The Foods of Tomorrow

soylent-green

Other than strident dystopias like The Sheep Look Up or Make Room! Make Room! (Soylent Green), science fiction doesn’t seem to really engage with food that often. Certainly I can think of great examples of descriptive scenes of eating in fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, but if an SF work does expend the same energy on food it tends to the horrific of the examples above, or the satirical—like the genetically engineered vat-food in Brave New World or the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Food is a passion and hobby of mine, so this excellent article by Jason Sheehan hits a sweet-spot for me. As an ex-chef and food writer with a love of SF, Mr. Sheehan understands the potential of food as a fictional world-building tool. He cites a couple of examples—particularly the dog food scene in The Road Warrior—that have long preoccupied me as well.

The food-related SF example that looms largest for me though is an unlikely one: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. I say unlikely in that although Asimov is rightfully a giant in the field of SF, no one ever points to him for rhapsodic descriptions of foodstuffs—Proust he ain’t.

I read The Caves of Steel at about the age of fourteen. In the novel, Asimov imagines an enormous and nearly endless city, where many people live their whole lives without accessing open space. As a method of dealing with overpopulation, most citizens are issued chits for cafeteria-style eating rather than being allowed to prepare food at home—saving the space/resources for individual kitchens and food storage, and ensuring people only eat a ration based on their personal needs. He describes lining-up to hand in your chit and then passing on to another line for the food available to your particular circumstances.

In a weird bit of synchronicity the evening of the day I finished reading The Caves of Steel, my family visited a new restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is long since lost to the mists of time. It was a buffet place. You lined up to pay for a chit…then got into lines for individual, semi-cubicle divisions (like, yes, many men’s urinals) to stand at a space near a conveyor belt that rolled the food past you. The ambiance of the place was somewhere between high school cafeteria and a DMV.

What Mr. Sheehan understands better than the either the creators of that restaurant nightmare, or the average SF writer, is that food matters on many levels, it’s not just fuel.

Historically, Science Fiction, when it bothered to think about food at all, predicted either deprivation or pills that would make eating obsolete. No one in the Golden Age of SF ever predicted the 21st Century’s widespread resurgence of interest in DIY food production methods like canning, smoking and cheese-making.*

Food sets off reactions in our heads that we’re just beginning to understand. It’s no accident that cocaine and something fatty like bacon can light up similar regions of a brain-scan. Back to Proust again and the madeleine: food can trigger memories and emotional responses. We don’t want to make eating obsolete, we want to revel in both the sensual pleasures it affords and the cell-replacing sustenance it provides.

I’ve written before about the inherent power of imaginary food—it never disappoints. Mr. Sheehan’s article perfectly articulates the ways in which describing the food and eating habits of the characters populating a science-fictional universe can help make that universe more tangible, but I think there’s also another opportunity in this same effort. I’ve read many passages in general literature that bring to life an imaginary meal.**

I want to read more passages that attempt to convey a meal I can’t even imagine.

——
*Punk Domestics is a fantastic site that highlights this renewed interest in a return to the fundamentals of self-sufficient food preparation.
**My favourite is in Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino.

90 Percent of YA is Crap

Malinda Lo has written an articulate blog post on the way the internet continually reengages with the question of why adults read young adult literature. She sets about “unpacking” the various approaches to the question focusing on reception theory and shared cultural interpretations. I find her post both illuminating and well stated, but I’m also slightly irritated by its necessity. I find the question essentially not worth asking.

I am an unwavering proponent of Sturgeon’s Law.

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.
—Theodore Sturgeon, March 1958 issue of Venture

But I also believe there is an important idea that should follow his revelation: crap can be fun and fun shouldn’t be taken lightly.

To me, the answer to the question of why an adult reads YA breaks down into two interrelated parts:

  1. 10% of YA is self-evidently as good as any other literature and should therefore be read by pretty much anyone; and
  2. Specific kinds of YA crap might appeal to any adult based on personal taste.

