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on 7 June 2005
John Brunner imagines a world so toxic life is barely feasible. Born in 1934, Brunner published his first novel at the age of 17 and had gone on to build a career on pulp space opera adventures. By the 1960's, however, he was learning a more confident and mature literary style and had begun to explore themes of social dysfunction and the impact of science and technology on human life, and was hailed as one of the leading lights in the British New Wave of science fiction.
Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" achieved critical acclaim in 1968 for its exploration of overpopulation and global pollution. "The Jagged Orbit", "The Sheep Look Up", and "The Shockwave Ruler" would follow to form a foreboding and visionary quartet of warnings about consumerism, pollution, and climate change. Brunner has been described as doing for science fiction what Rachel Carson did for science fact by pointing to the growing dangers of environmental collapse.
"The Sheep Look Up" is the darkest of Brunner's apocalyptic quartet. North America is on the verge of extinction. It has been transformed into a vast petri dish of contaminants and toxic waste. The population is sickened by poisoned foods and an equally poisonous atmosphere. The car and aeroplane spew pollution into the atmosphere. Climate change has reduced agriculture to a lottery in which farmers try to sway the odds by liberal doses of fertilisers, pesticides, and antibiotics administered to their animals. Medicine has all but collapsed.
A growing resistance movement is fighting a political and guerrilla war against the polluters, but the political status quo fervently denies that climate change is occurring or that the levels of pollution have passed beyond a safe event horizon. Meanwhile, US troops roam the globe, attempting to pacify increasingly wider tracts of disaffected humanity ... and American travellers wonder why everyone hates them.
Brunner's dystopic world is hardly fantasy. First published in 1972, it seems a visionary message today with its apocalyptic vision of a hell on earth which is beginning to look all too familiar in the 21st century.
Brunner's novel was written in the form of a diary of a year in the death of the Earth - it is told in snapshot entries ... newspaper headlines, television news flashes, the incidental experiences of a cast of witnesses to collapse, a series of cameo images of decaying life. The characters are a motley collection, some prominent, some 'ordinary', but each has a part to play in exposing the reader to a vision of calamity as global politics and economics propel the USA to obliteration.
It's a thoroughly absorbing - and depressing - piece of science fiction. Perhaps 'imagined social history' might be a better description of the genre. Brunner's imagination certainly captured a world which is disturbingly real. It's a page-turner of a novel. It's difficult to put down, so rapidly do you get caught up in it.
If I have a criticism it is that the cast of thousands can leave you struggling to remember precisely what was happening to each of them last time you heard from them, but the reader has no right to expect an easy read here. Brunner's is a disturbing vision which offers a vital corrective to the space opera adventure which dominates so much science fiction, on the page or on the screen. A classic which demonstrates Brunner's visionary and literary strengths, and a dynamic, exciting piece of writing which deserves to be read by a wide audience.
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on 2 November 2011
There has a re-assessment of the work of SF writer John Brunner in the past ten years - his seminal work, the epic population-crisis novel 'Stand On Zanzibar' was added to the Gollancz-published 'SF Masterworks' series, and is readily available in high-street book shops. However, despite a reprint in 2003 by independent publishers BenBella Books, his prophetic environmental-crisis novel 'The Sheep Look Up' is still less well known to the average SF reader.

Writers such as William Gibson, David Brin and Warren Ellis cite Brunner as an influence, and it is easy to see why. Unlike many of his contemporaries in sixties and seventies SF, Brunner is intimately concerned with world-building and speculative prophecy, and focuses less on the psychological concerns of writers like Philip K. Dick, or the hard science of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

In his three best-loved, most oft-cited novels ('Stand On Zanzibar,' 'The Sheep Look Up' and 'The Shockwave Rider') Brunner's intense, multi-voice narratives have more in common with the speculative world-building of Kim Stanley Robinson, or the cyberpunk masters who claim him as their progenitor. The cyberpunks in particular play blatant homage to Brunner - Gibson's techno-futurist street gang in 'Neuromancer,' the Panther Moderns, take their name from characters in 'Stand On Zanzibar.' Warren Ellis, a decade or so later, named a futuristic vehicle operated by the superhero team 'Nextwave' after Brunner's 'The Shockwave Rider.' So what is it about Brunner's writing that these writers identify with?

Speaking about 'The Sheep Look Up' to literary website Salon, Gibson says:"No one except possibly the late John Brunner... has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it." He is right - the world which Brunner describes, with similar over-population problems as he wrote about in 'Zanzibar,' but with the added challenges of smog-filled skies, poisoned food and water supplies, and a huge gap between the dominant rich and the disenfranchised poor, is still eerily prescient.

