William Gibson, widely known as one of the founding fathers of cyberpunk science fiction, declared in a 2007 interview that “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 reality … as we know it.” It is certainly true that Brunner’s novel, though it contains a number of satirical exaggerations, touches on American reality in striking ways, though perhaps the most remarkable aspect of its contact with American reality is that, while set in the late 1970s, it remains extremely relevant half a century after it was initially published. The novel details a systemic collapse of the American natural environment thanks to excessive pollution and general abuse of nature in quest of greater corporate profits. Meanwhile, the toxic environment that is thus created also facilitates the proliferation of a number of diseases, with which a poorly organized health care system is unable to cope. And the entire situation is made far worse by a political system that is entirely unable to cope with the crisis, run mainly for the aggrandizement of certain individual politicians and organized to facilitate greater exploitation of people and nature by greedy corporations.
The Environmental Dystopia of The Sheep Look Up
The Sheep Look Up is a highly complex, radically fragmented modernist novel, showing (like much of Brunner’s work) an important influence from literary predecessors such as the “U.S.A. Trilogy” of John Dos Passos. The fragmentary structure, though, has a mimetic motivation, its bits and pieces together presenting a powerful portrait of a chaotic America that is falling apart and in which virtually everything is going wrong. However, Brunner’s novel does have a basic plot that ties its various parts together. In this plot, the inhabitants of an African nation are poisoned by a contaminated shipment of “Nutripon,” a processed food product made from cassava, that had been received from an American charity. Then, various investigations attempt to determine the source of the contamination, while the American authorities try to claim that the United States bears no official responsibility for the poisoning. Finally, it is left to underground intellectual and activist hero Austin Train to determine and reveal the real truth: the food had been poisoned when a drug illegally stored underground by the U.S. army leaked into the groundwater near Denver and subsequently contaminated the Nutripon that was being produced there.
Train, incidentally, is the central figure in a sort of counter-plot that runs in parallel with the main plot of the novel, outlining resistance fo official power. A charismatic, but nonviolent, leader, Train has gained a broad following, including among groups of whose tactics he entirely disapproves. He becomes a larger-than-life figure, which puts him under so much pressure that he drops out of sight and begins to work as a garbage collector. His disappearance, however, makes him even more of a legendary figure, leading to his reappearance later in the novel and his revelation of the Nutripon conspiracy. His story thus addresses the difficulties of charismatic leadership and its tendency to go in directions that are not entirely in line with the original goals of the actual leader. This situation leads Train ultimately to declare that he is not a Trainite, much as Karl Marx had once famously declared that he was not a Marxist.
The basic plot elements of Sheep are probably not the most interesting aspects of the novel,which depends more crucially on its vision of a dystopian America in a state of apocalyptic decline than on any specific events. The novel features a large cast of characters, all of whose lives are being impacted by the systemic collapse of the United States as a functioning democracy, a collapse that seems uncomfortably prophetic in the 2020s. This collapse, meanwhile, is centrally driven by environmental destruction so severe as to qualify as apocalyptic. Temperatures are soaring, though the skies are so choked with pollution that the sun can seldom be seen, while the air is virtually unbreathable without a filtration mask. Clean and healthy drinking water is extremely difficult to come by, and actual tap water is virtually poisonous. Various diseases, many of them caused by the unhealthy environment, are running rampant, overwhelming an already inadequate healthcare system.
The American food supply is also seriously compromised, and food prices are soaring. Not only is food in short supply, but most food on the market is so heavily processed and contains so many additives that it lacks nutrition—if it is not downright poisonous due to the blighted conditions in which it was produced. In one bit of seeming prescience, Brunner imagines a chain of supermarkets known as Puritan Foods, which prides itself on selling pure and healthy goods, without additives or contaminants. In return, of course, their prices are so outrageously high that only the wealthy can afford to shop there. Sheep also suggests that Puritan’s foods might not be quite as pure as they claim, which is not surprising within the context of the novel. Otherwise the resemblance between Puritan and our own world’s Whole Foods Market (founded in Austin, Texas, in 1980) would be uncanny if it were not for the fact that the rise of such a chain of supermarkets was almost certain to appear at some point.
