It is post-apocalyptically hot outside. Miles and miles of eerie, empty streets. The humidity frizzes our hair as we ride our bikes: we all suddenly have 1972 perms. Wear your good clothes: Sweated-up L. L. Bean gets more respect than J. C. Penney. Stop frequently for water.
Here are some temperatures to consider: 103 in Phoenix, AZ; 95 in Little Rock, AR; 97 in Dallas, TX; 91 in Washington, D.C.; 90 in Omaha, NE; 91 in Des Moines, IA; 90 in New York, NY. (Put them in a column and it’s a poem.)
We had a heat wave in June; now the heat is back. Who is responsible for climate change? What a long list: industrialists, politicians, power companies, etc., going back to the 19th century. We have all had the information about pollution and global warming since the ’60s, and yet we are all fossil fuel junkies. The car and truck emissions cause one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. And I don’t know about you, but I have my air conditioner on.
A few good things: the air is actually cleaner (though not very clean) since the Clean Air Act in 1973. (There is a long way to go, but the EPA measures air emissions and at least there’s no lead in the air now!) And Science magazine reported last week that the Antarctic hole in the ozone layer has begun to heal. The scientists say it’s because of the Montreal protocol, an international agreement in 1987 that phased out the industrial production of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
I recently read John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up , a 1972 dystopian classic. In this terrifying post-modern literary SF novel, pollution has rendered the U.S. practically a wasteland. The poisoned air blows into Canada and sometimes across the ocean to Europe (sound familiar?); everyone is sick; antibiotics no longer work; fleas and rat infestations in houses and apartment house can no longer be controlled because they are immune to poison; the acid rain in NY is so bad that you need to wear plastic outside; the water is poisoned (there are frequent “no-drink water” days); intelligence levels are dropping (lead in the air and water); a virus causes spontaneous abortion; the oceans are so polluted that people vacation in Colorado rather than California; and big businesses are profiting by selling air filters, water filters, etc.
There is a huge cast of characters, but at the center of the novel is Austin Train, a radical environmentalist who has gone undercover. The novel is not ABOUT him, but all the characters (journalists, nurses, policemen, factory workers, drop-outs, housewives, rich industrialists) react to his ideas. Most of them are distorted by his followers, known as Trainites. And there are dozens of men who call themselves Austin Train. Many of them urge violence.
The narrative is broken up into fascinating short segments: traditional narratives, radio broadcasts, news, announcements, poems, etc. One segment is called “Signs of the Times. The signs are arranged in rectangles on the page, making it look like a flow chart, but I can’t duplicate that here. Anyway, here are the signs:
THE BEACH NOT SAFE FOR SWIMMING
NOT DRINKING WATER
UNFIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
Now Wash Your Hands (Penalty for noncompliance $50)
FILTERMASK DISPENSER (Use product only once – maximum 1 hour)
OXYGEN (25 cents)
Some of the most horrifying incidents in The Sheep Look Up revolve around hunger. An industry that manufactures food for international relief ships a poisoned batch to a country in Africa experiencing famine: people who eat it go crazy and kill each other. The same thing happens in the Honduras. There are cover-ups. But no one really knows what happened. And then a “worm” imported from South America kills most of the food being grown in the U.S.
Austin Train knows there’s no hope for the U.S., but there might be for the planet.
Let us hope there’s hope for all of us!
A very gloomy book, but it does show us what the future could hold. A little too long, but a great novel! You really don’t need any more dystopian novels after you’ve read this.