The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner

Not long ago I sang the praises of John Brunner’s large SF novel Stand on Zanzibar, which has maintained a reputation over the years as a classic of dystopian literature. It constructed a detailed world from many speculations about social, political and technological changes, some bearing a compelling resemblance to our present times. It also has a stylistic legacy, in that it brought the modernist novel-building techniques of Dos Passos’ U.S.A. into the SF genre.

The Sheep Look Up, a 1972 novel which garnered critical attention and a Nebula nomination of its own, is another densely imagined dystopia. It too interleaves narrative passages with fictional excerpts and character-driven subplots, but it is much more focused on its central theme: environmental catastrophe. While Stand on Zanzibar is better known for what it brought into the genre, TSLU also breaks new ground by crossing between SF and horror.


Mark Rubin and Irving Freeman cover for Ballantine edition.

As featured in this article from SF Ruminations, Rubin and Freeman’s cover design is one of the most memorable of the era. The gas masks, necessary implements in Brunner’s future world, turn the human figures into sheep in the fields. These sheep, and their fate which is decided by their absent shepherds, are described at the book’s end by a quote from John Milton’s poem Lycidas:

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, a foul contagion spread.

The themes of decay and neglect predominate.

TSLU is a story of decomposition, apportioned into twelve chapters (given the names of the calendar months), of American society overrun with pollution. Everyone that can afford one wears a filtration mask when outside. Society is fracturing between the law-abiding citizens who support an desperate and suppressive government, and a loosely-connected counterculture of communes and terror cells. The latter are increasingly disconnected followers of an academic named Austin Train, who has gone into hiding.

Although there is smog in the United States and famine in Africa from the beginning, Brunner starts the TSLU with a pair of violent incidents that act as tipping points into chaos. The first is the police shooting of a well-known activist and confidante of Train’s, after he apparently runs amok into Los Angeles traffic. The government fails to attempt any rapprochement after the fact, kindling further acts of active resistance. The second is a more widespread bout of spontaneous insanity among villagers in a war-torn African country, slaughtering both locals and Western aid workers.

Both incidents are traced to the suspected contamination a popular foodstuff–a canned product called Nutripon–with some kind of synthetic drug. Brunner is (once again) eerily prescient here, anticipating the legendarily violent consequences of ingesting PCP or, more recently, “bath salts” compounds. Then again, the psychedelic effects of rye ergot, and their anecdotal role in episodes of mass hysteria in Europe, may have been an inspiration. We do not know whether the poisoning is intentional, but are given a glimpse into the industrialization of the world’s food supply:

Portly, but muscular, Mr. Bamberley strode along the steel walkway that spined the roof of the factory, his arms shooting to left an right as he indicated the various stages through which the hydroponically-grown cassava they started with had to pass before in emerged as the end product “Nutripon.” There was a vaguely yeasty smell under the huge semi-transparent dome, as though a baker’s shop had been taken over by oil technicians.

Also predicted is the belated consumer response to the environmental crisis. The first section of TSLU is briefly interrupted by an advertisement for electrically-powered vehicles:

One thing you can tell right away about the owner of a Hailey. He has a healthy respect for other people.

A Hailey takes up no more of the road when necessary.

The noise a Hailey makes is only a gentle hum.

And it leaves the air far clear than gas-driven cars.

Even if they are filter-tipped.

Brunner would not have been too surprised by the oversized front-door windows of the early-2000s Toyota Prius.

The more organized “Trainite” settlements are communes where young adults attempt to sustain themselves with their own farming. While their aims are noble (and helped along by a spirit of free love, of course), their approach is unsophisticated and results in the importation of a parasitic worm. TSLU, in contrast to more traditional genre stories that pit enlightened heroes against the self-destructive status quo, refuses to shine on a promising path out of its conundrums.

