The Future of Food Gets Weirder

Our relationship with food is changing fast. As new technologies and ethical considerations take hold, it’s becoming rich territory for speculative fiction.

I wrote about food a couple of times last year – one an article about how food isn’t explored much in sci-fi and the other a flash story about the effect of changing diets. Only a few months later, the news has leapt ahead from my ideas.

A couple of weeks ago, Finnish scientists announced that they had found a way to make protein out of air. It involves soil bacteria and splitting water, and the end result is a tasteless, textureless powder with all the culinary appeal of sawdust, but still, if it works then this is huge.

If you’re going to pick out a single nutrient to synthesise, then protein is surely the most important. It’s what our bodies use to build, grow, and repair themselves. In the absence of fat and carbohydrates, it provides a source of energy. It’s why meat, fish, and dairy are so valuable in a diet, and why you have to be careful to get a good balance of simpler proteins if you go vegan.

Traditional protein is also relatively land- and resource-intensive to produce. Feeding an animal up to provide meat, eggs, or milk takes a lot more space, energy, and resources than growing vegetables or grain.

As the middle class grows around the world, wealthier people seek out more protein in their diets, and those who’ve got it aren’t giving it up. Some in the west are moving over to plant protein to reduce their environmental impact, but the pressure farming puts on the ecosystem is still huge.

That’s why George Monbiot, one of Britain’s most famous commentators on green issues, thinks that the Finnish technology could save the environment. Even if it’s not all that tasty, protein flour could provide millions of people with nutrients they need and that many lack. And because it takes far less space and energy, it could be a blessing for the environment, especially if it’s powered by solar energy. Just imagine vast vats on the edges of the Sahara, turning sunlight into precious food.

Compared with what I was writing about in No More Milk, this is a radical change, both in its practical potential and in its aesthetics. Protein flour grown in bacterial vats is some real sci-fi weirdness by current food standards, far more so than just eating beetles. The transformation this could bring is staggering, and it lends itself to some weird people, places, and events, from obsessive bacteriologists to vast food-processing vats to new organisms growing from the food sludge. The possibility that this might take off makes some previously wild speculation seem more real and will encourage sci-fi writers to move away from food as we know it.

The future of food is vital to society. Now it could be dramatic too.

We Will Be What We Eat

Food glorious food. Without it, we’d all just curl up and die. It’s been the driver behind great historical migrations, the inspiration for fabulous works of art, and a form of artistry in its own right for thousands of years. It’s constantly changing as the means of production and the tastes of society evolve.

Yet we don’t see much fiction centred on food. I can count on one hand the speculative stories I’ve read where food played a central part. It’s sometimes used to indicate character or social status or to add a taste of the exotic. From the mouse feasts of Redwall to the replicators of Star Trek, it’s used as a piece of window dressing, a way of setting the tone. But how often is food central, whether it’s the art of cooking, the struggle against starvation, or the complexities of supply systems? And how often, as speculative writers, do we seriously consider how food production and consumption might change?

I got to thinking about this because of a talk I went to recently as part of Pint of Science, a series of events aiming to make science accessible. It brought home to me the challenges we currently face in feeding humanity into the future. Modern western diets are carbon intensive, so preventing environmental collapse probably means significantly reducing how much animal-based food we eat. It’s a huge personal challenge (I love cheese, but apparently cheese doesn’t love the planet) as well as a social and governmental one. One way or another, it’s going to shape the future, but I’ve never seen it addressed in fiction.

Is this because questions of food don’t excite us? The Great British Bake Off says otherwise. Is it because sci-fi writers don’t like to address awkward issues? The likes of Ursula Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer prove that’s not true. Is this something that’s hard to dramatise? Open a copy of Interzone and you’ll see that writers can make anything dramatic.

Maybe it’s just too far down our radar. Maybe its time hasn’t yet come. But surely there’s space in the world of science fiction to take a proper look at our relationship with food and food production, to change the way we view these things. Hell, maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it – if you can think of an example, drop it in the comments.

As a society, we need to think more about our food and where it comes from. Speculative fiction could be a way to encourage that thought.


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Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

The Graffiti of Literature – Fan Fiction and Power

Fan fiction is one of the most important forms in modern literature.

