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June, 2004 : Essay:

Environmental Dystopias Still To Be Avoided

John Brunner's Classic Environmental Science Fiction Diptych As Agent of Social Change

When did you last bask in the sun, friends? When did you last dare drink from a creek? When did you last risk picking fruit and eating it straight from the tree? What were your doctor's bills last year? Which of you live in cities where you don't wear a filtermask? Which of you spent this year's vacation in the mountains because the sea is fringed with garbage? (The Sheep Look Up, page 354)

Lucky for us, John Brunner's classic science fiction diptych Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Sheep Look Up (1972) have been reissued. Though the diptych's environmental messages have been acknowledged by many, especially by environmentalists and leftists, the message has not been completely heeded. World Society is still on a course where the dystopic visions the two books present may not be completely avoidable. One could argue that many of us are already there. We need to change our ways to solve the environmental problems these works explore.

Brunner became famous for helping amplify the environmental warning more than 30 years ago. Brunner's diptych stands out in science fiction because the books are complex and socially conscious, and worthy of the same demands as classic literature. These character-crowded and multiple-themed works welcome the reader to revisit them. Brunner's work is detailed, experimental, classic, award winning, and still topical; a prime example of science fiction as an agent for social change.

The Sheep Look Up was reissued (Benbella Books) with an introduction by David Brin and an afterword by environmentalist James John Bell. Brin wrote: "John Brunner scared the dickens out of every other science fiction author during the 1960s.... he helped to transform science fiction from essentially an adventure genre into a medium for bold thought experiments about tomorrow." (xiii) Stand on Zanzibar was reissued (Gollancz) with neither, hence the following:

The Sheep Look Up depicts a future where public environmental health issues abound, and gas masks are regularly needed to protect citizens from air pollution. Brunner makes the environmental argument very strongly and not entertainingly in The Sheep Look Up. But if it is hard to convince the public to address the problem of pollution poisoning, which effects us all, it seems almost impossible to deal with the problem of over-population which individuals do not want to take as their personal responsibility. The Third/Developing World is still burgeoning with more people than can be fed.

In Stand On Zanzibar, Brunner explores the problem of overpopulation in the western, undeveloped and developing worlds respectively. The main storyline chronicles the paths of two American roommates: Donald Hogan who is eventually trained by the military to do a job in "Yatakang," and Norman Niblock House, a Vice President at the multinational General Technics who is involved in solving problems in "Beninia." There are also concerned notable personages (sociologists, presidents, government functionaries), and a crowded collection of tangential story lines and characters. Brunner divides the books into different components: Context where one can read about the sociological context of John Brunner's imagined future; Continuity which relays the main storyline; Tracking with Close Ups which usually concerns tangential characters; and The Happening World which also provides background information. In Stand On Zanzibar the background information is separated for inspection. The less enjoyable The Sheep Look Up varies from standard plotting devices by chronicling the growing political turmoil and activism taken over the year.

A problem with Brunner's diptych is that one does not, at first, know which characters should be paid attention to, ie. which are the main character of the book. The ensemble casts are hard to absorb. But the subject matter and themes explored speak to the importance of his foresight. Brunner's stories, crowded with tangents, may be more accessible on screen if they ever get there.

Stand on Zanzibar also seems zany at times. To give a sense, Brunner explains at the end of Stand on Zanzibar: "This non-novel was brought to you by John Brunner using Spicer Plus Fabric Bond and Commercial Bank papers interleaved with Serillo carbons in a Smith Corona 250 electric typewriter fitted with a Kolok black-record ribbon" (650). It is actually satirical, and it is essential to know that Brunner was part of the British New Wave which explored the modern problems of its day, and created stylistic experiments. Brunner was also following the dictum of famous editor John Campbell who solicited "lived in backgrounds" or sociological science fiction.

