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Sun, Sep. 4th, 2005, 11:27 am
coalescent: 'The Calorie Man' by Paolo Bacigalupi (novella, F&SF, 10-11/05)

On the strength of three stories published over the past couple of years--'The Fluted Girl', 'The People of Sand and Slag', and 'The Pasho'--Paolo Bacigalupi has become one of those writers whose work I will seek out. So in the absence of dead-tree copies, I got myself an electronic copy of the October/November F&SF purely to read 'The Calorie Man'.

Like 'The People of Sand and Slag' and 'The Pasho', 'The Calorie Man' is set in a future of decline. It would probably be too strong to call these stories post-apocalyptic--the processes that lead to their worlds seem to have been more gradual than that--but they are all, in some way, lesser than our own. Lesser in spirit; lesser in knowledge; lesser, in the new story, in energy. 'The Calorie Man' takes place when fossil fuels have been exhausted. In its place, food is used as a universal energy source. The story opens with the protagonist, Lalji, visiting a kinetic shop; there he collects his springs, recharged by the labours of designed, degenerate beasts known as mulies. Calories have been converted to joules, and now the springs are tightly wound, ready to power his riverboat's engines for another few miles of travel.

Of course, in such a world, big business still exists. The biotech companies are now energy companies as well; their high-yield, energy-rich crops are patented, copyrighted and controlled, a coupling between food, energy and currency that has crippled society. All along the mississippi, small towns and villages pay their IP dues and ship calories downriver to New Orleans. The reason for Lalji's journey is to make a strike back at the men in control. He goes upriver to find a man, a calorie man, who may be just another generipper--one of those responsible for the state of things; 'generippers make monoculture', Lalji notes bitterly--or who may be able to help.

'The Calorie Man' is not as fully successful as some of Bacigalupi's earlier stories. Lalji's characterisation is by-the-numbers: a small-time crook convinced against his better judgement to take a job that could change society. His memories allow us to see the way the world has diminished, but he himself never comes alive. The writing, too, is generally not as imaginative or as vivid as we have come to expect (although there are occasional gleams through the grime, so it may be to an extent deliberate), and Bacigalupi's naming of things seems clunky and unlikely: SoyPRO, SuperFlavor, HiGro, AgriGen.

The setting and story, however, are elegantly built. Perhaps the best thing about both is their solidity. The economics of the society may or may not be plausible, but for the length of a novella they convince, enough to allow Bacigalupi to make perceptive and timely points about what defines haves and the have-nots, on both local and global scales. The technology, meanwhile, is enthralling, all dirty low-tech shortcuts laid over inaccessible high-tech foundations. The extent and implications of the genetic modification employed only become apparent towards the end of the story, but there is never a sense that the science itself is misguided; rather, it is a human failing, the ends to which it has been put. In fact, it is the same science that offers hope. Thoughtful stories about the possible effects of biotechnology are still not as common as they should be, and neither are stories about post-petroleum worlds. 'The Calorie Man' is a welcome addition to both canons.

Mon, Oct. 9th, 2006 02:42 am (UTC)
(Anonymous): bacigalupi's naming

Mr. bacigalupi apparently has done some research or is in some other way familiar with the nomenclature of the biotech industry. the names for the genetically engineered crops are exactly as genectec or pharmacia (formerly Monsanto) would name them. if you will look up some strains of corn currently planted and (protected by proprietary knowledge licensing), you will see he is dead on.

I found this review when trying to find more info about him. i loved this story and want to read more by him. the hero was empty and depressed, resigned to powerlessness, in the beginning of the story. i read, as you did not, his return to feeling emotion and having hope. The girl is a symbol for reproductivity, his coming back to life and the possibility of reproduction, redemption, if you will. and the fertile seeds are not symbolic, but the necessary key to a fertile earth. something we stand to loose, genetically engineered crops are infertile. the world was dead, he was feeling dead and lifeless. Bacigalupi showed this so well. And brought him back to life, awakening his compassion, his emotions, his virility, his memories of a 'bright' world ever so slowly and you missed it?

Mon, Oct. 9th, 2006 07:57 am (UTC)
coalescent: Re: bacigalupi's naming

And brought him back to life, awakening his compassion, his emotions, his virility, his memories of a 'bright' world ever so slowly and you missed it?

Oh, I saw what he was going for. The story just didn't quite make me believe in it; it was a bit too obvious, a little too neat, to feel completely true.