Sunday, January 13, 2013

John Brunner's THE SHEEP LOOK UP #OneBookAtATime

What a weird combination of eerie prescience and slapstick satire this is, for all that I'm pretty sure it was just supposed to be the latter.

The Sheep Look Up is very much a product of its time, when the Vietnam War was still raging and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was still relatively new and shocking. As such, its view of the rest of the twentieth century -- the author's imagined future, our immediate past -- should come across as dated. There are no cell phones, no internet; computers are still big expensive things on which time must be reserved. But despite all this, the novel feels fresh as ever. Horribly, terrifyingly fresh.

I've read a lot of dystopian lit in the last few years, watched my world die and devolve in dozens of different ways in the (virtual) pages of all kinds of fiction. And some of those books have upset me, yes. But none have just plain scared me as much as this one did.

I finished reading and I had to rush outside and take in a deep gulp of the cold and still mostly clean night air of Cheyenne in January __ I say mostly because, well, there's an oil refinery on the south side of town, and an inversion layer like we've got going on tonight traps all that lovely sour crude smell, but at least I didn't need a filtration mask to breathe. Down in, say, Denver, though (where, incidentally, a lot of the most gruesome action in The Sheep Look Up takes place), well, they do have those smog warnings on some days, and some days I can look south and kind of see it.

The America of The Sheep Look Up is one in which no books like The Sheep Look Up ever got written, or, if they did, paid attention to. It's a grandly collapsing environmental catastrophe of the old school, where the air, water and soil have all been allowed to become so toxic that filtration masks to breathe are just the beginning; the Great Lakes are completely dead, no city's water supply is reliably safe, trace heavy metals and defoliants and pesticides contaminate even the food that is supposedly safe and organic and sold at a premium, and still the profit motive is king; even providers of global food aid expect to make a buck off it, to say nothing of those who are only too happy to get rich providing filtration masks and allegedly clean food and water purification devices.

The madness is presided over by a recently elected jackwagon of a President of the United States who is half Ronald Reagan and half George W. Bush (with a dash of Ferris F. Fremont thrown in), cavalier and clueless but quick to give the press a tough-talking John Wayne soundbite that puts all those America-hating traitors who think they should still be able to see the sun and the moon in the sky in their places. President Prexy is still hell bent on exporting the American Way of Life, by force if necessary, and seems all but unopposed in his military adventurism and his willingness to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Almost. Enter Austin Train, academic and agitator, a spiritual son of Ralph Nader whose message was even less well-received than Nader's had been at the time of this writing (1972), and who finally had a bit of a nervous breakdown and disappeared. Only wait, some people were listening, and in his name have formed a movement that some readers see as predicting the Occupiers of today. Even more marginalized than our Occupiers, though, they're all in sort of a holding pattern, struggling just to survive on a continent drowning in toxic waste, sewage and effluent, and barely holding on against drug resistant diseases, parasities, birth defects, chronic environmental disease and malnutrition. A lot of them seem barely able to hold a coherent thought in their heads; all of them are hoping that Train will come back and show them what to do.

Brunner conveys all of this in a very post-modern style, presenting us with a series of vignettes of different characters coping with this toilet of a world in different places intercut with snatches of mass media chatter that give the small, sad stories of his characters great depth and context. We get stories from both sides of the barricades, profiteers and agitators for a better world (or at least for an end to the madness, since this America may well be past the point of no return, environmentally). The plot that ties it all together is almost a whodunnit, but of course we know who did it.

Never before in life have I been so grateful to live in a world where the voices crying out against pollution and waste have not been totally marginalized. But lest I get too comfortable -- I read this book on an e-reader, that was manufactured using a pollution-intensive process, on another continent. The United States might not now, thanks to the culture of warning and concern of which novels like The Sheep Look Up have been a vital part, become the toilet this novel depicts, but that doesn't mean other places won't. There's a reason so many of our manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and that reason is the flight by pollution-causing industry to countries who don't have even our still rather lame environmental (and occupational) standards. We're still treating the planet as a toilet. We're just keeping our own bathrooms clean.

For now.


  1. The Sheep Look Up is one of my favorites by Brunner, along with Stand on Zanzibar, The Shockwave Rider, The Jagged Orbit and The Squares of the City. I wish I could get it as an eBook (I've only been able to get Squares and Stand--the other two are not eBooks, at least in the US).

    The scene with the microwave oven still absolutely haunts me (and I read the book when it first came out).

    1. Yes! The thing with the microwave freaked me right out. The parallel with the bit with the woman who went nuts and put her baby in the oven and cradled the chicken was horribly funny or hilariously horrible.


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