|Stand on Zanzibar / John Brunner|
|Reviewed by Tal Cohen||Monday, 19 January 1998|
Another technique used is keeping up with dozens of different minor characters, most of whom meet a tragic end sooner or later. One of the most noticeable characters is Chad C. Mulligan, a sociologist who’s books are most often quoted, with titles like The Hipcrime Vocab, You’re an Ignorant Idiot, Better? Than? and You, Beast. Later in the book, Mulligan moves from being a source for quotes to a round character. Another dominant figure is a super-computer, the mighty Shalmaneser. His closing words are something no reader will forget soon.
Brunner deals with many different moral issues in the book, including subjects like war (with the expected anti-war message), artificial intelligence (via Shalmaneser), population control, and genetic engineering. It is interesting to note, though, that a book written in the 1960s generally regards Russia in the early 21st century as a Western nation, while the totalitarian enemy is China (and the imaginary country of Yatakang).
One of the most interesting technologies presented is Engrelay Satelserv’s “Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere”. Engrelay Satelserv is the “English Language Relay Satellite Service”, a leading media company. “The Everywheres” are a pair of computerized characters that, in different episodes, travel around the world, visiting different places. The special thing about them is that people at home can, at a price, have the Everywheres look and sound exactly like they do. So in effect, people sit in front of the TV and watch themselves travel all over the globe and generally enjoy life. People are expected to update their image (for use by the TV system) on a yearly basis, but many prefer to keep the old images, so after years they still see themselves as a young couple touring the world.
The effects of the Everywheres are not so surprising: people tend to believe things that they hear their own selves saying on TV. Thus the Everywheres are used by the powers-that-be to shape public opinion in a manner without precedent. (In his book The Squares of the City, Brunner deals with another method for mass control of public opinions, namely subliminal perception.)
My only disagreement with Brunner is that I think if such a service will ever be established, the personalization of the service (using your own images to replace the “default” ones) will not cost a prohibitive price; in fact, I believe it will be free (or even mandatory with the purchase of a TV). Certainly there will be people willing to spend a lot of money to gain such a level of influence over other minds.
Stand on Zanzibar is not an easy book to read, both technically (the nonstandard writing style) and intellectually. In fact, due to the huge amount of information (events, people, technologies, etc.) that the book refers to constantly, most readers will have to read the book at least twice in order to fully understand what’s going on. But the experience is definitely worth the effort.
When this page was first published, I asked if anyone knows the source for the book’s name. Three people were kind enough to supply me with the answer: Michel (who didn't include a last name), Mikey Inkster, and Mark Baker. Thanks, people. Some while after, I discovered that the answer was in fact printed on the back cover of the original hardcover edition of the book. Later paperback editions simply didn't bother to include this information.
The American Trilogy is not a trilogy in the normal sense of the word. It is a collection of three books that are only loosely related; one might claim the events do not really take place in the same universe. But the three books present a very similar story, each time from a different angle and using different characters.
Continued in the review of The Sheep Look Up.
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When playing with a Nintendo Wii, with its Mii avatars, one can't help thinking that the days of Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere are near...
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