I say this is an outsider, not someone with skin in the fanfic game. The last time I wrote fanfic I was seven years old and mis-spelling the name of Superted’s nemesis (or maybe inventing a new one in the form of Texas Qete). But as an active part of the science fiction and fantasy community, I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent, how beloved, and how important fanfic is.

Because while it might just look like people having fun, fanfic is very much about the assertion of power.

No, not like that, you filthy-minded, E L James reading monsters. I mean, if that’s your bag, by all means chain up the heroes and bring on the lube. But what I’m talking about is cultural power.

Before I disappear down some postmodern, Marxist-flavoured rabbit hole of post-Foucault sociological bullshit, let’s start with the basics. What am I talking about when I say fan fiction?

Fan fiction is playing with other people’s imaginary toys. It happens whenever somebody takes characters created by another writer, whether from a book, a film, or a TV show and makes up their own stories just for fun. Maybe they take one character or property and tell the stories they’d like to see. Maybe they mash several together, wanting to explore how Fievel from An American Tail would cope on the mean streets of The Wire. Maybe they throw in some extra characters of their own. It’s something that people do for pleasure, and for many it’s their first foray into fiction writing.

This is distinctly different from hired writing on a licensed property. Sure, that also involves playing with someone else’s imaginary toys. But it’s done with a permission which can be withdrawn, it’s done professionally, and the results are officially recognized by the owner of the original work. Fanfic, on the other hand, is unofficial, unendorsed, and done just for the love of creation.

So what does this have to do with power?

To make that case, let’s start by talking about graffiti. When an advertiser pays to put an image up on the side of a building, that image is officially allowed. The advertiser uses their power and wealth to gain access to that space. They might or might not care about the product, the place, or the people who live there. The results may or may not be beautiful, but they can put that picture up because they already have power.

When a graffiti artist puts their image up on the building, they do so without permission. They probably live in the area, but outsiders like multinational companies have far more power over their lived environment than they do. For better or for worse, graffiti becomes a way of asserting some power over that space, of making it theirs in the face of greater forces. The results may or may not be beautiful, but in putting that picture up, they fight back against the power.

Fanfic is a lot like that. We all live in cultural environments shaped by big corporations and the properties they own. Most people have little power to shape that cultural landscape, including elements that are hugely important to them. But by using those properties without permission they can gain some control over their cultural environment. For a few pages at a time, they can make it theirs.

Fanfic is the graffiti of literature.

While I say this as a positive, I want to be clear – every piece of graffiti and fanfic isn’t by definition good. Both can end in ugly, misshapen messes that no-one but the artist should have to see. Either can be turned into a petty assault on cultural monuments that matter to others. But they can both be empowering, and in a world where we feel increasingly disempowered and disenfranchised by the big business and unresponsive governments, that’s a good thing.

We are constantly told that big cultural institutions like Star Wars and the Marvel universe should matter to us, while also being reminded that we have no control over them. Fanfic flips that around. It gives us power over the things that matter to us. It’s a way of asserting power and transforming your environment, instead of letting big businesses have their way. That’s awesome.

Does this mean I’m going to run off and write fanfic now?

No. I have my own toys I’d rather play with. But I have huge respect for the people who get other people’s toys out, scuff them up, and leave them doing things we’ve been told they shouldn’t. They’re challenging the power dynamics of our culture, and that’s a great thing.

A Different Sort of Devil

The Devil has spoken to me. Appearing out of books, comics, and TV shows, he’s there wherever I look. And he has a single consistent message.

He says that he’s not such a bad guy after all.

Evil Incarnate

Most of us know the classic version of the Devil, drawn out of the theology of Abrahamic religions. He’s the ultimate embodiment of evil, a force for darkness tempting us to do wrong. His story didn’t feature much in my liberal religious upbringing, but I knew about him from the surrounding culture. He was evil personified.

This is a Devil to fit a binary universe. Good and evil are sharply differentiated and clearly defined. God and Satan represent that division and show us two different, entirely incompatible paths. A black and white world.

The Devil You Know

But now, when I’m more exposed to images of the devil than ever before, they’re very different from that old school Satan.

There’s the Lucifer of Gillen and McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine, one stylish god out of a dozen, more concerned with a good time than with changing humanity’s fate.

