A while back I got hold of some old Fuji Provia 100F that expired in June 2007. The very month that Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. A long time ago. Provia is Fuji's general-purpose slide film for normal everyday photographers rather than landscape photographers. Given that it was cheap and out-of-date, I decided to cross-process it. And write about it, in the style of John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up, with a guest appearance from the single best line in J G Ballard's High-Rise. Cheap and out of date.
I'LL GIVE HIM FIREWORKS
"Cross-processing", said the fisherman, "is a... it's a technique, really, where you take one lot and do it with the other lot." Film, he was talking about film. The warehouses were bloated with film, bloated like the ruined corpse of a fish. The look of surprise on their fishy faces. They shouldn't have been surprised. There was no demand.
"The cats take slide film", he gestured to the glass, "and they take it these days. Just take it. Shoot, they can't give it away. They do them with the wrong chemicals, man. Not that there are any right chemicals, dig?" Or the other way around, thought Luger. Negative film, positive. Minus to plus. "Look, I'll show you", and the fisherman fished in his pocket:
Three films. The old films. There was normal slide film, with the colours. It was like looking into a dream, from before the air was too thick to see through. There was negative film. Black and white. And there was negative film again, but it wasn't right. It was colour, but backwards. The orange mask had gone. He could see a telephone box, grass. Probably real. It looked to be an expensive neighbourhood. Another mortar round struck, a few blocks away. It didn't matter any more.
"It passes the time", said the fisherman.
ROTTING IS NATU-
I don't mind if I'm fat, thought Jill as she sat eating the dog. As long as they're fat too.
FLASH...cross-processing is another one of those "instant art" things, that makes the horrible dreary reality of real-life seem exciting and new. Which is what photography is all about. It's all about making real-life look like a photograph. People don't take photographs because they love real life. They take photographs because they hate real life.
Green, Provia goes green. They knew about it. But there was money to be made. It goes green. It looks normal, but green. You can do that in Photoshop. Green.
Brigadier Neale pondered the report. The detonator had malfunctioned. Of the two bodies, one was a collection of bone shards and some burned scraps of hair and something that resembled an overdone sausage. The other was a former Captain in the Scots Guards. The pumping plant was ruined. The government would have to find another solution for the drought problem. That was not his problem.
The telephone rang. The Forth Bridge. Are they mad? he thought. How do they expect to live without... all the things that England... culture and so forth. The BBC? Financial services, that's it. How will they live without England's financial services? Never start a war unless you can take the pain. That was the first lesson of warfare. Never start a war etc. The bloody Forth Bridge? Good job they had the first, second, and third bridges, what? But, seriously.
THE BEE INDEX
The electric heroin-haze of the clean death simplified her thoughts. It. Green. As her mind drifted she imagined the green, and the other green.
She dreamed of a future where the fleas and lice were infested with people. Their turn to suffer, she thought. Don't give them a second chance. I will not go i will not go i and she went
... and with a swooshing sound reality returned. With the right processing the results look, well, normal. The Sheep Look Up is fascinating today. John Brunner had a knack for picking topics and issues that still resonate. The book was published in 1972, before I was born. Doctor Who had only just gone colour. It's about the end of America by plague and pestilence and fire, brought on by poor behaviour of the organisations that make the guns and butter and guns.
It's the quintessential turn-of-the-70s enviro-panic apocalypto sci-fi novel, right there with Make Room, Make Room and Brunner's earlier Stand on Zanzibar. Robert Silverberg's The World Inside; J G Ballard's High-Rise; John Wagner's Judge Dredd. Future Shock, The Limits to Growth, etc. An alien relic for people my age, who grew up during the 1980s, the anti-70s.
Up is written in a freeform style, daddy-o, that hasn't aged very well but at least he tried, dammit. God damn at least he tried.
E Coli, antibiotic resistance, water shortages, 1972. They never really went away, unlike e.g. space elevators and mankind's dream of space travel. That died. Bugs and decay survived. On one level the whole thing reads like the ravings of a Big Pharma-hating blogger, and of course none of it came true, and in my mental picture of the storyline all the characters have sideburns and flared jeans, and are huge fans of The Band and the MC5. Hippies, in other words, of the original variety. They probably had a lot of sex though.
Although not good sex, at least not in The Sheep Look Up, because everybody catches something from something, with mouth-filling pus-filled sores and so forth, and then it gets really bad. At one point a rich man's son is kidnapped by environmental ne'er-do-wells, and forced to just live in an ordinary person's home for a while, before being released. They don't mistreat him, they just force him to live like a normal person.
Characterisation? Not much. It's more of an assault than a book, and it's a shame Brunner couldn't have turned it into some kind of multi-media presentation, a kind of illustrated novel combining words and sounds and pictures and so forth. As a conventional film it might possibly work, but it would lose most of the novel's style, and the fractured narrative would be jarring. It's supposed to be jarring, but you can take your time when you're reading. Brunner was not a film-etic writer, unlike for example Michael Crichton.
Is it a good book? It's a memorable book. It must have knocked their socks off in 1972, and in fact it was nominated for a Nebula Award the next year. It lost to Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves, but that's awards for you. Despite apparently going out of print and never selling in great quantities it was the kind of novel that appealed to budding novelists, along with Brunner's previous book, Stand on Zanzibar. Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which won the Nebula Award in 2010, is based on an uncannily similar set of themes (plus genetic engineering, which doesn't feature in Sheep).
Several of the book's elements seem extraordinarily prescient, although Brunner largely achieves this by throwing in everything. Apart from e coli, and mention of antibiotic-resistant bacteria - the idea being that antibiotics used to rear chickens end up diluted in human food, allowing bugs to get used to them in their weakened state - it also has acid rain, two years before an influential scientific paper that made acid rain one of the biggest environmental causes of the 1980s. Remember acid rain? It's still around, you know, but nowadays it's old hat.
Part of the book's narrative concerns a plot by the US agri-pharma-military complex to stir up trouble abroad by sending out tainted relief supplies, which is the kind of thing that still excites conspiracy theorists today, although the notion that this might happen from incompetence and petty greed seems more plausible, and indeed Sheep suffers from a central paradox, whereby the Machiavellian super-state seems to be deliberately making things worse for itself.
STOP, YOU'RE KILLING ME
But... it's really a set of descriptions of horrible events, with people. The people are nothing, really. They have names and say things, but they aren't what the book is about. There's a pattern whereby a bunch of characters that we don't care about discuss the horrible events that are unfolding, and then they are killed. The relentless grimness becomes hard to take seriously, because it's so unsubtle it feels almost like parody at times. The characters keep calling each other baby, and they talk about the fuzz, and the pigs, the man, and meeting cats and getting high, etc, which roots the book in a certain time and place. I mean, dude hasn't aged too badly. But man, cat, etc, no.
The bitty, jumpy narrative would have worked much better in small doses, for effect. We learn surprisingly little about the hero, Austin Train, a kind of unwilling underground messiah figure who seems overwhelmed by the movement that has sprung up around him. If the book had followed him - Fight Club style - it would have worked better. Instead we get an impressionistic mesh of narrative strands. Train's movement never feels plausible, something the book shares with Illuminatus!, which it otherwise crushes like a bug.
Overall the book feels like a passionate, sincere statement that's a bit too large for Brunner's grasp. It's vivid, all right. Sticks with you. I'm glad it exists. And some of the writing is incredibly sharp:
Yashica Mat, all of them. I mean, if I concentrated on one thing, I might achieve something. But the wheels are spinning too fast. So I skip from thing to thing, like a fly, trapped in a slaughterhouse.