John Brunner’s 1972 The Sheep Look Up is a stand-alone near-future science fiction novel. It is also one of a series of novels by Brunner that dramatize extrapolations of big issues of the era in which he was writing: The Jagged Orbit (racial violence), Stand on Zanzibar (overpopulation), and The Shockwave Rider (future shock). The Sheep Look Up’s central focus is environmental degradation.
1980s America in particular and the world in general have made enormous strides in reshaping the world to facilitate unbounded profit. The air is poisoned, such water as can be had is filthy, entire seas are lifeless, and children across the nation suffer life-altering disabilities due their exposure to toxic chemicals. In a word: capitalist utopia!
Until now, the process of environmental decay has been a slow, steady process, each step of which was gradual enough that only the extremists objected. A person transported directly from 1972, perhaps through the medium of a novel, would be horrified by what they found but the people of 198x have had sufficient time to adjust. Life is unpleasant but normal.
The so-called Trainites do their best to stop the world from becoming a vast poisoned garbage dump but most people see them as absurd and possibly dangerous extremists. The US government, being firmly in the pocket of the one percent, is uninterested in ecological reform and may well have poisoned a Trainite leader to end his rabblerousing. Reform is not a realistic option.
This is too bad because the world in general (and the US in particular) have finally hit a tipping point. Fueled in large part by globalization, events that would have been local calamities will now be global catastrophes. For example: a virulent new enteritis sweeps the US thanks to soldiers returning from one of the US’ endless wars. Pesticide-immune insects imported by accident consume American crops. Just as goods and services travel the world, so too does disaster.
The immediate reaction by all too many is to look for ways to turn a profit from disaster. Making money off the end of the world is obviously a short-term measure. In the long run, the world can only be saved if the most profligate two hundred million people are thrown out of the lifeboat. Bad news for the Americans.
A minor mystery: I thought this began with the poem, Nightmare, With Angels. It does not. The novel begins by quoting Christmas in the New Rome, a sunnily optimistic poem about reshaping the world to suit mankind1 to which I would link if I could find it online, which I cannot. This is, among other things, a Christmas novel. This view of the work is supported by its structure, which covers a full year, starting in the last December before America’s demise. How the last Christmas in America went is not described in detail (the final dated chapter is November) but since the smoke from America can be smelled in Britain, it seems reasonable to assume America got coal in its stocking.
There are lots of SF novels in which the world is forced by circumstance to cram the adorable young girl into the airlock before venting her into space. Often the term ‘lifeboat rules’ is tossed around. One way in which The Sheep Looks Up differs from the usual run of such works is that humanity is in no way the victim of circumstance or poor communication. We collectively chose this future because it was very profitable in the short run. Another, much more remarkable way in which it stands out is that the designated sacrificial victims are not faceless swarms of Africans, Indians, and/or Chinese but the very Americans who would have made up the majority of Brunner’s readers in 1972.
Brunner also takes what would have been an unusual approach to structure in this novel2, had he not already been playing ambitious games with structure in previous novels. The effect is of a detailed tapestry, with the consequence that it’s hard in the space available to discuss the many character arcs in any detail. Still, it’s an impressive effort, which, if I recall a particular essay by Brunner, paid off in professional accolades but not monetarily.
In this setting, the EPA seems not to have been founded or if it had been, it had been effectively kneecapped in this history. This may explain why things got so much worse so much faster than they did in our world. Perhaps the state of this book’s 1980s is a nod to genre convention, in which settings are created by taking trends and running them to their unchecked extremes3. I do remember reading the passages in which acid rains make an unwelcome appearance just as acid rain became a major news item in the 1970s.
In retrospect, however, can reader really accept the dubious prospect of a wealthy nation like the US being swept by an unchecked pandemic? Is it not absurd to imagine a world tipped into runaway environmental change simply because humans are short-sighted and greedy? Given that the evidence is all around these people, in the water they drink and the air they breathe, how hard could it possibly be to convince them to moderate their behavior? They’d have to be total idiots not to pay attention: that is, people who deserve what’s coming.
Still, as alarmist as the novel might seem, I think of the four novels in this series, this is the one that has aged the best. Certainly, if you were looking for a book to read to your kids this holiday season, this would be my pick.
1: I’d link to it but although Brunner specifies its year of publication (1862), he does not name the author. Searches failed me. Still, if it was published in 1862, it has to be out of copyright.
The day shall dawn when never child but may
Go forth upon the sward secure to play.
No cruel wolves shall trespass in their nooks,
Their lore of lions shall come from picture-books.
No aging tree a falling branch shall shed
To strike an unsuspecting infant’s head.
From forests shall be tidy copses born
And every desert shall become a lawn.
Lisping their stories with competing zest,
One shall declare, “I come from out the West,
Where Grandpa toiled the fearful sea to take
And pen it tamely to a harmless lake!”
Another shall reply, “My home’s the East,
Where, Mama says, dwelt once a savage beast
Whose fangs he oft would bare in horrid rage—
Indeed, I’ve seen one, safely in a cage!”
Likewise the North, where once was only snow,
The rule of halls and cottages shall know,
The lovely music of a baby’s laugh,
The road, the railway and the telegraph,
And eke the South; the oceans round the Pole
Shall be domestic. What a noble goal!
Such dreams unfailingly the brain inspire
And to exploring Englishmen do fire …
2: The structure of these novels is unusual only for SF. A pointillist approach to plot (many characters, many character arcs, novel zigzags between them) is usually associated with John Dos Passos and his USA trilogy (1930 – 1936). If I knew more about Anglosphere literary modernism I could point to other novels that exploded plot (such as James Joyce’s Ulysses). But I know more about orbital mechanics than I know about literary modernism, so I’ll let my readers discuss this matter in comments.
3: I could give you a long list of “if this goes on” books … but perhaps my readers would have more fun doing that.