This is not unique in and of itself - many SF writers have generated tropes which turned out to have the ring of truth, when viewed through the lens of history. What Brunner did so well - and a significant amount of time before the coining of the subgenres 'Hard' or 'Realist' SF - was to situate these tropes in a vivid, all-encompassing narrative populated not just by believable characters, but also by invented newspapers, songs, and snatches of TV and radio shows. In addition, quotations from actual published material are interleaved, blurring the lines between real and imagined ephemera.

This 'collage' technique, where world-building is done in interstitial interludes between chapters as well as in them, is credited to John Dos Passos. Brunner skillfully makes the technique his own. The effect on the reader is to create not just a believable world, but (to paraphrase Grant Morrison) 'a shimmering holographic tapestry' of meaning and depth. Brunner's novels are effective not just because of his characters - who are sometimes thinly-drawn - but because of the fine-grained detail he exhumes from his imagined worlds.

Like the cyberpunk novels of the 80s and 90s, some of Brunner's world-building is now anachronistic. Just as the absence of mobile phones from works like 'Neuromancer' and Bruce Sterling's 'Islands In The Net' now seem odd, there are tropes in 'The Sheep Look Up' which have not stood the test of time. Brunner shared with Philip K. Dick the assumption that marijuana and psychedelic drugs would be legalised and commonplace in the their future (our present). This does not detract from Brunner's breathless, widescreen vision very much. 'Sheep' still feels utterly real, because of the sheer amount of vivid background detail.

Reading 'The Sheep Look Up' again, it is abundantly clear that a continued reassessment of Brunner's canon is not only desirable, but essential. If the job of the speculative fiction writer is to give us dire warnings, or messages of hope, while transporting us to compelling and believable utopias and dystopias, then Brunner is a masterful practitioner, and one of the innovators of the genre. 'The Sheep Look Up' is a wonderful exploration of his clear-eyed, humanist philosophy, with important lessons about our past, our present, and our immediate literary past.
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on 7 October 2008
Following on from the award winning overpopulation-themed Stand On Zanzibar, Brunner went onto attempt a dystopic meditation on environmental catastrophe with "The Sheep Look Up". Set in a near-future North America ruined by pollution and seething with insurrectionist tension, the novel follows a large cast of characters as they attempt to survive as best they can in a nation teetering on the edge of disaster.

Much is made of the prophetic nature of Brunner's work and, unfortunately, projections in the book that may have seemed far-fetched at the time of writing have become chillingly prescient. Although unaware of the critical nature of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and instead concentrating on environmental toxicity as his main trope, most if not all of his predictions have some degree of value today: he anticipates the rise of the neo-conservative agendas of Reagan and the Bushes (US neo-imperialism; the imbecillic, soundbite-spewing "Prexy" character), malthusian challenges with agriculture (the importing earth worms and bees to boost collapsing yields, increasing pesticide-resistance), the rise of the organic produce movement (labelled "Puritan Foods" in the novel), militant environmental/anti-globalisation activism (the "Watt" communes and "Trainites"), the tentative moves to low-emission cars (the use of electric and steam-powered cars); even the celebrity fashion for adopting babies from third world countries gets included. A number of these ideas are clearly products of their time - as with "Zanzibar", the war in Vietnam weighed heavily on Brunner's mind and this is reflected in the novel. In addition, like his contemporaries, he utterly failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union, thus Communism features overly strongly as the background antagonistic force. Having said that, with the likes of Chavez in power in Venezuela, the rise of Latin America as an enemy of the US could yet be realised.

Readers will immediately recognise Brunner's distinctive multi-strand narrative structure from "Zanzibar", which echoes that of early 20th century modernist author John Dos Passos (in particular, his Manhattan Transfer ), or more contemporaneously, the films of director Robert Altman. The story is broken down into multiple chapters of varying length, from a single sentence to a handful of pages. The chapters consist of either significant quotations, self-contained vignettes, or small portions of a continuing narrative, many of which intertwine with other narrative strands later on. Unlike "Zanzibar", the chapters are grouped together in chronological sections by month, thus covering an entire year in the fictional world; the effect of which is to present the world descent into chaos as a series of gradual, incremental changes and to emphasise the, often obscure, interconnectedness of disparate events.

