Dystopian Fiction or Sad Reality?

A year or so ago, I read a book that was probably the saddest and most disturbing I’ve ever read. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood portrays a dystopian future, a story in which we can read about how everything has gone wrong and the resulting state of the world.

I guess I’m just dark enough that I sometimes enjoy that type of book. I enjoyed 1984, for instance. I found Brave New World very interesting, but wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoyed it. Oryx and Crake took the cake, though. In this story, genetic modification has been taken to the extreme and has caused horrible problems. I can’t say I recommend this book. It was just too sad and disturbing to recommend it to others. (Thank goodness my husband read it, so I could talk about it with someone.)

Why do I bring up a book that bothered me so much that I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else?

Fair question.

The reason is the latest non-fiction book I’ve read ~ The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.


I’ve been meaning to read this for so long. I read In Defense of Food last year, another book by Pollan, and I just knew I would find this one interesting. I certainly did find it interesting.

I was reading about a farm raising organic chickens, and the description (sadly) reminded me of Oryx and Crake.

The Cornish Cross represents the pinnacle of industrial chicken breeding. It is the most efficient converter of corn into breast meat ever designed, though this efficiency comes at a high physiological price. The birds grow so rapidly (reaching oven-roaster proportions in seven weeks) that their poor legs cannot keep pace, and frequently fall. (from The Omnivore’s Dilemma)

That was reality. Here is the fiction that it brought to mind:

“This is the latest,” said Crake. What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.

“These are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.”

“But there aren’t any heads,” said Jimmy. He grasped the concept – he’d grown up with sus multiorganifer, after all – but this thing was going too far. At least the pigeons of his childhood hadn’t lacked heads.

“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.” … The woman gave her jocular woodpecker yodel, and explained that they’d removed all the brain functions that had nothing to do with digestion, assimilation and growth. (from Oryx and Crake)

When I read In Defense of Food last year, I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that we should be advised to “eat food.” Um, yeah. No problem. Well, the more attention I have paid to the various things available for my ingestion, the more I have come to realize that the advice to “eat food” may be more necessary than I had thought. I had begun to refer to typical chicken available at the supermark as ChickieNobs (the above mentioned chicken-like creature from Oryx and Crake. I can’t really call it a joke, because it really isn’t funny. It’s pretty sad that our actual agricultural system resembles that in a dystopian novel.

While I don’t recommend Oryx and Crake, I do recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma without hesitation. It, too, is sad at times, disturbing at times, but I think it is better to be informed than to avoid unpleasant information. Particularly when this is about the real world, the real food we eat. Learning about the way food is produced, along with the impact farming and food production can have on our health, our economy and the environment may affect our choices. Maybe not, but it’s better to have the information so we can make informed choices. I doubt food would have become so confusing, at times unrecognizable, if enough people were paying attention. (Don’t believe that it’s confusing? Read a few more ingredient lists. Sometimes I think I should have a chemistry degree in order to decipher ingredient lists.)

The description of the chickens that can hardly stand is just one small piece of the information offered in the book. That section really stood out to me for a few reasons: 1)Chicken is the meat I most often eat. 2)I thought that by purchasing organic “free range” chickens, I would be supporting farm practices that I would be comfortable with. Apparently not. 3)It immediately reminded me of the ChickieNobs in Oryx and Crake.

I can’t and won’t try to tell anyone else what or how to eat and don’t presume to know what’s best for anyone else. I don’t even claim that Michael Pollan is the final word on food production. I do urge you to give it some thought, though, if you haven’t. With soaring rates of obesity and food-related health problems, how can we not?

On that note, if you’ve read any books on food production or nutrition that you’d recommend, please let me know! I always welcome book suggestions, and if you’ve read something that disagrees with Pollan’s books, I’d be interested in reading a different perspective.

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