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"...a few centuries of coherent humanist thought, set against a million odd years of evolved killer ape tendency. No-one's going to give you very good odds on humanism, are they?"
- Richard Morgan

Karatand  
  A special glove made of impact-sensitive plastic.  

This glove is made of a material that is described in the book as "trigger-rigid."

...a Karatand... It was in effect a palmless glove made of impact-sensitive plastic about a quarter-inch thick. Pressed, pinched, drawn on or off the hand, it remained flexible and nearly as soft as good leather. Struck against a resistant surface, its behavior changed magically, and while the interior stayed soft to act as a cushion against bruising, its outer layers became as rigid as metal.

He thrust his fingers into it and spun around, slamming his fist at the wall. There was a solid thud, and the muscles of his upper arm and shoulder complained, but the Karatand reacted as designed. It was several seconds before he could straighten his fingers against the resistance of the relaxing plastic.

From Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner.
Published by Del Rey in 1968
Additional resources -

Brunner suggests that more could be done with the concept:

You could have real polyform furniture that changed not only its shape but its texture, like Karatands do, over a range from fur to stainless-steel slickness...

Also:

He pointed at a pile of baggage stacked in the corner. "Some of that is gear reclaimed from your own apt. Some of it's new. All the new stuff is trigger-rigid, like a Karatand. Make sure you're wearing some of the new clothing all the time over your vital organs. It's almost bullet-proof and an excellent insulator.

Karatands are available now - they're made of substances like d3o. Here's a picture of a modern-day Karatand:

See the article on d3o-based RibCap: Flexible-Rigid Beanie-Helmet For Snowsports to learn about modern-day shear-thickening fluids used in clothing and sportswear.

Compare this item to the flexible armor suit from Larry Niven's 1967 work Neutron Star.

Compare, if you like, these almost entirely dissimilar items: the hinged mittens (for space suits) from The Bluff of the Hawk (1932) by Anthony Gilmore, the spray-on gloves from Abercrombie Station (1952) by Jack Vance, the sand trout glove from Children of Dune (1976) by Frank Herbert and the spray-on surgical glove from Altered Carbon (2003) by Richard Morgan.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Stand on Zanzibar
  More Ideas and Technology by John Brunner
  Tech news articles related to Stand on Zanzibar
  Tech news articles related to works by John Brunner

Karatand-related news articles:
  - Gloves In Science Fact And Science Fiction

Articles related to Material
Tiny Mining - Extract Precious Industrial Minerals From Your Own Body
Polyaramide Is Stronger Than Steel, Light As Plastic
Trinitite, Pentagrams And Isaac Asimov
RUSSE Self-Healing Plastic Works Underwater

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