Various Art Forms:

Muckers – July 16, 2023

Brain activity

Last time, I wrote about John Brunner’s prophetic vision of a society saturated with digital technology in The Shockwave Rider. Now, I want to address his even scarier vision of social crowding in Stand on Zanzibar. The title refers to the fact that, at the start of the novel, the Earth’s population could be accommodated by standing shoulder to shoulder on the African island of Zanzibar; at the end of the novel, those along the shoreline would be pushed into the water.

One of the background motifs of the novel is the phenomenon of random “muckers.” The term comes from the word “amok” and describes the state of mind of people who commit terrible massacres, not as agents of the state but as unpredictable acts of social violence. In the United States, these would be people shooting up schools or firing into crowds with rifles or pistols; in the rest of the world, they wade in with knives or swords and start hacking and slashing. The carnage continues until someone manages to put down the mucker.

The reason for this running amok is simple: these people have been pushed too far by social pressures, by the complexity of living in a technological world to which they are no longer attached, by the frustration of not getting their most basic needs met, and by growing anger and confusion.

Does this sound familiar?

It isn’t necessarily the guns in America that cause mass shootings—although it is easier to pick up a loaded weapon and pull the trigger than to unsheathe and swing a sword again and again. Still, the will that raises the sword against unaware human flesh or pulls the trigger to tear it apart is different from the mindset of a soldier defeating an enemy or defending his homeland. In either case, the mucker wielding the weapon is fighting demons that don’t exist within the people he or she is killing. And these are demons that, apparently, existed only in potential form fifty or more years ago when Brunner wrote his book.

I grew up on the East Coast: born in New Jersey, started grammar school on Long Island, then finished and went on to junior high in a suburb of Boston—genteel, urbanized places full of sheltered, middle-class kids. But my grandfather was judge in a small town in central Pennsylvania, and he was also a gun collector. My mother had been a member of her high-school rifle team and a crack shot. The judge taught my brother and me about firearms and gun etiquette by shooting a bee-bee gun in his basement target range. When I started high school myself, after my father was promoted and transferred to Western Pennsylvania, I entered a different world—different from suburban Boston and from anything that exists today.

On a Monday in October—if I remember correctly—I showed up at school, and all the other boys and half the girls were missing from class. When I asked about this, I learned they were out “getting their buck,” because it was the first day of deer season. And that afternoon they started drifting in. The boys would be driving their pickup trucks with rifles visible in the gun rack against the rear window—or they would bring their weapons into the school and stow them in their lockers. And yes, in the mid-’60s, the school still had a rifle team and a range in the basement under the administrative corridor.

These weren’t pellet guns, either, but the .30-06, scoped and accurate to about a quarter mile. This was the civilian version of the military’s M-1 Garand rifle, standard issue for riflemen in World War II. And most of the boys would also have had access to their father’s old service pistols or to souvenir pistols from the European or Pacific theaters in that war. It would have been so easy for any one of them to go up into the woods behind the football field and plink the entire scrimmage line during practice—and take out a couple of cheerleaders, too, before anyone could figure out what was going on.1

They didn’t, of course. They wouldn’t have, because everyone was trained in gun etiquette and took their weapon seriously.2 And they knew their fathers would have tanned their hides if they even joked about it. Besides, much as we were all teenagers, subject to the usual hormonal winds, tantrums, and moods of adolescents, none of us was so angry as to do such an unspeakable thing.

So, what has changed today? Maybe it’s access to weapons by teenagers in urbanized settings who were never taught a gun’s purpose for hunting or defense at need. Maybe it’s the social isolation of looking at screens all day rather than interacting with real, live people, the sort who have feelings and express them in person and in your face. Maybe it’s social crowding, being around too many people with too many demands, but still strangers because they, too, are looking at their screens. Maybe it’s because we’re slipping off the edges of Zanzibar. But I don’t think banning guns and ammunition is the answer. Then the angry people will just drive their cars into a crowd—or pick up a sword.

1. Of course, many of the kids in the suburban schools around Boston and New York would also have had access to souvenir pistols from the war. They didn’t shoot up their schools, either.

2. I remember our classmates ridiculing a young hunter who tried to shoot his deer with a “pumpkin ball,” a hollow lead slug fired from a shotgun. It makes a fist-sized hole on entry and blows out the carcass on exit, destroying the value of the meat. And it’s cruel and stupid. This was a sign of the boy’s bad attitude that encompassed both crazy and mean.