Brunner, in his autobiographical piece "The Development of a Science Fiction Writer," wrote of his famous diptych: "In Stand on Zanzibar, I attempted to dramatize the extreme psychological pressures resulting from acute over-population.... And in The Sheep Look Up, I attempted to analyze a polluted world, on the assumption that interest in ecology was a passing fad and that people would slump happily back into their old wasteful ways thinking that the passage of a few items of legislation was all that was necessary to cure the problem."

Despite the satirical elements, Stand on Zanzibar with its displaced characters, future trappings, invented countries, world problems, and unusual plotting, packs a wallop. The title of the book is derived from a mathematical population calculation:

Some troubledom just figured out that if you allow for every codder and shiggy and appleofmyeye a space one foot by two you could stand us all on the six hundred forty square mile surface of the island of Zanzibar. ToDay third MAY twenty-TEN come aGAIN! (10)

Glossary: codder: male, shiggy: female, appleofmyeye: child. The choice of these designations remind of our roles as reproducers of the deteriorating human condition. The problem gets worse as the book proceeds. Towards the end of the book:

Meanwhile, back at the planet Earth, it would no longer be possible to stand everyone on the island of Zanzibar without some of them being over ankles in the sea. (508)

Things in the Third World have not gotten much better since Stand on Zanzibar won the Hugo in 1968. The world population has since doubled. A modern environmental snapshot is still very alarming, reminding that we still have much to be concerned about.

The PBS show NOVA ("World in the Balance") posts on the Internet: "Today, demographic data continue to foretell dramatic changes ahead, though different countries have starkly different future prospects."

China struggles with a "one child" rule. India is projected to surpass China's population by 2050. The population doubling time for India is estimated at 36 years, and in Mali, where the average women has 7 children, the doubling time is every 23 years.

The key concept is carrying capacity: a calculable numerical variable denoting the population that can be sustained over time by an area. When the carrying capacity is exceeded people can die of starvation, cultures can be ruined, habitat can be destroyed, wars may result.... Immigration is a related issue in that population growth due to immigration can result in over-exploitation of the natural environment. Brunner was yelling and screaming about this more than 30 years ago.

The Ehrlichs (Paul R. the author of The Population Bomb (1968), and Anne H.) reminded recently in One with Nineveh, Politics, Consumption and the Human Future: "The modern scientific community long ago reached a consensus that growing numbers of people, together with rising levels of consumption, especially among the world's rich, are threatening the natural underpinnings of human life" (7).

They add:

... because of population momentum and still-high fertility rates in some areas, the race to curb the global population overshoot is far from over... If there is to be any chance of the good news overcoming the bad, the neglect of population issues must end, so that effective strategies to address the human predicament can be formulated. (110-111)

Stand on Zanzibar, which is rich enough for those who would argue harmfully that Nature is not some pristine untouched other out there, concerns many other issues than just family planning. There is also lengthy discussion of eugenics, artificial intelligence and Third World imperialism. The book depicts a future that we are luckily did not come to pass for many of us. There is, as yet, no computer like Shalmanesar controlling our destiny. There is also no longer any eugenics legislation. Stand on Zanzibar is not preachy. It is engaging because it is so unusual and rich in execution.

Many will not consider The Sheep Look Up as a sequel because there is no carryover of setting or characters. But it is a continuation of the rant on similar subject matter. Having also written the dystopic The Jagged Orbit (1969), Brunner became famous for the exploration of "awful futures."

Books of the Day wrote of The Sheep Look Up: "The world Brunner creates is convincing because the characters within it are real. He defines humanity in terms of individuals... using a scrapbook style, pasting together bits and clippings from the next fifty years to give us a wide-angle glimpse of what lies ahead" (quoted from the cover of The Sheek Look Up.

James John Bell relays that John Brunner said that he did not need to create things for The Sheep Look Up, which leaves us with a role model: activist Austin Train. The Sheep Look Up will inspire future environmental activists. Stand on Zanzibar is effective at inspiring environmental activism as a gross out.