I might personally find Twilight or The Hunger Games derivative or annoying, but I can’t really condemn an adult for enjoying them while I have Battle Royale sitting on my bookshelf next to War and Peace.

At some point in our intellectual development, we all need to embrace the possibility that art can be objectively good* (or at least well executed), or historically important or culturally relevant and still not appeal to us personally.

I can intellectually assess Battle Royale to be a little junky as literature and still vastly prefer it to War and Peace, which is clearly a magnificent work of art, yet bored me senseless.

The concept of adolescence as a stage in human development didn’t really exist prior to the last half of the 19th Century. And I think it’s fair to question how much of the ghettoization of young adult literature as a genre—much like the divisions between science fiction, fantasy and horror—is a product of 20th Century marketing rather than an organic response to the preferences of readers.

That any reader would question the value of reading something like Ursula K. LeGuin‘s masterful Earthsea books because they’re often shelved with the YA is absurd to me. And the Earthsea books resemble something like the YA favourite Harry Potter series in that they are also made of words written down and distributed to readers—but the qualitative similarities thin out past that point despite some rudimentary plotting coincidences [coughschoolforwizardscough].**

As to the question of why cultural groups might embrace certain specific kinds of YA crap, you are more than welcome to explore the interesting ideas contained in reception theory and forms of groupthink. But before we wind down those academic paths, can we not separate out the really good 10% of YA first?

Don’t all genre classifications become immaterial when the quality of a given book rises to a certain level? Do we really care that The Lord of the Rings is so-called high fantasy or Brave New World is dystopian science fiction? Aren’t they both still great books for young adults regardless of where they get shelved?

We—the chattering class—probably need to spend more time trying to critically assess which books, out of the mass of those currently marketed as YA, are going to eventually be recognized as part of that all-important 10%,*** and stop judging people for enjoying crap.

——
*I’m asking the postmodernists and post-structuralists to just roll with me here, but I’m aware you’re out there and I have some sympathy with your point of view—some.
**Try not to bag on me about this point, the Harry Potter books are clearly very entertaining and I’m not really accusing J.K. of ripping off Ursula—being influenced by, maybe.
***Raise your hands if you’ve read The House of the Scorpion.

“…more gravel than pearls…”

Despite the evident reluctance to embrace new technology my last post might suggest, I’m cautiously optimistic about Oyster‘s attempt to build a Netflix for books.

I currently consume about twenty percent of my reading material electronically on an iPad, and I’m relatively comfortable with the medium. I found long stretches of reading a little unpleasant at first, but I’ve gotten over that challenge—largely because of using the iPad for business travel. Now that I’m acclimated, I almost enjoy my little screen as much as a book—almost.

For me, the decision of whether or not to buy a book electronically involves an instinctive (read: half-assed) calculus based on the following questions:

  1. Will I need to travel soon? (If yes, how small is a cheap paperback of said book?)
  2. How readily available is a cheap paperback?
  3. Did it just come out and can I not wait for a cheap used paperback?
  4. Does the method of printing & production greatly enhance the aesthetic experience of reading said book?

The intrinsic aesthetic value of the book still factors into my decision-making more often than you might expect, but not as often with novels per se. Novels I usually just want to read in the most accessible and convenient method available to me, which is often a cheap, used paperback I’ve acquired, or been loaned by a friend. There are certainly exceptions—lavishly illustrated volumes or signed copies or gifts—but they’re definitely exceptions. I have a small collection of signed first editions, but I didn’t really buy them as reading copies.

Cookbooks and art books, though, I almost always prefer a printed copy. I’m a sucker for fancy paper, glossy photos and intricate illustration. I have favourite fonts.*

So, based on this highly subjective “process,” the ebooks I pay money for are often recent novels I’m eager to read. Most of the China Miéville I’ve read—which is everything but his dissertation and latest YA—I purchased electronically the day it came out or soon after.

I also read a lot of free classics on my iPad; the most recent being The Metamorphosis by Kafka. And here we get to my one big concern with a monthly subscription to Oyster: there are a lot of free ebooks out there.

