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Brunner's Sheep Look Up


The Sheep Look Up.

Brunner, John. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2003. 408pp. $15.95, softcover. ISBN: 1932100016.

Originally published in 1972, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up is a dystopian tale whose urgency has only increased in the years since its debut. Picked up by a number of radical ecological movements, who were inspired by Brunner's environmentally sensible hero, Austin Train, and his monkeywrenching followers, the trainites, the novel has enjoyed an enthusiastic underground following, even as it has been forgotten by the larger science fiction community. With the addition of a brief, laudatory introduction by David Brin and a chilling afterword by James John Bell, the 2003 reprint of this science fiction "classic" should be read by those who are concerned about the environment and must be read by those who think they aren't concerned.

Part of a trilogy (which includes Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar), Brunner's The Sheep Look Up paints a picture of a not-so-distant future, when our water, food, and air have been polluted as a consequence of corporate greed. Where a disingenuous U.S. government has buckled under the weight of industrial mandates, waging wars on the Third World for scarce resources and protecting big business through cover-ups, propaganda, and a corrupt legal system. Where a chasm has emerged to separate the rich, healthy, and privileged from the poor, sick, and oppressed. Where those with the courage to stand up for justice and equality are labeled as traitors. In other words, it is a bit too close for comfort.

Aside from the story's uncanny bearing on current events, Brunner's style is an eclectic, rapid-fire barrage both stimulating and provocative. Scraps of poetry, bits of narrative, advertisements, and TV transcripts flesh out a story that is less about particular characters than it is about experiencing a world in which gas masks, diarrhea, and genetic disorders are part and parcel of everyday life. The novel attains a certain seamless quality, weaving in an out of the contemporary media-rich environment, and creating echoes that resonate with current news stories about biological warfare, chemical agents, natural disasters, antibiotic-resistant super-germs, ozone depletion, mad cow disease, mercury tainted seafood, genetically modified organisms.

Most alarmingly accurate are the social and political aspects of denial and apathy towards potentially catastrophic environment abuses which Brunner nails in the dialogue between Dr. Doe and Petronella Page. Dr. Doe states:

I'm referring specifically to apparently normal children, without obvious physical or mental defects. I'm convinced people are subconsciously aware of what's going on, and becoming alarmed by it. For example, there's an ingrained distrust in our society of highly intelligent, highly trained, highly competent persons. One need only to look at the last presidential election for proof of that. The public obviously wanted a figurehead who'd look good and make comforting noises. (267)

In light of the Bush administration's persistent denial of global warming, a conflicting Pentagon study which evaluates the likelihood of catastrophic climate changes due to global warming, and the recent flap over the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, Brunner's comments should serve as a warning about our own propensity to ignore and politicize what is ultimately an issue that effects our ability to survive and thrive as a species [1 ]. And just in case you need additional real-world analogues to back up the speculations in Brunner's novel, James John Bell's afterword fills in the space between the novel's first publication over 30 years ago and its 2003 reprinting with numerous well-researched examples and an impassioned plea to change the course of history before this depressing future comes to pass.

More than just a science fiction novel or ecological jeremiad, The Sheep Look Up is a skillfully crafted piece of political commentary that should be read alongside other 20th Century near-future dystopias like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, and Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale for the imaginative work that it accomplishes. In putting the unspeakable tragedy of an inhospitable world into everyday language, Brunner offers us a way to think ourselves out of a future that we might not otherwise be able to bear the thought of.

Davin Heckman


[1 ] In the speech entitled, "President Bush Discusses Global Climate Change" on TheWhite House website (June 2001), Bush outlines the potential dangers of global warming, expresses some skepticism over its urgency, and calls for additional research. While Bush does admit that global warming might pose some problems and that addressing these problems might be worthwhile, the effect of his speech is to introduce doubts about the dangers of greenhouse gases and to extend the timeline for doing something about it. While the speech itself is not entirely "wrong," the course of action that it suggests takes unecessary risks with the future of the world -- and it just so happens that these risks benefit an industry which has consistently benefitted from its ties to this administration: the oil industry. Even as the risks of global warming are downplayed for supposedly conflicting with the United States' strategic and economic interests, a U.S. Defense Department report by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall entitled "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security" (October 2003) explores an alternate possibility. The report speculates on the effects of global warming: radical shifts in climate, intense storms, famines, droughts, and the violent struggle for scarce resources that could take place during the 21st Century. These two radically different visions of the future become even more bizarre when one considers how they have played out in relation to the recent disaster blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which was siezed as an anti-Bush campaigning tool by and which was decried as cheap propaganda by pro-Bush opinionmakers during this highly charged election year. To read about the strange intermingling of fiction and fact, see Amanda Griscom's "The Day After Tomorrow Never Dies" (03 June 2004) in Truthout at <>. To read "President Bush Discusses Global Climate Change", please visit <>. And for a .pdf version of "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security" which is available through the Environmental Media Services website, please see <>. [^]