Brunner, John
book-date: 1972
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(Tall) Trade pb, Ex-Library
Bob Eggleton

2" non-yellowing library tape reinforcing spine - but there is so little wear that this may be uncirculated.

The Sheep Look Up - one of John Brunner's three most "serious" books (which are often referred to as a "thematic trilogy.") This one extrapolates the theme of pollution to logical extremes. The other 2 are Hugo-winning Stand On Zanzibar (overpopulation) and The Jagged Orbit (racial conflict and arms sales). This is a "cautionary tale" and a scary book - because Brunner's characters are likeable and and plausible, which makes the calamitous ending hit that much harder by showing how easy it might come to pass.

The Sheep Look Up (1972) - since I read this decades ago, I am relying on a review by Cy Chauvin from Amazing December 1973 for a coherent plot summary:
"When James Blish reviewed Brunner's The Jagged Orbit in the September, 1969, issue of this magazine, he called it "a novel of apparatus" - a book that drew its inspiration from and relied heavily on techniques developed by a writer outside sf. The Sheep Look Up, like The Jagged Orbit and Brunner's award-winning Stand on Zanzibar, uses a fragmented structure borrowed from John Dos Passes' U. S. A. The novel is split into numerous segments, consisting of poems, bits of ordinary narrative, news releases, advertisements, etc. Brunner's genius is in realizing how useful this technique might be for the sf writer, for it has given him a way to fill in the extensive' background detail often needed in a sf novel without intruding in some awkward way upon the plot and character development of the story. Brunner has found a way to largely separate these conflicting elements, and thus should be able (potentially, at least) to write a sf story that is more perfect in both these respects.

Brunner's theme in The Sheep Look Up is an obvious one: Pollution is killing us. I don't believe the author adopted it simply to be "relevant" and cash in on a trend, but I'm afraid it still seems rather cliched. Brunner undoubtably portrays the horror and stupidity of ecological catastrophe with more power than any other writer I've read, but The Sheep Look Up is supposed to be a novel, not a tract; and a novelist must be judged by his product, not his intentions, as noble as they may be.

The plot strands in The Sheep Look Up are more diverse and complicated than in Brunner's two previous "novels of apparatus." Unlike Stand on Zanzibar, for instance, there is no main character around which the novel revolves, but dozens of lesser characters whose lives gradually intertwine as the novel progresses. This is one of Brunner's more subtle ways of showing how interdependent human beings are, how each of our actions affect other people and their actions affect us... This "interdependence" is one of the prime tenets of ecologists, and by constructing his novel without a main character but simply with lots of lesser ones, Brunner drives this point home. It is also a means of implying that pollution is not the result of some big conspiracy on the part of the government, big business, the communists, or what have you, but of neglect and stupidity on the part of ordinary individuals everywhere.

But while the elimination of a main or focal character reinforces the theme of Brunner's novel, some other factors in his method of constructing the book make it less interesting to read. The various fragments in The Sheep Look Up are put together with less skill and inventiveness than in Brunner's two previous "fragmented" novels, and the future society Brunner constructs is less imaginative. The various segments are also very much alike, and are organized in irrelevant fashion; contrast this with Stand on Zanzibar, with its "context," "the happening world," "tracking with closeups," and "continuity." The major difference in construction between Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up is that is that the former would lose much of its power if done in ordinary narrative form, while the latter would not. The message is more important than the medium in The Sheep Look Up.

There is also something else that I found unusual about this novel. Brunner, despite the fact that he focuses on a wide variety of characters in the many segments of the novel, from teenagers to businessmen to black policemen, never tells the story from the viewpoint of a child. Children are often mentioned in the novel, but never really focused on. As Brunner depicts young children under ages 10 or 12 as suffering most from pollution, from deformity caused by pollutants at birth, etc., it would seem that a segment of the novel as seen from the viewpoint of a child could be most poignant. But Brunner does not include one.

The Sheep Look Up is in some ways a fine book, and I could not agree more with Brunner's theme. But "relevance" alone does not make a novel great, and unlike Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, this book is not a science fiction landmark. It yet remains for Brunner or someone else to take up where Stand on Zanzibar left off, and produce a novel that both uses the Dos Passos technique more skillfully, and is better, more imaginative science fiction." [-Cy Chauvin, Amazing December 1973.]