Author Topic: EP475: Homegrown Tomatoes  (Read 12658 times)

eytanz

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on: January 11, 2015, 11:19:31 AM
EP475: Homegrown Tomatoes

By Lara Elena Donnelley

Read by David Levine

---

When I pick Louisa up from school, _All Things Considered_ is on the radio, playing a round table discussion about the virus. One person believes that the disease ravaging the corn belt is a government experiment gone awry. The reporter reminds the audience: botanists speculate it was brought to the U.S. by an invasive species of beetle. I recognize a few of the interviewees—I studied their research back when I was still pursuing my doctorate. Before I met Ann, before we had Louisa. It’s strange, thinking I could have been on NPR some day, if I had finished my degree.

I turn the radio off before Louisa is buckled in. The virus has been the only thing on the news for a week. Louisa’s teacher talked about it with her class a little bit, but I don’t want Louisa to get worried, so Ann and I don’t mention it much at home.

“Daddy,” she says, buckling herself in. “Can we plant my tomatoes when we get home?”

Louisa’s tomatoes started out as a kindergarten project last spring, but quickly escalated into a backyard plot sized right for a small-town farmers’ market. Ann and I thought she would forget about them this year, but in February she asked if we could plant tomatoes again.

“Sure, cookie. But you have to do your homework first.”

She shakes her head. “Mommy said she would help with my homework.”

I sigh. Ann won’t be home until Louisa is in bed. She called at lunch today and said her boss wanted a story on the virus before she left the office—it’s starting to appear outside the Midwest now, affecting fields in New England. There are signs that it might be spreading to wheat and other grasses.

“Mommy’s going to be late,” I say. “I can help you.” Like I’ve been helping Ann on and off. Half the reason she’s on the stupid story to begin with is my half-finished PhD.

Louisa doesn’t say anything. She used to cry every night Ann was away. Now she hardly complains, but I worry about what’s going on in her head. We try to make her understand that mommy’s work is very important because daddy doesn’t have an office job—his job is to pick Louisa up from school and make her healthy snacks, to watch her favorite TV shows and play with Legos.

Now, Louisa stares out the window, picking at the edge of a band-aid on her knee. I hope she knows we both love her.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!



Thunderscreech

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Reply #1 on: January 12, 2015, 03:18:06 PM
That episode feedback felt like déjà vu all over again.



Max e^{i pi}

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Reply #2 on: January 12, 2015, 03:39:00 PM
That episode feedback felt like déjà vu all over again.

Hah! I knew it! I thought I was going crazy!

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Thunderscreech

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Reply #3 on: January 12, 2015, 03:54:35 PM
Hah! I knew it! I thought I was going crazy!
I can't promise you aren't, but if you are it's not because of that.  (475's episode feedback was also attached to 474, in case anyone isn't tracking).



Max e^{i pi}

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Reply #4 on: January 12, 2015, 04:03:35 PM
Also Alasdair wished us a Merry Christmas, and that was like, last year so...

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Thunderscreech

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Reply #5 on: January 12, 2015, 04:29:04 PM
Also Alasdair wished us a Merry Christmas, and that was like, last year so...
Matrix glitch in progress, confirmed!


Regarding the story, these small disasters really hit home.  Every huge catastrophe must be built, Lego-like, from dozens if not hundreds of small ones.  This story sounds like it describes a world where a really big problem is starting, the kind that's going to kill a lot of people via terrible, drawn-out ways. 

Her parents seem to be trying to shield her from some harsh realities like they've already figured out this is a possible extinction-level event.  Anyone else get that same impression?



breezy d

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Reply #6 on: January 13, 2015, 02:21:52 PM
If this virus spreads to all seed bearing plants in most food growing areas of the globe, this is a major disaster. Just about everything humans eat starts with seeds, even livestock which are raised on plant based diets. Without plants to sustain us, what will anyone eat?

I also agree that Louisa parents are shielding her. Letting her have whatever childhood comes before possible civil unrest begins triggered by swindling food supplies and ultimately starving to death.

Louisa's father expresses hope in genetically engineering a solution to the problem but I don't believe he really thinks it is likely.




