Stand on Zanzibar

by John Brunner

“All we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. I know people who can’t even learn from what happened this morning.”

In the near future, practically the present day when placing the book in context, A.I. named Shalmaneser is on the verge of actual blazing intelligence. A scientist from a peaceful, primitive country has shocked and enraptured the world with his claim to be able to eradicate all weakness from the human genome and even create supermen for lucky (unlucky) parents to raise. Chad Mulligan, eminent philosopher, at one point explains why this appears a good thing but is actually not. Regardless, Shalmaneser refuses to believe the scientist’s claims of successful genetic manipulation despite the evidence of the entire country living in non-violent, peaceful coexistence while the rest of the world consumes each other as always. An investigation is launched.

You may have read some reviews advising you to “stick with it – I was 100 pages into the novel before I knew what was going on.” There are all kinds of lights appearing here and there throughout the book, but the “Aha!” moment might not really come until the end of the 600-page book, so you’ve got to work for it.

Mr. Brunner uses a technique here that doesn’t appear much in our mainstream books today, ostensibly due to our rapid-fire, can’t pay attention for more than 2 minute existence. Instead of the author lining up his sights, taking careful aim and unloading all 6 shots into the reader in key places over the course of the book, Mr. Brunner uses some kind of carbine-powered indefatigable sub-machine gun to spray a bazillion bullets everywhere, with the idea that some of them will penetrate the reader and make an impact. It works, but it’s so far outside the norm today that the overload strains patience. You’ll see this immediately, as a large portion of this book is the kind of information burst you get when channel surfing and landing on mostly commercials. Yes, you’re catching a lot of information, and no, it’s not currently telling a cohesive story. You have to dig for that.

If you’ve managed to keep away from television, and probably more importantly, away from marketing for the last couple of decades you’ll be much better suited for this read. Our lives are burdened with information overload already so that works against it here because we demand quick payoffs and that’s not what this is about. It’s a challenge, and if you lower your head and charge forward there are spoils for the taking. Those who read the book closer to its 1968 release date probably hadn’t had their attention spans mangled as badly as some of us have today and might have found it more accessible. While the book has certain moments of brilliance and deep insight into humanity, the evolution of our ADD society presents significant challenges if first reading today. The Hugo winning story is worth it but not exactly a walk in the park.

“Did nobody ever point out to you that the only liberty implied by free will is the opportunity to be wrong?”

2+ stars

Strong Quotes:

First you use machines, then you wear machines, and then…? Then you serve machines.

(Chad Mulligan on Shalmaneser) “They say he’s as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn’t really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave.”

You put up with a hundred and one things that are forbidden ‘for your own good’, and if there’s anything you are allowed to do it’s probably for the good of the people who could forbid it and don’t.

And I promise I’ll comfort my premature old age with the idea that there really is a place somewhere on the pocky face of Mother Earth where people don’t kill each other and don’t run amok and generally behave like decent people should. I don’t want to go there because at the bottom of my mind I guess I just don’t believe in such a place.

One: Shinkas don’t think killing each other is a good idea, under any circumstances.
Two: everybody else, practically, does. They say they don’t and then they lose their tempers and smash in a few heads.

The difficult we do at once. The impossible takes a little longer.

Norman, what in God’s name is it worth to be human, if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine?

POPULATION EXPLOSION Unique in human experience, an event which happened yesterday but which everyone swears won’t happen until tomorrow.

Always happy to hear from book lovers. Please feel free to comment!

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