Why is there coffee on your planet?

18 06 2010

Recently I polished off C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen and Regenesis. Cyteen especially is delightful because Ari Emory is so smart and in control, in spite of raging teenage hormones; Ari gets PMS but is absolutely fit to rule. Still, it’s difficult not to find her socio-economic privilege overwhelming.

One of the markers of Ari’s privilege is that she can afford Earth things that are rare and very expensive on Cyteen. Coffee, a luxury good on an isolated space-base, costs 350 credits a kilo, and yet she and her cabal drink as much of it as we do here on Earth. As she moves Justin and Grant closer to her, to keep them safe and under her control, the quality of the coffee available to them in their office only increases. Here, coffee represents Ari’s wealth and power which she can use to get luxury goods from far across the universe.

In Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, the scientists and soldiers at Port Central drink coffee which came along with their supplies from Earth in addition to dap, which is “a local tea, (…) a mild stimulant, weaker than caffeine. It’s a common barter commodity, with (…) a standard value, rather like a currency.” By the end of the book, when the inhabitants of Jeep are finally cut off from Earth for good, they drink dap rather than coffee. Here, coffee represents both power, and attachment to Earth and its culture; no Earth, no coffee.

Coffee in science fiction is a thing; it turns up often. In a well-thought-out SF world, there will probably be an explanation of where that coffee came from. On Earth, a lot of people drink so much coffee that we forget that it’s a luxury good, that all coffee is not fair trade, and that even fair trade is far from adequate. There’s coffee on your planet, but what’s it doing there? How did it get there, and under what conditions?

I’m curious about other examples.

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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and where does our food come from?

17 05 2010

Last night I stayed up until 3, long past my usual bedtime, reading. The book was Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, which had come with raves from all around. A quick read, I was told, and I’m looking for quick reads because I intend to tackle C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen this month, and that thing’s a brick. A phone book. Somewhat intimidating.

The Hunger Games is set in a future North America organized into twelve districts, each responsible for the production of one type of resource required by the all-powerful Capitol. Each year, to remind the districts of its might, the Capitol requires a tribute from each district: one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, who will participate in the Hunger Games, a battle to the death televised across the nation. Participants are selected by lottery, and both participation and viewing are mandatory. To all but one of the 24 tributes selected, the Hunger Games are a death sentence.

The story follows Katniss Everdeen, the tribute from District 12, the poorest district in Panem, from decision to volunteer to participate in the games in the place of her 12-year-old sister Prim, to the end of the games. She’s resilient, creative, and independent, and her adventures are a thrill to watch. Collins also subverts the typical YA romantic structure in delightful ways, and that’s a structure that, especially after Twilight, could do with some subversion.
Reading the book, I felt a little like I’d gone out to what I thought was a gourmet restaurant, only to be served family-oriented franchise fare. You know, the food isn’t bad, but it is disappointing? I’ll definitely look for the rest of the trilogy, but I won’t rave about it the way I rave about, say, Parable of the Sower. Am expecting too much of a YA novel?

The story follows the logic of a reality TV show and, while the action is intense, it provides as little explanation of the background of the world as a reality TV show does. Temptation Island is a place where people go to test the strength of their relationship for the entertainment of the audience back home. It doesn’t have a history, and we don’t expect it to have one. Every aspect of a potential future North America, on the other hand, should be shaped by its history and unfortunately, Collins doesn’t connect these threads very well. While there are brief explanations of how the Hunger Games came to be, Collins doesn’t really explore how contemporary North American society might devolve into such brutality.

An aspect of The Hunger Games which fascinated me was Katniss’s skills at hunting and foraging. These are skills that she learned both from her father, and from necessity; she lives in a district in which almost everyone is hungry, and had she not learned to hunt and forage, her family would not have survived.
The question of how to feed ourselves in a version of North America without factory farms, without grocery stores, has come up in several stories that I have read recently.

In Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olmina, worried about the brutal society in which she lives, teaches herself how to hunt, and how to prepare nutritious food from native plants and animals. The gates of the community in which she grows up, weak protection against the desperate hoardes outside, isolate them, and leave them vulnerable to siege.

While the adults cling desperately to memories of a society in which good food was easily available, Lauren is much more pragmatic. She knows that the gates will not protect her forever, and that her food sources cannot be merely man-made and controlled. Nature will be her saviour. Her philosophy of Change does not allow dependence on the illusion of stability provided by the food industry, whereas adaptability, and knowledge of ever-changing nature will allow her and her community to survive.

In Nalo Hopkison’s Brown Girl in the Ring, where rich folk have moved to the suburbs and don’t venture into anarchic inner-city Toronto (and those who remain can’t venture out, nor depend upon imports), there are wonderful community vegetable gardens which provide sustenance to Ti-Jeanne and her family. And in “A Habit of Waste,” the older gentleman lives on what he can hunt and gather within the city – edible plants which are treated as ornamental by those who get their food from shops – instead of the mediocre nutrition the foodbank provides him with (I’m having trouble digging up this reference as I’ve passed Skin Folk on to a friend, but I didn’t want to leave this story out). He forages within the urban environment.

In these stories, the characters do not rely on the food industry, because they cannot. While it feeds those of us who are in a position of privilege, it clearly (and yes, this is true in real life), does not look after those of us who are not.

In these stories, we’re not dealing with some misguided, romantic notion that the food of the past, when processed food was not readily available, was inherently better than what we’re eating now. This is a trap that is easy to fall into, as we mourn the loss of family farms, and look at the deplorable, inhumane conditions in factory farms and slaughter-houses, consider how exotic foods are trucked across vast distances to fill our bellies, worry about GMOs, hormones, and pesticides, listeriosis outbreaks, E. Coli, the earlier onset of puberty in female children, and all that sinister science lurking in our food supply. These are legitimate things to worry about; it’s scary, thinking about what we’re putting into our bodies.

But many of us need not look further than our own family histories, in which starvation was a frequent cause of death, to realize that the way we eat now, for all its flaws, is better than the way we ate then. No, in these stories, what Butler and Hopkinson, and even Collins are considering, is how we will survive if all of these structures that we have built for ourselves, to feed ourselves, which are imperfect and fragile, collapse. And the answer for most of us is probably not at all.
I haven’t figured out where I stand on this issue quite yet, what action to take, but I’m happy to keep exploring it.

Currently Reading: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison