This is a reminder to note the triple stack-flare and sulfur stench emanating from the steel mill on my pollution form once I get home. The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner is speculative environmental disaster fiction, first published in 1972. It takes place in the near future, at the turn of the century, our contemporary; so it is a bit dated, but also eerily prescient in some respects. Brunner’s strength lies not in the technology and material change of his futures but in his understanding of broad spectrum social interaction [See my review of Stand on Zanzibar]. Context is important when reading this book. In 1972 the EPA was barely two years old, no one had any idea about HIV/AIDS, DDT, and defoliants, napalm and even thalidomide had people pretty leery of chemical impacts on the environment. But no one expected digital technology or hyperinflation or peak oil.
Brunner takes the current fears of his time and extrapolates them into future impacts. Environmental sci-fi doesn’t scratch my belly like other stuff, for the most part it never seems done too well [Nevil Shute’s On the Beach is strong because of the characters, not the jet-stream borne radiation and Gregory Benford’s Timescape is strong because of its firm footing in physics, not the impromptu behavior of biological systems]. The Sheep Look Up does a better job than most, with a constant barrage of impacts that are in your face, or quite subtle. In your face: filtermasks, which just about everyone has to wear to filter out the pollution in the rank air. The Mekong Desert. The abiotic Great Lakes. The dead Med. Subtle: the Japanese businessman who spreads enteritis pandemically throughout the US when he comes for a visit. You only figure that out after you realize the order of the cities that were hit is the same as the itinerary of the businessman. [SARS did this and avian flu could easily do it as well.] The contaminated Colorado water that ends up driving thousands of Africans and Hondurans batshit insane. Most bacteria and viruses and insects have undergone rapid evolutionary selection due to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and pesticides and now “shrug off anything but a direct blow with a brick.” Can you say superbugs? The pesticide thing was probably well known by 1972, since the mosquito and malaria populations in Panama went through a similar drastic selection process while the canal was built.
The social side of things seems a bit prescient too. Terrorists attack the United States, sensationalism du jour is the entertainment and media access to government information is heavily restricted. An American city is a disaster zone because of polluted water. Scapegoats and whipping boys abound. The president has a dumb nickname, “Prexy”, and is only available for war-mongering “Why Do You Hate America?” sound-bites when he is not on vacation. Seriously. I can’t make this shit up. The book is too heavy-handedly political, but the writing is good and the build-up of panic is good, even if the moral seems exactly the same as Stand on Zanzibar.
Link of the day: The Legendary Tube Bar Recording.