Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

“What did I just read‽ That was incredible, long, funny, philosophical and very prescient for a book published in 1968.

I am still mulling this over in my head. It has so many complex parts, that its a book you really have to be paying attention to when you’re reading it. It jumps between narrative sections with the two main characters, excerpts from other books in the world he has built, and also minor character stories that help flesh out the world.

About the world in Stand on Zanzibar? Well, it’s not a great world. It is a dystopian place that is very overcrowded, governments control who can or can’t have babies based on their genetics, and random people go on rampages and kill people (muckers). There is huge inequality in status of people in each country, and between different countries too. Brunner isn’t too far off in his predictions on most of these things. Oh, and there are extremists blowing things up for fun too!

The main plot was interesting, and was fun to follow to it’s conclusion. The ending is not a happy one, but I am happy with it. I enjoyed the book excerpts written by one of the characters in the book, Chad C. Mulligan.

HISTORY Papa Hegel he say that 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. Hegel must have been taking the long view. — The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan

These book quotations from the character Professor Mulligan are great. They add humor to the book, and tell us more about the book world. Hipcrime is some of the slang used in the book. There is a lot of made up slang that Brunner uses in the book, but you pick it up pretty fast from the context.

LEADERSHIP A form of self-preservation exhibited by people with autodestructive imaginations in order to ensure that when it comes to the crunch it’ll be someone else’s bones which go crack and not their own. — The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan

Part of the novel is about Shalmaneser, the very smart supercomputer AI. The humans really put their trust into what decisions it comes out to. A theme of the book is about the question: do we lose a bit of our humanity if we rely on machines for decision making? Some of the passages about computers are right on the mark and are just as true for the people in the novel, as the people in 2021.

““It is dismaying—one may even say disheartening—to see the degree which blind faith int he manufactured objects that we dignify by the name of ‘computer’ has replaced trust in prayer and the guidance of God. You will never find anyone to admit he or she has substituted a machine for the living divine presence, yet that is exactly what has happened to the bulk of our population. They speak of the evaluations which computers print out for them in the hushed reverent tones which our ancestors reserved for Holy Writ, and now that General Technics has made its arrogant claim about this new piece of hardware, nicknamed ‘Shalmaneser’, we can foresee the day when everyone will have surrendered his responsibility as a thinking being to a machine which has been deluded into respecting as more intelligent than himself. That is, unless we, with God’s help manage to reverse the trend.”” — From an earlier sermon by the luckless bishop whom Henry Butcher sabotaged

This book is not for the faint of heart due to its length and complexity. It takes a few chapters to understand what’s going on. I urge you to keep with it though, as it is a great book. I have had this book on my mind for the last week as I tried to order my thoughts to write this review.

““Well, I guess if we put it Shalmaneser—”” Norman began, but Chad cut him short, stamping his foot. ““Norman, what in God’s name is it worth to be human if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine?””

Trivia: What does this title mean? Usually there is a reveal in the book that leads you to understand where the title from the book comes from. After reading this, I was still confused about the title so I hopped over to Wikipedia and got the lowdown about the title:

The primary engine of the novel’s story is overpopulation and its projected consequences.[2] The title refers to an early twentieth-century claim that the world’s population could fit onto the Isle of Wight—which has an area of 381 square kilometres (147 sq mi)—if they were all standing upright. Brunner remarked that the growing world population now required a larger island; the 3.5 billion people living in 1968 could stand together on the Isle of Man [area 572 square kilometres (221 sq mi)], while the 7 billion people who he (correctly) projected would be alive in 2010 would need to stand on Zanzibar (emphasis is mine) [area 1,554 square kilometers (600 sq mi)].[4] Throughout the book, the image of the entire human race standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a small island is a metaphor for a crowded world.

So, if a book about overpopulation, authoritarian governments, militant extremism, corporations running wild with technology, and muckers killing people sounds like a great read for you in 2021, jump right in. If not, maybe find something a bit lighter to chew on.

For myself though, I like Brunner’s dark humor and am going to read his ecological disaster sci-fi (or maybe should be classified non-fiction?) book, The Sheep Look Up.

Rating: ★★★★★

Book #24 in my #ReadingChallenge2021 #Books #BookReview #JohnBrunner #SciFi #dystopian “,

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