Modern science does not seem ready to help, either. The following passage of an interview between an animal behaviorist and a journalist may seem to follow logic at first glance, but is actually a pretty clear twisting of theory to fit the situation:

Doe: Well, there have been a lot of studies–on rats, mainly–that demonstrate the crucial importance of prenatal environment. Litters born to harvested mothers, or poorly fed mothers, grow up to be easily frightened, afraid to leave an open cage, and what’s more their life expectancy is reduced.

Page: Can experiments with rats prove anything about humans?

Doe: We know a lot nowadays about how to extrapolate from rats to people, but don’t only have to rely on that. In a sense we made ourselves into experimental animals. There are too many of us, too crowded, in an environment we’ve poisoned with our own–uh–by-products. Now when this happens to a wild species, or to rats in a lab, the next generation turns out weaker and slower and more timid. This is a defense mechanism.

Page: I don’t believe many people will follow that.

Doe: Well, the weaker ones fall victim to predators more easily. That reduces population. Competition is diminished. And the fouling of the environment, too, of course.

Weaker, undernourished offspring do not make sense as adaptations: population suffering from food or habitat shortages will produce less offspring, not more. Just as we are meant to see through the explanations of the government, the commune leaders and the wealthy industrialists, intellectuals get exposed as well. Humankind is just not genetically equipped to meet the challenges of its pollution problems.

This is all portrayed in an more focused and disciplined novel than Stand on Zanzibar. The selected protagonists, mostly ordinary people trying survive their world instead of fixing it, are well-drawn and very believable. Austin Train is the most enlightened figure but is convinced that his fate is sealed as soon as he would come out of hiding. Each chapter marks the passage of a month as well as an increased breakdown of the institutions of civilization, turning TSLU from an SF dystopia into a novel SF-horror genre crossover. This is punctuated at the end with a grisly–and in my mind, excessive–episode drawn from an urban legend about faulty kitchen equipment. Aside from that, Brunner’s novel is a momentous reading experience. 8/10.



About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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3 Responses to The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner

  1. fredfitch says:

    Sorry I never got around to Brunner much back when I was devouring all the SF I could find. OTOH, he’s not exactly cheery reading. OTOOH, neither is the news these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I had a difficult time with this review because I really don’t have much experience with dystopia fiction to compare it to. Sure, there is the Hunger Games trilogy, but that’s written for the kids and takes place after the world went to pot. TSLU is about the world going to pot, civilization in the process of breaking down. Maybe George Stewart’s The Earth Abides is the best comparison, and Stewart’s novel is one of my favorite reads in SF.

      Brunner wrote several significant novels, but never seems to have been celebrated to the level of other writers of his time. He seems stuck between the pulp-inspired American culture and the Frankenstein, et. al.-inspired British culture. Or maybe the “New Wave” and the more traditional SF that it ran up against. I have many of his shorter books in my to-read piles.


      • fredfitch says:

        Even dark hard-edged SF, like PKD, Ellison, Tiptree, Butler (four of my faves) tends to have a playful escapist element to it–and doesn’t take long to read. Brunner seems to be asking more of the genre readership than most–while still writing very much within the genre, which means devotees of ‘serious’ literature won’t give him much respect (or any).

        It is more painful to read about a world falling apart at the seams than to just pick up with a world that already has. Usually in SF that kind of scenario is dealt with in shorter forms and is focused on a single idea. The Screwfly Solution, for example, which focuses on the pathological aspects of the male/female relationship, and isn’t meant as a serious prophecy, but rather a satiric commentary on what exists all around us. Butler’s Lilith trilogy begins with a world that has already been destroyed by humanity, with its few survivors then falling under the control of spacefaring aliens who mean them no harm, but whose agenda isn’t really altruistic either.

        Brunner wants to break it down in depth, and he’s not being metaphorical, not giving us an escape hole He’s saying this really is how the world could end. Very much with a whimper. And entirely our fault.

        It’s a hard sell.

        Liked by 1 person

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