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Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner

2012/06/03

After reading and being thoroughly drawn into “The Sheep Look Up,” I decided to pick up some of Brunner’s other books; “Stand on Zanzibar” seemed to be the most prominent of his works.

In this one, the title refers to a projection that in the year 2010, the population of the world would be such that they could all stand, shoulder to shoulder, on the island of Zanzibar. In the novel, eugenics has been practiced for many years now, with rigorous genetic screening done before and after conception — things like a family history of schizophrenia, diabetes, or blood disorders immediately disqualifies people from having children. Sterilization is mandated for carriers of serious genetic mutations, and even healthy adults are limited to three children, though the pervasiveness of hereditary problems makes this a rarity. The story follows two men, roommates in a New York apartment, one an African-American (“Afram”) working as a vice president for the General Technics corporation, and one an independently wealthy WASP who spends his days fiddling around in the library gathering seemingly useless bits of information.

Overall, I didn’t find this one to be as compelling as “Sheep.” I did appreciate how the book kept cycling back to recap what had happened to each of the initially named characters from the beginning of the book, a tactic which helped to keep track of the many different players. I got a little lost in the middle with all the political machinations regarding Beninia; I found the interactions with the computer named Shal more and more intriguing as the book went on. The book is peppered with vignettes of society: a transcript of the news, description of a church service, conversations overheard at a party, excerpts from the works of a sociologist named Chad Mulligan — who becomes an important character in the story; these short glimpses into a dystopian society are perhaps the most interesting parts of the book. Certainly many of them reflect attitudes and ideas that are present today.

“My education has turned me, and practically everyone else I know, into an efficient examination-passing machine. I wouldn’t know how to be original outside the limited field of my own speciality, and the only reason I can make that an exception is that apparently most of my predecessors have been even more blinkered than I am. I know a thousand per cent more about evolution than Darwin did, that’s taken for granted. But where between now and the day I die is there room for me to do something that’s mine and not a gloss on someone else’s work? Sure, when I get my doctorate the spiel that comes with it will include something about presenting a quote original unquote thesis, but what it’ll mean is the words are in a different order from last time!” (48)

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