My reviews of Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology continue with “The Calorie Man,” a story by Paolo Bacigalupi that was originally published in F&SF Magazine in 2005.
Lalji, an Indian resident of the US, is roped into a scheme by his friend Shriram to smuggle a rogue geneticist down the Mississippi River. This geneticist has a scheme to upset the botanical patents held by large combines like AgriGen, cultivating and spreading un-patented seeds. However, things start to go wrong right away, as Lalji and his crew have a bad run-in with the Intellectual Property police, but in the end, the genetics material is saved and Lalji slowly comes around to believing in something for the first time in years.
The setting of this story is based on speculation about how society might evolve in a world where fossil fuels have finally run dry and an outbreak of famine has resulted in the regulation of food production, which has become the new big industry thanks to conglomerates and genetic engineering. With the lack of oil as a fuel and energy source, I have to give Mr. Bacigalupi credit for conceiving of kinetic energy as an alternative–specifically, the kinetic energy of coiled springs. It seems a bit absurd the first time you read it, but after a while, it makes sense when you consider how cheap and reusable springs would be after the end of fossil fuels.
Mr. Bacigalupi calls this story an example of “agri-punk” and it definitely counts as that as much as it is a post-cyberpunk tale. A classic cyberpunk story would feature a lone hacker trying to bring down the corporate overlords with a small but brilliant act of programming. That’s more or less what happens in “The Calorie Man,” but instead, the corporations are agricultural combines, the hacker is a geneticist, and the programming doesn’t go through the Internet but into the genetic structure of seeds. The story is also noteworthy for not making this geneticist the main character; rather, that role is given to Lalji, who is merely a witness to the plot and only has to get the guy and his seeds from Point A to Point B without drawing the IP police’s attention.
Overall, while at times this story might be a bit slow, there is a good narrative at its heart. It’s nice to see cyberpunk reimagined into something unexpected like agriculture and to have a realistic non-Anglo protagonist for once.
Bibliography: Bacigalupi, Paolo. “The Calorie Man.” Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2007.