Alt-Cuisine: Yum!

Molecular gastronomy- already outdated in a food culture with an ever-shortening attention span- was known for deconstructing dishes and presenting them anew as foams; solids as liquids; cubes as spheres; cold as hot and vice-versa.  But all that required complicated cooking techniques and expensive equipment. When we can now genetically-engineer an industrial tomato to taste like an heirloom, how long will it be before we can grow plants and animals as foams, spheres, liquids, or simultaneously hot and cold?

Let’s hope the growing (pun intended) interest in local, seasonal, organic and sustainable agriculture can hold our attention awhile and resist the allure of technology.  Let’s keep food slow, and keep it real!

Here’s an excerpt from a dystopian restaurant scene in Fourth World:

“Welcome to H,” said the menu, pronouncing the letter “ahhhsh” in a langorous, caressing way.  “Tonight’s special is the ‘Tout Not Sashimi’, a crudo mousse translated from the recombined genes of three extinct species:  Pacific tuna, Monterey cypress, and arctic walrus.  We are also featuring the rare Atlantic codling, where Chef Hubert cooks a recently living fish.  Farmed off the low-mercury coastline of the Greenland District, our codling is spin-poached in a bold, yet contemplative, bath of piscine neurotransmitters and herbal amino acids, garnished with just a soupcon of white Eurovin foam.”

“Eurovin foam?” Cira was aghast.  “But Eurovin’s not even made from grapes!  It’s a fermentation product of recombinant seaweed.”

“So?  Seaweed goes with fish.”  The menu had dropped its accent, and now sounded like someone from New Jersey.  “You want wine made from grapes?  Try the Quarantine Zone!”

“Menu, read only.”

“Certainly.” Click.

We Live in a Sci-fi World

Who says the world of the Jetsons never materialized?  There is now a technique for implanting human stem cells into early pig embryos, creating a chimera (an animal with two different genomes) in order to generate- within the growing pig- human organs suitable for transplantation.  Only one example of the many potential risks is that human cells may migrate into the pig’s brain, giving the pig partial human intelligence.  And from this self-aware pig we would harvest the desired organs!  It sounds monstrous, doesn’t it, sort of like The Island of Dr. Moreau; but the goal is to meet the huge need for transplant organs, and to save lives.  Nevertheless, a little voice somewhere in our minds is shouting out a warning.

Here’s an excerpt from my novel, Fourth World, written several years ago:

Dr. Neelin glanced at Benn, then went on, “Now we enter the thorax.  We see Bob’s lungs, his heart, an atrophied thymus gland.  And here is the esophagus… the hilum… some rather enlarged lymph nodes… ah.  Can anyone tell me what this is?”  He was holding the heart, in its glistening gray pericardium, off to one side- and there, in the back of the chest cavity, continuous with the left lung, was a kidney!

“Come now, speak up- it’s just what it looks like.  That’s right- a kidney, in Bob’s chest!  Poor old Bob also suffered from hypertensive renal failure, and this was an attempt to generate a new kidney for him.  But given the early stage of technology, there was no guaranteeing where those wandering stem cells- those naughty rascals- would end up, was there?  Searching for their home in the retro-peritoneum, they settled and vascularized instead at the back of the thorax- which, by the way, looks remarkably similar, to a seeker molecule.  In this case, to Bob’s extreme chagrin, the little kidney actually put out a small daily amount of urine into Bob’s lung!  This gave him a productive cough, confused his doctors, and …”- Neelin threw another quick glance in Benn’s direction- “…probably didn’t help with Bob’s halitosis, either!”

 

Hope Marches On

This inspires me as a science fiction writer, imagining a dystopian world of the not-so-distant future.  Protests- and, in Fourth World, rebellion– against an authoritarian government are inevitable, even essential.

Yesterday, under threatening skies, we stood with the Women’s March rally at the Civic Center in San Francisco, while our daughter was marching with half a million women in Washington, D.C.  The passion, angst and anger were palpable, sometimes straining the sense of solidarity, as so many different agendas, pre-existing attitudes and goals were funneled into a few city blocks jam-packed with a hundred thousand people.  Many women had brought their children to learn the value of participation, while others emphasized personal and political power, or immigration, or sexual freedom.  All of these were important, but women’s rights remained at the core, and that focus allowed the first real glimmer of hope we’ve sensed since Friday’s inauguration.  Everything from the tide of history and hard-won progress, to the moral power of fighting injustice, and even the genetic reality of being women, were impossible to deny.  The president and his advisers may be able to put a D.C. spin on jobs, taxes, trade, alliances, border walls and carbon dioxide emissions, but the unforgettable Women’s Marches that took place across the country and worldwide will not yield so readily to spin.

 

Inauguration Blues

Aren’t inaugural speeches supposed to be inspirational, aimed at unifying the nation after a divisive election?  Donald Trump’s speech did not appeal to the political parties to work together, instead excoriating them both in an “unpresidented” (sic) manner.  It failed to reach out to the majority of the population that did not support his campaign, the majority that voted against him.  Nor did it mention inclusiveness, tolerance, and healing a fractured system.  Which portions of his dark speech will be carved on future Trump monuments for posterity:  “American carnage” or the parts about crime and abandoned factories?  Trump touted “our” values (whose values?); our wealth; our borders and our security; at the cost of global security, trade, and alliances– as though they have nothing to do with each other.  At a unique moment of opportunity, when he could have pivoted from his grenade-throwing campaign rhetoric to a more mature and reasoned position, he pulled up a great wall of “protection”around the country.

