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The Sheep Look Up

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An enduring classic, this book offers a dramatic and prophetic look at the potential consequences of the escalating destruction of Earth. In this nightmare society, air pollution is so bad that gas masks are commonplace. Infant mortality is up, and everyone seems to suffer from some form of ailment. The water is polluted, and only the poor drink from the tap. The government is ineffectual, and corporate interests scramble to make a profit from water purifiers, gas masks, and organic foods. Environmentalist Austin Train is on the run. The Trainites, environmental activists and sometime terrorists, want him to lead their movement. The government wants him in jail, or preferably, executed. The media wants a circus. Everyone has a plan for Train, but Train has a plan of his own. This suspenseful science fiction drama is now available to a new generation of enthusiasts.

This is the first Ballantine printing.
Cover Artists: Irving Freeman & Mark Rubin

461 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published August 1, 1972

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About the author

John Brunner

510 books405 followers
John Brunner was born in Preston Crowmarsh, near Wallingford in Oxfordshire, and went to school at St Andrew's Prep School, Pangbourne, then to Cheltenham College. He wrote his first novel, Galactic Storm, at 17, and published it under the pen-name Gill Hunt, but he did not start writing full-time until 1958. He served as an officer in the Royal Air Force from 1953 to 1955, and married Marjorie Rosamond Sauer on 12 July 1958

At the beginning of his writing career Brunner wrote conventional space opera pulp science fiction. Brunner later began to experiment with the novel form. His 1968 novel "Stand on Zanzibar" exploits the fragmented organizational style John Dos Passos invented for his USA trilogy, but updates it in terms of the theory of media popularised by Marshall McLuhan.

"The Jagged Orbit" (1969) is set in a United States dominated by weapons proliferation and interracial violence, and has 100 numbered chapters varying in length from a single syllable to several pages in length. "The Sheep Look Up" (1972) depicts ecological catastrophe in America. Brunner is credited with coining the term "worm" and predicting the emergence of computer viruses in his 1975 novel "The Shockwave Rider", in which he used the term to describe software which reproduces itself across a computer network. Together with "Stand on Zanzibar", these novels have been called the "Club of Rome Quartet", named after the Club of Rome whose 1972 report The Limits to Growth warned of the dire effects of overpopulation.

Brunner's pen names include K. H. Brunner, Gill Hunt, John Loxmith, Trevor Staines, Ellis Quick, Henry Crosstrees Jr., and Keith Woodcott.
In addition to his fiction, Brunner wrote poetry and many unpaid articles in a variety of publications, particularly fanzines, but also 13 letters to the New Scientist and an article about the educational relevance of science fiction in Physics Education. Brunner was an active member of the organisation Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and wrote the words to "The H-Bomb's Thunder", which was sung on the Aldermaston Marches.

Brunner had an uneasy relationship with British new wave writers, who often considered him too American in his settings and themes. He attempted to shift to a more mainstream readership in the early 1980s, without success. Before his death, most of his books had fallen out of print. Brunner accused publishers of a conspiracy against him, although he was difficult to deal with (his wife had handled his publishing relations before she died).[2]

Brunner's health began to decline in the 1980s and worsened with the death of his wife in 1986. He remarried, to Li Yi Tan, on 27 September 1991. He died of a heart attack in Glasgow on 25 August 1995, while attending the World Science Fiction Convention there

K H Brunner, Henry Crosstrees Jr, Gill Hunt (with Dennis Hughes and E C Tubb), John Loxmith, Trevor Staines, Keith Woodcott

Winner of the ESFS Awards in 1980 as "Best Author" and 1n 1984 as "Novelist"..

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5 stars
1,712 (33%)
4 stars
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3 stars
1,034 (20%)
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172 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 514 reviews
Profile Image for carol..
1,576 reviews8,233 followers
Shelved as 'don-t-count'
May 9, 2021
I think I might DNF this one.

Honestly, I feel like I'm reading the newspaper and the Sierra Club's journal on a particularly bad day. Knowing that this was written forty years ago makes it even worse; you mean we knew these problems were coming and still didn't fix them? We start with gas masks in L.A. (hello, China),

pesticide resistant bugs eating modified crops (hello, Monsanto and Round-Up),

water unsafe for swimming or drinking (hello, red algae blooms and oil spills)

walled enclaves and armed guards (hello, rich gated communities everywhere)


testing for lead and arsenic poisoning (sigh, still)

and I just had enough. In this case, the one star rating is truly a reflection of the "I didn't like it" school of rating, not authorial skill.

Maybe I'll try it again when I'm feeling super-chippy-sunshiney-rainbows.
Profile Image for Susan Budd.
Author 6 books225 followers
February 26, 2020
Why are all the dystopian novels I read in my teens coming true? I have to keep reminding myself that this is science fiction from the 70s, not real life here and now.

• “Don’t Drink” notices warn people when the tap water isn’t safe to drink.
• The less fortunate are given synthetic food to eat, while the well-to-do pay top-dollar at an organic food market.
• The President’s dictum regarding the press is: “If the papers know what’s good for them they’ll print what’s good for America” (192).

When I first read The Sheep Look Up, I enjoyed it as I did most science-fiction—as a work of pure imagination. I didn’t see that Brunner’s dark vision of the future was a prophecy that I would see fulfilled. I was too young and unaware.

Reading it again in December 2016 was a radically different experience. I read it knowing that...

• The people of Flint still cannot drink their water.
• The only alternative to eating genetically-modified food is paying top-dollar for organic.
• We just elected Tr... (Nope. I still can’t say it.)

But this is what Brunner says in The Sheep Look Up.

“...there’s an ingrained distrust in our society of highly intelligent, highly trained, highly competent persons. One need only look at the last presidential election for proof of that. The public obviously wanted a figurehead, who’d look good and make comforting noises” (336-337).

Prophetic, right? Hopefully it won’t get as bad as it does in the novel. But it’s not easy to be optimistic.