If conditions in the United States are unraveling in the novel, the position of America in the world of The Sheep Look Up is also highly tenuous, largely due to an interventionist approach that has made enemies worldwide. In the novel itself, this intervention is mostly pictured in Central America, as American forces actively engage in a war against the “Tupamaro” guerillas there. This motif, of course, resonates with the long history of American interventions in Central America, going back to the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846 and numerous subsequent invasions on Mexico and Central America. This interventionism also included, one year after the publication of Sheep, in the notorious C.I.A.-engineered coup that unseated the democratically elected leftist government in Chile on September 11, 1973, installing a brutal military dictator who ruled there for the next sixteen years.
The Tupamaros were a real-world group: the actual Tupamaros were a Marxist-Leninist group of urban guerrillas in Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s that battled against the growing power of the U.S.-backed military there. The real-world Tupamaros collapsed in 1972 and many of their members and leaders were tortured and imprisoned in inhumane conditions until 1985, when electoral government was restored in Uruguay and the Tupamaro prisoners were freed. From 2010-2015, the former Tupamaro Jose’s Mujica served as the wildly popular president of Uruguay, becoming an international hero for his enlightened rule, known as the world’s most humble head of state.
In the world of Sheep, however, the Tupamaros have more immediate success, triumphing in Uruguay. Their movement then begins to spread across Latin America, gaining particular power in Honduras, where they are battling the U.S. military with considerable success. This success causes “Prexy,” the blustering U.S. president in the novel, to issue soundbite threats in the media, as when he declares that “those Tupas got to understand that if you bite the hand that feeds you, you’re apt to get a mouthful of fist” (120). Later, meanwhile, he responds to more Tupamaro advances by pronouncing, “They can pull just so many feathers out of the eagle’s tail before it pecks” (163).
However, given the time when Sheep was written, there is little doubt that the most important influence on the depiction of American foreign policy was the American intervention in Vietnam, still going on when the novel was published. Vietnam is itself mentioned several times in the novel, including passages that link the intervention in Vietnam to the same mindset that has made possible the destruction of the natural environment. Indeed, the novel reminds us that the U.S. military employed a number of chemicals such as napalm in an effort to destroy the lush Vietnamese jungles that were providing cover to their enemies. The Sheep Look Up draws upon these real-world events to extrapolate to a world in which the U.S. had stayed in Vietnam for several more years, ultimately destroying the Vietnamese environment altogether. It thus speaks of a “Vietnam disaster, when the tons upon thousands of tons of herbicides, defoliants, riot gases, toxic agents, had finally broken the land down into desert. All of a sudden, in a single summer, dead plants, dead animals, dead rivers. Dead people.” (101).
In addition, actuary Thomas Grey, whose careful statistical studies within the novel provide some important insights into American society, connects environmental destruction with Vietnam in a broader ideological sense during a presentation in which he argues for raising life insurance premiums because the poisoning of the environment with chemicals such as pesticides is shortening life spans. For Grey, the indiscriminate use of pesticides is part of an arrogant mindset that has made Americans feel that they can simply kill anything that gets in their way. Thus, Grey suggests that “it’s a short mental step from the notion of killing plants or insects to the notion of killing animals and people. It didn’t take the Vietnam disaster to spell that out—it was foreshadowed in everybody’s mind” (19). Meanwhile, in the late 1970s of the novel, the rest of the world has been made so wary of American interventionism that any sign of American involvement in any events worldwide is looked on with suspicion, “tarred with the Vietnam brush” (106).
As a result of American interventionism, the tide of global sentiment in Sheep is turning against the U.S. and in favor of the communist bloc, though the global sympathy (in a world still mired in a Cold War) seems to be more with China than with the Soviet Union. In response, the Americans attempt to establish a “Pacific bastion” the nature of which makes the U.S. look even worse, aligning it with heavily white countries such as Australia and New Zealand, as well as “what few Latin American countries were still right-wing dictatorships, designed to contain the pro-Chinese, neo-Marxist tidal wave surging around the planet” (148). The United States, in short, comes off as a white nationalist, anti-democracy country, a suggestion that seems far less farfetched in the 2020s than it might have in the 1970s, though this characterization also suggests that the white nationalist, anti-democracy trends that have emerged in the U.S. in such an obvious way in recent yeaers have actually been with us for quite a long time.
