Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

Paperback, 388 pages

Published May 2003 by BenBella Books (first published August 1972)

Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (1972)

“She recalled him as a forceful and witty speaker with a ready repartee and a penetrating voice. He had once, for example, put down a spokesman for the pesticide industry with a remark that people still quoted at parties: "And I presume on the eighth day God called you and said, 'I changed my mind about insects!” ― John Brunner, The Sheep Look Up

This is my second time reading this novel and it was just as powerful the second time. The Sheep Look Up is a huge influence on the novel I just finished writing. I waited until that was done to give it a re-read. It is of course apart of my eco-horror Dystopia-a-thon. While not as Climate change orientated as the others it is the oldest books in the series of books I am reading on these themes.

It is going to be impossible to talk about this book without giving context for the time in history when I read them. Both were times when the novel seemed to be "more important than ever!" or "Speaking to our times." I mean this novel is almost 50 years old. It would be easy to write it off, and say how much of it could Brunner have gotten correct if the world is still here. We are still breathing, drinking and more safely. For those of you who are not familiar with the works of John Brunner (who died in 1992) the great British Science Fiction I have included interviews with him. I mean he wrote about something that looks very much like the internet in in the early 70's. His Novel Shockwave Rider not only for saw the internet but viruses, and coined the term worm.

He had powers of prediction, and look Brunner wrote pulp sci-fi, but he had three novels considered his masterpieces that rose above the others, Shockwave Rider, Stand on Zanibar and of course The Sheep Look Up. The last two were both ecologically themed.

The Sheep Looks Up predicts everything from reality TV, Fake news, cities that need air filter masks (see China), the use of emergency actions to suspend basic rights, radical environmentalism, The stigma of being anti-capitalism for being ecologically minded,Micro-organism resistance to antibiotics, raging forest fires, Financial bailouts for failing corporations...Take a breath I mean there is more. John Brunner saw the future folks.

The edition I read came out early in the George W. Bush era, it was re-issued at the time and I infact bought my copy from radical environmentalists selling it at a lecture. It would be easy to look back at the time of that release and say we were all scared of what the Bush era would mean for the environment. In hindsight it was bad, but honestly the Clinton years were not a cakewalk for the planet or defenders of it. Obama was hardly better, come on what did he really do? He was not the disaster of the guys before and after him but what did he really do?

Trump is the nightmare of the Sheep Look Up in the making. This novel is a exploration of the consequences of industry unleashed. When our new president puts the EPA under the control of a man who was determined to kill it, then we see the possibility that a novel 50 years could go from a quaint warning to a blueprint. At time the resistance of Trainites seemed corny compared to the real life eco- movements, and yet at others times smart. I wish that the polluters and destroyers of the earth would have to drive around with skull and crossbones on their cars.

The novel itself is amazing well written but it is not a easy-peasy read, it is full of point of views shifts and is more of a series of snapshots that the story of one main character. The back cover makes it sound much more focused on Train and his eco-defense radicals than it actually is. Sheep goes chapter by chapter across one year in the earth of earth choked slowly by environmental destruction. The progression is quick but the novel which constantly switches Point of view takes some patience. In many ways it operates like a short story collection.

It would be easy to write off this 50 year old novel as hyperbole, certainly we have not seen the world it predicts yet. But lets be clear warning novels like Alas Babylon do not lose merit because we never had a nuclear war. The work of Rachel Carson and the landmark Silent spring did alot, and certainly eco-awareness is better than it was. We should be glad that we didn't see this world, but the reality is that Brunner's vision is still possible. With President Trump threatening to end many of the laws keeping corporations in check we may need Austin Train soon enough.

He talks about Sheep Look Up 14 minutes into this video:

“Next, the stalled cars had their windows opaqued with a cheap commercial compound used for etching glass, and slogans were painted on their doors. Some were long: THIS VEHICLE IS A DANGER TO LIFE AND LIMB. Many were short: IT STINKS! But the commonest of all was the universally known catchphrase: STOP, YOU'RE KILLING ME!” ― John Brunner, The Sheep Look Up

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