John Brunner: The Sheep Look Up

The Sheep Look Up is definitely not a book for the faint at heart -- it's one of the most horrifying novel I have ever read. It is not what you call a horror novel; in fact, it rings too true to ever be misconstrued as a horror novel.

A true 1970's novel, The Sheep Look Up deals with the subject of pollution, quite simply. It is set in a world that is not too different from the reality of the seventies -- at least not from the reality as it was perceived by the likes of Rachel Welsh and the environmentalists world-wide: a world where the soil is saturated with herbicides, the air is so much polluted that most people can't endure it without a filter mask, birth rates are going down, the Mediterranean sea has dried out, and wars are breaking out all over the world.

Written in the style he perfected in The Shockwave Rider, The sheep look up follows the lives of a number of people -- an insurance salesman, a nurse, an Irish soldies, a journalist, the son of a wealthy oil producer, and others -- to portray the interplay of cause and effect, the net of interrelations that spans the whole world, and from which no-one can escape. The book is written in short signets, ranging in length from a few lines to a couple of pages, interspersed with advertisements, news flashes, public speeches and the like.

As dark and pessimistic as his later The Sockwave Rider undoubtedly is, it still contains an element of mercy, of hope. You will not, repeat, not find this in The Sheep Look Up. Just when you think that the sitauation cannot get any worse, the auther always finds a twist of fate that will bring even more disaster upon his characters -- or switch to a different setting that is even more dismal. Natural -- or unnatural, as they are caused by man -- catastrophes, wars, acts of terrorism and violence, always with the main characters in their midst, follow each other blow on blow.

When I first read this book, I wondered how someone could be so unfeeling and sadistic -- but that is not it. The action in the book just happens, without any real intention, because of the environment man has created -- the inventions return to plague the inventor. The characters are seen as not having a choice other than to follow the course that is predetermined for them by their environment.

Read with this in mind, the book is a moving plea not to allow anyone to create this kind of environment. Having grown up in the eighties and nineties of the last millennium, the pessimism this book radiates is not really natural to me; I think I grew up in an era when people began to understand this book's message, and slowly began to become conscious about the problems it portrays. So the book can also be read as a document of the public's perception of pollution in the seventies, I think -- but even more so as a fantastic and challenging science fiction story.

Copyright © 1999--2004 Sebastian Marius Kirsch , all rights reserved.