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Classic work of science fiction
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.