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Philip Jenkins

That Long Burning

Revisiting John Brunner's apocalypse.

Through many years writing about books, there have been a good number that I have found so dreadful that I can hardly bear to discuss them. In only one instance, though, have I held off from writing about a book because I was seriously afraid of the consequences of making it better known—actually, my self-restraint lasted for a decade. The work in question is The Sheep Look Up, a novel by British science-fiction writer John Brunner, which first appeared in 1972, and which offers a detailed blueprint for the destruction of the United States by means well within the reach of contemporary terrorists. But despite its alarming quality, it also demands attention as one of the greatest modern examples of apocalyptic literature. The Sheep Look Up is the centerpiece of a sequence of Brunner novels that appeared in the decade after 1966 and which, taken together, represent a deeply impressive literary achievement at least on a par with that of Philip K. Dick. Far more than much of the mainstream literary output of the 1960s and '70s, Brunner's genre writing cries out to be recalled from oblivion.

John Brunner (1934-95) was a prolific author of what might easily be dismissed as pulp fiction, author of such titles as Secret Agent of Terra. At the same time, he was profoundly aware of the real and immediate dangers threatening human civilization, perils that could only be discussed by extrapolating them into apocalyptic visions. He wrote the anthem for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, "Can You Hear the H-Bomb's Thunder?," but he also picked up the early warning alarms from other looming global dangers. In 1968, his hugely praised Stand on Zanzibar depicted a world in the process of Malthusian crisis and environmental ruin.

The basic idea of ecological crisis is familiar enough today, but Stand on Zanzibar still amazes by Brunner's dazzling literary techniques. He uses imagined ephemera to reveal a whole future society in all its various dimensions—through its advertisements and commercial jingles, through its slang, through snippets of overheard conversation, through extracts from imagined magazines, books, and television talk shows, covering a vast array of subjects. Brunner had an astonishing gift of pastiche, to present other styles of writing and speech with total plausibility. Ultimately borrowed from Dos Passos, the immersion technique places the reader mind and soul in an imagined future, with its different technologies, attitudes, and assumptions—and, of course, its pressing problems. Through such means, Brunner created and populated worlds.

Stand began Brunner's most creative period, and was followed shortly by other novels that built whole worlds in order to explore present and future social crises. The Jagged Orbit (1969) focused on racial divisions, while Shockwave Rider (1975) still stuns by its remarkably early visions of a computer-dominated world. Nine years before William Gibson's legendary novel Neuromancer, Shockwave Rider was the real manifesto for cyberpunk. The book—published before the founding of Apple and the marketing of the first PC—is a story of heroic computer hackers marauding through what would soon be christened "cyberspace." The book even coined the word "worm" in its strictly modern electronic context.

But beyond the technological vision, already in 1975 Brunner was thinking through the social and political implications of the incipient revolution. He was confronting such themes as data privacy and information overload, and the social atomization caused by widespread access to electronic technologies, not to mention the consequences of extreme social inequality. Although Shockwave Rider must be counted among the most daring and visionary American novels of the 1960s and '70s, don't try looking for Brunner's oeuvre in any modern history of U.S. culture or thought in that era. As all worthwhile cultural historians think they know, concerns about this kind of technology and cyberculture were just getting started at the turn of the 21st century, and only today are we beginning to grasp the issues involved.

Even as I make the case for these other novels, I have no hesitation in ranking The Sheep Look Up as Brunner's finest, in terms of its breadth of vision and its ability to invoke a whole imaginary society. That needs stressing because the book was always, so to speak, a black sheep. Although each of Brunner's major novels from this era won its share of sparkling reviews and literary prizes, Sheep was always viewed askance, as an embarrassingly ambiguous treasure. It has through the years floated in and out of print, and only recently has there appeared a handsome standard edition, introduced by Kim Stanley Robinson. This relative neglect stems not from the book's dire messages—it is less uniformly depressing than Cormac McCarthy's The Road—but from the very specific targeting of Brunner's prophetic zeal, as the book explicitly and uncomfortably calls down apocalyptic judgment on the United States.

I have spoken of apocalyptic, a term that goes far beyond its conventional usage of imminent doom and destruction, not necessarily in a religious context. In its Jewish and Christian origins, though, apocalyptic was very much a literature of hope, above all for the poor and powerless. It was strictly focused on an act of divine judgment, a sweeping condemnation of the evils of the present world, a world that needed to be told frankly and urgently that its end was approaching. As a rhetorical style, apocalyptic overlaps closely with prophetic literature. The prophets likewise painted very dark pictures of approaching menace, but always with the implication that hearers could avert ruin by utterly changing their lives and turning to God.