Still no hallucinogens in the food though.

Believe it or not, this book was the assigned reading in a high school English class I took back in the late 70s. Coolest teacher ever!
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
November 24, 2022
“The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swollen with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread”--Lycidas, Milton

I am quite sure that I picked up this 1972 dystopian novel in the mid-seventies and did not finish it, finding it too grim and pessimistic for even my environmentalist inclinations at the time. Hey, Earth Day (circa 1970) was taken seriously by some of us, then, and hopefully. But I saw Gabrielle’s review and her claim that this book deserves a place on the shelf (and in millions of readers’ hands) with the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World and It Can’t Happen Here and I picked it up again and actually finished it. And I would add its likeness to The Enemy of the People, as it involves deliberate corporate environmental devastation that everyone largely ignores until it is (almost?) too late.

It’s difficult to read on several fronts: 1) The prophetic bad news; 2) the style of the book, which is more a collage than a narrative: a series of news reports, advertisements, and short vignettes of several characters, many of whom never cross paths. The result is a kind of portrait of a planet, with particular focus on the USA. The main plot revolves around suspect cases of deliberate poisoning by the U.S.-based Bamberley Trust corporation of their Nutripon relief food supplies directed to Africa and Central America. The infected people go mad and kill each other. Why would any human beings do that? Well, think about it: In the near future, the West just might need the resources of a large planet such as Africa.

By the end of the book, rioting and civil unrest sweep the United States, with water and food shortages, disease, lack of services, rage against the oppressive, nationalistic government/companies; all services (military, government, private, infrastructure) break down. There’s an epilogue that urges action, and shows a way to a collective set of possible solutions. Did we heed the dire warnings?

Lucky thing no one in power has ever taken seriously the warnings of science fiction writers such as John Brunner and those anti-business, anti-“progress” commies and hippies and scientists that claim the world’s air and water is being poisoned and its resources rapaciously plundered. Glad we are getting rid of all those pesky scientific fake-news studies extending back to Rachel Carson and we can go on with things as usual. I am sure everything will be just fine if we do nothing.

(For a contemporary reference Brunner anticipated, Rachel Maddow's Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth). And rampant mass murder gun killings in the U.S of A., fueling the purchase of more and more guns, natch. That'll solve everything, obviously.

Do I recommend this book? Nah, just read the news.

“No one except possibly the late John Brunner, in his brilliant novel The Sheep Look Up, has ever described anything in science fiction that is remotely like the reality of 2007 as we know it"—William Gibson
Profile Image for Adam.
558 reviews360 followers
February 12, 2009
Stop you’re killing me!
David ”The Postman” Brin says in the intro that John Brunner scared the crap out of people in the 60’s , well he scares the crap out of me today. The label “Science Fiction” could be safely removed from this book as it is sadly becoming a realistic portrait of our very own moment in history. A primal scream treatment for anyone who survived the dread and anxiety of the Bush years (written 30 years before it occurred) and a dreadful prophecy of the environmental grave we are digging for ourselves. This is supposed to be a pitch black satire, a warning, which makes it even more poignant. This book seems to infect reality as you read it, I read about uncontrolled avalanches hitting ski resorts than hear about it on the radio the next day, food born illness hitting country wide and then peanuts! Leaner and darker than Brunner’s other magnum opus Stand on Zanzibar this nightmare needs to be read to be believed. Trust me; we are already living in its pages
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,883 reviews16.6k followers
May 24, 2021
A writer, director, publicist and producer sit in a trendy Hollywood restaurant, discussing plans to make a film about John Brunner’s 1972 novel The Sheep Look Up.

Writer (looking at his Rolex): Let’s get this started, I’ve got a one o’clock hot yoga class.

Producer: It’s dark, I mean really dark, everyone is diseased, there’s rampant crime, corrupt industry is polluting the world, corrupt and ineffective governments perpetuating the decline of western civilization.

Director (sipping a Martini): Brunner is very critical of America, it’s our fault, especially white culture, he really lets western culture have it, what’s happening all over the world. The pestilence and infestations, rats eating babies, flies, rot, disease, bad food distribution. He shows how we can’t trust governments, big business, media, etc etc.

Publicist: Anti-western civ is hot right now.

Producer: And this is scary, this is a nightmare vision, prophetic from the early 70s, Brunner paints a very ugly picture of how things get bad and worse.

Writer: I didn’t like this as much as Stand on Zanzibar, he was too over the top with his message of disease, pollution, crime, and corruption. I did like the way he put it all together, like Stand on Zanzibar as a loosely related series of vignettes and advertisements, news broadcasts, lots of characters, lots of perspectives.

Director (tapping cigarette ashes into a half-eaten salad): We can film in Hungary, lots of great Soviet era ruined buildings, we can make that a dystopian landscape. Plus, we’ll save a fortune filming overseas.

Producer: The way Brunner describes the hypocrisy of the ruling class, I LOVED IT!

Publicist: Is this a dystopian book or post-apocalyptic? Either is great, fear sells.

Writer: More dystopian, but also a post-apocalyptic vision. Brunner is documenting the sharp decline, people wearing gas masks because the air is foul, you get a skin disease if you use tap water, poor healthcare, it’s just a mess. I think Paolo Bacigalupi may have been influenced by this when he wrote Windup Girl in 2009.

Producer: I can talk to George Miller’s people and try to use some of the set from Fury Road, we’ll make Brunner’s ugly vision even worse.

Publicist: Fear sells.

Writer: But this is also a cautionary tale, Brunner is warning us to not be complacent, the eco-terrorists in his novel are fighting back against a corrupt system, he’s trying to teach us something. Our film can be a learning event, educational.

All laugh.

Publicist: We’re going to be filthy rich! I smell an Oscar.

Profile Image for Cosmin Leucuța.
Author 12 books455 followers
May 25, 2022
N-am mai fost atât de furios și de deprimat din cauza unei cărți din 2008, când am citit pentru prima dată „Greybeard”, al lui Brian Aldiss (o carte asemănătoare cu asta, despre degradarea speciei umane ca urmare a greșelilor proprii).

