I offer a moral dilemma. Are there books or fictional works so dangerous that they should not be taught in school or college, and that should as far as possible be kept from a general audience? Some observers would apply this label to political tracts like Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but however loathsome its content, that book really offers little by way of practical advice which a regular person or party could readily imitate. Other texts are dangerous precisely because they give strategies and tactics for violence and destruction that can indeed be reproduced, and which could have far-reaching consequences. Do we try to suppress them? Should we even talk about them, with however much condemnation, or does talking simply draw attention to their existence?
As you may have guessed, I will indeed be violating that seal of secrecy. The work I have in mind is The Sheep Look Up, a 1972 novel by British science-fiction writer John Brunner (1934-95). It offers a detailed and practicable blueprint for the destruction of the United States by means well within the reach of contemporary terrorists. But despite its alarming quality, it also demands attention as one of the greatest modern examples of apocalyptic literature.
The Sheep Look Up is the centerpiece of a sequence of impressive Brunner novels that appeared in the decade after 1966. Yet this remains his finest work, in terms of its ability to invoke a whole imaginary society. The book is as much prophecy as apocalypse. Brunner’s imagined America is a hellish place, but its ills are entirely self-inflicted. Atmospheric pollution is appalling, and no sane person drinks tap water, or even allows it near the skin without the necessary antiseptics. Birth defects are pandemic. Waste dumping deep into the earth has made earthquakes commonplace, and these in turn release long-buried chemical and biological weapons stores. The Great Lakes are dead, and the Gulf of Mexico is a “fetid puddle.” Pollutants accelerate global climate change. Ultimately, suggests Brunner, all these material forms of pollution are outgrowths of the nation’s inner spiritual corruption.
Politically, society is disintegrating. America is fighting brushfire wars against much of the Third World, especially against a global Marxist-Maoist network of the dispossessed, the “Tupas,” who take their name from the Tupamaro guerrilla group of the 1970’s. Domestically, anticorporate and antipollution activists mobilize in their millions under the symbolic leadership of the Christ-like Austin Train. Trainites carry out mass demonstrations, which include sabotage and monkey-wrenching. Armed black militant groups are surging, as race war spreads. The U.S. government keeps a lid on the situation by drumming up support for incessant overseas wars and antiterror campaigns. Anyone who can afford to do so withdraws into fortified enclaves.
This future world is under devastating terrorist assault, and it is this element that makes the book so unnerving today, and arguably so dangerous. Brunner offers a hair-raising catalogue of techniques deployed against America by various groups, including the faceless Tupas. Terrorists use car bombs and Chechen-style apartment bombs. Ship-launched balloons drop napalm on land-based civilian targets.
A trifecta of unconventional weapons does indeed succeed in bringing down the tottering United States. An overseas disease carrier travels widely across the country, airport to airport, spreading a catastrophic plague of enteritis (and in a society where antibiotics no longer function). At the same time, America’s dwindling food production is crippled by a pesticide-resistant parasite, in a lethal act of agricultural terrorism. Then the Denver metro area is attacked by a deadly psychoactive drug placed in its reservoirs, driving most inhabitants to homicidal insanity, and forcing the overstretched U.S. armed forces into yet another enormous disaster-relief operation. All four horsemen—famine, plague, war, and death—combine in the final onslaught. Each of these tactics is quite plausible, and each features prominently in the darker speculations of the modern-day intelligence community.
After this catalogue of nightmares, Brunner offers a Swiftian solution of sorts. A scientist reports that his computer projections show the world can be saved and the biosphere restored, but only “if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species.” The United States perishes—with her 200 million planetary parasites—as the fumes of the final conflagration drift over the Atlantic to Ireland. This section takes its subtitle from Revelation 18, on the fall of Babylon: “The Smoke of That Great Burning.” Brunner’s happy ending is an act of genocide.
The book is brilliant, repulsive, and prophetic. It also tells terrorists how they can improve their game to maximum effect. However good it is, should we read it, or teach it? Is it too dangerous?