I’ve had John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up by my bedside for months, but hadn’t had the energy to finish it. Actually, I have several books that have been partially read over the past few months, and during my latest plane trip too Tennessee I finally got around to finishing some of them. The Sheep Look Up, one of Brunner’s sprawling dystopian novels from the late 1960s, early 1970s, has a huge underground reputation as a classic tale of ecological catastrophe, and it lives up to it almost completely. Like his better known Stand on Zanzibar, it has a huge cast and a caleidoscopic structure in which future press cuttings, parodies of old poetry, anecdotes, TV commercial and some present-day information get mixed up with the interlocking storylines. Unlike SoZ, though, it is almost unrelentingly grim, with every member of the huge cast falling sick, and dying either from that or through violence. As usual with the Brunner dystopias, there are some moments of uncanny prescience, such as the portrayal-through-soundbites of a buffoonish US president who goes by the name of Prexy and serves no purpose at all but to distract the population through one-liners, a credit crisis, creeping socialism introduced by a conservative government for the benefit of its patrons, “organic” food that isn’t, climate change resulting from the wasteful lifestyles of the developed populace and much more. One particularly chilling aspect is the set-up in which there is one smart, well-informed activist character who offers insight into the problems and even some solutions, who is already marginalised at the start of the novel. As he disappears from public life, extremists take up his mantle and resort to terrorism, which serves to taint that character, Austin Train, even further. Meanwhile, throughout the novel, a thoughtful, reasonable, not-at-all-activist thinker is patiently working with computer models to come to a thoughtful, reasonable solution. A silver bullet that will solve everything without having to listen to the Luddites. What this thoughtful, reasonable person comes up with at the end, as the problems have multiplied and the United States are collapsing into fascism and anarchy simultaneously? “Eliminate the most wasteful 200 million people from the population”.
The Sheep Looks Up is not quite as good as Stand on Zanzibar – the characterisation, particularly of female characters, doesn’t always work, the technological forecasts are dated (Brunner famously anticipated the Internet, but that was in another novel – here, he has completely missed out on the increase in computing power that would happen in the real world, and while a seasoned science fiction reader can ignore that most of the time, it still detracts from the verisimilitude of the rest of the novel) and there are some dull bits towards the end. But it is very, very good and speaks to many concerns that I for one have today.
(Personal note 1: I am writing this from sunny Tennessee where I’m staying with Aggie. No work is getting done, and blog posting will be light for a while. Also, I can’t be bothered right now to polish up this review like I would if I was posting from home.)
(Personal note 2: I will be reading that other novel, The Shockwave Rider on my trip home. I do need a writer of Brunner’s caliber to distract me from the fact that I won’t be seeing my girlfriend for two months after that).