ElectricPaladin

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Reply #7 on: January 13, 2015, 03:05:32 PM
Science:

I don't think that this is an extinction-level event. It's pretty unlikely that a virus could kill off every seed-bearing plant on Earth. I mean, there are a lot of seed-bearing plants, and not all of them are that closely related. That's a lot of different genomes to mutate into. Viruses don't do that so easily. Keep in mind, for example, that HIV has been crossing over into humans for a long, long time - certainly longer than we have been aware of it and trying to do anything about it - and we are still here. Some humans are resistant to HIV, so they can get it, but never get sick. Some humans are straight-up immune, and the virus can't get a foothold in their body no matter how often they're exposed. Sometimes, immune systems fight it off and the exposed person never seroconverts. Some people just get lucky and never get exposed.

The problem is that because we have modified so many seed-bearing fruits through old-school genetic modification - that is, breeding - we've limited the genetic diversity of many of the species we rely on, which makes both crossing over and infection more likely. While corn, wheat, and domesticated nightshades (and good riddance - eggplants make me sick) might be doomed, I guarantee that wild corn, wild wheat, and actual nightshade flowers will be fine. There might be a genetic bottleneck, but give it a hundred years and the biome won't know the difference. That's what genetic diversity is for.

What we're facing here is a civilization-destroying event. Human civilization is based on the ability of agriculture to produce an enormous amount of food via (old school) genetically modified plants. If we lost that ability because our weird not-actually-fit obscene-amount-of-food-producing domesticated plants went extinct, it's not that humans would die out, it's that the carrying capacity of the Earth would drop dramatically for a couple of hundred years. Some humans would starve, others would die in unrest, but enough of us would survive to carry on.

Which is not to say that our narrator hasn't got significant reasons to be afraid for his daughter's life.

By the way, I think it's important not to overestimate how bad this is, even given what I've said. There are so many ways around this. Find a wild variety that's immune and cross it with the food-producing varieties we rely on. Get big-ass vats of cloned plant matter going. Or, hell, it wouldn't be all that hard to find or produce a microbe that can process raw materials into carbohydrates and other stuff we need and turn that into food. What do you think vegemite and marmite are? And although us Americans find them unpalatable, they are incredibly healthful foods that do not rely on seed-bearing plants.

/Science.

Story:

I loved this story on so many fronts. I loved the stay-at-home dad who wasn't presented as either a tragedy or some kind of defective human being. I loved the slice of normal life against the backdrop of rising chaos. The story did a really good job of getting me to love this little family and dread what's coming.

And, of course, it was beautifully well-written and perfectly paced.

/Story.

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Reply #8 on: January 13, 2015, 04:12:51 PM
Solid.  I don't have a lot to add to what other people said.  I liked the family structure that I see in real life but rarely in stories, the focus on the little things lost and the daughter's mourning from them even as the parents realize they might all die from the outcome of these events.



albionmoonlight

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Reply #9 on: January 13, 2015, 06:36:47 PM
The pacing here was magnificent.  This story kept me on the edge of my seat.  Her ability to convey the tension that the narrator felt through her pacing was great.

I also loved the perspective here.  On the one hand, the world is on the brink of a possible crisis.  But that does not mean that day-to-day life stops.  The kid still needs to eat and take her bath.  The narrator is still going to wonder if he should have finished his PhD.  One thing that a lot of speculative fiction misses is that even when we are engaged in the end-times war against the alien cyborgs from the future, we will still have to live our lives.  We are still going to worry if we miss trash day.  Your world doesn't end just because the world is ending.



albionmoonlight

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Reply #10 on: January 14, 2015, 02:58:55 PM
I realized in the shower this morning that what this really made me think about was The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere.  The same idea that--no matter how big of an event is happening on the world stage--people will still view it through the prism of their own mundane lives.  Because people don't have a choice in the matter.  The ability to explore that is one of the real strengths of good speculative fiction.



RDNinja

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Reply #11 on: January 15, 2015, 12:48:30 PM
This story was pretty good, but I found it kind of odd that there didn't seem to be any government intervention going on. Instead of noticing the infection in their tomatoes themselves, I would imagine there would be Army reservists running around, torching the gardens with flamethrowers. That might have been a slightly more impactful ending, since our childhoods are usually destroyed by outside events, rather than us tearing them up with our own two hands. Or I might just be biased toward flamethrowers.



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Reply #12 on: January 15, 2015, 05:38:18 PM
This story was pretty good, but I found it kind of odd that there didn't seem to be any government intervention going on. Instead of noticing the infection in their tomatoes themselves, I would imagine there would be Army reservists running around, torching the gardens with flamethrowers. That might have been a slightly more impactful ending, since our childhoods are usually destroyed by outside events, rather than us tearing them up with our own two hands. Or I might just be biased toward flamethrowers.

