Sunday, February 23, 2014

John Brunner's Apocalyptic Vision

I just finished my first reading of John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up (Harper & Row, 1972) and I am more than a bit shaken by Mr. Brunner's prescient vision of a future (?) eco-apocalypse in the United States.  He must have been loaded to the gills on Rachel Carson's Silent Spring when he penned this novel, but he also had his own (very dark!) crystal ball.  Generally, my steady diet of science fiction and fantasy is centered on a future yet to arrive (say, interstellar travel or alien contact), but we're living through a lot of the elements of The Sheep Look Up at this very instant.  This book, unlike any other work of speculative fiction that I have read, gave me a chilling sense of future shock, very different and much more uncomfortable than say, reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and thinking fondly to one's self, "Brilliant, Jules Verne envisioned a modern submarine!"

The cover art of gas mask-wearing, ram-headed human torsos made an impression on me whenever I spotted the book, and I picked up a vintage hardcover at a recent library sale.  While reading, paragraph after paragraph jumped off the page at me, as if Brunner was at my elbow, pointing at the text and winking ("I warned you, didn't I?").


Brunner predicts the emergence of a food-based class divide, similar to that discussed by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma.  In the contaminated world of Sheep, higher quality organic food can be purchased for a substantial price from U.S. supermarket chain 'Puritan Market', but the book's group of eco-activists known as 'Trainites' (named in honor of fictional environmental advocate Austin Train) begin to doubt whether the food is really as natural or as pure as advertised, a significant subplot.  In Brunner's book, one publication by the fictional Austin Train is facetiously titled You Are What You Have to Eat.

Brunner takes on 'too big to fail' (p. 228): "The government couldn't go on forever bailing out mismanaged giant corporations, even though it was their own supporters, people who ranted against "UN meddling" and "creeping socialism", who yelled the loudest for Federal aid when they got into a mess...And every day senators and Congressmen who in public were inclined to turn purple at the mere mention of state control wheeled and dealed behind the scenes to secure for their home states the fattest government-financed contracts they could nab, or pleaded that if such-and-such a firm which had been run into the ground by its incompetent directors wasn't helped, the unemployment index would rise another point."

Brunner envisions a world where the climate has been dramatically changed by human activities (for example p. 226) -- leading the Mekong River Delta to become the Mekong Desert and causing the destruction of the Mediterranean Sea.  Brunner's climate bogeymen are a dirty gang of air pollution, acid rain, and the overuse of defoliants and pesticides -- no sign that he had any explicit hint of greenhouse warming.

Scarce and contaminated fish stocks are another significant problem (p. 165):  "His eyes were following a ship that had emerged into blurred view from the haze to the north: new and smart, one of the latest deep-trawling fish factories designed to bring up squid from the relatively safe bottom water.  Surface fish nowadays were either so rare as to be prohibitively expensive, like cod and herring, or hopelessly high in dangerous substances such as organic mercury."  Hopefully, folks reading this blog are aware that EPA has recommended that women of child-bearing age and all children avoid eating any large/top level predator fish, such as swordfish, due to their mercury content.  Once we run out of ocean fish, that won't be much of a problem.

Debilitating outbreaks of enteritis (p. 198 and many more) and other contagions haunt the book, which are coincidentally spooky given the ever-present news stories regarding outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships and also on land.  Even the venerable Victorian-era resort The Mohonk Mountain House in New York recently (February 2014) shut its doors temporarily due to a norovirus outbreak.  Brunner suggests that too many antibiotics in the food supply have created superbugs and weakened human immunity to the breaking point.

Is there anything new under the sun?  And why would you want to read the book based on this rosy picture of it?  Well, it's a rollicking ride, given that Brunner's black humor is likely to make you bark out loud while reading.  Many humorous moments revolve around a straight-talking, shoot-from-the-hip U.S. President who goes by the moniker 'Prexy' and may be more than a little reminiscent of a certain former leader.  There is a giant cast of characters that coalesces around the book's major mystery - why did a large group of refugees in a war-torn African country go stark raving and violently mad after eating relief supplies from the U.S. - specifically a new miracle foodstuff called Nutripon, derived from cassava and promising to solve the world's hunger problems?  The book is also enjoyable for its experimental structure, which includes invented quotes and news stories alongside snippets from historical song and literature (that seem in hindsight to encourage humankind's heavy-handed and short-sighted dominion over our planet), wildly-varying chapter length and use of inventive and wry subchapter titles, and in general, a poke-the-reader-in-the-eye delivery.  I had the double misfortune of being loaned a copy of Kunstler's The Long Emergency while reading Sheep -- whatever you do after digesting this snapshot of a very unique work of speculative fiction, don't read those two books together.  Whatever the continually unfolding future ultimately brings -- I wish us all good luck.