Indeed, while it is easy to imagine that Brunner foresaw the America of the 2020s in a stunningly accurate way, it might be more to the point to suggest that Brunner simply described the America of the 1970s in an accurate (though satirically exaggerated) way and that the political climate in America has changed less since the 1970s than might at first appear to be the case. For example, the groups of Trainites and others who mount resistance to the government-aided corporate rape of America in the book might remind some of the Antifa and BLM movements of the 2020s, but the real inspiration for such groups obviously comes from the oppositional activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, which Brunner had witnessed firsthand. Similarly, the violent official responses to protests that are seen in the novel (as when 59 student activists, plus a U.N. observer, are shot down by the U.S. military at a protest outside Denver) echo real-world reactions (as when National Guardsmen shot and killed five student antiwar protestors at Kent State University on May 5, 1970). When asked about the event, Prexy (on his way to deliver a re-enactment of the Gettysburg address dressed as Abraham Lincoln) declares, nonsensically, “Let it not be forgotten that they have hallowed American ground with their blood” (294).
The anti-war movement of the Nixon years helped to inspire the environmentalist activism that was only just beginning when The Sheep Look Up was first published. For example, the antiwar groups of the 1960s were direct forerunners of groups such as Earth First!, a radical environmentalist group that was founded in 1980 and still exists today. Earth First! insisted that saving the planet was urgent enough that even violent action was justified, and they committed a number of acts of sabotage against companies that were damaging the environment with their actions, thus echoing some of the acts of what has come to be known as “eco-terrorism” that we see in Sheep, where saboteurs are “striking at industries with high pollution ratings. Oil, plastics, glass, concrete, products generally which don’t decay” (316).
Prexy the All-Purpose Republican President
One of the most interesting aspects of the satire in The Sheep Look Up is its portrayal of Prexy, a bloviating buffoon who seems incapable of actually governing but instead limits himself to simplistic, sound-bite-like pronouncements that often barely make sense. Considering that Sheep was published in 1972, when Richard Nixon was still the president of the United States, it was natural at the time that many early readers assumed that Prexy was based on Nixon, who would be driven from office in 1974 in disgrace for his role in the break-in of Democratic Party headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel—and the subsequent attempted coverup of Nixon’s involvement in that event. And it is certainly the case that Prexy’s actions and attitudes (as in his contempt for protestors) often resemble those of Nixon and that Prexy is partly a satire of Nixon.
For one thing, Nixon’s antithetical relationship with the media and (especially) with antiwar activists is echoed in Prexy’s poor relationship with the press and in his disdain for environmentalist protestors. Prexy even comments on Vietnam itself, and in ways that echo Nixon’s bizarre claim that the Viet Cong of Vietnam were somehow a direct threat to America. Asked to comment on a growing movement among veterans of the war in Vietnam to adopt Vietnamese children who had been orphaned in that war, Prexy obscenely remarks, “I guess if they can’t break down the front door they have to sneak around the back,” suggesting that the adoptions are somehow part of a nefarious scheme for the Vietnamese to infiltrate America (29). Of course, antiwar activists did not exactly have a high opinion of Nixon, either, just as the Trainite environmentalists are not very fond of Prexy. Nixon’s supporters were as disdainful of antiwar protestors as Prexy’s are of the Trainites—as when we learn early in Sheep that the Trainite movement has the most support in urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles and the least support “in the areas which had voted for Prexy” (16).
