OK there are gonna be plenty of spoilers so if you haven't read this before but intend to, you should probably skip it.
I've read very little Brunner: some shorts and *long ago* Stand on Zanzibar but enjoyed his lecture for Gunn's film series from dmznyc so I thought it was time to read him as a grown-up.
The basic story takes place in the late 70's early 80's but I just pretended it was around 2030. A time when our environment has gone to hell. Pesticides and chemicals killed the Great Lakes long ago and just recently the Mediterranean; healthy, pure food is practically unobtainable; frequent warnings come out that municipal water supplies are undrinkable; hygiene-related diseases are rampant (lots of open sores); daily eco-terrorism and demonstrations; filter-masks and oxygen booths are common; lots drug resistant diseases and critters.
Into this mix, an insurance company takes center stage for a large portion of the story (good idea). They're in a panic about falling life expectancy and all the environment-related insurance claims and a screw-up by their Denver office manager. Other major threads include psychotropically tainted relief food and the philanthropist who was responsible; multiple disasters in Denver; martial law and loss of liberty; and most importantly the failed eco-philosopher, Austin Train.
The things I liked:
Especially in the beginning, he draws this world well. The details come together into a dark but believable (once you shift the time period) world gone wonky. He chooses good characters to follow around: parents, cops, insurance people, number crunchers, reports, activists, slackers -- they all act as unique portals into this world.
I know DDT had been recognized by then as weeding out the weak mosquitos leaving only the resistant ones but I'm not sure if the implications of this were generally known. Brunner takes this idea to things were seeing alot of these days: drug resistant hepatitis, pesticide-resistant pests, herbicide-resistant weeds. His portrayal of STDs here is particularly harrowing -- they just won't go away.
A minor thing, but it was kind of funny that every reference to the president in conversation, news reports, press releases, etc calls him "Prexy". With no explanation to whether this was a nickname, surname or something like "Cher". For some reason it cracked me up.
The things I didn't like:
He bit off more than he could chew in the number of characters and the way he decided to tell their stories. Bouncing back and forth alot, sometimes taking so long to get back to one that you forget who they are sometimes dipping very quickly in for a snapshot along the way (this technique actually worked pretty good).
The characters themselves are a distasteful lot, not people I liked and apparently he didn't either because time and time again he'll just kill one off for no purpose always in a kind of negative-dramatic (flat) way where, I suppose, the reader is supposed to gasp in surprise. To me he seemed like a cruel child killing ants.
There's kind of a nice build-up to when Austin Train, who's been out of the public eye for a number of years, is going to make a big appearance on a world-wide interview show. I was looking forward to how Brunner would handle it, and he wusses-out. Train is arrested before it starts and when he's put on trial (long story) and finally gets to make his speech it's just platitudes about eating fruit straight from a tree and drinking clear, clean water. No way is explored to actually *get* to that state.
Another huge let-down: there was a researcher for the insurance company who we get glimpses of throughout the book trying to put together computer modeling of the environment to attempt to get a handle on things. His final report: kill 400 million useless people. Thanks, that helps
The Stand was probably influenced by The Sheep Look Up: similar story telling; similar variety of characters; not Denver, but Boulder. But when King kills off people (like the bomb in Nick Andros's place) it actually *means* something and influences the story.
I'll stop now. This is probably my last Brunner book. While he's obviously a good writer, I just don't think he liked this story and it felt to me like he was just pissed off at and mean to the beings in his novel. A real downer -- and I'm not talking about the dystopia, I'm talking about the actual environment of the words on the page.