We, the Sheep, Look Up

If you weren’t into recycling or natural food products or emissions testing before, John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up is a compelling attempt to rectify that apathy. Written as a series of jump cuts from one character to the next, in a gradual development of action, the book traces a year in the life of a dying planet (Earth) and a dying race (humans). We find that the planet has come to the brink of uninhabitability thanks to the “dead” seas (full of pollution), the “dead” soil (full of chemicals), the “dead” air (full of pathogens, chemicals, and ozone to the point of near zero visibility), and the slowly dying species of man (full of everything in the soil, air, and water, which makes for constant sickness).

The book spirals into a climax of civil war in the United States thanks to the conflict between the Trainites and the (I guess) conservatives or far-Right-ists who wish to uphold the interests of big buisness and the status quo, even to the point of attempting to conceal mass murder and impose totalitarianism in the guise of democracy.

In the colloquium this morning, the question was raised–in relation to reading de Certeau alongside Brunner–why the perspecive is always from inside a city. Brunner shows us, in shocking detail, what New York, Denver, and Berkeley are like, but fails to mention many other places, except, of course, those outside the US which are war-torn and have been touched by US interests (i.e. Nutripon & Globe Relief via Bamberly Trust).  Why?

This book is a polemic. And a way-liberal-leaning one at that. I’d like to offer the pragmatic reading that the focus was on those cities because they are the habitat of similarly liberal-minded people. Also, the problem of pollution is always more exacerbated in cities because there’re simply more people to contribute to the waste and refuse. So, from a dramatic perspective, it makes good sense to show cause and effect from the vantage point of an extreme case in point (i.e. New York, where one can’t go out in the rain without being soiled, and where filtermasks are sold on streetcorners like hot dogs). Denver is also a striking example because of the juxtaposition between the city center (which is awfully polluted) and the ‘pristine’ mountains, which, as the book progresses, show in mini the state of affairs –presumably–in similar cities across the country. Finally, there are more people in a city to rally behind a cause, and more people to notice when a cause is underfoot. The graffitti of Train’s symbol would not be as pronounced in the country. The demonstrations would not have attracted national attention. The word would not have been spread as rapidly. So, even from a communications perspective the setting for the drama had to be in a populated zone. A zone which had power of generalization, too, so that the impact of the disaster wasn’t localized and so didn’t lose any of its pathos.

Pathos. For me, the book moved pretty quickly because I kept finding parallels to our current global situation in 2009. And that was eerie. The book was published in 1972. These parallels took me out of the mode of thinking that the book was a staid “dystopia” and into this heightened consciousness of NOW.

I kept thinking of hurricane Katrina, the bank bailouts, the coverup of the mucked/fictitious WMD campaign which led us into Iraq so many years ago, the “do-nothing” congress of the Bush administration which was paralyzed by its own bitter politicing, the back and forth over whether global warming was caused (exacerbaed) by human (economic) development, Obama’s “rhetoric” of change and the criticism that his message was veiled in socialistic motive (and this was a bad thing), the salmonella outbreak which began in 2006 and is still on-going–due to contaiminated peanut butter in a Georgia factory, the stimulus package which is still halted in Congress over concerns that it will not fix our problems, Lindsay Graham (oh Lindsay…) scraming over and over a few days ago that “America’s best days are behind her” because of Obama’s socialistic handouts. His trickle-down economics. The failed and perpetually failing war on drugs, immorality, and illegal immigation. The big 3 auto bailout, which allowed our firms to continue manufacturing sub-par, gas-guzzling, super-sized machines–at taxpayer expense for generations to come.

I could go on.

And so I can’t classify this as anything other than a topia. No prefix. This book was no ethea or wild place. It was not ex-static in the sense that it depicted something OUTside the realm of possibility or even probabilitiy. It was fixed squarely, I think, within the stasis of quality–what kind of a world is this? And, I would argue, using the parallels I mentioned above, that with a few exceptions it’s just about ours.


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