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.
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.
By the time the highly publicized and successful study was concluded, the public had already developed an appetite for the miracle pills. Following its brisk FDA approval process, the new pills, dubbed Lotuzen, were brought to the eager American market. The only question was, where to start?
The TROPH executive board took advantage of the sells-itself nature of a food/medical pill, and took a somewhat riskier advertising approach than their marketing corps advised. Lotuzen was gleefully and only quasi-ironically sold first via infomercial aired on daytime TV. (At the time they still had to be gotten via a prescription, and the tweaks to the medical dosages could only be accomplished between three-month order, but nothing was stopping TROPH from using faded celebrities with fashion lines from extolling the virtues of Lotuzen.) Nothing could be more tacky, and the level of derision from tech blogs was as high as you’d imagine. But the cunning mind of Dr. Chu compassed all of this. They all had to admit, a couple of years later, that she knew what she was doing. She had a close relationship with her own technophobic parents, even as her fame grew, and she observed their responses to advertising and knew that held the key. As she expected, this bizarre tactic had the effect of bringing in the large print crowd as soon as the pills came to market, while somehow not damaging TROPH’s image with young people and early adopters. “Lotuzen – As Seen on TV” remained a key part of their cheeky branding for many years.
Slowly at first, then precipitously, people simply stopped eating. Previous generations could hardly imagine such a huge change in human ritual, but at least in the US and other advanced countries with shallow food culture, it seemed to happen overnight. Eating was now something done only occasionally, at once a great sensual pleasure and a bizarre inconvenience. People would still go out to eat, but it had the same exotic pomp as going to the opera. Anyone who ate had to be a great epicure, otherwise the expense and trouble weren’t worth it. Eating more than a light snack even once a week was reckoned extravagance. Certainly there were quite a few thinkpieces in those early years about the death of a close connection with the earth and one of life’s great and simple joys, but all this reminded one of nothing so much as the advent of the smartphone. Things like this always have a certain tinge of the ridiculous at first, as do the people who take to them too earnestly, but within a few years, people can’t imagine their lives without them. Josep couldn’t remember a time before Lotuzen, but he could still remember this transition period. There were a lot of fat people then, he remembered. How odd. Fatness seemed so quaint to him now, as did the violent stigma against it and the immense struggles that people faced with it.
Now in his fortieth year, he was witnessing and most artfully commenting on an equally interesting transition—if less important medically, just as meaningful culturally. For one thing, only last year an unprecedentedly ecumenical panel of holy fathers and mothers from the world’s faiths came together to discuss the impact of the holorestaurants on religious guidelines around fasting and dietary restrictions. So consuming and novel was the question as to whether it was the substance of what was put in the body, or the carnal experience of the pleasure of food (whether this be any food, or particular forbidden foods, depending on the application) which truly distanced one from the divine, that what was supposed to be a four-day summit ended up lasting forty. It certainly didn’t seem fair that someone could take a food pill—created of synthetic ingredients and providing no real pleasure of its own—and be reckoned disobedient, while someone could skip the food pill and eat a five-course meal at a holorestaurant and be considered abstinent. This issue was of more moment even than the long and bitter debate around birth control, since various methods of contraception had been available in various forms for millennia and the sexual activities remained (mostly) the same.
The decisions reached by the governing bodies of the panel fell, as one might expect, more along conservative/liberal lines than along faith lines. It caused more than one major schism, as some of the more modern sects even considered the holographic food to be accepted in rituals involving the consumption of food. Josep had thought about writing a cute little column wondering whether the new ultra-modern Jews at least required that a rabbi be one of the programmers of the bitter herbs simulation. But his own lapsed Judaism was enough of a sore spot that he decided to pass on it; he had to admit that he felt 25% less guilty chowing down on a simulated bacon cheeseburger when the high holidays rolled around than he would have otherwise. In any case, the painful process of any religion in continuing to be “in the world but not of the world” rolled on.
Still, TROPH’s miracles hadn’t yet penetrated to all parts of the world. Traditionalism held on in more backward cultures, and it was now as much of a shock to visit one of those dark, sensual places as it had been in the era of European exploration. Younger visitors—who took their standard pills with them and temporarily discarded their biofeedback devices—were amazed at the human chaos in these locales. There was so much variation in body size, and there were so many more problems with health and sanitation. Why would anyone choose to live this way? People either here or abroad who voluntarily kept their natural gustatory activities and organs intact (Americans and Brits often electing for a cosmetic anal reduction surgery, since the amount of waste expelled tended to be drastically reduced) were seen by the still-puritanical American populace as embracing an almost sexual perversion of gourmandism. The US government had partnered with TROPH a couple of years ago to bring the system in as a form of aid to Bangladesh, which was suffering from simultaneous famine and mismanagement, but the Bangladeshis had, as a proud and unified people, rejected TROPH’s incredibly kind offer. This was a shock to the government and the company, and had made relations in the region even more convoluted.
Josep was jerked back into his train of thought, and obediently sat up straight in his chair. He had a habit of slumping forward when lost in thought, and his devices, concerned he might suffer from back pain after years of consistent poor posture, had given him a mild corrective jolt of heat. This sort of treatment, the direct punishment and reward doled out by your very living quarters, was a little too much for most people. But he figured it took the guesswork out of things like that, and hey, it wasn’t 2030 anymore, right?