The diptych is filled with outrage and angst at the state of affairs. These are down to earth science fictions books without aliens or spaceships, but still engaging. These works are prime examples of science fiction as social activism because they force us to confront problems that we need to solve. They also remind that there are solutions to these problems. Grace Paley points out "No one writes alone. If a literature is coming, there's a political movement too, know it or not. A movement gives literature power, and literature is a fuel to the movement" (quoted in an afterword to The Sheep Look Up).

The diptych was inspired by the political uprisings of the 1960 with rioters, protests and assassins. Characters use drugs and some of the story lines take place in invented international settings. But Brunner, not a Luddite, finds a solution through the use of technology in The Shockwave Rider (1974) with its depiction of how one could enact change, positive change, through the use of shared computer interconnections.

Brunner, an Englishman, was born in 1934 and published science fiction from 1951 to his death in 1995. He was an artistic science fiction writer who said "I never had a science lesson in my life." Brunner, who was an activist, and in certain areas self educated, suffered from health problems in his youth. He was interested in bringing a humanities perspective to the field of science fiction. Brunner's career had a number of chapters including his early days when he wrote twenty books for Ace, his famous social science fiction books period (including Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, The Shockwave Rider), and his later period.

"It is not science fiction as we used to know it, but we are all better off for that," wrote James Blish of Brunner's famous dystopic works.

Brunner dealt with environmental themes in other places as well. If one looks, one can also find Brunner's environmental and public health concerns in many of his books:

In the story "Eye of the Beholder" (1956) a landscape painter helps others appreciate a barren alien planet.

In The Atlantic Abomination (1960): "Why, the planet was teeming with life! A richness! Such a richness had never been known before, anywhere" (22).

In Bedlam Planet (1968): "Asgard was a very beautiful world-more so than Earth, indeed, for man's callousness and stupidity had not raped its plains into deserts nor smeared its rich valleys with ugly, monotonous townscapes" (49). Also in this work, scurvy is a health issue.

Polymath (1974) is about an undereducated and immature terraformer. Brunner writes: "Given a totally unexplored planet and a damaged spaceship, the polymath said, 'Tame the planet.' The ordinary man said, 'Mend the ship.' The planet was tameable; the ship was beyond repair." (135)

One finds Brunner's concern for public health issues in Total Eclipse (1974):

"I've almost got it," he said. "You mean that without realising what they were doing, they restricted their genetic pool until it became dangerous, and then it was too late. Like fortunes being concentrated in the hands of a few ultr-powered families? A sort of genetic capitalism?" (186)

In Children of the Thunder (1988), which sends home a powerful environmental and public health message:

I believe you've met the person I'm talking about: Dr. Ada Grant? She says there'll be plenty of takers because so many men are infertile nowadays owing to the environmental poisons... (340)

A character points out in Maze of Stars (1991): "What we found, after nearly another decade of investigation, was that we could indeed have coped with these diseases-had we started to do so before we wiped out so many of the native plants...." (296) This same argument is often made by those who wish to protect the biodiversity of the rainforests.

In Muddle Earth (1993), Brunner complains:

Yes. Well, most humans now live on other worlds. Eventually it dawned on some of the people out there that Earth was rotting to bits because the ones who'd stayed behind weren't up to managing a planet, especially one that was already in such a mess, so a bunch of sentimental explans hired the Yelignese to tidy up the place and keep it running, but since they're not human... (145)

There are many such messages in Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. One of the most forceful in Stand on Zanzibar is:

Despite the foregoing, the human race by tens of thousands would be knee-deep in the water around Zanzibar. (648)

One of the most forceful from The Sheep Look Up is:

PAGE: Don't keep the world on tenterhooks, Tom! Out with it! What's the best thing we can do to ensure a long, happy, healthy future for mankind?
GREY: We can just 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 have been doing for the past half century-if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species. (456)

Brunner reminds that we can reproduce in moderation. We can vote for candidates that are concerned with environmental issues. We can safeguard ourselves against pollution. We should protest because it is necessary.

