to get somewhere. Around the World in 80 Days seems like an absurd concept for a story today, and when they tried to make a modern movie about the story in 2004, it bombed terribly at the box office.

I wonder how the younger generation look at old movies, who's central plot device hinges on people not having ever present smart phones and internet connections, how do they think of these absurd stories?

Conversely, the ability of people to get almost any peice of information at any time anywhere has wiped out a vast number of traditional plot devices, which makes things surprisingly difficult for the modern story-teller. It has opened up new landscapes, but because communication and knowlege are so easy now the kinds of stories we can tell in them are very different.

My own "living in the future" story: I have a number of friends who have family involved in the space program, including a couple of astronauts. I was hiking with one a few years ago and she commented on a big family gathering at Thanksgiving, mentioning, "Of course so-and-so wasn't there because he's on the space station." It just made me pause and take stock, while the ten-year-old me did backflips because I was living in the future, and it was good.

I wonder how the younger generation look at old movies, who's central plot device hinges on people not having ever present smart phones and internet connections, how do they think of these absurd stories?

So I rewatched "X-Men: Days of Future Past" on the plane and noticed that quick-silver, in 1963, was wearing headphones with neodymium magnets in them. The character was a "teen" and clearly he would be wearing headphones right? And those of the day would be ... Either giant over the ear monsters or those tinny carbon button ones you used to get free.

Oddly movies made in the 90's are painful to watch for some of the technical restrictions they have. Cell phones being the least of their worries, the lack of computerization made everything harder. I have found that watching any movie that was "showing off" how modern it could be with technology, now appears painful to me. Like a 90 minute documentary on how to manually operate a television.

I recently rewatched Hackers, and a large part of their activities seemed to involve payphones. It's conceivable that a working adult in this day and age may never have even seen such a thing.

I'm waiting for the day that explanations of phreaking exploits start with an explanation of things like land-line phones and payphones and what they are and how they work (and then for some youngster to come ask me a questions like "you had to pay, money, for a phone call?").

We can start looking towards some of the more modern-day sci-fi for inspiration for the next 20 years: Neal Stephenson's matter replicators and immersive realities, Alastair Reynolds' conjoiners and AI, Kim Stanley Robinson's life-extension and colonization, and (hopefully) Iain M Banks' carefree culture.

I just hope medical technology advances fast enough that we can all live long enough to experience all of this.

How are Neal Stephenson's matter replicators any more inspiring than, say, those of Star Trek? Or non-fictional essays like Feyman's "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" or Drexler's "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology"?

In the 1990s it seemed that Drexler's book made many dream about the nanotech wonders just around the corner. I don't get the sense that "Diamond Age" had the same specific impact or inspired similar dreams.

Is there any other author that creates such a happy, positive, future like the Culture? Everytime I read one, I just feel better. The Culture is pretty much exactly what I imagine, assuming friendly AI and scarcity are dealt with. It really enables "the meaning of life is whatever you want it to be".

Huh. I only read the first book and a half of the Culture, but I didn't find it enormously positive. The basic message seemed to be "You can fix every one of humanity's problems, and people will just invent new and exciting ways to be horrible to each other."

Only if you focus too much at the edges. The first book is almost completely outside the Culture. Much of the other books deal with "Special Circumstances". But the underlying society is one that sounds rather blissful. Do anything, anytime. Become anything as you wish. A hyperintelligent AI at your call every minute.

I imagine stories of endless parties, people switching genders, getting high and playing a myriad of amazing games, pursuing arts of any form, screwing aliens or AI avatars -- it just wouldn't make terribly interesting reading, for the most part. Hence you've gotta add tension and some nastiness to make it a fun space opera, despite such things happening to less than a billionth of your citizens. Sorta like ST:TNG - sure a lot of the universe sucks, but for the most part, life seems pretty rosy if you're not the subject of an episode. TNG also provided that positive feeling in me, apart from hating the Prime Directive.