I would guess that there just aren't enough reservists and data to be able to torch everyone's personal gardens in any kind of timely manner?  Maybe?



tpi

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Reply #13 on: January 16, 2015, 05:46:24 PM
This story almost feels like it might be prequel of sorts for The Road by Cormac McCarthy.


Fenrix

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Reply #14 on: January 21, 2015, 05:00:35 PM
I think this story suffered from the same problem as Trash. Great characters and compelling storytelling and tense pacing spread over really questionable science. The science was modified to fit the story, not the other way around. I have a really hard time suspending my disbelief for a disease impacts ALL the corn and then ALL the wheat and then ALL the cucumbers and ALL the melons and the ALL the nightshades. The story also handwaved at multiple possible transmittal vectors, without giving any of them the attention they deserved. The deliberate avoidance of science was intrusive, particularly when we had characters that the author deliberately inserted with the capability of delivering that to us. Instead, the curtain is pulled back and I see the author inserting a credible character to prop up the lack of delivering science.

I wanted to hunker down and enjoy the repast set before me, but the smell of the fertilizer kept intruding too much on the meal. Starting with corn, there are a number of different disease resistant modified varieties, which are different for feed versions and for human consumption. If the disease vector is following the DNA that has been introduced by genetic manipulation, why does this affect the non-manipulated cultivars? If it's following the baseline plant, then why does it affect everything equally? Wouldn't some of the strains manipulated for disease resistance be more resistant? Stretching from corn to other grasses like wheat is not that great a leap, if you can accept the initial servings of fertilizer-enhanced science. But from grasses to vine plants? Are then are cucumbers and melons that closely related? The fertilizer smell is overwhelming at this point.

Then let's talk about the nightshade family. Yes there are some cultivars that are manipulated, but most of it's the old fashioned cross-breeding variety. If the variety of tomato that has been bred for shelf stability and transportability was wiped out, there would be few tears shed. But there are SO MANY varieties of tomatoes that I have a hard time buying that they are all killed by one disease. And these people with "a backyard plot sized right for a small-town farmers’ market" don't have a few heirloom or unusual varieties mixed in? Not to mention that two plants of the same variety could have different resistances. Too much manure in the compost pile.
« Last Edit: January 21, 2015, 05:02:27 PM by Fenrix »

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Chairman Goodchild

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Reply #15 on: January 22, 2015, 11:35:14 AM
This story almost feels like it might be prequel of sorts for The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

All the time I was listening, I was thinking of it being like a prequel for Interstellar. 



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Reply #16 on: January 22, 2015, 03:54:18 PM
All the time I was listening, I was thinking of it being like a prequel for Interstellar. 
"Thing I love about relativistic travel...  everyone else gets older, and I stay the saaaaame age." - What his character SHOULD have said



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Reply #17 on: January 22, 2015, 05:49:54 PM
I think this story suffered from the same problem as Trash...

I think that the science here was significantly better, or at least less bad. It's at least potentially possible for a suitably flexible virus to jump from species to species like this. Unlikely, but possible. Trash, on the other hand, had science that was actively bad and wrong, not just unlikely.

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FireTurtle

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Reply #18 on: January 22, 2015, 09:39:59 PM
This story almost feels like it might be prequel of sorts for The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

All the time I was listening, I was thinking of it being like a prequel for Interstellar. 

Perhaps more The Windup Girl. My assumption was that these were human-designed pathogens or perhaps nano-tech. In which case programming could be altered..It's a thought.

Overall I found this story alternately poignant and annoying. It was hitting a lot of my "protect the children" buttons but also the "dude, take a look around, it's the apocalypse. Stop worrying about the tomatoes and start hoarding.." button. In all seriousness, I just could not abide watching the narrator just observe the collapse of agriculture and just be like "oh Noes Tomatoes!" I do realize that a significant portion of the populace is likely to hurt stand around and film the apocalypse when it comes. I have a low tolerance for ineffectual hand-wringing after a whole childhood of exhorting fictional princesses to help themselves.

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Chairman Goodchild

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Reply #19 on: January 23, 2015, 02:05:33 PM
All the time I was listening, I was thinking of it being like a prequel for Interstellar. 
"Thing I love about relativistic travel...  everyone else gets older, and I stay the saaaaame age." - What his character SHOULD have said

 ;D 



Fenrix

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Reply #20 on: January 23, 2015, 04:11:00 PM
I think this story suffered from the same problem as Trash...

