Troph, Installment II: some background material

As used to the holorestaurants as Josep was, they were still somewhat novel to most people.  The status quo for some time had been that of a generally non-eating culture, and the return to pleasure-oriented consumption was an interesting rediscovery of a humorous, inefficient past.  Some years ago–Josep murkily recalled it; he must have been a young child at the time–a team of scientists at Harvard had perfected high density organic molecular conversion (HDOMC).  In layman’s terms, it was a suite of tools that compressed the calories and nutrients from food into a very small volume, using synthetic ingredients.  Several years later, after the technology had begun to affect public health and industry, the scientists were awarded a Nobel in medicine or physiology.  Some of the members of the team would have preferred the chemistry Nobel, but you can’t have everything.  By then, the group had left Harvard and had—to the delight of all San Francisco tech reporters—founded their own startup, TROPH Industries.  No, it wasn’t an acronym.  But it was a nice combination of mysterious and pretentious that affected tech startup name styles for at least the next twenty years.

The reason for the furor, as well as for the generous funding that made it all possible, was that it allowed for the long-awaited food pill to be produced safely and reliably.  It was immediately available to astronauts and soldiers.  Both time and space once dedicated to the acquisition, storage, preparation, and consumption of food could be shrunk to almost nil, which of course was excellent for outerspace and/or battlefield conditions.  After some early field tests where the subjects, nutritively satisfied but otherwise driven mad but hunger, ate enough additional calories to cause them to gain considerable weight and even develop diabetes, enough leptin to induce satiety was introduced to the pills.  (What a silly oversight, Josep remembered thinking when he studied the history of the compact food revolution in high school.  He wasn’t yet wise to the way the military-industrial complex treated people as means, and would lavish endless resources on deadly efficiency without even considering comfort.)

Once this technology was field-tested and declassified, the next obvious area for it to disrupt was the treatment of obesity.  The leptin in the new weight loss food pills was increased, and, since most of the patients prescribed these food pills were diabetic or pre-diabetic, a nice kick of insulin got thrown in.  (The team leader, Mira Chu, was clearly brilliant but had perhaps internalized more of the wacky experimental approach of the natural sciences than was really appropriate to health research.  Nevertheless, her team was dynamic, productive, and fully insured, so they went full steam ahead.)  The pills worked miracles for most of the patients, though naturally, the ones who were insulin-sensitive suffered some fairly agonizing side effects and had to exit the study.  There was one death–one solitary casualty.  His family expressed their anger with a lavish lawsuit, but later, seeing the incredible good that had come of Chu, et al.’s work, they reconciled with the TROPH group and his widow joined the board.

The researchers were also at a loss as to how to update the patients’ disordered meal rituals.  Surprisingly, most of the successful patients felt relieved at no longer having to think about food.  They became more productive and happy people in general, as they were freed for the first time from the previously inescapable régime of their addiction.

What this chapter in the TROPH success story accomplished was to turn the scientific/medical community on to the idea that food pills could deliver medication as well as nutrients, and that all of the above ought to be tailored to the individual for optimal effectiveness.  Obvious now, surely, but the path to the obvious never did run smooth.  On-demand medication wasn’t yet a mature industry, but a certain amount of customization was going to be necessary to keep the study afloat.   It was quite expensive, especially at first, since the machines used to produce the pills were already working at capacity.  But one obnoxious pharma company looking to claim the medical 3D printing space for its own was able to swoop in with additional funding—in exchange for equity, of course.  Each patient now got attractively designed tetrahedral pills with their own initials neatly engraved into them.  The new pills also had an unusual and rather pleasurable mouthfeel, stippled and slightly rough.  In any industry, the time when form begins to accompany function is a notable turning point, and this was no exception.

Announcing a new serialized science fiction story: Troph

Hello reader!

Today I’m starting something a little different.  There’s a science fiction story I’ve been wanting to write for what I think is literally years at this point, but every time I give it a whirl, the vastness of the task stops me.  It began with a conversation with a friend of mine about how nice it would be if eating were purely recreational.  Then I began to wonder, how might that change society?  How might it be like or unlike what has happened (in part) with sex?  What would happen if both experiences became, in a sense, virtual, removed from their ancient consequences of sickness, obesity, and even impurity?  Quite a big question, I think.

