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The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner

2012/05/26

Gah, dystopian fiction is so depressing; yet when it’s done well, it is such a good read. This is one such book. It came up on my Goodreads recommendations, and I’m surprised I hadn’t encountered it before, since I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction & futuristic fiction in the past few years. I hadn’t read or heard anything about the author before, which usually makes me a little wary. However, once I started this book, I didn’t want to put it down.

In the novel, a company called Bamberly Hydroponics has created and is distributing a food product called Nutripon. Several batches of it are sent overseas as humanitarian aid; shortly thereafter, terrible sickness and mental illness strikes those countries. Meanwhile, the pollution and contamination are growing stateside; the water supply, being diverted from rural areas into the city, is recycled without proper sanitation and perpetuates a cycle of sickness that is deadly for the very young, very old, and poor; acid rain, crop failures, and transmissible disease compound the problems. Still, the wealthy business owners, such as Mr. Bamberly and his officers deny any implication of wrongdoing in the nationwide problems.

This book chronicles one year in an ambiguously future America; technology is not described at length, but the economy is faltering, food supplies are either contaminated or prohibitively expensive, air quality is so poor that you cannot be outside without a filtermask for more than a few minutes, the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer. It all seems so conspiracy theoretic, but on second glance, it’s not too hard to see our own situation growing into this chaotic state — the “Puritan” health food craze, the use of military force in developing countries, the manipulation of food and water supplies, the corporate zeal for profit at the expense of humanity.

This is one of those books akin to “1984” — you shake your head and think, “That will never happen here,” — yet it is happening all around you.

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