The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoin with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spreads. –Milton, “Lycidas”
In his brilliant, shocking novel, The Sheep Look Up, published in 1972, John Brunner imagined Earth’s toxic future. The planet is in bad shape. Very bad shape.
Not only are lakes, rivers, and seas contaminated in Brunner’s classic novel, but there are Don’t Drink the Water Days, fines for not washing your hands, and a water shortage in Denver, where the the water level of lakes and rivers has dwindled. (That is happening now in Denver.) In California,where the air is the most toxic (especially in L.A.), people wear oxygen masks to breathe.
Living conditions are far from satisfactory. Lice, cockroaches, rats, and vermin have become immune to all pesticides, even to banned poisons like DDT (which, in The Sheep Look Up, is still illicitly manufactured). And the antibiotics in chicken and other food are making humans immune to antibiotics. (Sound familiar?)
There is yet another twist with the toxic food chain: Puritan, the costly organic grocery store where people pay inflated prices out of terror, is selling much of the same food one buys at the traditional supermarket.
At the center of the novel is a radical movement, the Trainites, founded by Austin Train, who got disgusted with the direction of his followers – “I am not a Trainite,” he tells a friend – and disappeared to live under the name Fred Smith and earn a living as a garbage man.
No worries: there are countless imposters who say they are Austin Train and fuel the Trainites’ voracity for action. But Train himself is a gentle genius, the author of “The Great Epidemics” (1965), “The Resistance Movement in Nature” (1972), “Preservatives and and Additives in the American Diet” (1971), “You Are What You Have to Eat” (1971), “Guide to the Survival of Mankind” (1973), and “A Handbook for 3000 A.D.” He wanted to spread awareness without pointless riots. Think of him as the scientific American Gandhi.
Peg, a radical journalist, sets out to find Austin after their friend, Decimus, another leader in the movement, dies, apparently crazy and on drugs. The media go viral with this story of the fallen hero. Peg is convinced that Decimus, who was not a drug user, was deliberately given drugs in his food or drink to destroy his reputation. Her editor doesn’t like her take on the story.
It must have been done to discredit Decimus. Must have. These stereotyped interchangeable plastic people with dollar signs in their eyes couldn’t bear to share their half-ruined planet with anyone who climbed our of his ordained grooves. A black JD dropout was meant to die in a street brawl, or better yet in jail partway through a spell of ninety-nine. For him to be loved and looked up to like a doctor or a priest, by white as well as black – that turned their stomachs!
The Americans in Brunner’s novel are constantly ill. Endless colds, diarrhea, flu, cholera, rashes, nearly incurable gonorrhea, and violent hallucinations ravage the population. In small country in Africa and in the Honduras, a foodstuff manufactured by a rich philanthropist in Colorado is laced with a hallucinatory drug that makes both countries go crazy and kill one other. Was it genocide? Was it a plot to keep third-world countries from establishing a stable government? The philanthropist says no. He says it was not drugged.
And then a huge mob of young people demonstrate in front of the factory to procure batches of the foodstuff. They say they want to be crazy.
An Irish major on a U.N. mission tells them:
“But you can’t want to go insane! You can’t want a-a bum trip that goes on for life?”
“Can’t I, baby? Are you ever wrong!” Fritz, his voice cold, dead serious, dead. “Listen, Mike, because you don’t understand and you ought to. Who’s going to be sane in this country when you know every breath you draw, every glass you fill with water, every swim you take in the river, every meal you eat is killing you? And you know why, and you know who’s doing it, and you can’t get back at the mothers.
Brunner has sketched a huge cast of vivid characters, and made most of them sympathetic. Bewildered families struggle to get by in Colorado, one man working in life insurance, a company about to go out of business because the death rate is so high, and then working with friends to run an air filter company whose air filters prove to be faulty, easily clogged with bacteria.
Many people become toxically, horrifyingly crazy.
The thing is: John Brunner was not crazy. And this novel reminds us of the long-ignored writers and advocates of environmentalism. The Sheep Look Up is a historically important novel. An environmental classic.