So I’m going to try here an agile story development approach, and serialize it.  I’ll attempt to publish 500-1000 words of the story here each week until it’s done.  When will it be done?  Not sure, I’m terrible with plots.  I’m only interested in pretty turns of phrase and world-building.  This will definitely be a stretch for me in that sense.

Each installment will be posted and unchanged after posting, but I’ll collect the whole story into a single page and add to it as I go, possibly editing previous sections.  I welcome your feedback!


Troph, Installment 1

A sky full of plump gray clouds sagged down onto the green treetops.  It was hot and still and too quiet, with the tiniest tendril of cool air winding from heaven to earth, just beginning to ruffle feathers.  There was a faint taste of that glamorous chaos to come–even the most orderly of hearts thrilled a bit to feel the air change.  At 4 p.m. exactly, the storm would start.  It would rage deliciously in the southwest corner of New Corinth for an hour, then advance clockwise around the compass before concluding in the city center at 1 a.m.  Josep watched this predictable drama unfold, and he wanted to enjoy it, but his head was throbbing.  He was trying and failing for the third time to write an adequate review of the place he’d visited almost a week ago.  His deadline was tomorrow, and so far he had 37 words, and a mighty scraggly 37 words at that.  Then again, at least he’d get some sleep tonight if he did make adequate progress (and probably even if he didn’t).  He felt grateful to live in the city’s southern sector; the wind and the rain and the sweet fresh smell, when they came, soothed him to sleep far more reliably than the supplements did.  The exorbitant rent was well worth it.

Though, let it be known, Josep could afford it.  They (the eternal and exasperating They) had all laughed when he decided to double major in writing and engineering in college, but it was paying off now.  The holorestaurants were exploding in popularity, and magazines were desperate for writers with both the fine aesthetic sensibility and the technical expertise to write blistering and witty reviews of these peculiar places.  Fortunately for writers like Josep, atmosphere, gustatory pleasure, and unbroken verisimilitude were an odd combination of services to offer, so inevitably a restaurant would be weak in at least one area.  That made for the kind of compare-and-contrast, good-but-has-its weaknesses writing that so nicely suited the critique of both food and consumer technology.

The Cambodian-Irish fusion place that had produced this particular headache was very uneven.  It definitely had soul (of a reasonably convincing but inoffensive multi-ethnic nature), and the individual cuisines’ flavors and mouthfeels were spot on for those who’d actually eaten that kind of physical food; but there were some rather embarrassing glitches.  Mouthfuls that were supposed to be, you know, ineffably exquisitely blended would become jarringly discrete mid-bite.  This was a strange experience for the diner, who would one moment be enjoying how a Khmer red curry base could enliven an Irish stew, and the next tasting only onion.  Josep felt for the restaurateur, who was an old acquaintance of Josep’s and had suffered the many insults of the uncompromising artist in his long and non-monotonic career.  This Stephen had the soul of a chef but lacked the finances of one, so he hired a cut-rate engineer right out of school, and now he was truly paying for it.  Josep’s own art, not to mention his editor, would demand some kind of tongue-in-cheek remark about avant-garde cuisine going a bit too far, and that just because you could reassemble a tender pudding into a crisp fried banana in the diner’s mouth didn’t mean you should.  Josep cringed to think how critical Stephen was forcing him to be.

He recalled another restaurant he’d been to recently that did have the engineering know-how to control these experiences well, and the effect was splendid, almost hallucinatory.  He supposed that the younger crowd, who had probably never eaten a real oyster or other animal before, would find nothing unsettling about feeling its heart beat as they chewed it.  Those in the over-30 set, however, certainly would.  That place had been quite something, but it had absolutely no ambience of its own–rather, it had that awkward, earnest ugliness that newish technology often did during its transitional periods.

So it was with his own apartment building, which was desperately sought after despite its dreary exterior and common spaces.  (They had all the warm charm and elegance of Soviet cinderblock housing.)  People leapt at the opportunity because the things they were doing with the surfaces and supplements were nothing short of astonishing.  To Josep, they verged on creepy, but he was a slave to fashion and now a technical reviewer of some repute, so he felt it incumbent upon him to live there.  Even some of the older set, typically technophobic of course, were overcoming their discomfort to live at GoldenBough because of its rumored anti-aging capabilities.  After all, nothing brought more discomfort than getting old, and breaking, and being put away for good.