I love Netflix, but that’s because there is a lot of content on Netflix (Canada) that’s to my taste—television shows I never got to see before, obscure or weird movies, British stuff—but I have friends who dropped it after a month because the content wasn’t fresh enough for them (particularly the Canadian version of Netflix can be a little lean on new releases.) It helps to have a taste for B-movies, for example. What I don’t need from Netflix is every episode of Star Trek, because every version already airs endlessly on other channels.

What I don’t need for a monthly subscription from Oyster is classics I can find for free via multiple other channels. When I see, in sample images on the Oyster blog, the latest volume of Best American Short Stories, I’m intrigued. When I see Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London—a book I love dearly—I am less impressed.

——
*Futura (Kubrick’s favourite font) and Garamond especially.

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future”

Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
–Isaac Asimov

It’s hard for me not to have a negative reaction to the news that a “bookless library” has opened in San Antonio. Despite being something of a technophile, I have trouble reconciling the almost Platonic imagery in my head of endless rows and towers of leather and paper with a room full of screens.

I own an iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, PlayStation, Wii and two DVRs and should therefore be able to applaud the creativity of an underfunded public institution dealing with massive change. I should, but can’t quite manage to leap the emotional divide that exists for me between a cybercafé and a library.

Library is a word with resonance. Alexandria has a library. Niagara Falls has a cybercafé.

I grudgingly admire the attempt to create an enticing, physical, public space in the digital age, but it seems a little forced to organize that space around what are largely virtual tools. Wouldn’t this have been a better story if it had been about a library finding a creative way to reengage the public with the traditional forms of books? New gadgets hold a fascination for me personally, but the book has been a surprisingly resilient and adaptable technology since the 15th Century.

Paper books are still a thriving industry too. Just three of the top publishers in the world, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster, have earned a combined revenue of over $2.8 billion in 2o13—digital sales still represent less than 25% of total sales at all three of these companies.

And you know what’s a cheap way for people to read who can’t afford gadgets? Books. Penguin Books—with their iconic and often beautiful covers—was founded on the idea of making literature accessible and easy for the common man.

Maybe I’m destined to become some kind of crank, rocking on a porch somewhere, moaning about the decline of civilization since the loss of the book, but I think there’s still an inherent value in the book as a physical object and in the printed word in general.

I would prefer to see contemporary libraries find a balanced point between free digital access (a worthy offering) and a collection—even a modest one—of real books. To reject printed books as completely as this library in San Antonio has done, smacks of a marketing ploy.

The Island of Dr Moreau Redux

Charles Laughton in The Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Despite repeated attempts to make a film or television show out of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau, I still feel that the book is somehow underrated—particularly considering how far the adaptations have strayed from the source. Some even drifting into incomprehensibility.

The latest attempt will apparently be from the creators of Hemlock Grove, a Netflix original program. Based on the involvement of Executive Producer Eli Roth of Hostel fame,* I gave the first couple of episodes of Hemlock Grove a try and quickly lost interest. I thought there was one interesting conceptual bit around a werewolf transformation, buried in a landfill-like dump of teen romance clichés.

And while the classic Island of Lost Souls displays an undeniably spooky power in some of its imagery, no film or television adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau has ever really completely satisfied.

The Island of Dr Moreau remains a remarkably fresh read. Its trendy, at the time, fascination with barbaric vivisection doesn’t seem to date the book at all. In fact, the emergence of genetic engineering and biotechnology as the technological revolution of our age adds an unanticipated relevance.**

While I am forced to reserve judgement until Roth et al have a finished product, I’m not optimistic. But, this new production, is a nice reminder to go back and read the source novel, which is a far richer and weirder experience than you might expect.

“The crying sounded even louder out of doors. It was as if all the pain in the world had found a voice. Yet had I known such pain was in the next room, and had it been dumb, I believe—I have thought since—I could have stood it well enough. It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.”
–H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr Moreau

——
*Hostile Fame is the name of my new post-punk band, FYI.
**Not to conflate the two too much. Obviously I like to think the sciences of today operate under more enlightened set of ethical standards than the late 19th Century…right?