Cartea asta este... cum să vă zic eu, nu neapărat puternică, ci mai degrabă profetică.

Stilul e simplu și eficient, povestește despre un viitor (nu foarte îndepărtat de prezentul nostru) în care:
- oamenii nu au mai văzut soarele de foarte mult timp din cauza poluării din aer,
- oamenii nu pot face baie în mări din cauza gunoaielor care plutesc pe ape,
- ploaia e atât de acidă și murdară încât găurește hainele pe care le atinge,
- nu poți ieși afară din casă fără o mască de gaze pe față,
- puținii copaci care mai există nu mai rodesc,
- mâncarea nu are niciun gust pentru că e sintetică (terenurile agricole au fost poluate complet),
- toți copii se nasc (atunci când reușesc să se nască) având defecte de ordin fizic sau psihic,
- absolut fiecare om viu suferă de vreo afecțiune cauzată de poluarea din aer și din apă,
- paranoia și furia și deznădejdea îi împinge pe mulți la acte de violență de nedescris.

Povestea asta m-a înfuriat, m-a speriat și m-a făcut să mă întreb: cât mai avem până când o să ieșim și noi la plimbare prin parcuri lipsite de copaci, purtând măști de gaze pe față? Era un SF acum 50 de ani, când a fost publicată, dar acum e pe punctul de a deveni o foarte dură realitate.
O recomand cum n-am mai recomandat vreo carte până acum.
Profile Image for Melki.
6,047 reviews2,391 followers
September 8, 2016
If you visit American city,
You will find it very pretty.
Just two things of which you must beware:
Don't drink the water and don't breathe the air!

"How often do I have to tell you? You never go outside without your mask!"

Brunner's book, published in the early seventies, has to be one of the earlier ecopocalypse novels. His descriptions are stunningly prescient. Take a look at his portrait of the Pacific Ocean:

The water looked more like oil. It was dark gray and barely moved to the breeze. Along the edge of the sand was a rough demarcation line composed of garbage, mainly plastic. Big signs read: THIS BEACH UNSAFE FOR SWIMMING.

It's not fiction anymore . . .


Lots of things there that you can drink,
But stay away from the kitchen sink!
The breakfast garbage that you throw into the Bay
They drink at lunch in San Jose.

This book is a difficult read. First, there is the thoroughly depressing subject matter. REALLY BAD THINGS happen to grownups, children, and infants. There are a ton of characters, some pop up only for a chapter or two. Much of the narrative is disjointed and difficult to follow, particularly on an e-reader. But, stick with it. You'll be horrified and outraged.

See the halibuts and the sturgeons
Being wiped out by detergeons.
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly,
But they don't last long if they try.

Corporate greed, riots, and epidemics - there's a real ripped-from-today's headlines feel to this one, and it's not pleasant.

I'd take some Valium, but then the plastic container will end up in the ocean.
I suppose banging one's head against the wall is another option . . .

So go to the city,
See the crazy people there.
Like lambs to the slaughter,
They're drinking the water
And breathing [cough] the air!

*Pollution by Tom Lehrer - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPrAu...
Profile Image for William.
676 reviews339 followers
January 8, 2021
Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up were two of my favourite books at university, and the covers even appear in my Master's Thesis.

Brunner wrote a few truly awful sci-fi books, and then "something happened" and he wrote these two masterpieces. Truly Awesome books!

The cover when I read it in the 1970s

Full size image here
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 12 books103 followers
October 25, 2007
The Sheep Look Up is a prime example of Science Fiction at its scariestly prescient (like that word, "scariestly"?:-). John Brunner portrays a world where the United States is run by a president who is eerily reminscent of George W. Bush -- a complete idiot, a figurehead run by his cabinet and given to fighting many small wars. The world is in the middle of an ecodisaster brought about by inexorable population pressure and the systematic abuse of chemicals. Antibiotic resistant diseases are in full bloom, insects have evolved significant resistance to insecticides and are starting to overwhelm the huge industrial farmers, organized crime runs nearly everything as a "shadow government" looking out only for itself. I mean, it is really spooky.

On top of this general background, a load of food (produced as one would imagine by an industrialist with political connections who makes a bundle on the deal) is delivered to a small village in war-torn Africa. Upon eating it, the villagers go mad -- they die, kill one another horribly, have strange hallucinations. The government blames the United States, of course, which blandly denies it and the book moves on to a stunning conclusion (with all SORTS of plot that I'm going to omit).

When you first start to read this book it feels a bit odd. Brunner uses a very strange literary style, one that he more or less invented and used (as far as I know) only in two novels -- Stand on Zanzibar (where it didn't work, at least for me) and The Sheep Look Up, where it is pretty amazing. His story consists of a staccato burst of short chapters presented as anything from straight prose to journalistic blurbs. The chapters at first seem inchoate, scattered, disconnected, but as the story evolves they are gradually, smoothly, wound together until they form a completely coherent whole and the book moves through to its inevitable conclusion.

Given that our world of today corresponds with Brunner's vision to an absolutely terrifying extent, all readers should pay careful attention to that conclusion. Evolution in action indeed (although that's a line from another excellent SF novel I'll review at another time and place...;-).

Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,109 followers
October 8, 2021

So, it turns out this 1972 book that was "too edgy, too dystopic, too environmentally pessimistic" for its time turned out to be just about on-target for about 15 years ago. All the pathogens, fungus, chemical pollutants, all seemed to hit the ACTUAL dystopic levels.

And worse, the political ramifications, even though they appear different, sure seem right on target for today. Lies, lies, corruption, greed, lies, and a little obsfucution. Add in the racism angle, amp it up to realistic proportions for today, and then stir in the full eco-punk ethos.

John Brunner, already a fantastic SF author in any age, really called it on this one.

