The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Michael Pollan meets William Gibson
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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.

windup

EVIDENCE!

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.

Update: Anthony Bourdain is, in fact, doing a comic book—a “futuristic action thriller!” I—love—it. Via Tim Shey.

17 comments

Tim Carmody says…

We have been down this road once before with Soylent Green. But that was mostly about overpopulation + the future sucking => euthanasia more than food as such.

More relevant might be this set of predictions from 1900 about the year 2000 from the Ladies’ Home Journal. Remember, the end of the nineteenth century was the great age of optimism for food science — advances like pasteurization seemed like the dawn of a great new age of better eating through chemistry. We’re waking up from that party like a bad hangover now, wondering if the chemicalization and industrialization of our food was really such an unalloyed good.

I do have one quibble with the idea that “the real apocalypse starts when all the fish die.” I don’t think we have to get that far. I think the peak grain moment is when it could all go downhill. We’ve already had bread riots in the last few years. We’ve dodged a bullet with the Russian export ban on grain. Imagine what happens politically not when we run out of food, but we just can’t produce or ship enough of the staples for people in our cities to get enough of them?

The food supply chain is still the most important infrastructure we have. When people can’t buy bread for ready money even after standing in line for a day or more, the whole edifice of civilization starts to look very frail and pointless indeed.

The neat thing about Windup Girl is that it’s not just about the abstract political/economic properties of food; it’s like, really about FOOD. The opening scene is worth a read, via Kindle sample chapter or bookstore browsing pass, just to get a sense of this. It’s all about the central character’s encounter, in a Thai street market, with a fruit he’s never seen or tasted before…

“the real apocalypse starts when all the fish die” = very scary

Dan says…

Will the real “bio-Tolkien” please stand up?

Tim Carmody says…

I could really go for some lembas waybread right about now.

(How could I NOT comment on this post?! Ha.)

It’s funny that Tim mentions lembas because, in some ways, lembas is a great representation of early 20th century optimism about where our food system was going — the idea that you could get everything you need, nutritionally, from one simple food that also happens to keep fresh forever and taste really great.

Rather than a single moment when “all the fish die” I see a more gradual change where the most nutritient-dense foods become more and more expensive/unobtainable for most people. We’re already on this path: look at the differences in nutritional value between grass-fed beef/butter/milk and that of their conventionally-raised counterparts.

The question is, will the government stand up and end subsidies to less nutrient-dense foods, such as corn and soybeans? It’s not looking hopeful anytime soon — Obama just appointed a new USDA undersecretary for research, education, and economics who came to the US government from Mars, Inc.

Fish is another great example; as the oceans get more and more empty, it will become all but impossible for average people to eat fish. It’s a tragedy that our solutions to this problem — fish farming and genetically modifying salmon — could actually, in the long run, exacerbate it.

And now, I’d like some of the Gaffer’s homebrew.

Yeah, totally. It freaks me out — and tell me if I’ve just bought into the doom and gloom here — that we’ll be waxing rhapsodic to our grandiose about sushi — a delicacy that will be almost unimaginable (or at least unimaginable expensive?) for them.

Anyway, I propose an all-fantasy/sci-fi dinner of Lembas bread, Turkish delight, and “tea, Earl Grey, hot.”

Tim Carmody says…

BTW, besides Star Trek (I’d totally take Kirk’s Romulan Ale over Picard’s Earl Grey Tea), I love the representation of food in the first Star Wars. Think about Luke’s meeting with Yoda: “How you get so big eating food of this kind?”

Star Wars was also honest in that it was full of disgusting critters who ate garbage, like the various animals in the Death Star’s trash compactor or the minocs in the gullet of the space worm that the Falcon lands inside of in Empire.

Luke’s Aunt & Uncle are “moisture farmers,” selling water to farmers who grow underground crops. Han smuggles “spice,” which is some kind of illegal drug.

Seriously, check out the “Food” entry on Wookieepedia. It’s a trip.

Matt P says…

I don’t recall the name of the book, but I vividly remember reading a YA sci-fi novel sometime in the late 80’s in which the protagonists were lost in the wilderness and had to scavenge a dinner of pheasant and wild blueberries, which tasted hopelessly bland in comparison to the flavor-concentrated artificial foods they were used to. It’s interesting to see this fear that we’re losing our appreciation for natural foods preceding / in parallel to the fear that we’re losing our supply of natural foods.

Tim Maly says…

Fertile post leads to bounty of interesting in the comments.

Brain is humming. I’ll just add that for tales of bio espionage daring-do, you could do worse than check out the tale of how the British stole rubber trees and what rubber trees meant to the world before petroleum based products.

Robin,

Jason was on “Hey! with Dane Golden” live from Tehran last night. See here…
http://www.hey.com/podcast/2010/10/11/hey-9-jason-rezaian-an-american-journalist-living-in-iran-ca.html

Aside from a few new-podcaster bumps, this was actually a great interview. The sanctions in Iran are apparently killing the food prices. The government is about to repeal the state-sponsored bread subsidies. Many Iranians are turning to vegetarianism as a last resort to save money, which is very against the cultural grain. The Iranian Avocado as a microcosm of the Food Apocalypse, who would have thought?

David

EFFORT is an unfortunate acronym for the 6 places where innovation will thrive over the next decade. The second F is for Food. The current data suggests that we are wasting food at exponential rates and more people are living in poverty or going hungry. As a race we are still reconciling genetic modification and despite the news looking elsewhere, we are still short of grains worldwide. these problems are not going away. In 2045 we know 9 billion people will be on the planet. Innovation, which uses science fiction as a place to define visions, is the answer to most things. The problems in Food? Definitely.

I totally just read this on vacation to Hawaii and then China (which is why I didn’t see your post earlier).

The really freaky thing is that the book opens with a description of a fruit I’d never heard of… and then the very next day after reading that passage, I saw the fruit in question for the first time at a market! I was like, whoa, this has to be what they were talking about! Only later did the book actually name it (mild spoiler: http://j.mp/vS3fu ), and I was right!

I was also rather gripped by The Windup Girl’s vision of the world, though I kept thinking that we’d all just fall back to nuclear power in event of carbon collapse? Its vision of the future of food was certainly frightening though. In China in particular, people are often so wary of pollution and fake food now. (Though curiously I felt less of that than I did in 2007; maybe the food has cleaned up a bit?)

Okay I just wrote my own post about this book, centered around the opening passages.

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