The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner

By Noel Knox

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.

--Milton: "Lycidas"

Written in 1972, this novel describes a modern day society in which our own negligence has resulted in a toxic wasteland with limited food supply and riddled with numerous diseases and constant epidemics.
1 Author Background
2 Plot Summary
3 Summary and Analysis of Themes
4 Analysis and Criticism
5 References

Author Background

John Brunner was born on September 24, 1934 in Oxfordshire, England. He began writing at an early age, publishing his first novel at age seventeen. When he was eighteen Brunner joined the British Royal Air Force and served for three or four years. His political stance was very much left wing, which can be seen on occasion in his writing style. Over a span of 45 years he wrote a total of 70 novels, including some of his most famous works such as The Sheep Look Up, Stand on Zanzibar, and The Shockwave Rider. During the 1980's Brunner's health began to decline, and after his wife's death in 1986 he published very little. In 1995 he died of a stroke at the World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow, Scotland (5).


The novel is composed of many sub-stories, ranging anywhere from a few sentences to a few pages in length. Several characters are introduced in these stories (an insurance salesman, a nurse, an Irish soldier, a journalist, and an oil producer to name a few), many of whom never meet each other, and in some cases are only present for a chapter or two. The society is composed of two main groups: the upper class aristocrats and the Trainites, who are the right wing environmentalists. The Sheep Look Up is mainly a book of cause and effect, showing the various irresponsible actions of the government (dumping dangerous chemical waste into abandoned mines, putting all sorts of toxins into large bodies of water, etc.) and how they affect the rest of the world. This novel does not have much of a story-line, nor does it attempt to. Rather it serves as a warning to all of us of what may come if we do not act responsibly.

Summary and Analysis of Themes

There is one central theme that is apparent throughout this novel. The idea of responsibility (or in the case of this book the lack thereof) is constantly coming into play. The irresponsibility of the corporations that have dumped toxic waste into the soil and filled the skies with pollutants has resulted in an environment that is hazardous to everyone, and the irresponsibility shown by both the aristocrats who pay no heed to the obvious problems all around them and the Trainites who thrive on criticizing the actions of the aristocrats but do nothing themselves to help solve the problem has only made these conditions worse.

Analysis and Criticism

Although the situation described in this book is a little outlandish, its message is very clear and well put. The horrific detail that is gone into is quite gripping, and it does create a great amount of concern in the reader for the future. However there is a lot of debate as to the necessity as well as the effectiveness of these images. A review from states that Brunner never develops anything more than what is necessary to make his point. This statement is very accurate. Brunner’s writing style in this novel contains little to no continuity. As a reader this presented a great amount of frustration and a constant desire for something more (9).

There is also speculation as to whether or not Brunner intended this novel to be more than just a warning. Some have called it a communist novel, fitting with Brunner’s own political stance. Others have called it anti-American or anti-government. However a review from Stranger than Science Fiction attempts to dispel some of these theories. In response to those who view this as a communist novel, it states that although the novel describes a situation in which a capitalist government is responsible for ruining an entire ecosystem, communism is never suggested as a better alternative. The notion that this novel is anti-American is quickly dismissed since on more than one occasion Europe is described to be in the same relative condition. It also addresses those who claim that this is an anti-government novel by pointing out that the situation at hand is just as much a result of the actions of the people as it is the actions of the government (10).

I firmly agree with the writer of this review in that too many people seem to over-analyze this novel. It is my sincere belief that this book was written for the sole purpose of serving as a warning and nothing more. Brunner’s lack of development doesn’t really leave room to support any other underlying messages, and the severity of the situation portrayed is so great that it seems as though he was trying to make sure people didn’t over-analyze it.


1. Brennan, John P. "John Brunner: Overview." St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers.
Ed. Jay P. Pederson. 4th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.

2. Burelbach, Frederick M. "John (Kilian Houston) Brunner." British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Since 1960. Ed. Darren Harris-Fain. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 261. Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.

3. Gimon, Charles A. "Heros of Cyberspace: John Brunner." Info Nation. 12 Mar. 2009 <>.

4. Goldman, Stephen H. "John Brunner's Dystopias: Heroic Man in Unheroic Society." Depauw University. Nov. 1978. 18 Mar. 2009 <>.

5. "John Brunner." NNDB. 2009. 12 Mar. 2009 <>.

6. "The John Brunner Archive." Archives Hub. 18 Mar. 2009 <>.

7. "John (Kilian Houston) Brunner." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Gale. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.

8. Langford, Dave. "John Brunner Obituary." The Skeptic Magazine. 1995. 18 Mar. 2009 <>.

9. "The Sheep Look Up: A Book of Environmental Disaster." 2002. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.

10. "The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner." Stranger than Science Fiction. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.