The darkness in these pages should have made everyone in the '70s perk up and pay attention. We ignored all the warnings, however, and here we are. Again. And now we live in John Brunner's novel.

Okay, maybe most of us no longer live in QUITE that much air pollution, where we have to wear gas masks, but I seem to recall days in the '90s where it was DAMN close before the cities cleaned up the breathable pea soup.

But damn, we never seem to learn, do we?

And yes, the story and the characters are quite fun. Serious, idealistic, or utterly corrupt and pretending for their very lives.

I'm reminded, all over again, why I read through Brunner's entire catalog in the early '90s and loved it.
Profile Image for Dave Lefevre.
148 reviews9 followers
January 11, 2012
This has to be one of the most frightening books I have ever read. My favorite science fiction author is Phillip K. Dick, whose sense of extrapolation was amazing. However the extrapolations that Brunner has made in this book leaves most PKD novels in the dust, and that's one of the reasons this books is so unsettling.

While I was reading I couldn't resist to urge to write down some of the speculations that Brunner made in this novel that are uncomfortably like the world we see right now. Here is my non-exhaustive list.

- A right-wing government that wishes to promote it's own version of reality despite of the facts on the ground. Also a group of people that are willing to follow that government no matter what.

- The rise of a culture of false dilemma. (i.e. "You're either for us or you're against us.")

- The rise of "Wars on ______" that are used to bring "states of emergency" and suspend civil rights.

- A contracting media sector that is more interested in entertainment and ratings than providing solid information and that is centered on a corporate agenda.

- Wars meant to secure raw materials that the U.S. is running out of.

- The rise of unemployment and a class of people considered "unemployable."

- The classification of anyone concerned about environmental issues or concerned with corporate power as "Un-American," "Hippies," or the like (ironically causing a backlash where reasonable people are marginalized which gives rise to real anti-American and anti-Corporate radicalism).

- A system of new classes were the rich live behind armed gates and have access to good food, water, etc., while most others are relegated to slums (I know we aren't at this point yet, but we're headed in this direction and we do already have gated communities).

- The staunch belief that anyone sick somehow a fault for that sickness (a kind of neo-Purtainism) and the inability for most people to find good health care at a fair price.

- Insects and micro-organisms becoming resistent due to the constant use of insecticides and antibiotics.

- Corporations not held accountable for breaking laws (massive infractions given low fines).

- The rise of false "health food" and similar corporate fraud.

- Corporations preventing legal actions by way of SLAPP lawsuits and other legal harassment of individuals.

- Government handouts to corporations keeping badly managed companies out if bankruptcy (yes! it's in there!) and other rampant corporate socialism.

And that's just what I have written down. There's a lot of minor predictions, too. For instance, computer modeling takes a center stage near the end of the book. (However I like more sci-fi authors Brunner didn't foresee the personal computer revolution, leading to that odd situation you sometimes see in PKD novels where the people live in a computer society but people writing letters still use mechanical typewriters!)

Anyway... these type of parallels makes reading this book a spooky experience. Luckily the massive breakdown of environment we see in this novel is not currently happening, though we sure have seen instances on a limited scale (like the 1980s Union Carbide disaster and towns that have been contaminated by PCBs and caused massive birth defects). The reason why is, for the most part, we haven't taken an all-or-noting attitude to these problems. However these attitudes have been increasing and it still makes this book seem like it could be one of our possible futures.

While looking around on the Internet for people's comments on one of these books, on reviewer referred to this book as "Marxist" because of it's comments against industry. Isn't the irony in that delicious? This reviewer helped show how right Brunner was in one nasty review!
Profile Image for George Kaslov.
100 reviews138 followers
May 13, 2021
Looks like I am writing a review for one of John Brunner's books. Let's just quickly copy and paste this bit from the previous one:

"Why oh Why are cynics, skeptics, pessimists and satirists such good oracles. I know things are nowhere near that bad, but there are a lot of good predictions there with a whole lot of counter culture sprinkled all over."

So, what is Sheep look up about? ... Oh, just about the complete ecological, economic and social collapse of the world with special focus on America. The water is unfit to drink, the air is unbreathable, and in certain places like California the Sun is invisible. And due to irresponsible use of pesticides and antibiotics, everyone is not only poisoned but also diseased. Of course you can't do anything about it because that would harm business... Don't look at the news, depression lies there.

While the experience of reading Stand of Zanzibar was like channel surfing at 2 AM, Sheep Look Up's experience was like watching a 50 car car-crash in slow motion, from the perspective from all of their windshields and narrated by Morgan Freeman.

With all of that the Author again chose a fitting title, and this time from a Milton quote:

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

And again, I love this book, but I can't tell you why.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,219 reviews9,923 followers
January 27, 2018
See the halibut and the sturgeons
Being wiped out by detergents
Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly
But they don’t last long if they try
Pollution, pollution, wear a gas mask and a veil
Then you can breath as long as you don’t inhale

Sang Tom Lehrer, and seven years later John Brunner wrote the book of the song. I love that rhyme – sturgeons/detergents – and I have to admit it’s way more fun to listen to two minutes of Tom than it is to plough through this jeremiad of a novel from 1972. It’s like one of those Robert Altman movies which interweave a zillion stories – Short Cuts, Nashville – but all the stories are about one thing – THE WORLD IS FALLING APART ROUND YOUR EARS, YOUR KIDS ARE ALL ILL WITH ALLERGIES AND YOUR RIGHT BIG TOE IS ABOUT TO FALL OFF AND DON’T EAT THAT, IT’S MADE FROM INDUSTRIAL WASTE. ALSO, YOU'RE FIRED.

So where it isn’t confusing because of the zillion characters and the constant jump cuts (no section lasting more than three pages) it’s gloomy and depressingly accurate too – one of the nasty things he mentions is that the Great Barrier Reef was turning white and dying; another thing is that everyone is gradually becoming resistant to antibiotics. Both of those were in the news this very week. And every five minutes David Attenborough or one of his henchmen is telling me there are only 27 pangolins left in central Asia. Who wants to live on a planet with no pangolins?

