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.