And there’s still no Elon’s Ark in sight (see my earlier post on this blog, “Mars or Bust,” referring to Elon Musk’s efforts to send people into space).  Just yesterday, six people entered a dome on Mauna Loa, a Hawaiian volcano, as part of a NASA human-behavior study simulating a long mission to Mars.  These four men and two women will have no contact with the outside world.  Over the next eight months of being cooped up together, they may discover that one of them is an illegal immigrant, and another a radical Islamic jihadist.  By the end of the study, the two women may feel disrespected, dis-empowered, or much, much worse.  Half of the group may not have health insurance, and one may lose his job.  Some of them may be caught emitting too much methane into the sealed dome.  By the time they finally emerge after eight months of isolation in a Martian simulation, one thing’s for certain:  if their first request is “Take us to your leader,” they ought to seriously reconsider!

Readin’, ‘Ritin’ and Reflection

It was not at all surprising to learn that reading and writing have played a major role in shaping Barack Obama, not only during his presidency, but throughout his life.

Michiko Kakutani, an old college classmate I knew from the Yale Daily News, interviewed the president about his reading habits in yesterday’s NY Times, and I was pleased to see that, in addition to the expected writings of great statesmen, civil rights activists and political thinkers, Barack Obama picks up the occasional work of fiction– including science fiction!  He seems equally inspired by many genres.  To quote Michiko quoting Obama, reading and writing afford him a chance to slow down and reflect, “when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” to “get in somebody else’s shoes,” and to regain his perspective in tumultuous times.

The three R’s help you to separate yourself from the tumult (like Benn Marr watching himself from a safe distance as he tumbles down a steep icy slope, in the opening dream sequence of Fourth World) and thereby gain critical perspective.  Among other benefits, historical perspective obviates reinventing the wheel, and promotes long-term solutions over impulsive actions.  Scientific perspective moves evidence-based policies ahead of choices based on greed, prejudice or just plain wishful thinking.  And reading or writing fiction gives you multiple ways of looking at not-so-hypothetical situations (see my earlier posting in this blog, “How True Is Fiction?”).  Fortunately for us, the president kept reading, but also remembered to put down the books and engage the moment.

 

Burly Wines Win

I was at a wine tasting last night:  red California blends of Rhone varietals, served blind.  These varietals, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, etc. have pretty distinctive traits, both in aroma and flavor:  white or black pepper, berries, truffle, earth and so on; each grape has its own signature (see Fourth World, chapter 8).  In addition, reds from the Rhone Valley in France tend to express local conditions, or terroir- a Northern Rhone is often distinguishable from a Southern Rhone, by its grape composition, but also by its terroir.  So last night I was looking forward to teasing apart these characteristics in the California versions.  Several of the wines were elegant and well-balanced, with a suggestion of Rhone varietals in smell and taste, but in my opinion, they were the exception.  More often the wines were dense, muscular, burly and thick:  modeled after modern-day Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but in style only- not in the nuanced traits I was hoping to find.  Judging by the group rankings, people were looking for something else:  their top-ranked wines had jammy, overripe fruit (one even tasted faintly of raisins), and none had varietal characteristics.  I suspect one of them had been left with higher residual sugar, in order to increase its mass appeal.  At my table of 7 tasters, the elegant wines mentioned above ranked at the very top, but amongst the larger group of more than 50 attendees, they did not make the cut.  This is one reason group rankings have so little meaning (unless you’re selling the wine).

Of course taste preferences are subjective, and of course California wines don’t need to imitate the French.  But it seems to me that elegance, balance and varietal taste are desirable in all wines- and often missing in generic “big reds,” which are shaped for greatest marketing appeal rather than being true to any grape varietal or distinctive terroir.  I’ll coin a term- “enological Darwinism”- to describe this phenomenon:  the market determines the evolution of winemaking choices and philosophy, and survival of the biggest seems to be where we’re headed.  Luckily, the role of a good wine is not just to blow away other wines in a mixed martial arts tournament, but rather to enhance a meal or other social gathering, and occasionally to provoke thought.

It’s Not Just About Us

Spoiler alert:  In a scene from Fourth World, Dr. Neelin, after pointing out the presence of Martian DNA interspersed with Benn’s own genome (due to micro-chimerism, he wrongly assumes) quickly reassures him, “Don’t worry, Benn, you are undoubtedly human… but after… living and evolving on Mars, you have taken on, shall we say, some of the local flavor.”

Also from Fourth World:  In a medical school lecture, Dr. Vincent discusses the centuries-old practice of society-based eugenics, then the advent of gene editing, which “failed to resolve many ethical issues:  the criteria used in selecting ‘desirable’ traits, the potential to create a superhuman ruling class…”  The maximum number of “actionable” genes can be legislated, of course, but it’s a slippery slope.  Laws can be broken, and legislatures can be be persuaded to increase the allowed maximum.  “But you do have to draw the line somewhere on the spectrum of eugenics,” Dr. Vincent concludes, “to preserve the conventional definition of what it is to be human.”

I’d recommend a column called The Stone, on the Opinion Page of the New York Times this morning.  The title:  “Is Humanism Really Humane?”  Cary Wolfe, interviewed by Natasha Lennard, defines post-humanism by contrasting it with the Enlightenment concept of self, the centering of the human in relation to the rest of the world, the hierarchy placing humans above animals, and even “what the humanist philosophical tradition considered ontologically separate and discrete domains like ‘human’ and ‘animal,’ or ‘biological’ and ‘mechanical.'”  There are huge moral and ethical implications to challenging the standard, liberal humanism we’ve grown used to (in animal rights, for instance).

In a post-humanist view, the human is no longer at the top, or the center, or even in a separate domain.  Now that we can edit our genes (and, in future Fourth World, throw non-human genes into the mix), how would Dr. Vincent define what it is to be fundamentally human?  We have stepped onto the continuum between “human” as we currently understand it, and a product genetically modified beyond recognition.  Post-humanism has already become more than a dry philosophical concept.