So I think The Sheep Look Up (which in this novel they better not do or they’ll be bound to get a faceful of DDT) is a well-orchestrated miseryfest which we no longer need to read as we can just turn on the tv and it’s all right there.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,931 reviews438 followers
January 22, 2021
In the alt-universe of 'The Sheep Look Up' by John Brunner remarkable times call for remarkable action. America responds with its usual can-do character!

The air is no longer quite breathable. The water is poisoned with chemicals from farming, food product additives, pharmaceuticals, plastics, sewage and defoliants. The oceans are dead. No one can remember when they last saw a bird. Even flies are rare. When sunlight breaks through the dust-laden air, it is announced on the television by an affable announcer. Food yields are dropping despite everything possible the laboratories have thrown at the soils and pests. It isn’t positively proven, but the IQ’s of children appear to be dropping, along with longevity and physical strength.

Yet Big Industry and the American Government is fighting back! The rich are busy developing new food products, such as Nutripon, which unfortunately is making people sick in tests, and selling purified air and water - to those who can afford it. Jobs are created when they build hydroponic factories higher up in the mountains in areas - where people are not too sick and weak. The government is stressing people should keep having children - in spite of the reports of more birth defects. All products have required labels! The Pentagon is encouraging young men to respond to their draft notices.

Congress has introduced more laws to control 'irresponsible', although true, news reporting that might cause riots and panic. Stories of a mysterious illness causing madness and murder in Africa and South America after their starving people are fed samples of the new miracle foods being developed are quickly suppressed. Also suppressed are stories about the terrorist activities of a group, Trainites, hiding in the garbage-strewn cities only to show themselves in painting a black skull and crossbones on cars and buildings which emit pollution.

The doctors search for antibiotics that still work against fungal attacks and other diseases debilitating most people.

Whatever. The people of America are reassured by the Media and the Government and Big Business. The rashes, sores and infections everyone is afflicted with will be under control soon. Life goes on. No worries. Be happy.

The book covers every aspect of the current 2021 environmental problems besetting the 8 billion humans on Earth today; remarkably, ‘The Sheep Look Up’ was written in 1972. If you have any doubts about John Brunner’s extrapolated ideas of what an almost completely polluted earth will look like, I suggest you read The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,018 reviews1,185 followers
November 1, 2017
“I am as guilty as you, and you are as guilty as me. We can repent together, or we can die together; it must be our joint decision.”

Urg. I need a new Goodreads shelf that I will call “Please, please, please make this fiction again”. “The Sheep Look Up” will go on it, next to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Brave New World” and “It Can’t Happen Here”.

This book is set in a world where careless and entitled human attitudes have destroyed the environment to the point where you need to wear a gas mask when you venture out of your house, you can’t drink the water because pollution has ruined rivers and oceans all over the world, crop failings on a massive scale has made fresh produce a luxury only the very wealthy can afford (while lower classes survive on processed… edibles), the government is increasingly controlled by corporations and a bunch of diseases have mutated to resist antibiotics and other medication. People have become extremely polarized and every issue is an “us vs. everyone else” sort of deal, entertainment news are the headlines instead of actual world events of consequences, the president is basically a puppet for smarter and more ruthless political strategists, and if you are concerned about the environment then you are a dirty liberal hippie. Just a reminder: this was science-fiction in 1972!

The narrative of “The Sheep Look Up” is a collage of newspaper clippings, advertisements, poems, public announcements and more traditional chapters that cover a period of a year. All these entries seem to orbit around a contaminated shipment of relief nutrients that ends up driving an entire small African village insane, and Austin Train; a scientist now considered to be a traitor and dissident by the authorities, who want him dead. On the other hand, he is hailed as a hero by a group of violent environmental activists (think Greenpeace gone terrorist). But not unlike Ian MacKaye, he’s not quite sure what these people are doing in his name has anything to do with what he talked and wrote about before he had to go in hiding. There is a lot of civil unrest just under the surface, and Philip Mason, Peg Mankiewicz, Lucy Ramage, Hugh Pettingill and a handful of other characters watch the world collapse around them. We see their struggle to give their children good health care, to expose the cycle of corruption that keeps the status quo in place, to right the wrongs done to their planet. Their stories are interconnected because that’s how human lives are: linked to each other – and losing sight of that is the first step down a pretty bad road.

This is not what I would call a fun read: it’s bleak and depressing, but it should be read by absolutely everyone. It’s a cautionary tale of the most alarming kind: the kind you can actually see unfold in front of your eyes when you watch the news. Sure, some elements are dated and betray the context in which it was written, such as the archaic technology, some outrageous racist and sexist attitudes and a handful of hilarious expressions nobody uses anymore. But you will cringe when you read this. A lot. Because its uncomfortably familiar and eerily prescient. And the rapidly escalating rhythm of the last hundred or so pages will freak you out.

I rated it 4 and a half stars because the tone is sometimes so dry that it’s difficult to differentiate between the various characters’ points of view. I would be reading and then stopping to think “Wait, who is this guy again?”. If it hadn’t been for that, I would have been tempted to call this book perfect in it’s devastating portrayal of an all-too realistic ecopocalypse.

Read it, vote, recycle.
Profile Image for Penny.
172 reviews348 followers
February 9, 2015
I can't say I enjoyed the majority of this book. The style is very broken, telling many stories at once with very little indication of how they're related.

It's a bleak world where the climate is broken and polluted, the government is controlling and full of platitudes and outright lies, food and water is scarce, you need filtered masks to breath outside in the cities, and poverty is rampant. The story follows the lives of a number of people and how they survive in the world as it now stands.

It isn't a book I'd easily recommend to anyone, but I'm glad to have read it. It paints a very bleak picture, one that I'm not certain we can avoid. It makes for a great warning of the future we might have to endure while still producing an interesting plot.