Oh, sure, it sounds like most of the people in the Culture live really wonderful, fulfilling lives. But the books I read were never about those people. And, yes, you need some conflict and unpleasantness to make the plot go; but Banks, in everything of his that I've read, really enjoys writing these intricately, lovingly detailed scenes of baroque cruelty and grotesquerie that (it seems to me) are very much intended to provoke a sense of horror, revulsion, and alienation in the reader. He's a great, skilled writer, but uplifting he definitely is not.

IMHO, anyway. If it works for you, that's great!

I always viewed those parts as demonstrating why The Culture / SC needs to get involved and fuck stuff up. That is, why the Prime Directive and non-interference are bunk, why we should get involved. The world/universe is a shitty place, so we need to make it better. And most of the protagonists have a stop on a GSV for fun, so they could choose to nod off into bliss if they wanted. (And probably, most civilizations could decide to be wholesale brought into the Culture on a per-person basis (i.e. giving up all their local government, culture, etc.)). It's like saying that, at the end of the day, when shit calms down, you're gonna be OK. (Unless you happen to be an unfortunate pawn... but hey, can't save everybody for some reason.)

Maybe I'm just projecting how I'd live in such a universe and that's why it makes me so happy. :\

>I imagine stories of endless parties, people switching genders, getting high and playing a myriad of amazing games, pursuing arts of any form, screwing aliens or AI avatars -- it just wouldn't make terribly interesting reading, for the most part.

Well, there is more to life than hedonism.

Agreed. Banks was basically writing fantasy-horror, and while beautifully written the Culture novels I've read are one long litany of awfullness, despite the essentially utopian setting.

I like niven's known space series for that - not post-scarcity, but there is the feeling that life is a playground filled with fun toys and adventures.

I've been reading Player of Games, and I can't help but find it... boring? Like, I get that the people in the setting clearly got almost everything right, and also managed to dramatically fuck up nothing about their civilization, but the author writes as if he can't show me what it is like to be there. It all comes off as kinda soulless.

That was my favorite Brunner book, with Zanzibar running second. And it is a little scary how many similarities his dystopian future has to our present.

I saw the title, and said to myself "i bet this is The Shockwave Rider". So close! Brunner published that in 1975, six years after Stand On Zanzibar:


Right right right. Shockwave Rider (as the wiki page notes) describes a world of ubiquitous networked computers -- its publication date, 1975, was also the year that Darpanet went operational -- and introduced the idea of a self-propagating program called a "worm".

if you take his dystopias together (shockwave rider, Zanzibar, sheep look up) you can put together a compelling vision of the future.

I think what a Brunner saw is that even if technology changes, people don't. In many ways, that's what science fiction has always held as its mirror, from the morality tales of its origin and forward. It is where Star Trek was at both its weakest and strongest.

that was my first thought too.

I read it a few years ago, but IIRC it had many wrong predictions. For example it predicts massive overpopulation and food shortages, when in fact we have the most food per capita in human history.

Stand on Zanzibar was a great book because of its bold styling and because assumed that in a few decades' time humanity would be fighting each other in a still desperately poor developing world rather than conquering the galaxy.

On that level it's fantastic, and the bits about ghost town Detroit and its music scene is eerily accurate. But on a grand scale, once you've got past it not being space opera, its core premise is basically its worst prediction: overpopulation is the most pressing issue in the US despite draconian eugenic policies. A large part of the plot concerns black ops in s socialist southeast Asian archipelago.

It is very successful at anticipating how sexual liberation, civil rights for black people and widespread televisual media might pan out, but that's not especially unusual in New Wave literature

Most jarringly of all for hackers, the world of Stand on Zanzibar relies on a single hard AI supercomputer equipped with a personality and near deus-ex-machina predictive power, which involves human-computer interaction of the type parodied in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Forgetting the predictions for a moment (I think it is unfortunate and belies the book's real value that this is what everyone is focusing on), Stand on Zanzibar is great SF novel and is still worth reading IMO.

I need to go back and read Stand on Zanzibar. Back when I was in 8th grade, I read Brunner's The Stone that Never Came Down which I thought at the time was the best SF novel I'd ever read (it held my top spot for some considerable time). I never found a copy of Stand at the time.

If you make enough predictions, some will come true. Many psychics do this annually, and then at the end of the year gloat about their hits but don't mention the misses.

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