Science fiction is never really about the future—instead, it’s an interesting way to talk about the present. For decades, the genre huddled in the shade of the space race and the Cold War, because those were the dramas of the day. And it was in science fiction, I think, that we actually talked about them most honestly—about both our highest hopes (e.g. Star Trek) and our deepest fears (e.g. The Terminator—really a Cold War movie, and barely about robots at all).
So what’s present now? I think the next few really great works of science fiction—including, maybe, the next great science fiction movie—are going to be about food.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl is the most original, bracing work of science fiction I’ve read in years. It’s as if somebody got into my house, walked right up to a door I’d never noticed, opened it wide and led me through into the corridor beyond. Of course, I’m saying to myself. Why didn’t I ever think to look here?
Bacigalupi paints a world of pandemic plagues, mass migrations, genetically-modified food, sealed-off hermit kingdoms and “calorie men” from agribusiness giants who behave more like secret agents than sales reps. All together, it’s dark, rich, weird, and compelling.
(It’s worth noting that I’d put Bacigalupi on the shelf next to Margaret Atwood right now. Atwood’s latest books come across, to me, as fairy tales, albeit dark ones. Bacigalupi weaves a broader tapestry. And we’re still waiting for our bio-Tolkien.)
Bacigalupi’s book made me think, as I was reading, of the history of wine and the “suitcase clones”—cuttings from legendary vineyards smuggled from Europe to America. There’s a bit of secret agent in that, too. It made me think of the Phylloxera plague that flowed back into European vineyards like an electrical current seeking the ground, scorching the earth. (You might know this already, but: almost every European grape now grows on American rootstock.)
It made me think of Jason Rezaian’s Kickstarter project to start the first avocado farm in Iran. (Just stop and think about that for a second. More secret agent stuff!)
It made me think of the colonization of America—the craziest most improbable post-apocalyptic sci-fi story of all, and fundamentally a story of biology.
There’s something here. The future hurtles toward us in the shape of… an avocado. In the shape of a pluot. In the shape of an asian carp. Forget Gattaca; genetic engineering’s crazy excesses are going to hit us in the bodega, not the bedroom. And forget Skynet; the real apocalypse starts when all the fish die.
This is what we’re worried about now. I think that, in the U.S. on any given day, more units of stress and dread are expended in the name of food than in the name of terrorist attacks. Of course, on TV we talk about terrorist attacks. In the President’s Daily Brief, they talk about terrorist attacks. But the dark layer of doom blooming silently beneath the surface—that’s food. (Well, I mean. Actually it’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico. But metaphorically! Food.)
I feel like this is such fertile ground, not only because it’s actually important (it is) but also because it’s so commercial! You could totally put a sci-fi food show on cable TV: Anthony Bourdain meets Bladerunner. You could sell a sci-fi food thriller to the entire West Coast of the United States: Michael Pollan meets William Gibson.
But that’s all good. That’s a start. That’s how we begin to talk about these big scary things that spread out beneath the surface of our whole society, right here, today: we pretend we’re talking about the future instead.