It isn't an easy book to read, nor is it comfortable. But it certainly is worth reading.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,169 reviews1,143 followers
June 15, 2020
DNF at 50%.

Why? Because to me the book reads like this:

Boring character (3 paragraphs)
Random horrible event
Flat character (4 paragraphs)
Main horrible event
Boring character (wait, did he/she appear before? I could not remember)
Random horrible event
Uninteresting character (3 paragraphs)
Snippet about main/random horrible event
Dull character (4 paragraphs)
Random horrible event
....ad infinitum.

I think I will appreciate the book better if 1) it's better written/edited (the sentences are so sloppy/choppy, narrative disjointed) because it is so frustrating to read and 2) if I read it in the 70s or 80s. Now, it feels like reading a news compilation but taken to the extreme. I might be so desensitized already so it is no longer fascinating.
Profile Image for Ajeje Brazov.
729 reviews
September 24, 2019
Il gregge alza la testa, è stata una lettura davvero interessante e piena di spunti riflessivi: su chi siamo, che cosa facciamo, perchè, credendo di essere gli esseri viventi più "importanti" sulla Terra, pensiamo di poter fare ciò che ci pare dell'ambiente circostante. Quindi mi sento di consigliarlo a tutti, prima di tutto perchè non si tratta di fantascienza vera e propria, anzi direi che letto 40 anni dopo la stesura mi sembra più un resoconto della società di inizio 21° secolo, quasi tutto combacia e direi anche in modo inquietante: problema dei rifiuti incontrollabile, inquinamento dei fiumi, mari e oceani alle stelle, la finzione e gli inganni del mondo della televisione, il classismo sfrenato, la finta/falsa beneficenza, la voglia schizofrenica verso il potere assoluto su tutto e tutti, insomma "una spremuta de saaaangue"....
Diciamo che nel complesso il "tono" usato dallo scrittore è ironico, però in alcuni punti mi è salita un po' di tristezza ed amara delusione perchè "sembra" che il genere umano ci provi "gusto" a farsi del male da solo, perchè distruggere l'ambiente equivale a distruggere se stesso! Amen!
Profile Image for Mary.
74 reviews17 followers
June 2, 2017
The title of the novel is a quotation from the poem Lycidas by Paradise Lost author John Milton:

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

This is an important book, with a capital “I”. It is a shame everyone doesn’t read it, and even more of a shame that many who would read it would dismiss it as silly liberal propaganda as they have dismissed all discussions on climate change. Because it was written in 1972, before some of the gains of the sexual revolution and civil rights had been realized and when the population of the United States was about 100 million less, some of the words and attitudes seem a bit out of date, i.e. use of fuzz or pig for police; the remarks Peg, as a female reporter, has to endure just because she is good-looking; what is considered wealthy, the price of things and the scale of the economy, etc. Kind of like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies who, because he is transported to the future from the 60s, puts a pinky to his mouth and demands a ransom of One Million Dollars! to save the world from destruction (and everyone giggles).

The events that take place, though, don’t seem out of place at all with current times. They seem eerily prescient. Any one of the increasingly common news items and disasters in the story could happen, and do, happen every day now in 2012.....pollution, boil water notices, accidental poisonings, acid rain, ruined rivers, streams and oceans, birth defects linked to medications, antibiotic-resistant diseases, endless wars, riots, crop disasters, increasing rate of earthquakes, deforestation, extinction of species, rise of corporate controlled government and total collapse of the environment. The whole world is rotting and the core of that rot is the United States with its population of proud, polluting, entitled, careless, clueless millions with their attitudes of we are the best, our way is the only right way, everything was put on this earth just for us, etc. Or so says the author.

The book is written in chapters of varying length, some just a few words, a poem, a sign or a press release. A little disconcerting at first but it all adds up to a concise picture and the inevitable conclusion from Austin Train and others that the only way to cure the Earth’s ills is . Great book.
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11.2k followers
August 29, 2009
4.5 stars. A brilliant novel. Not as good as Stands on Zanzibar, but that is not much of a criticism given that Zanzibar is one of the best novels ever written IMHO. This is a novel that explores the effect of unchecked out of control pollution and environmental collapse. Recommended.

Nominee: Nebula Award Best Novel
Nominee:(6th place) Locus Award Best Science Fiction Novel
Profile Image for Lizz.
234 reviews56 followers
May 1, 2021
I have so much to say.
I’m trying to think it through.
How can I speak without
alienating most of you?
Profile Image for Nancy Oakes.
1,938 reviews750 followers
April 13, 2013
"We're divorced from reality, in the same way as the Romans went on thinking of themselves as invulnerable and unchallengeable long after it ceased to be true. The most awful warnings are staring us in the face..." (207)

As usual, you can stick with the condensed version or click here for the longer one.

Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with a work of didactic fiction if it's done well and has other things going for it. In that sense, The Sheep Look Up is one of the best works of environmentally-based fiction I've ever read.

With only a few pockets of exception, the United States is a veritable cesspool. The seas are polluted beyond repair, acid rain in New York eats holes in people's clothing, the air is so bad that filtermasks (sold in vending machines) are required just to be outside, and "Don't Drink" the water alerts are common. Trash lays out, uncollected, spawning rats and other pests; exterminators are way too busy to come to one's home at short notice. Health problems are widespread, stds and other diseases normally treated by drugs have developed antibiotic-resistant strains, and parents whose children are born with only minor ailments or physical problems are considered extremely fortunate. The American government is run by a leader known as "Prexy," whose policy is one of blatant denial and blaming all of America's ills on terrorists. One man, Austin Train, knows the truth -- and he is public enemy number one where the government is concerned so is forced to go underground. Train is a committed environmentalist whose works have been studied and followed by others who have settled in commune-like places called wats where they put into practice what we'd call today "going green." Train is a peaceful person but many who have taken up his cause for a cleaner America are not. The "Trainites," as they call themselves, believe in more violent means of trying to "fix" things, something Austin Train would never condone.