This narrative style is both the novel's greatest asset and also its fundamental failing. As with "Zanzibar", it uses multiple characters and viewpoints to create an atmosphere, and to extrapolate the situation in the wider world from a series of localised snapshots. However, it sorely lacks the former novel's narrative focus. "Sheep" simply doesn't have as strong a pool of "main" characters as the likes of Donald Hogan or Norman House. As a result, the reader's attention is diffused amongst a larger number of lesser characters, whose plot threads are often so short and of such relatively little immediate consequence, it becomes a challenge to follow or to truly care about any of them. You find yourself forgetting who people are, which narrative arcs will need to be recalled later and which can be safely ignored as mere atmospheric detail. Even the Brunner cipher Austin Train fails to truly engage. Part of the appeal of "Zanzibar" came from the evocative exerpts from the fictional political works of the philosopher character Chad C. Mulligan; reading them in between the narrative chapters invoked the sense of Mulligan as an over-arching presence throughout, thus when he actually appears as a character in the narrative, the event takes on greater significance. "Sheep" lacks this feature, therefore the reader is forced to accept that Train actually is this erudite and influential philosopher who can change the world, without seeing a great deal of evidence for it in the text.

Couple all of the above with the fact that it is almost unremittingly grim and nihilistic, it's a much harder read than "Zanzibar" and thus doesn't quite attain that novel's heights. Nonetheless, even just for its strong environmental message, this novel deserves, nay DEMANDS a timely reprint (Gollancz SF Masterworks take note!). Recommended.
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on 27 March 2010
I read this book as a teenager and hunted it down on Amazon recently.

Revisiting it I am struck by how many 'hits' the author makes in his dystopian vision of the near future where man has ruined the environment. There's a President spookily similar to GW Bush, and some of the statements by the industrial spokespeople have actually been used by industry since th book was written in the early 1970's.

It's writing style is episodic, flicking from one set of characters to another along a gradually converging set of story arcs.

Quite frankly if I had the money I'd buy the movie rights, it is the '1984' of environmental meltdown.
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on 26 April 2014
It you only ever read two John Brunner Books then you must read this and Stand On Zanzibar. Both make highly effective use of a multi-strand narrative long before it became fashionable in SF. You are pulled through the book at a rapid pace by the seemingly disjointed short blocks of text and mini chapters.

It amazes me that this book fell out print so soon after publication. We should not let that happen again - as long as print matters in our increasingly digital age. Oh and if you want Brunner's take on things digital then try The Shockwave Rider.
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on 17 March 2014
I have been looking for a copy of this book for more years than I remember.

It is a must read for any with an interest in environmental matters - and for fans of science fiction. To say that it is/was prophetic in some ways is an understatement.

Having bought the book for a ridiculous amount and to find that it is being sold in some instances for nearly ten times the price can only been seen as serendipity.

A rare treat to rare and a rare book indeed!
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on 14 June 2011
This paints a depressing, polluted future that isn't too hard to believe.
It is futurist rather than science fiction, there is no real science beyond what we already have, just a look at how the world could have turned out.

Some of the ideas are nice in a dark sort of way with the effects of pollution taken beyond anything we have but in a logical way, no melodrama just a natural progression.

The characters are well written and behave is a believable manner.

There are plenty of villains from the eco-terrorists to the government to the profiteering companies and even, to a lesser extent, the unrealistic return to nature people; every group is examined and their actions woven into the plot.

There are a few different plot threads kept going right to the end and the ending itself has a few surprises.

This is like Stand On Zanzibar in that it is unrelentingly dark but I found it a more interesting read, it does lack the humour that made The Jagged Orbit a much more enjoyable book but as with those books the writing is excellent and Brunner knows how to pick a vision and stick with it right to the end.

Dark and depressing but a great read.
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on 3 April 2016
John Brunner gives us a nightmarish view of what could happen to the Earth of the future which is very relevant to how things are shaping up right now on our planet. A good read if a not a depressing image of times ahead.
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on 8 January 2004
When I was about 12 I had a copy of this book given to me and enjoyed the bit I read but didn't really appreciate all of it. Now as I revisit it some 25 years later I am just blown away - this book is more pertainent now than ever. It fully explores what happens as a culture destroys itself - G W Bush should read this before he decides to ignore the Kyoto agreement completely. And the last paragraph has to be one of the best closings I have ever read - quirky, humourous but very dark.
Buy this book, read it - think about it - you will loose sleep - then read it again.
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on 21 March 2015
I read this in the 80s and it made such an impression on me I never forgot it. Considering when it was written the author was very far sighted. It is still valid today.
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