I think that the science here was significantly better, or at least less bad. It's at least potentially possible for a suitably flexible virus to jump from species to species like this. Unlikely, but possible. Trash, on the other hand, had science that was actively bad and wrong, not just unlikely.

I'm still not going to excuse it. It may be more moderate to argue that the failure is only a 9 on the science scale where Trash was a 10. It's not entirely BAD botany, it's just botany at the level of the science in warp speed and time travel. The problem I have is when it's set in our world right now, I expect the botany to be realistic in our world, not a quantum physics level of probability. 


My assumption was that these were human-designed pathogens or perhaps nano-tech. In which case programming could be altered..It's a thought.


I think your one sentence give us more possibility than what we were given in the story. The story makes some weak hand waves at possible vectors (BEES! BEETLES! STUFF!) without making ANY commitment as to cause. There is value in providing questions as to what the true killer is, as this can be done to highlight multiple possible extinction event scenarios. Give me enough to go with and encourage me to fill in my own personal fear. But I need something to work with. The science was completely irrelevant, or an afterthought at best. I would have been a lot happier if this was turned into a clear magical realism metaphor instead of masquerading as science.

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Reply #21 on: January 23, 2015, 05:43:39 PM
I think this story suffered from the same problem as Trash...

I think that the science here was significantly better, or at least less bad. It's at least potentially possible for a suitably flexible virus to jump from species to species like this. Unlikely, but possible. Trash, on the other hand, had science that was actively bad and wrong, not just unlikely.

I'm still not going to excuse it. It may be more moderate to argue that the failure is only a 9 on the science scale where Trash was a 10. It's not entirely BAD botany, it's just botany at the level of the science in warp speed and time travel. The problem I have is when it's set in our world right now, I expect the botany to be realistic in our world, not a quantum physics level of probability. 

Ah, see, I'd call this more of a 5 or 6 on the scale of bad science - unlikely, but possible. Perhaps I'm less picky than you, or maybe you know more (or less) than I.

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Reply #22 on: January 24, 2015, 04:04:49 PM
I have to agree that the science was relying too much on extremely low-probability events to push the story forward. In my mind, it's similar to writing a story that only works if the characters are dumb as rocks. CAN a virus mutate quickly enough to move from grasses to corn to nightshades in a single summer? Well, mayyyybeee... But it's hard for a virus to move into a completely new host and successfully cause infection. Not to mention that the viral vector has to be in close contact with both the existing and the new host plant. Therefore in my mind the story only works if we operate at the very edge of probabilities. I could be less skeptical if several growing seasons were invoked, or even if a particular commonly added gene (that's new school GMO's) was causing a vulnerability. But IIRC, the virus jumped from corn into nightshades within a matter of weeks with no explanation.

It's sad, because I thought this story really worked well as a picture of one couple trying to protect their daughter from the coming disaster and buy her just one more blissful summer.



Thunderscreech

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Reply #23 on: January 24, 2015, 04:49:42 PM
The improbability of the disease looks very different when you entertain the idea that it's a deliberate construct.  Just because we aren't exposed to all the players doesnt mean they aren't there...



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #24 on: January 24, 2015, 05:47:28 PM
I have to agree that the science was relying too much on extremely low-probability events to push the story forward. In my mind, it's similar to writing a story that only works if the characters are dumb as rocks. CAN a virus mutate quickly enough to move from grasses to corn to nightshades in a single summer? Well, mayyyybeee... But it's hard for a virus to move into a completely new host and successfully cause infection. Not to mention that the viral vector has to be in close contact with both the existing and the new host plant. Therefore in my mind the story only works if we operate at the very edge of probabilities. I could be less skeptical if several growing seasons were invoked, or even if a particular commonly added gene (that's new school GMO's) was causing a vulnerability. But IIRC, the virus jumped from corn into nightshades within a matter of weeks with no explanation.

So, here's the the thing. As I understand it, it's not a matter how long. It's not like viruses are working hard to figure out how to get into a new species and it takes them a while. We're talking about random mutation and a moment of opportunity. It takes as long as it takes. I mean, it isn't likely, but nobody is looking at AIDS and saying "you're telling me the virus jumped from simians to humans? That's so unlikely. I don't find this crisis compelling at all."

And let's not forget that in real life we have viruses that cross over through many related species. Rabies, for example, can affect almost all mammals.

I'm just not convinced that this story is all that unlikely. Not 100% likely. Probably never going to happen. But then again, most stories are probably never going to happen.

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