Apr 28, 2008

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

The Sheep Look Up

I actually finished this one last Sunday, but I wanted to mull it over a little before writing about it. This is a classic dying-environment near-future novel from the early 70s. The Mediterranean Sea is deader than the Great Salt Lake, most of Africa is defoliated. What few crops that still grow, despite insane levels of pollution from wars and corporate greed, are being eaten at the root by insecticide-resistant pests. Filter masks are the only thing standing between Americans and miserable lung diseases. Dose after dose of antibiotics are necessary to cure minor infections and rampant STDs. All children born in the US have something wrong with them, from minor asthma to terrible deformity. You can't drink the water. You can't eat the food. Hundreds of years of not giving a fuck is coming back around to bite the us in our collective asses.

We're not there yet. Our water's actually doing a little better than it was in 1972. But you want personal air filters? Smell it. You want antibiotic resistant pathogens? Howdy, Mr. Staph Infection. Government brutality, corporate sins, Brunner knew what he was talking about, and it scares the crap out of me.

But without a story, it's all just Future Shock. And damned if he didn't tell the story brilliantly. He used a cut and paste style, short chunks of a dozen people's lives, moving across the world to show the damage and our response to it. The Trainites (predating and foretelling the coming of the Earth Liberation Front) riot and smash in the name of the environment. The rich ignore the damage they cause, even to their own sons and daughters. The middle class just try to stay afloat with water filters and dreams. Starving Africans are poisoned into madness by the food sent from the US to keep them alive. Brunner wasn't afraid to kill off his main characters, either. Nobody's safe when you've got too many rats and not enough maze.

"Leading" the USA is a president known only as Prexy. I hear he was modeled after then-Gov Reagan, but the media quotes from him sprinkled throughout the text sure sound like another leader known for going by a nickname.

On foreign war orphans being adopted by Americans: "I guess if they can't break down the front door they have to sneak around the back."
On a scientific report showing rising IQs in third world countries and falling IQs in the US due to pollution and lack of nutrious foods in developed nations: "Well, if they're so smart why aren't they clever?"
On Hondorans fighting against American invasion: "If you bite the hand that feeds you, you're apt to get a mouthful of fist." And so on.

final thoughts: If you match Gibson's ideas about current and coming technology with Brunner's image of what corporate and national greed and overpopulation can do to the world itself, you've pretty much got my biggest nightmare. How likely is it? Too likely.


Kylie said...

This one sounds pretty good! Better add it to my wishlist.

JRSM said...

Ooh, I like the sound of this one. Have you read Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar', about overpopulation, which also uses the bits of media dropped into the text thing (inspired by John Dos Passos' 'USA' trilogy, I think).

I must get.

downtown guy said...

This one really exemplifies the whole point of this project to me. I would probably never have read Sheep Look Up if not for the Big List, but I'm very glad I did. Well worth it.