There’s Morningstar in Alliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, looking out for his followers amid a tangle of dark politics.

There’s the Lucifer of the TV show, as adapted from the comic books of the same name. The comic version is a metaphysical rebel, the small screen one a playful rogue. There are temptations and deals with the devil, but they’re using about having fun, not bringing ruin.

The Devil I hear calling out from me from these stories seems pretty reasonable. So has he completely changed?

Lost and Found

That probably depends on what you mean by “changed”.

Milton’s Paradise Lost first popularised sympathy for the Devil. His Satan was a baddy, but he was a sympathetic one. He had more reason for his actions than “this is the embodiment of badness”. Milton might have argued that what he showed was implicit in the old texts, that a more nuanced Satan was waiting to be found. True or not, it’s a theme that many others have run with.

In the modern world, many of us are uncomfortable with clear-cut truths. The horrors of two world wars, followed by the philosophical wrecking ball of postmodernism, showed us a world that isn’t divided into black and white. We see rebellion as a good thing, not a danger to society and our souls. And once the Devil starts looking like a hero, it’s not a big stretch to these modern portrayals. His interest in pleasure, defiance, and even temptation can become liberating virtues. This Devil is on our side.

All the Angels

I’m sure people are still writing stories with the old version of the fallen angel. After all, there are people who believe in old-school Old Testament Christianity. But they aren’t the mainstream anymore, and so neither is their Lucifer. A new version calls out to us from page and screen. Apparently, he’s not such a bad guy.

But then, that is what he would say, isn’t it?

Getting a Better Future

Mr Davis on his way to the Brexit negotiations.

With all the bleak stories in the news, the future looks grim. At times like this, science fiction gets called upon to illustrate what’s happening. David Davis has talked about how Brexit won’t lead to a Mad Max future. Protests by young people have been compared with dystopian fiction, in which teenage protagonists rise up against the mess adults make. Sci-fi may have shaped the way we see the world, and it’s certainly shaping the way we talk about it.

But most sci-fi ignores an important reality – that the world is getting better. Stories are driven by struggle and conflict, so sci-fi needs to make things difficult for the characters. Often, that means making their world a tough place. It means that our metaphors for the future are about disaster.

That’s useful as a warning and great for entertainment. But it might not be so helpful for thinking about where we’re going.

On the whole, the world is becoming a better place. Literacy keeps rising. Poverty keeps falling. Health keeps improving and child mortality declining. There is less violence, relative to the number of people in the world, than at any measurable point in history. That’s not to mention ever-accelerating moves towards equality, which seem heartbreakingly slow at times, but have included dramatic leaps forward in changes like gay marriage.

It’s hard to make that into dramatic sci-fi. Even Iain M. Banks, whose sci-fi was built around the post-scarcity Culture, had to step outside that utopia to provide conflict.Sci-fi is seldom going to show us the better place we’re moving towards. And so, even as a sci-fi writer, I have to admit the limits of my genre. Because it’s seldom going to help us see the better futures we might have. Only the worse ones which, as Davis pointed out, we won’t.

Culture Keeps Me Sane

As the world looks more and more crazy, I’m reminded of why I value culture so much.

It’s the thing keeping me sane.

Part of that’s escapism. If you’re like me, you probably look at modern politics with fear and anxiety. Even if you’re not, there’s bound to be stuff in the news that upsets and angers you. Books, films, music, games – these things let us escape that stress for a while. They stop it from overwhelming us.

And then there are the corners of culture that help us face the awful. I love satirists like John Oliver and Trevor Noah. They take serious subjects and find the humour in them while retaining a serious message. Laughter makes the whole thing more palatable. It lets me watch for longer without fear that I’ll just break down in tears at what monsters we are.

Of course, there are dangers to this. Once you start laughing at the opposition, you risk slipping into hard-hearted ridicule that brings out the worst in us. By all means, make fun of the things Theresa May and Hilary Clinton stand for. But if you start making jokes about their appearance, you risk reinforcing the casual misogyny of judging women on their looks. And if you laugh at every single setback Donald Trump faces, you can easily reach the point of simply laughing at another human’s pain. That’s not a good look on anyone.

