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Monsanto Wants Your Soul (book reviews)

Or, reviews of two dystopian novels: Karen Faris’s Grumbles the Novel, Part I: Take a Pill and Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky. (Note: I purchased both books, and was not asked to review them.)

So a few weeks ago my business required me to do a fair bit of airplane travel. In a perfect world, that would mean five or six hours of solid writing, but coach airplane chairs are so small it’s almost impossible to do any real typing without smashing my elbow into the poor bastard sitting next to me. So instead I read a couple of books.

In hindsight, I was amused to discover that I had unwittingly chosen books of a THEME, that theme being: GMOs are going to eat you.

In both cases, literally.

The first book I picked up was part 1 of Karen Faris’s Grumbles series. Now, I’m going to start with what I hated about this book: it’s not a complete novel, but ends just the story is starting to ramp up. Now, trilogies can be tricky this way, and sometimes the first book ends just as the quest is really getting started, but I felt this ending was jarring, and this book did not feel complete to me. I actually approached the writer about this, and she admitted that breaking up the book was the publisher’s decision, because they had felt the original novel was too long.

I thought we were past the age when publishers would pull a Tolkien on writers and force them to break up books, but apparently NOT.

So if you start to read this and are really liking it? Realize that you’re going to want to buy parts 2 and 3 at the same time, so you don’t have to stop. All three books are available.

But what about the book? Okay, so picture if you will a book as the love child of Terry Pratchett and Corey Doctorow. And that love child would be Grumbles the Novel. Set in the future in a United States where it’s illegal to grow your own produce (more on that theme later) and where the wild flora is both toxic and carnivorous, the novel follows the exploits of Pettie Grumbles, one of the last postmen in a world where the only ‘safe’ nutrition comes from vitamins and the post office is the last bastion of mystery men and spies.

One of the things I found so fascinating about this story was the lack of modern judgement values. Many of the people in Pettie Grumbles world are cheerful, not because they think their world is fantastic, but because it’s often human nature to make the best of things and (important) because they frankly don’t know any better. In a world where mandatory education has been eliminated as an affront to civil rights and where the most beloved political party are actual pirates (they run on a platform of total honesty about their motives,) the idea that it has ever been different is a topic most people simply cannot grasp. Drugs are cheap, the sky is always blue, and whatever you do, don’t drink the tap water.

It’s the most light-hearted, fun, grim dystopian cautionary tale I’ve ever read, frankly.

If potatoes are the mandatory staple crop of Grumbles’s world, corn is the demon plaguing the Heartland of Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrean Sky, specifically a strain of corn called Hiram’s Golden Prolific, so aggressive that the local farmers don’t raise it so much as desperately try to control it. The lowlander farmers who are forced to raise the crop for the Empyrean elite who float in city-ships overhead in a Morlock/Eloi relationship can’t even eat this corn: it’s only good for bio-fuel, plastics, and manufacturing, and is toxic for human consumption. It’s illegal to grow anything else, any idea which is harshly enforced by flame throwers and drone strikes. The farmers are provided food they can eat in exchange for the corn harvested, but that means if they’re under quota, people starve. There’s also a very interesting hint of Mother Nature’s revenge in a feared disease called the Blight.

Wendig’s Heartland is a grim place, as grim as any farmer who knows he’ll lose the farm with the next poor harvest, as grim as any dust bowl cluster of hopeless migrant farm workers. Hiram’s Golden Prolific is an unsustainable crop: besides depleting the soil with the next decade, the chemicals used to keep it under control are horrifically toxic and cancer causing. Into this world is born Cael (I see what Chuck did there) McAvoy, a teenage leader of a scavenger gang who has to deal not only with his own enemies, but his father’s as well. Cael means well, but he’s a typical seventeen-year-old, which means those good intentions are laced with healthy doses of hormone-driven stupidity. But when he discovers strains of edible crops that seems to be capable of overcoming the growth rate of Hiram’s Golden Prolific, the stakes become much higher than he can imagine…

If Cael is a straight-forward farmboy Destined For Great Things, his friends (and enemies) deserve a call-out for being so fantastically articulated. Wendig skillfully balances POVs to make sure that no character is ever completely two-dimensional, and to make sure we realize that even bullies are made, not born. Cael’s first love Gwennie may make some choices that Cael can’t understand, but we the reader certainly can, and she quickly proves she’s not just some princess who’s only role is to be rescued. Indeed, I find myself wondering just who will end up saving whom by the time this story ends, or if Cael will grow enough to make up for his own poor decisions.

Both books definitely left me reaching for the next in the series.

Disclosure: When I originally wrote this, Karen Faris and I had only the most cursory contact with each other, although we did have a common friend. I bought this book with my own money, and Karen did not ask or pay for this review. However, since then we’ve become friends who both write for, and Karen and I have started reviewing books together for that blog.

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