John Brunner - The Sheep Look Up (1972, 457pp, Ballantine Books, USA)
Predictive Science Fiction generally dates all too quickly, but The Sheep Look Up is a chilling example of the genre at it's best. Brunner's chronicle of the fall is not one in which warriors prowl the wasteland or in which the Earth goes out in a blinding flash, but one in which human health and rationality merely crumble under the accumulated weight of ecological destruction.
In a remarkably perceptive manner Brunner ties together various disparate plot lines to illustrate the interconnection of a number of seemingly random and unconnected events. The cumulative effect of multiple problems such as resource wars, over population, ill health, seeping radiation, soil erosion, introduced predators and so on is made all too clear.
Whilst the author's message is somewhat blunt his real skill comes in avoiding the cheesiness of novels and movies such as Soylent Green or The Omega Man. The characters and events illustrated here are well rounded and precise and his exploration of the pitfalls of leadership and government indifference rarely come across as heavy handed. Indeed even his condemnation of green washing and eco-consumerism in the face of disintegrating cities and an increasingly barren countryside is both clear and prescient.
Interestingly enough (though perhaps not surprisingly given the book's fiercely bleak outlook) The Sheep Look Up is generally credited as the last book Phil Ochs read before his suicide in 1976. Its message so profoundly affected the deteriorating folksinger that in his depressed, alcohol soaked final days he insisted on only being addressed by the name of it's central figure, John Train, an environmental pioneer who buries himself in the city slums when it becomes clear that his warnings are doomed to failure.