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.
The problem with giving a book called Writing Tools as a gift is that its recipient assumes you think she’s a bad writer.
I do not think you’re a bad writer.
Over the years, I’ve purchased and given away probably ten copies of Writing Tools. It’s, by far, the best book on writing I’ve ever read—smarter, richer and more useful than even (GET READY FOR IT) The Elements of Style. Its author, Roy Peter Clark, teaches at the Poynter Institute, where both Matt and I used to work (and learn), and so I heard many of its lessons in person. But they come across so clearly and crisply in the book that it is almost—almost—a substitute for Roy himself.
A few things worth noting:
- This is a practical book. It’s not theory or fusty prescription. It’s a box of chewy ideas you can digest and put to use instantly.
- The ideas are so chewy, in fact, that many of them easily make the leap to other domains. The ladder of abstraction, for instance, isn’t only useful in writing; it’s a great way to build a presentation. (And as you’ll see if you click that link, the L.O.A., like many of the tools, isn’t Roy’s invention. He’s as much a curator as a coach in this book.)
- The tools apply across the board: from newspaper writing to fiction writing to blogging. Jeez probably even tweeting.
- Finally, the book is simply a great object. If you buy it, I implore you: buy the hardcover. The materials that Little, Brown chose for this thing are just perfect. It feels good in the hands; it feels like something you could use for years.
I bring it up now because Roy’s new book, The Glamour of Grammar, is out and newly reviewed in the NYT. There’s a Paper Cuts blog post as well, which I like even better because it brings Roy’s voice into the mix. I haven’t read the new book yet—but the old one is sitting here, right next to my keyboard, within arm’s reach.
P.S. I’m really only setting Writing Tools up against Strunk & White for effect, and to clearly communicate its insta-classic character. The truth, of course, is that the books are entirely complementary.
A very short list of my favorite things from 2009. Mostly my metric is: What will I remember a year from now? Or ten?
- Favorite book: A Happy Marriage by Rafael Yglesias. (Previously.) Sweet but/and harrowing.
- Favorite music: Regina Spektor’s new album. I listened to this an impossible number of times. Best tracks: “Blue Lips” and “Machine,” which is basically The Terminator narrated by a winsome girl-robot.
- Favorite movie: Coraline. Even though I saw Coraline months ago and Avatar days ago, it’s Coraline that’s more vivid in my mind. There are a few scenes that—especially having seen them in 3D—I’ll never forget. Bonus: The Coraline soundtrack is weird and beautiful.
- Favorite book(s) not written in 2009: I discovered Rosemary Sutcliff at the SFPL this year, and wow: what a revelation. She wrote a long series of YA books, set mostly in Roman Britain. Her language is tight, vivid, and direct—world-class by any standard. Strong load-bearing sentences, you know?
- Favorite movie not made in 2009: Somehow I’d seen every Miyazaki movie except Whisper of the Heart; it’s now my second-favorite. Maybe it resonated because I was writing more, and it’s a movie about writing? And actually, I think Whisper of the Heart might show the real process of writing better than any movie I’ve ever seen.
What are your picks for lasting memory from 2009?
Wow, didn’t expect to find today’s music pick on the Tor blog (?!) but there it is. I like this claim:
Hip hop’s connection to science fiction goes way, way back–to these ears, it’s encoded in the genre’s DNA, thanks to its heavy sampling of P. Funk–but some groups make the connection more explicit than others (OutKast, Kanye West).
Wu-Tang, too! What is Wu-Tang if not, basically, a giant awesome science fiction project? (Actually, don’t answer that; I’m out of my depth here.)
Anyway, Tor’s Brian Slattery singles out Kid Cudi’s track The Pursuit of Happiness, and I have to concur: It’s got a really fresh sound. It’s a collaboration with MGMT and Ratatat, which sounds completely made-up—but here it is. Definitely worth a listen.
Just whizzed through David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp today, and loved it. I’m struggling to break out a single element to focus on and praise; the book really functions as a total work. The artwork is superb—totally virtuosic. If you like design, architecture, school, weird formalisms, weird relationships, and/or the idea of a solar-powered Cadillac, you’ll like this book.