OMNI Reboot-ed & The Starcrossed

Over this past summer, the legendary OMNI magazine has been revived as an online publication now called OMNI Reboot. I first became aware of the revival through this piece at Boing Boing.

Based on what I’ve seen so far, Editor Claire L. Evans is striving to honour the legacy of the mighty OMNI while simultaneously pushing it into the 21st Century.

One of the earliest articles posted on the new site was this good little interview with Ben Bova, a five-year editor at the dawn of the original OMNI, and a prominent writer and editor in the history of science fiction.

The Starcrossed

Mr. Bova was one of the most gracious and gentlemanly writers I had ever met at a convention. I was maybe 15 at the time and he was very patient and seemed entertained and bemused by the book I had chosen for him to sign: The Starcrossed.

The Starcrossed is a fictionalized account—set in the near future—of Mr. Bova’s experiences as a consultant on what is, without question, one of the worst television shows of all time, The Starlost.

Despite Harlan Ellison as the head writer, Ben Bova as a consultant and the godlike Douglas Trumbull as an Executive Producer, the production of The Starlost was crippled by bad studio decision making. (One quick example: the concept of the show involved a huge space-ark that would consist of a series of domes. Ellison and Bova had conceived each dome as so large that you could shoot a variety of material on back-lots or other locations, but the producers decided that their concept was “too big” and forced everything to be shot on sets, contributing to an overall cheap and shoddy look.)

At the con I attended, I asked Mr. Bova about The Starlost and he told a great anecdote about the star Keir Dullea (of 2001 fame.) Dullea, according to Mr. Bova, showed up to the set on the first day of shooting so high that he was incapable of delivering lines. To try and make use of the time, the crew decided to shoot a spacewalk scene. They hoisted Dullea up into the air in a spacesuit and flight rigging, which then failed so badly they quickly rendered Keir unconscious flinging him into parts of the set.

What’s particularly marvelous about The Starcrossed as a read is that Mr. Bova not only skewers the production of The Starlost, but he also uses the book as an opportunity to write an elaborate and loving parody of Harlan Ellison, under the guise of character Ron Gabriel. During the first meeting between Bova’s point of view character Oxnard and Gabriel in the chapter The Writer, Gabriel rants, fumes, call his lawyer to threaten someone with legal action at midnight, and parades around in nothing but a towel.

Is The Starcrossed an accurate portrayal of the behind-the-scenes story of The Starlost? It is clearly fictionalized, (and, as an aside, oddly predictive of the rise of 3D in Hollywood in a slightly different, imagined version of the tech) but based on what I’v read, and interviews I’ve seen with the man himself—not to mention Dreams with Sharp Teeth—the veil of fiction over The Starcrossed might be pretty thin.

Much like the thin line between science fiction and the real world of technological innovation that OMNI has long attempted to blur.

Albino Books Now Up & Running

Welcome to Albino Books. For more information on your hosts, please visit the About page.

Albino Books

Albino Books was founded by booksellers and fans who love Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Weird Tales, Hardboiled and everything in-between—as a venue for freewheeling discussion, genre-related news, reviews, criticism, and dealing in books & ephemera.

Worldcon '09 books display

The first sale we’ll have a booth at will be the next Geek Market in Ottawa, Canada this upcoming October 19th and 20th, 2013. Please come by and say hello.

As the site ramps up, we’ll have more information on how to buy books from us, but a significant portion of the content here will always be dedicated to news, reviews & editorials. Many of the books, comics, posters et cetera , that we show you pictures of will be for sale, unless otherwise attributed, so if you’re interested in purchasing something, just use the Contact page to let us know.

We we also be featuring the work of a select group of other contributors with a variety of of different approaches to genre culture—we’re trying to jump-start some conversation.

There are some things one can only achieve by a deliberate leap in the opposite direction.
—Franz Kafka