Review: The Sheep Look Up

The Sheep Look Up - John Brunner

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.