Reviewed 1/10/2013

The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner
Cover art by ?
John Brunner
NY: Ballantine Books, October 1973 (© 1972)




ISBN-13 978-0-345-23612-8
ISBN-10 0-345-23612-2 457pp. SC $1.65

There is a word for the best of all possible worlds: Utopia. And it has its opposite: Dystopia. Although it can be argued that the world John Brunner depicts in this novel is not the worst that could be imagined, it's a very bad world — bad enough that the novel can fairly be deemed dystopian. It is a world where the products of human industry are poisoning people. Oceans are unsafe to swim in. Air in big cities like Los Angeles is unfit to breathe, so that people must wear filter masks when they go outside. Even so the air burns their skin, rots their outer clothing, erodes brick and concrete. Many municipal water supplies are untrustworthy, and much food is suspect.

Markets for products to handle these problems are booming. Filter masks, indoor air purifiers, personal water-treatment systems, medicines for gastroenteritis and other endemic diseases are in great demand. The people who provide them are making money hand over fist.

Amidst all this the elite continue to live in luxury, isolated by their wealth from the noxious conditions which the most of humanity must endure. There are protests, of course. They often turn violent. Attacking the fat cats is counterproductive; it only makes the powers that be increasingly protective of their privileges. But the outrage that impels those attacks is easy to understand.

"But you can't want to go insane!" Michael exploded. He groped for the right phrase. "You can't want a—a bum trip that goes on for life!"

"Can't I, baby? Are you ever wrong!" Fritz, his voice cold, dead serious, dead. "Listen, Mike, because you don't understand and you ought to. Who's going to be sane in this country when you know every breath you draw, every glass you fill with water, every swim you take in the river, every meal you eat, is killing you? And you know why, and you know who's doing it to you, and you can't get back at the mothers."

He was on his feet without warning, towering over Michael, even when Michael also rose. He was more than six foot three, maybe six foot five. He looked like a medieval figure of death: merciless, gaunt, hungry.

"I don't want to die, baby. But I can't stand having to live. I want to tear those stinking buggers limb from limb. I want to gouge out their eyes. I want to stuff their mouths with their own shit. I want to pull their guts out their ass, inch by inch, and wind 'em around their throats until they choke. I want to be so crazy-mad I can think of the things they deserve to have done to them! Now maybe you understand!"

– Page 272

Meanwhile, the most of men live lives of quiet desperation. They cope as best they can as the environment degrades, the health of their children decreases, the unemployment rate in the country increases, pure food and water grow scarcer and more expensive. A man named Austin Train has gone to great lengths to document the ways humanity has befouled its own nest, most deeply in America. As a solution he advocates the simple life: living close to the land, eating food you raise yourself, without benefit of fertilizers or pesticides (most pesticides are illegal anyway), wearing natural fibers. He eschews violence himself. Predictably, however, a popular movement has grown up around his ideas, and its members often go to extremes with destructive riots. Some two hundred impatient men have appropriated his name and tend to egg the bomb-throwers on. The real Austin Train has gone to ground, but the actions of his imposters assure the authorities won't stop hunting him.

When she had been taken back to her quarters, the man who had been listening in the adjacent room entered, scowling.

"Well, you botched that!" he snapped.

"I did not!" Prentiss countered. "I did exactly as I was told. If you overlooked the fact that her references to Austin Train could just as well apply to someone who's adopted the name, that's your problem! And why are you so frantic to find the guy, anyhow?"

"Why do you think?" the other man exploded. "Isn't this damned country falling to pieces around us? And aren't all these dirty saboteurs doing it in the name of Austin Train? Unless we find him and pillory him in public, make him look like the fool and traitor that he is, he can walk back into the spotlight any time he chooses and take command of an army a million strong!"

– Page 315

In Brunner's conception, the degradation takes just a year — December to November — to go from unpleasant to unbearable. At the end of that year, most of the United States is hit with problems that first afflicted only the biggest cities. The government, still led by a president elected for affability rather than governing ability, keeps reflexively cracking down on dissent instead of addressing the real problems Austin Train has pointed out. Both the creeping corruption of the environment and the government's reaction to it seem eerily prescient.1 Clearly, Brunner was concerned about future trends in pollution and intended to shock his readers; yet at the same time I get the sense of an underlying tone of sardonic amusement. Certainly he exaggerates for effect, and sometimes goes beyond plausibility as I discuss in the sidebar. But that only slightly diminishes the impact of this novel.

In sum, The Sheep Look Up works both as a novel of men and women of insight and dedication working to persuade a recalcitrant government to change its ways, and as an extended parable for the perils of our times. Grim as it is in places, it never fails to be entertaining and I consider it a must read. If not for the fact that Brunner lays on the cascade of disease and dirt a little too thick, I would give it full marks. As it is, I mark it down one notch.

1 In making this assessment I consider the fact that George W. Bush was elected in large part because voters felt he was someone they'd like to have a beer with; that he sided with fossil-fuel industries rather than the scientists who tried to tell him what burning fossil fuels was doing to the environment; and that his administration rejected scientific findings generally if they cast doubt on conservative dogma. I also consider the Republicans in Congress: with few exceptions, they spurn science even more ardently than Bush did.
Valid CSS! Valid HTML 4.01 Strict To contact Chris Winter, send email to this address.
Copyright © 2013-2017 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was last modified on 24 December 2017.