In the not too distant future the earth has started to plunge into environmental disaster. Based on the lives of over a dozen characters, Brunner follows as Americans come to realize they are on the verge of an apocolypse. The story climaxes with the break down of the U.S. and the beginning of civil war between the government and the environmentally concious populance.
Though John Brunner displays his considerable ability with prose, and through his talents leaves the reader with a sense of the dangers to come from environmental ambivalence, that is all this novel does. Brunner spends four hundred pages depicting a really nasty, pessimistic view of the future. He does so by jumping around in the lives of close to a dozen characters. Yet despite having a variety of individuals to work with, Brunner never develops them beyond what is necessary to express his strong environmental views. Most of these characters fall into one of two categories: hippy environmentalists(Ossie), or conservative elitists(Mr. Bamberly). The hippy environmentalists, who mostly call themselves Trainites, are living off the land in little agrarian societies waiting for civilization to end, or off bombing industrial complexes. The conservative elitists spend most of the time denouncing the hippies as socialists bent on destroying the nation, and (inter-mixed with a racial slur or two) convince the reader that not only are the wealthy and politically powerful responsible for environmental disaster, but are also entirely naive as to what they are doing to the world. These carbon characters are almost constantly involved in little else than either discussions or situations that have do with the highly screwed up world of the future. So much so that the reader feels very little emotional attachment to the characters. Their individual personalities seem to fade into the background, only leaving the environmental message that Brunner is so concious of. The only real exception to this is Austin Train, who is thoughtful enough to realize that the hippy environmentalists (or Trainites) are not really doing much of anything by living in the woods and blowing up buildings. He, at least wants to appeal to people's intellect, not just scare them into submission. But, unfortunatley Brunner spends little time with this character until the end of the book. One might also argue that Peg, the reporter with strong environmental convictions, is also one of these in that she leaves one of the Trainite camps because she considers their actions unaffective. However, after this seemingly independent action, Peg falls back into the role of hippy environmentalist, seeminly wandering through the rest of the novel until she runs into Austin Train, and from there on acts as his biggest fan.
In addition, I believe that Brunner let a little to much of his Marxist thinking seep in to this novel. His book seems to take the view that the world is ruled by a business/government elite, and that these are largely to blame for environmental problems. I think most people are starting to realize that you can't blame any one single group of people for environmental problems. It is a much larger social issue, and though it may be easier and simpler to think that rising up and overthrowing one particular group will be a cure, I don't think it is a effective one.
Also I really do not like the way that Brunner portrays industrial society. Brunner spends the entire novel finding more and more creative environmental disasters. He starts out with the simple stuff like acid rain and air poluution, but before you know he is on to anti-biotic resistant bacteria, earthquakes caused by chemical waste dumping, and a variety of diseases even a medical doctor would regard as obscure. All of these he blames upon industrialized society. But, he never even attempts to discuss the positive aspects of industrialization, nor the reasons why civilization adopted it in the first place, to improve the standard of living.
Finally, I really disliked Brunner's solution to the environmental crisis that he provides at the very end of the novel. According, to one of the novel's minor characters, Dr. Grey, the only way that the future might be saved is if the 200,000 most wasteful citizens of the world, that is to say all the Americans, are eliminated. If Brunner met this as a "wake up call" to readers about an oncoming environmental crisis, he should have provided some kind of better solution than mass extermination. After all if the purpose of your book is to promote people to action, you should at least allow them to believe that their actions can save them from a rapidly advancing tomorrow.
Having been so critical of Brunner, it is only fair to mention his good qualities, the chief one being the father of cyberpunk. The way that Brunner writes his novels, chaotically jumping from scene to scene, as well as using clips from the media reminds me a great deal of William Gibson. The style that he chose was one well before its time, and shows that Brunner was not only a writer, but an artist too.
John Brunner certainly could write. The images he creates in his novel of a dying planet are certainly a way to alert people of a future that is not horribly unrealistic. However, it would have been nice if Brunner had added more depth to his novel.