Prexy’s tendency to make inappropriate remarks also resembles Nixon’s. For example, after Train is captured and goes on trial (presumably with an assumption of innocence), both the trial judge and Prexy himself essentially declare Train guilty before the trial (which was no doubt partly inspired by high profile trials of real-world antiwar protestors, such as the trial of the “Chicago Seven” in the fall of 1969) even goes on (459). Train is an admirable figure who has essentially nothing in common with notorious murderer Charles Manson, but one of the events that made Manson so famous was a similar moment when Nixon denounced Manson in the press, performing a sort of high-profile jury-tampering by publicly declaring Manson to be guilty of murder—in the midst of Manson’s murder trial. As Jeff Guinn notes, Nixon, speaking during a trip to Denver (of all places) in August 1970, complained that the media’s extensive coverage had made Manson a “rather glamorous figure.” For Nixon, this was an outrage, given that Manson was “guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason” (qtd. in Guinn 362). As Guinn further notes, news of these comments spread through the wire services like wildfire—nearly causing Manson to be granted a mistrial.
This incident might be more significant than it first appears. Carl Freedman sees Nixon’s comment as more than a slip of tongue, as something that connects Nixon, who claimed to be such a proponent of law-and-order, with certain darker elements in American history. Noting that the United States is widely known as the land of “free speech and due process,” Freedman reminds us that “America is, after all, also a country of lynch law and vigilantism: an aspect of his culture that Nixon seemed clearly to embrace when, as president, he pronounced Charles Manson to be guilty of murder while the trial was still taking place and, during the same week, praised the John Wayne film Chisum, in which those who Nixon identified as ‘the good guys’ take the law into their own hands” (100). In short, the comments of Nixon on Manson and of Prexy on Train are indicative of certain dark tendencies in American society—the very tendencies that are satirized in The Sheep Look Up.
All of these parallels with Nixon were surely obvious to the first readers of the novel in 1972. However, in 1980, however, the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency suddenly once again seemed to make Brunner prescient because, for many readers, Prexy seems to resemble Reagan even more closely than he did Nixon. Prexy, for example, has show-business connections and routinely hosts the annual Oscar ceremonies, something it is easy to imagine the ex-actor Reagan doing but almost impossible to imagine the uncharismatic Nixon doing. And Prexy is often given to making boastful statements of a kind that seem more characteristic of Reagan than of Nixon. For example, at one point, Prexy (once again headed to Los Angeles to preside over the Oscar ceremonies) is asked to comment on the arrest of a journalist who had attempted to obtain air-pollution statistics being suppressed by the government. “If that’s the guy who claims we’re running short of oxygen, tell him I don’t find any difficulty in breathing,” declares the president (192). Prexy also seems very Reagan-like when, headed for Disneyland (where he is about to deliver a major policy speech on education), he responds to a question concerning reports that Americans are increasingly afraid to travel abroad because they are so unpopular around the world by declaring, “Well, you don’t have to go abroad to know our way of life is the best in the world” (330).
When asked to comment on the Vietnam-like defoliation of the jungles of Honduras in order to deprive the Tupamaras of cover, Prexy declares, “Well, if you can’t see them you can’t shoot them” (255). One could certainly imagine such a declaration being made by Reagan, but it perhaps resembles the cowboy rhetoric of George W. Bush more than it does any of Reagan’s declarations. Many readers of the novel, during the Bush presidency, felt that Prexy was a surprisingly accurate projection of Bush. Then, however, during the presidency of Donald Trump, many readers concluded that Prexy actually anticipates Trump and his antics in a remarkable way.
One implication of these serial similarities might be that Prexy is a remarkably flexible figure who points toward a number of forms of political corruption and ineptitude. On the other hand, another reason why the single figure of Prexy might be able to satirize Nixon and Reagan and Bush and Trump is that, despite superficial differences, all of these Republican presidents actually have a great deal in common, representing a fundamental continuity in philosophy, despite stylistic differences. One might compare here the argument by political scientist Corey Robin, who locates Trump within a long line of conservative thought that stretches back not just to Reagan and Nixon, but even, interestingly enough, to Edmund Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. And “reaction” is the key word here, because, for Robin, what ties the entire conservative tradition together is that the things that are being conserved are the power and privileges of its adherents, who are reacting to perceived threats to this power and those privileges. In Robin’s view, Burke’s perception of the French Revolution as a threat to civilization as he knew it thus becomes the prototype for all subsequent conservative thought, with thinkers such as Nixon, Reagan, and Trump (who might otherwise appear to be quite distinct from one another) all following very much in this reactionary tradition.