The Sheep Look Up is as much prophecy as apocalypse, in that it describes the near-future world in hideous terms in order to demand thoroughgoing reform and reconstruction. Brunner's imagined America is a hellish place, but its ills are entirely self-inflicted. Atmospheric pollution is so appalling that drivers jam the roads on (false) rumors that the sun might have broken through briefly. Of course, you wear a filter-mask before venturing outside, because "throats didn't last long in the raw air." No sane person drinks tap-water or even allows it near their skin without the necessary antiseptics. Generations of pumping antibiotics into livestock have forced bacteria to evolve into drug-resistant superstrains, so that human beings can no longer protect themselves against simple infections. Food is utterly tainted, unless you seek out the health-food products marketed by the giant Puritan corporation—which is in reality a Mob front selling regular food under vastly overpriced labels. Birth defects run riot. Waste-dumping deep into the earth has made earthquakes commonplace, and these in turn release long-buried chemical and biological weapons stores. The Great Lakes are quite dead, and the Gulf of Mexico is a "fetid puddle." Overseas, American defoliants have turned much of Southeast Asia into desert; the Europeans have killed the Mediterranean and the Baltic is on the verge of death. Worse, pollutants are causing global climate change.

Ultimately, suggests Brunner, all these material forms of pollution are outgrowths of inner moral corruption, and like the fulminations of any prophet, his predictions are chiefly intended to indict his contemporaries. We hear his fury expressed most clearly when a younger woman tells a smug old man that his whole evil generation has spoiled the planet: "You liar. You filthy dishonest old man. You put the poison in the world, you and your generation. You crippled my children. You made sure they'd never eat clean food, drink pure water, breathe sweet air."

Politically too, society is coming apart. America is fighting brushfire wars against much of the Third World, especially against a global Marxist-Maoist network of the dispossessed, the "Tupas," who take their name from the Tupamaro guerrilla group of the 1970s. Domestically, anti-corporate and anti-pollution activists mobilize in their millions under the symbolic leadership of Christ-like activist Austin Train. These Trainites carry out mass demonstrations, sabotage, and monkey-wrenching under the slogan "Stop! You're killing me." (Think of them as a cross between Occupy and the Earth Liberation Front.) Armed black militant groups are also surging, as race war spreads. The U.S. government keeps the lid on the situation by drumming up support for incessant overseas wars and anti-terror campaigns. Anti-pollution activists are denounced as terrorist sympathizers and "chlorophyll addicts" (a wonderful phrase). Anyone who can afford to withdraws into fortified enclaves, elite estates that are not just gated but heavily defended.

Apart from its self-inflicted evils, this future world is also under devastating terrorist assault, and it is this element that makes the book so unnerving to a post-9/11 audience. Few people have ever given so much thought to the practical methods of terrorism as John Brunner did, and that would include Osama bin Laden. Brunner offers a hair-raising catalogue of techniques deployed against America by various groups, including the faceless Tupas. Terrorists use car bombs and Chechen-style apartment bombs; they use ship-launched balloons to carry napalm against land-based civilian targets. This is one of the great fictional treatments—I almost said "manifestos"—of terrorism.

Ultimately, the terrorists seem to deploy a trident of unconventional weapons which does indeed succeed in bringing down the tottering United States—and major spoilers will now follow. Although Brunner eventually undermines the terrorist attribution, the reader believes that the three evils are in fact of external causation. An overseas disease carrier travels widely across the country, airport to airport, spreading a catastrophic plague of enteritis (and in a society where antibiotics no longer function). At the same time, in a lethal act of agricultural terrorism, America's dwindling food production is crippled by a pesticide-resistant parasite. The nation faces famine. Finally, the Denver metro area is attacked by a deadly psychoactive drug placed in its reservoirs, driving many inhabitants to homicidal insanity and forcing the overstretched armed forces into yet another disaster relief operation. All four horsemen—famine, plague, war, and death—combine in the final onslaught.

In the popular usage of the word, Brunner's 1972 description is horribly prophetic. Each of these biological and chemical warfare tactics is plausible, and in fact, each has featured prominently in the darker speculations of the intelligence community since 9/11. Agriterrorism and entomological warfare both attract intense concern, while governments still struggle to devise counter-measures against the possibility of a suicide plague carrier whose deeds are undetectable until victims start dying in their thousands. It was in fact the acutely realistic design of Brunner's terrorist narrative that led me to abstain from commemorating the 30th anniversary in 2002, and rather to leave it until the 40th. In various ways, I would wholly echo the far-reaching claim made by William Gibson some years ago: "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."

After all this catalogue of horrors, Brunner offers a solution of sorts, but it is thoroughly Swiftian. Yes, we are told, the world is in grim shape, but things are not desperate. As a scientist reports, his computer projections show that "We can just about restore the balance of the ecology, the biosphere, and so on—in other words we can live within our means instead of on an unrepayable overdraft, as we've been doing for the past half century—if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species." America perishes—with its two hundred million planetary parasites—as the fumes of the final conflagration drift over the Atlantic to Ireland. This section takes its subtitle from Revelation 18, on the fall of Babylon: "The Smoke of That Great Burning." Brunner's happy ending is an act of genocide.

For this reason alone, The Sheep Look Up poses real ethical difficulties for the reader—and even more so for any prospective teacher. But I can guarantee that when you have read the book, you will never forget the experience.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author most recently of Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses (HarperOne).

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