So yeah, culture keeps me sane. But it’s a powerful tool for reflecting on where we’re at and with great power comes great responsibility.

Spiderman taught me that. See, culture helping out all over again.

Guilty Pleasures

The very ideas of guilty pleasures is a weird one. I mean, pleasure is subjective. Different people like different things. In the modern world, shouldn’t we be OK with people just saying “I like this”, as long as no-one else gets hurt?

Yet there are pleasures I feel I have to justify. Listening to Taylor Swift. Watching The Ranch. Roleplaying. Things that don’t do any harm but have a particular image around their cultural value.

The very use of the phrase “guilty pleasure” stigmatises these harmless choices. Yet if I don’t start explaining, I feel like I’m going to be judged.

I suppose the solution is to stop worrying about being judged for liking things. But that’s a hard habit to break.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch Ashton Kutcher be a rancher. I know it sounds bad, but the cast are excellent, the show’s got these lovely moments, and – No! No explaining! I love it. Outside of a critical discussion, isn’t that enough?

Geekery as a Safe Space

As a white, straight guy it’s hard for me to be sure about what I’m about to write. But I’m starting to think that geekdom – that space full of scifi shows, board games, comic books, and general nerdishness – might be turning into one of the safest spaces for a more diverse society to grow.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are problems. Shut Up & Sit Down have rightly called out certain board games on their representation of race and gender. The sad/rabid puppies showed a white male backlash in the realm of science fiction and fantasy literature. There are more genre blockbusters in which the lead actor is a white guy named Chris than there are ones with female or non-white leads. There’s still a lot to be done.

Having said that, progress is being made. The puppies have been soundly thwarted in their reactionary agenda around awards. Conventions such as Nine Worlds make huge efforts to be inclusive, down to giving participants a chance to display their pronoun preferences. One of the biggest and most prestigious LRPs out there places a strong emphasis on diversity and in-game gender equality.

Even as the reactionaries scream “social justice warrior” as a term of abuse*, forward thinkers are creating a safe and accommodating space. Every transgender person I know I know through this sphere. While they face struggles, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they all felt that they could be open in choosing the gender that suits them.

Geekdom is still associated with straight white guys. It’s going to take a while for people to get past that image and for a wider range of people to feel comfortable there. But I have high hopes. Because I like a lot of the people I’ve met who aren’t like me, and I want them to be able to share the awesome things I love.



* I’ve got to say, as insults go I find that one dumb. Since when is it insulting to say that someone fights for justice? And in society of all places?

The EU Campaign, aka Everyone’s a Sci-fi Author Now

Original picture by Chatham House via Flickr Creative Commons

I’m starting to feel like politicians want my job. Judging by the current debate about whether or not Britain should stay in the European Union, they’re all into speculative fiction. Both sides have come out with apocalyptic predictions about our near future. If they’d been written by Bruce Sterling or Kim Stanley Robinson I might even take them seriously – those guys know how to make plausible predictions based on economics, sociology, and the hard sciences. Nigel Farage, not so much.

I have strong opinions on this issue, but they aren’t based on amateur sf predictions, they’re based on my ideals and what I think we should value as human beings. Watching politicians cry havoc and let slip the dogs of alarmism just makes me mad.

So as a professional speculative writer I beg you, don’t listen when politicians dabble in science fiction. Listen to their values, by all means. Pay attention to their CVs. Watch to see if their actions and their words match. But don’t let them predict the future for you – they never know what they’re talking about.


Being Both Deep and Dumb

Photo of Hepworth sculpture by Phill Lister via Flickr Creative Commons

When asked why she put holes through her sculptures, the artist Barbara Hepworth said, “so that I can see what’s on the other side.” I was told this by a tour guide who proceeded to read many deep and meaningful things into Hepworth’s words – ideas about transformation, about our relationship with art, about the materials Hepworth was working with. I’m not convinced Hepworth meant it in that way though. I suspect it was the deliberately dumb, flippant answer of an artist sick of answering the same question.

Of course, the two approaches aren’t incompatible. All those deep thoughts the tour guide had are totally valid ways of getting something out of Hepworth’s words. Something can be dumb and deep at the same time. As Jake Peralta said, stuff can do two things.

giphy Peralta