Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lost Books Month: The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

"A complex tragic masterpiece... John Brunner is the Rachel Carson of science fiction."

-Ian Watson


First published in 1972 The Sheep Look Up is not currently a lost book. It has been OOP before and after some investigation into its availability from major and minor retailers I have come to the conclusion that it is once again teetering on unavailability. This is something that should not be.

Let me first praise the publisher of the current edition, BenBella Books. Their 2003 republication of this sci-fi classic is a wonderful production. From David Brin's Foreword to the very current and politically motivated Afterword by James John Bell, the BenBella edition is superb.

And still in print, according to the BenBella website.

So why why did I give it the nod for Lost Books Month? Because you can't walk into a Barnes & Noble and order a copy (except for the slipcase special edition signed by Brin for $200) let alone find one on a shelf. Because it isn't available from several book wholesalers and most importantly because it is incredibly exigent to our times once again, a thing that perhaps is both sad and good.

Sad because of the apathetic approach to a catastrophic oil spill (Is pumping oil into the sea really still just a spill?) that will without a doubt wreak nearly permanent damage to the ecosystems of the Gulf and perhaps even Florida Keys and Caribbean beyond. Sad because a decade of pro-business environmental policies have left tuna schools once again loaded with mercury and acid rain again making appearance.

Good, perhaps, because there are works like Brunner's that can auger the dreadful trajectory of our times.

So, let's dust off this noble book and let it do what it can. Namely scare you in a way you thought previously impossible.


The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. Foreword by David Brin and Afterword by James John Bell. Science Fiction. BenBella Books. Trade Paperback. 388 pps. ISBN: 1932100016. $15.95. Buy it at BenBella Books to support the publisher.

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

-from "Lycidas" by John Milton


It's a bad day in LA when you forget your gas mask and the corner drugstore's oxygen machine is on the fritz. The day gets worse when the coughing forces you to take a drink from an unfiltered water fountain. Straight tap water. You might as well go ahead and set aside the three or so hours you will spend on the toilet later.

This is a rare sort of book. Many of the things critics and writers have said about it make it seem to be more akin to the prophecies of Nostradamus than the writings of Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury. It is though, more closely related to the latter authors. It's just that in The Sheep Look Up we have a truly prescient book.

So prescient, in fact, that David Brin describes it as a "self-preventing prophecy" in his Foreword to the current BenBella edition. The book's dubious history of being Out-Of-Print or a "cult classic" is somewhat explained in its success in changing the world.

Not many books can claim such a feat. Perhaps this is why they are still in print. A joke, sort of.

Published exactly a decade after Rachel Carson's landmark environmental text, Brunner's book is quite worthy of comparison to the seminal Silent Spring. I do not say this lightly. The Sheep Look Up is a book of horrific implication and truly capable of changing perception.

It is also a brilliantly plotted novel. Brief episodic chapters catapult the reader around the world and into a not too distant future where the Earth can no longer contain or control the toxins we've been pumping out for decades. Tap water will give you a considerable stomach ache. Too much time in the open air without a gas mask will give you smoker's cough and a gravelly voice. Not to mention what the genetically modified non-food is doing to you...

Realistically speaking it is a future that we could very easily and probably will be familiar with in our lifetimes. Forget the future generation stuff.

Brunner's novel is prescient because of the environmental trajectory it speaks of. It is important, and relevant, because of the economic and political realities it is aware of. Some have said that the world of America during the Bush presidency is just one more of the Brunner prophecies but I disagree with this notion. It is too easy a folly to place such a weight on one decade. The reality is that the economics of disaster have been in place for a long time and are humming along quite nicely.

Brunner's world is one where large corporations manipulate the representative government through bribes and campaign contributions. Manufacturing companies have sought to stave off pollution reform, quite successfully, and the pharmaceutical industry has made a killing on drugs designed to repel and dispel the nasty side-effects of a thoroughly toxic world.

Not to mention the lucrative filtration business. Buy stock in gas mask manufacturers and in particular water filtration/logistics companies. It will pay off sooner than you'd like.

The world of The Sheep Look Up is our own. Politically. Economically. And soon ecologically as well. In classic sci-fi fashion there is a beautiful woman and a band of scientific do-gooders that seek to fight the machine of death that society has become.

While I know as a fact that beautiful women still inhabit our planet, I am somewhat more dubious as to whether we'll benefit from a hero such as Austin Train from The Sheep Look Up. Who wants to live a life on the run from authorities and corporate goons when you could just collect a nice check from Pfizer instead?

The sound of crickets.

Booksellers: Order a copy for your store. Readers: Buy a copy from your local bookstore or at BenBella Books. That's how you keep a book from becoming lost.

About The Author

John Brunner via Wikipedia.

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