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Sci-fiLight Years Away

"Stand on Zanzibar"by John Brunner; Ballantine Books: $1.65

By Garrett Epps

SOMEHOW, my old science-fiction favorites ( Starship Troopers, The Foundation Trilogy. A Fall of Moondust, The Pupper Masters ) don't quite do it to me the way they did when I was twelve. Any kid who's read science-fiction knows the feeling I'm talking about: your brain stretches to the size of a galaxy and makes you all powerful!!! Hyperspace . . . Nova Bomb!

It's a sad thing to lose, and I read a lot of sci-fi, new and old, before I realized that what is wrong with most of the good old favorites is the same thing that ails the newspapers: they give easy answers. Let me construct a typical passage:

"Henderson put the blaster in his lap and faced the door, listening for the ?oo?steps of Ygstifhe and his martian bully boys. How naive they had been, the politicians of the twenty-first century, how naive and how greedy! After the defeat of the Asian Hegemony in the Fourth World War. Tsun Chi and his cunning successors in Peking had been only too eager to use the help of their new maitian allies to recover their shattered power. And it had been so easy: just follow the suggestions of the tactful martian advisers and accept a few controls from the Martian Cosmic Office. . . until, bit by bit, all of earth was subjugated: and the whole fate of an enslaved planet rested on one man named Henderson, armed with a blaster and his bare hands."

You see . . . you see? All there, the subjugation of the whole green globe, in one paragraph between the strangling of a sentry and the showdown with a martian bigwig. The Foundation Trilogy tells nine hundred years of galactic "history" in about as many pages.

It's too simple: it only makes sense when you're in a hurry, on a bus, or writing for someone to show up. Sci-fi writers are beginning to realize that most of what they do is just mental candy.

But Robert Heinlein, usually master of quick exposition and blood-and-blasters, wrote Stranger in a Strange Land, and it is fine. It is not about the toys men play with, or the fall of governments. It presents a new man and a new experience-and a world is built around it all in staggering detail, not as "background" but as part of a totality.

Then Frank Herbert wrote Dune: the sci-fi world is still recovering from that one. Men reading Dune tend to forget who they are: coming out of it. I felt like Rip Van Winkle after a twenty-year dream. Herbert's universe is rich and beautiful: more important, it is inexplicable. It is to be experienced, not reported.

BUT TO THE point: Stand on Zanzibar may be part of the sci-fi world's response to Dune. It seems like a normal "conjures-up-a-chilling-future" novel. But it is a little bit more.

The book is about the twenty-first century: but it's no guided tour. Reading it is like grappling with a huge primary source. You can walk around and hear what the people are saying: Hitripping, Yaginol, muckers, yonderboys, Shalmaneser, Yatakang, Engrelay satelsery. Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere, the shiggie circuit, the Too Much strain . . . whatinole are these people talking about? Nobody's going to tell you, codder. You have to figure it out.

You can tune in a news broadcast: "Presenting SCANALYZER. Engrelay Sateiserv's unique thrice-per-day study of the big scene, the INdepth INdependent INmediate INterface between you and your world! . . . Counting to one after one poppa-mommafor that good old Eastern Standard tie-yum . . . (Clock Cue 5xl1-sec. pips on G in alt., minute signal on C in alt.)"

Or you can read sections from the popular literature, scripts of ty shows, government documents, military orders, folktales, and people's thoughts.

Or, if you choose, you can follow the two central characters. The book tells the story of the two most important events in a three-month period on earth. One hero is sent as a reporter to cover the biggest story of the year, the announcement that Asian geneticists have discovered how to make a race of supermen.

In fact, however, this is a non-event, a propaganda ploy. But that doesn't motter, because our hero is a non-reporter, a spy hypnotically trained to kill the scientists.

The other hero is sent to an obscure African country to set up an industrialization program. While there, he discovers that the inhabitants are mutants: they do not make war and can disarm any hostile feeling toward themselves. It's real, but it does not make the news.

In the end, nothing is resolved: no governments fall, no aliens invade, no decisions are reached. The universe is insane, and good sci-fi-like Dune and Stand on Zanzibar -is beginning to cope with this. You see . . . you see? It's so very lonely, you're 2,000 lightyears from home.

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