The Ehrlichs point out: "We face the addition of at least 2 billion more people to the planet in the next half-century, even under optimistic assumptions, and we're already overconsuming natural capital and disrupting planetary systems at a rate Earth cannot long support" (333).

Though written over thirty years ago, Brunner's diptych could have been written recently. It begs the question, why always look to science fiction for fun? How about remembering science fiction that advocates the necessary social change? Brunner's diptych succeeds brilliantly as such. These books can help change the world.

Works Referenced

Brunner, John. The Atlantic Abomination. Ace, 1960.

——— Sanctuary in the Sky. Ace, 1960.

——— The Whole Man. Collier Books, 1964.

——— The Squares of the City. Ballantine, 1965.

——— Out of My Mind. Ballantine, 1967.

——— Born Under Mars. Ace, 1967.

——— "Judas". Dangerous Visions, Edited by Harlan Ellison. 1967.

——— Not Before Time. Nel Addition, 1968.

——— Stand on Zanzibar. Ballantine, 1968.

——— Bedlam Planet. Ace Books, 1968.

——— The Jagged Orbit. Ace Books, 1969.

——— The Traveler in Black. Ace Books, 1971.

——— The Dramaturges of Yan. Dell Rey, 1972.

——— Entry to Elsewhen. Daw Books, 1972.

——— The Sheep Look Up. Ballantine, 1972.

——— Polymath. Daw Books, 1974.

——— Total Eclipse. Daw Books, 1974.

——— The Shockwave Rider. Ballantine, 1976.

——— Children of the Thunder. Ballantine, 1988.

——— A Maze of Stars. Ballantine, 1991.

——— Muddle Earth. Ballantine, 1993.

——— The Sheep Look Up. Benbella Books, 2003.

DeBolt, Joseph W. The Happening Worlds of John Brunner: Critical Explorations in Science Fiction. Kennikat Press, 1975.

Ehrlich, Paul and Ann. One with Nineveh. Politics, Consumption and the Human Future. Shearwater, 2004.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kipling's Science Fiction. Presented by John Brunner. A Tor Book, 1992.

PBS: NOVA ("World in the Balance"). Info online, 2004.

Copyright © 2004, Ryder W. Miller. All Rights Reserved.

About Ryder W. Miller

Ryder W. Miller edited From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas Between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis. He is also the co-writer of San Francisco: A Natural History. He has published stories at Myth Circle and the Lost Souls website. He is currently working on an anthology of constructive environmental science fiction stories called Green Visions. He can be reached at


Jun 21, 17:32 by John Frost
Comments on Ryder's piece on Brunner
Jun 28, 11:38 by Adrian Simmons
Environmental degredation. A troublesome issue.

I'll say right at the start here that I've never read any of Mr. Brunner's books (although I do want to read 'The Sheep Look Up').

I did just hack my way through Al Gore's 'Earth in the Balance'.

What I find scary isn't so much that we'll produce so much air pollution that we have to wear gas masks, as much as we'll produce just enough green house gas to raise the temperature just enough for some fungus to dramatically increase its range and destroy 90% of the wheat crop for two years.

Any thoughts?

Jul 3, 20:09 by Chris Exner
I've been a huge fan of Brunner's since I started reading SF and was extremely pleased by Mr. Ryder's piece on this author. Brunner was a mad genius for his time and it's nice to see some one give him the recognition he deserves. Another book that was mentioned briefly in this article, which I recommend is The Jagged Orbit. This book introduced the "cut-up" type of writing which made Brunner famous, and a story that never stops twisting and surprising you. A cyberpunk novel, before there was cyberpunk.
Nov 8, 14:25 by Ryder W. Miller
Thank you Chris. I think we need to worry about a variety of environmental issues.
Feb 16, 10:12 by
nice post
Feb 16, 10:12 by
Apr 24, 05:49 by
I like the way you conduct your posts. Yessir!
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