I’ve read a number of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short fiction stories and, though I am skeptical of his environmentalism and don’t agree with (what I can glean of) his politics, they have all been uniformly well-written and compelling — interesting worldbuilding coupled with fine prose and characterization. They all seem to be set in a post–global warming/post–energy crisis future Earth, maybe a century or so hence. “The Calorie Man” is no exception. There’s even a libertarian angle that I’ll get to in a moment.
Paolo Bacigalupi is being nominated for, and winning, awards left and right. “The Calorie Man,” actually a novelette, was nominated for the Hugo Award and won the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 2006. First published in the October/November 2005 double issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, this story can also be found in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Third Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois — where I first encountered it — and in Bacigalupi’s short fiction collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, itself a winner of the Locus Award for Best Collection in 2009 and containing a number of award nominee and winning stories.
Our petroleum-based and prosperous time, referred to in “The Calorie Man” as the Expansion, gave way to an energy Contraction and one gets the impression that humanity has struggled slowly to adapt. This future earth is more advanced in some ways (e.g., genetic engineering) and less advanced in others, mainly owing to the lack of cheap and powerful fuel (e.g., people are reduced to methane lamps for lighting and powering computers with human labor via treadles). There are trappings of steampunk — dirigibles are mentioned, and high-precision kink-springs are the primary means of storing kinetic energy and powering engines — but the tone is decidedly not that of steampunk. I thought to call Bacigalupi’s style of science fiction biopunk but alas someone else has already coined that term for it; enviropunk would also be a good label.
The plot of the story centers around greedy megacorporations and the genetically engineered and patented crops that are used to feed and fuel human beings, their genetically engineered beasts of burden, and their machines. We’re not talking your run-of-the-mill biofuel, such as ethanol, here. No, Bacigalupi’s twist is to have the crops used to feed mulies and megadonts (genetically engineered descendants of mules and elephants, respectively, I think) that transform those calories into stored kinetic energy by walking treadmills that wind the aforementioned high-precision kink-springs. All “natural,” unpatented crops have been conveniently wiped out by agricultural disasters and diseases to which the genetically engineered crops turned out to be resistant or immune, leaving a few agricultural corporations in tightfisted, monopolistic control of the world’s primary sources of food and energy.
As “The Calorie Man” opens, we’re introduced to the main character — an Indian transplant to the American South. Lalji plies the Mississippi River in a kink-spring-powered boat looking for antiques from the Expansion to salvage and sell. But an old friend has an unusual and dangerous job for him now. He is to travel far up north to find and smuggle back to New Orleans a man the big agricultural corporations want captured or killed, a man who supposedly can upend the economic status quo.
This is what makes the story particularly interesting to libertarians. “The Calorie Man” is, at least implicitly, anti-IP. Intellectual property, specifically here in the form of gene patents on crops, is depicted as illegitimate and harmful. The protagonists generally show no qualms with violating the intellectual “property” of Big Ag and thwarting the IP police. Yes, there are dedicated IP police, a particularly insidious scourge we can probably expect in our own near future.
Paolo Bacigalupi probably takes intellectual property to be an inherent part of a capitalist or free market economy. Most people do. He would probably be surprised to learn that a growing number of libertarians oppose IP as an illegitimate grant of monopoly privilege that depends on the state and necessarily violates real property rights when enforced. But to me and many other libertarians, criticism of IP is not criticism of free markets at all.
“The Calorie Man” does suffer from a weakness common to stories written by leftists, however. The bad guys are greedy megacorporations and their thugs. Now, the problem is not so much businesses being portrayed and hinted as doing bad things. They do sometimes, especially the big corporations in bed with the state. The problem is making corporations the bogeyman and downplaying the role of government in the evils of the world. Too often governments are portrayed as altruistic and unbiased, whether competent or not. Or their role is downplayed, with politicians and bureaucrats being portrayed as the weaker, corrupted party. Were it not for those dastardly corporations!
Or, in the case of “The Calorie Man,” the state seems to be entirely absent. Even the IP police are not unambiguously government agents rather than hired corporate ones. Corporations run the world, which reminds me of another common flaw of leftist stories: the failure to see corporations that are literally ruling a region or the world as having become states/governments themselves and ceasing, really, to be businesses (at least in any capitalist or free market sense).
I had a few other quibbles with the way the world economy was portrayed as functioning. Using crops as both food and fuel strikes me on the face of it as unrealistic. It is becoming more and more apparent that growing crops for fuel, such corn for ethanol, is causing a rise in land and food prices and cannot even come close to meeting the world’s energy needs, even if all available farmland were devoted to the purpose. So I’m skeptical that this could work in Bacigalupi’s imagined future, even with genetically engineered crops and advances in farming, though perhaps he would argue that a diminished population with diminished energy demands makes it plausible. At any rate, this dual use for food crops no doubt raises the price of food and contributes to poverty and starvation in his fictional world.
What of alternative sources of energy, such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power? What of nuclear power? I don’t recall seeing any of these in use in the stories from Bacigalupi I have read so far, but one would think at least some of them would be. I think that if we do “run out” of fossil fuels before developing truly viable alternative energy sources, it will be because governments have jacked up the costs of extracting, refining, and distributing them through taxation and regulation and war, and prohibited the exploitation of new deposits outright, while stifling the development of attractive alternatives such as nuclear power, again through taxation and regulation or outright prohibition, and artificially stimulating others such as biofuels through subsidies like we have on ethanol today.
Supposedly there are no more truly global corporations in “The Calorie Man,” and yet American agricultural corporations are said to be shipping crops around the world. A minor issue, but it brings me to a much larger one: the world economy is portrayed as being centrally planned by corporate bureaucrats in America:
[Lalji] had fantasized that he would smuggle Gita back across the shining sea, and bring her close to the accountants who calculated calorie burn quotas for the world. Close to the calories, as she had said, once so long ago. Close to the men who balanced price stability against margins of error and protectively managed energy markets against a flood of food. Close to those small gods with more power than Kali to destroy the world.
I don’t see that as working particularly well, or at all without state support or the corporations themselves becoming states, but maybe that helps explain the sad state of this future world. In a truly free market, this kind of centrally planned global control by a few corporations just would not occur.
But lest I give you the impression that Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man” is a typical leftist-environmental screed in favor of a “more modest” or primitive lifestyle, the story is more nuanced than that. While some characters do occasionally muse about the silliness of what they see as today’s excesses, it is not out of some conscious ideology but from the perspective of their limited resources in a post-petroleum world. And Lalji at one point is saddened by the thought of humanity’s diminished capabilities.
Despite the environmentalism and leftist politics woven into the story, I recommend “The Calorie Man” and other Paolo Bacigalupi stories on the merits of his fine writing. Libertarians aiming to write and publish fiction with political themes should read Bacigalupi to see how it is done well. “The Calorie Man” in particular I recommend for its anti-IP angle. Eventually, I plan to review the rest of Pump Six, but other books demand my more immediate attention.