The story in this novel is related via a number of varying plotlines and narratives that seem choppy at first but actually have a rhythm and a purpose, all melding together beautifully as the novel progresses. It begins with the bizarre death of Decimus Jones, a friend of Austin Train, on an LA freeway. His strange death becomes an event that will eventually draw together the stories of every character in this novel in a roundabout way, all of whom are caught up in the country's growing state of emergency in their own fashion. Punctuating their ongoing stories are bits of speeches, news reports, poems, songs, television-show transcripts and scenes from outside the country, where the army is at war with its current enemy in Latin America. While this strange format may seem a bit disconcerting and jarring, once into the story, you are stuck as you eagerly flip pages to see how things are going to end.

Old this book may be, published some 40+ years ago, but it is still very much worth the read. The author has this way of thoroughly unsettling and disorienting his readers while keeping things moving at a fast pace, all the while making his point about what our future might look like in the not too-distant future. Pooh-pooh the didacticism if you so choose, which many people do, but imho, this is a novel that everyone who cares about and doesn't just give lip service to a better future might want to read. Don't forget the afterword -- the nonfiction, which should scare you even more than the novel did. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Monica.
621 reviews631 followers
October 21, 2014
Near future sci fi novel hits pretty close to real life. A portrait of extremes, the consequences of disregarding the environment and the industries that pollute, agricultural catastrophes associated with pesticides, issues associated with the disposal of toxic waste, diseases adapting to antibiotics and the consequences of inept government oversight. Brunner foresaw all of it. Only a couple of nonexistent technologies: tanks that shoot lasers to quell the crowd and a microwave oven that leaked with results that were extremely and unlikely focused. Overall a very scary fable. All of the elements of failure of the government to act before it was too late are reminiscent of many things happening today. Rich and powerful valuing profits over the long term impacts to life on the planet and towards the earth itself. The public basically accepting all of it because they lacked the education and knowledge to understand it or to research. They simply relied on the government and industry for all of their information. A willful dumbing down of society. Though Brunner is British, this novel was written about America. Honestly, the novel seems to be written with some contempt for American hubris and sensibilities. He let's all other 1st world entities off very lightly in comparison. Written in 1972, Brunner was an incredible observer who seems to extrapolate what was happening then to a possible conclusion some 40 years later and it is really close. Insanely close. Not in his prediction of events; but in his prediction of how the government, corporations, the public, other countries, the military, the media etc view things and react and respond. Nothing in this book (laser cannons aside) is that far fetched. It is consistent with a theme I have been noticing in the older books I've been reading. It's likely not that Brunner was so prescient, it's that so very little about human nature has changed over the decades. Incredible and depressing.

Almost 4.5 stars

ETA: This is an excellent book. The reason for only 4 stars is that it really was such a downer. Not a pleasure to read. I came across this book through Goodreads recommendations. In my case, this was spot on...
Profile Image for Thom.
1,593 reviews47 followers
July 11, 2023
Written in the early 1970s, before the environmental movement turned around some of the worst pollution in America. Dystopia, details the connections between those who accept and excuse the problems and those who rebel and revolt.

I read a review which described this as a massive car crash seen from multiple windscreens, and that's accurate - and maybe required to make the point. A dystopia from one point of view gives the reader some hope, and there's very little hope here.

“The killers are the people who are ruining the world to line their pockets, poisoning us, burying us under garbage!”

Though Earth Day and the environmental movement did clean up a lot, the economy is still the most important thing. Instead of rivers on fire or chemical leaks in one city or beach, we have a global problem that needs just as much solving. The message here is just as relevant - and just as depressing - as it was in the early 1970s.

Profile Image for Lost Planet Airman.
1,250 reviews73 followers
October 7, 2019
Twenty years ago, I found Stand on Zanzibar to be a fairly easy read. Not so, with The Sheep Look Up, and I don't have a reason why. Both are done in quite similar style.

Welcome a version of the late 20th century, with a pile-up of every conceivable biological and ecological disaster striking a United States already mired in warfare overseas and political infighting at home. Readers will need to pay attention, as the plots are neatly intertwined but rarely directly emphasized.
Profile Image for Amber.
21 reviews6 followers
December 10, 2007
This novel is scary.
Rarely has a novel actually made me concerned about what is happening in our society.

In the book, the world is basically going to shit, people cannot breathe the air, basic infections are rampant, old pollutions are killing people but the government/corporations are covering it up. The only people who can live healthily are the rich.

The story has is ominously correct on topics such as organic farmer, vegetables making individuals sick, corporations profiting from healthy alternatives, and even the ELF...
Profile Image for YouKneeK.
660 reviews80 followers
May 23, 2016
This book may be the bleakest, darkest, and most depressing dystopian novel I’ve ever read. It’s the kind of book that motivated me to read out on my deck whenever I could, so I could be surrounded with fresh air, sunshine, singing birds, and healthy, green, growing things. The book seemed twice as bleak whenever I read it at night before going to sleep. It held my interest and I was never tempted to give up on it, but I’m really glad to be done with it.

The book was written in 1972 and it seemed to be set shortly after that time, but it’s not the 70’s I lived through. In many cities, you can’t go safely outside without wearing an oxygen mask. Natural water sources are so polluted that it isn’t safe to swim in them. It often isn’t safe to use the water from the tap. Pests have become resistant to even the strongest of poisons, making it difficult to grow healthy food and causing homes to be infested. People are getting more stupid and there is fear and distrust and violence. Human disease has become resistant to drugs, and humans are getting more and more diseases and injuries because of the aforementioned issues. Did I mention it was bleak?

The story is told in a pretty disjointed way. You know how sometimes kids get confused at the movies and, each time a new preview starts, they ask if the movie started? This was how I felt at the beginning of this book. I spent some time flipping back and forth between the first couple of pages trying to figure out whether or not this was the beginning of the book. There are a lot of small snippets of radio announcements, advertisements, small pieces of conversations, etc., with no clear indication of how they were related. I think I had probably read at least 10% of the book before I even felt like it had a coherent theme. Some sections were so brief that they didn’t make a sufficient impression to be remembered by the time they were made relevant. Adding to that disjointed feeling, the author used a lot of incomplete sentences. I noticed it less the more I read, but it really grated on my nerves at first.

