Body Count

“What in God’s name does it mean to be human if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine?”

The machine in John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1967) is Shalmaneser, a Micryogenic, liquid helium-cooled super-computer, the property of mega-corporation General Technics, so powerful and sophisticated in its capacity and processing speed that scientists and philosophers debate whether it is self-aware. There is no dispute that it is the most functionally intelligent entity on the planet.

Shalmaneser is vital to many of GT’s enterprises, among which is SCANALYZER, a broadcast service that supplies daily holographic news programs to its subscribers in the persons of Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere, projections of the users’ own images from the world’s hot spots and happening events right into their own living rooms.

GT also owns the rights to develop the Mid-Atlantic Mining Project, the world’s most promising source for energy and precious minerals, if only some way could be devised to exploit them.

“Old GT”, ninety-one year old General Technics owner and founder Georgette Tallon Buckfast, is still very much in charge and looking not a day over sixty, due to periodic replacements of failing organs, frequent treatments of her bone structure and musculature, as well as regular cosmetic enhancements, courtesy of Guinevere Steel and her Beautiques.

Physiological and cosmetic maintenance are available to all who can afford them, aiding their longevity and acquisition of social status. Good for them but not necessarily for the world they inhabit that suffers from a dramatic excess of population with its attendant pressure on resources, living space, and general equanimity.

According to census, if all human beings on earth stood shoulder to shoulder, they would cover every square inch of the island of Zanzibar.

Crowds everywhere have their consequence in outbursts of rage; muckers often appear, venting their psychoses in random homicides; subversive politics and religious intolerance breed saboteurs; psychological breakdowns and furious resentment against nearly universal reproductive limits and eugenic controls are on the rise.

Norman House, a bright, ambitious executive in the inner circle of GT’s brain trust, is its only Afram, measured in his appearance and demeanor, and driven to prove that he belongs among the elite. His roommate, Donald Hogan, is a reserved and scholarly synthesist, well paid by a government agency to study areas of interest to himself, absorbing all he can about trends in science and social developments. The roomies get along without friction, enjoy shiggies of easy virtue according to their proclivities, with drugs agreeable to their tastes, and manage to cocoon themselves from the stresses rampant among their Greater New York neighbors. Norman is unaware that Donald is a sleeper spy for the U.S. military.

Zadkiel Obomi, the dying President of Beninia, an impoverished, poorly developed West African nation on the Bight of Benin, the only post-colonial leader his country has ever had, is worried that it will be torn to pieces by vying neighbors or be subjected to takeover by former colonial masters after his imminent death. He has conceived a daring strategy to save his peaceful Shinka people, but he needs the aid of his longtime friend, Elihu Masters, U.S. Ambassador to Beninia, to involve General Technics, Shalmaneser, and the Mid-Atlantic Mining Project.

In the Pacific Ocean, from the one hundred islands nation of Yatakang, comes stupendous news. Doctor Sugaiguntung, genius of genetic manipulation, has invented a process that will guarantee optimal, supremely intelligent children, free of hereditary maladies, to all prospective parents. The repressive Solukarta regime has trumpeted the breakthrough, but it has not offered to share the technology with anyone.

The stunning promise of such a scientific miracle for the future of all humankind has provoked jealousy, outrage, hope, and fear among the rest of the world’s population, clamoring for their governments to take action to ensure that they too can profit from this astonishing biological advantage.

Even popular sociologist curmudgeon Chad Mulligan has surfaced from his cynical, despondent, self-imposed exile to respond to the challenge. The threat to U.S. interests has prompted the activation of Donald Hogan for a dangerous mission to Yatakang.

John Brunner presents his novel with innovative style, ancillary characters, cut-ins from the “happening world”, topical clips from SCANALYZER, and wry observations from Chad Mulligan. Alternating chapters between mainline action, sideline views, and close-up glimpses of the tense, conflicted world, give us a whirling sensation, as if the story were a galaxy of reflections from mirrors rotating at the hub of a carousel.

In the 30,000 years since modern humans outlasted the competition to emerge as the earth’s most dominant primate, the world’s human numbers swelled to 3.47 billion by 1967. Today, less than half a century later, the population exceeds 7.3 billion people, an increase of 110%. Can we doubt that John Brunner’s alarm at population growth was less than prophetic? Where will we stand a half century from today?

(HIPCRIME ¬†You committed one when you opened this book. Keep it up. It’s our only hope. – The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan)

(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 2015)

Advertisements