The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

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.

6 Replies

  • Why couldn’t you just write a reminder on your hand, or tie a string around your fin­ger?

    Me, I have trou­ble for­get­ting to note the triple stack-flare and sul­fur stench on my pol­lu­tion form when I get home every night. I’ve been not­ing triple stack-flares on pol­lu­tion forms since I was a lit­tle boy, truth be told, but only recent­ly added the sul­fur stench.

  • Well Jef, I fig­ured it was kind of appro­pri­ate con­sid­er­ing the book I just fin­ished read­ing is all about indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion. Besides, I don’t have any string.

  • Shalom Adam,

    I remem­ber Brunner’s book well. It’s on my shelf along with a num­ber of oth­er ear­ly SF Ecol­o­gy books.

    The grand­fa­ther of them all, of course, is Frank Herbert’s mas­ter­piece Dune.



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