The Final Conclusion
By the end of The Sheep Look Up, Austin Train has, ironically, been killed by a bomber who claims to be a Trainite. Moreover, despite Train’s final revelation, the American power structure seems unshaken, continuing on its current path toward inevitable destruction. Of course, despite the remarkably prescience of this novel in so many ways, it certainly seems to be the case that things have gone a bit better for America since 1972 than Brunner envisions in this novel. For example, Brunner did not foresee the eventual American victory in the Cold War or the American withdrawal from Vietnam before the country had been entirely deforested is beside the point. In a 1994 article, Brunner himself downplayed the notion that he had foreseen the future in startling ways in this novel. In retrospect, he suggests, what is most frightening to him about The Sheep Look Up is that he had to do so little in terms of inventing new science fictional concepts or technologies because the roots of the world he describes there were already so thoroughly in place (30). In this remarkably pessimistic rumination, Brunner also offers practical (if cynical) advice for anyone who would seek to write science fiction describing a society of the future: “Take it for granted that the government will disregard long-term dangers (such as those affecting the environment) in order to cling to power; that the citizenry will do the same because thinking is too much like hard work; and when the handful of Cassandras are proved right, they will be held to blame and very likely stoned or shot. More briefly: assume things will get worse before they get better, and that they won’t get better without miracles” (31).
In conclusion, Brunner declares in that article that he has lost faith in the utopian futures once envisioned by science fiction, which is why, by the time of this article, he claims to be mostly interested in writing horror. Of course, Brunner was already headed in a dark direction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he wrote the remarkable series of dystopian novels that began with Stand on Zanzibar (1968), which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the only Hugo Brunner would receive in his career. Brunner’s dystopian sequence then extended through The Jagged Orbit (1969), The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider (1975). The latter was an important forerunner of cyberpunk and is generally credited with having introduced the notion of computer viruses (therein referred to as “worms”). As a whole, this string of novels constitutes one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of science fiction, though it is certainly possible to argue, as has Michael Stern, that these novels would have been even more impressive had Brunner been able to include utopian elements that would point toward a possible better future.
At the same time, one could also argue that these novels gain power from their sheer pessimism. At the end of The Sheep Look Up, ThomasGrey, who has been developing a detailed computer simulation of the world in an attempt to determine better strategies for dealing with the current crisis in global conditions, appears on a popular television interview show to announce his findings. “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” (473–74). That two hundred million, of course, roughly corresponds to the population of the United States in the 1970s, and the implication could not be more obvious. Brunner seems to have felt that something this extreme was needed in order to call attention to the bad directions in which he felt was going at the time.
Brunner, John. The Sheep Look Up. 1972. Open Road Media, 2016.
Brunner, John. “‘Sometime in the Recent Future.’” Science Fiction Chronicle, March 1994, pp. 30–31.
Bugliosi, Vincent, and Curt Gentry. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders.
Freedman, Carl. The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power. Zero Books, 2012.
Gibson, William. “New Romancer.” Interview by Dennis Lim. salon.com, 11 August 2007, https://www.salon.com/2007/08/11/william_gibson/. Accessed 29 July 2022.
Guinn, Jeff. Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Hutchinson, Richard. “The Ecological Apocalypse of 1972: Science and Social Movements in John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up.” Publications of the Mississippi Philological Association, 2008, pp. 84–94.
Robin, Corey. The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Stern, Michael. “From Technique to Critique: Knowledge and Human Interests in John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, July 1976, pp. 112–130 .
 See Hutchinson for a more detailed discussion of the role of Train in the novel in the context of modern social theory.
 This trial is dramatized in the 2020 Netflix film The Trial of the Chicago 7.
 Manson also one-upped Nixon by issuing a statement of his own: “Here’s a man who is accused of murdering hundreds of thousands in Vietnam who is accusing me of being guilty of eight murders” (qtd. in Bugliosi and Gentry 431).