The author introduced a huge number of characters, and we spent so little time with most of them that it was hard to get to know them. I never grew attached to any of them, which is fortunate since a lot of them didn’t last very long. There were so many characters, and so many of them died, that I sometimes had trouble remembering who was still alive. The stuff in this book was pretty extreme, but it also wasn’t bizarre or unrealistic, either. You could see these kinds of things happening, and some of them in fact have happened on a smaller scale. I think that’s what made the book seem even bleaker.

I always say that I prefer “dark and gritty” to “light and fluffy”, but I think this book took me to my limits. It’s not that the book was particularly graphic. I don’t think anything was described in gory, graphic detail. The book did have many horrific events, and there was one in particular that I wish I could unread. Taken by themselves, though, I don’t think anything that happened in this book was necessarily worse than things I’ve read about in other books. It was the sum of the parts, I guess. There was no end to the bad things, and no glimmer of hope that didn’t eventually get crushed. This book was less about the story and the characters than it was about getting the author’s message across at all costs.

I was originally planning to read another random book or two before going back to Discworld, but right now I’m in the mood for something silly and fluffy and funny. I think I’m going to read at least one Discworld book before moving back to some of the other books on my list.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,121 reviews112 followers
September 29, 2018
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swollen with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread ...

--Lycidas by John Milton

This novel was nominated for Nebula award in 1973. While many reviewers here on GR stress its forecasting power, for me it is more a backward looking book. The story is set in late 1970s or so and is more an eco-thriller than ‘pure’ SF. It is heavily based on the real world situation in the late 60s and early 70s: a fractured hippie movement with increased number of drug addicts, black militia movements started by Black Panthers and riots like “Long, hot summer of 1967”, serious deterioration of environmental situation in large urban areas (e.g. the Great Smog of 1952 in London) and publication of the Club of Rome dire warnings.

In the novel the large metropolitan areas are so dirty that no one walks the street without a mask and people don’t see the Sun for months in a row. Active usage of antibiotics created resistant microbes and almost anyone has a skin condition, which cannot be cured. At the same time millions die in the third world due to the crops failure owing to the pesticide resistant worms. Attempt to ameliorate the situation with food relief leads to the (accidental?) poisoning of people in Africa and Latin America with psychotropic drug in the food. Thousands of trainites (eco-hippies) actively protest the pollution, often by actually increasing it. Anyone, who tries to protest is under the threat of an assassination by big business and/or the state.

The novel follows a large number of diverse characters, many of whom will not survive to the end of the book. This multi-POV narrative makes it hard to get into the book, especially if you read it is short time periods. One of the main messages is that you, western civilization representative in your greed and search of quickly realized profits has shit all over the planet (so death to the rich).

The recipe for this novel: take a lot of real environmental problems and make them even worse; and many different diseases with hard to pronounce names; do not forget a bunch of STDs and make everyone scratch his/her crotch constantly due to pubic lace and other irritation; add visuals of smelly sweet puss, acid diarrhea, greasy water and wilted grass. Populate the setting with characters, neither too nice nor true evil, whose personal problems don’t allow them to see the big picture. Mix and shake them randomly. Kill a few and shake some more. Add dull-witted drug poisoned youth and bitter old men. Spruce with race and gender inequality. Add Club of Rome warnings.

This is not an easy read. It actually fails as a forecast, but that’s not a true purpose of SF, it is intended as a warning. Is it relevant today? I’d say not much, for while there are definitely huge problems that face humanity, including global warming (actually fully missed by the book), overuse of antibiotics and the like, actually we (humanity) made a great progress – just read what was the environmental situation in London or L.A. in the 60s. Now something similar in say India and China. The problem of global hunger is greatly ameliorated (but still present). Most of the top-10 richest men made their capital not in exploiting the natural resources or poor of the world…
Profile Image for Denis.
Author 1 book21 followers
April 19, 2021
I read three books in a row that were written decades apart but had a similar theme. I started with, “The Sheep Look Up” by John Brunner (1972) Followed by a non-fiction book, “Our Angry Earth” published in collaboration by Frederik Pohl and Isaac Asimov in (1991), and finally, “The Ministry For the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)

*** “The Sheep Look Up” is a near future speculative novel (not set in a specific year but reading it in the year 2021, I could easily place it as an alternate present time world (that did not have internet and cell phones as the dominating tech of the day, for one thing). The novel, overall, is a projection of the way things appeared in the early 1970's. A little off, for example, was the common opinion at the time, of the coming of a new ice age rather than a CO2 based atmospheric warming. However, the pressing issues in Brunner's future earth are: Air pollution has gotten so bad that filter masks are commonly worn to simply walk around outdoors. The infant mortality rate and instances of birth defects has increased substantially, many of the formerly treatable diseases are no longer easily treated as antibiotics have lost there ability to do so and the water has become mostly undrinkable. Corporations profit from solutions to these problems (whether it be a real or successful solution or not). The poor are generally exploited or ignored, which causes protests and riots. Governments favour economy over human rights and the assurance of well being. All this told with the new wave styling much reminiscent of Brunner's earlier 1968 novel, “Stand on Zanzibar”.

*** “Our Angry Earth”, predated Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It ” by a decade and a half – their title is better, I thought. They list examples backed with scientific facts of the oncoming troubles ahead plus offer possible solutions.

**** “The Ministry for the Future”, was an entertaining up to date list of projected environmental challenges set within a speculative fiction novel, with proposed, solutions, such as, carbon coins – a cryptocurrency awarded to those who reduce, or even, eliminate carbon release into the atmosphere.

All three had this in common: You can cry wolf over and over, it doesn't matter. They never show up. Not even the first time.
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