And so it begins, my look at the stories and novels in Brian Stableford’s Tales of the Biotech Revolution series. I will be looking at them in order of publication. The list is drawn from ISFDB, the introductions of the
six seven collections of Biotech Tales that have been published, and The Brian Stableford Website.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time noting internal chronologies and cross references between stories because it’s not that kind of series. It explores the many implications and possibilities of genetic engineering. As explained in the introduction to The Cure for Love and Other Tales of the Biotech Revolution,
most involve relatively moderate variations of the future history sketched out in a series of novels . . . which was itself a modified version of a future history mapped in The Third Millennium . . .
The broad sweep of this future history envisages a large-scale economic and ecological collapse in the twenty-first century brought about by global warming and other factors, followed by the emergence of a global society designed to accommodate human longevity (although that is not necessarily obvious in stories set in advance of the Crash).
In the introduction to Designer Genes: Tales of the Biotech Revolution, Stableford says the series is “an eccentric propaganda campaign” inspired by J. B. S. Haldane’s 1923 lecture Daedulus; or, Science and the Future which argued for the necessity and plausability of “biological inventions” to remake the world.
The idea was taken up in fiction by two brothers: Julian Huxley in the 1926 story “The Tissue-Culture King” and his far more famous brother Aldous’ Brave New World. The former was ambivalent about Haldane’s ideas, the latter was more obviously against their application if not possibility.
Stableford describes the series as a “wildly optimistic” attempt to change minds about the desireability of biotechnology. Being congenitally pessimistic and somewhat contrarian, my own takes on the series may be a bit reactionary on occasion.
But, if I didn’t find Stableford’s style usually pleasing and very often thought provoking, I wouldn’t spend time reading him and certainly wouldn’t be reviewing him.
All that said as prelude, I should also say that, this is actually not the first story in the series. That was “The Growth of the House of Usher”, and I’ve already reviewed it.
Essay: “The Man Who Invented Good Taste”, Brian Stableford, 1991.
Naïve utilitarianism battles a keen understanding of human nature in this one. Their champions are brilliant genetic engineer Jon Roriston and adman Eddie Farante. It’s also a rumination on how the seemingly trivial and non-utilitarian spurs true utilitarian technology.
A week after the death of Roriston, Farante is willing to tell what he knows of Roriston’s life to a hungry writer looking to score a quick biography.
Farante’s voice is sarcastic, the kind of voice, I suspect, that comes naturally to Stableford since he has said he was quite a sarcastic and cutting young lad. In Designer Genes‘ introduction, he says most of the entries in this series are framed as domestic comedies rather than featuring melodramatic action plots.
Farante was a product manager for Ecomech, the number one product manager in fact, and given the task of managing Roriston’s researches. Roriston resents a mere adman having veto power over his projects.
It’s a profession whose sole purpose is to persuade people that they ought to spend money on things they don’t need . . . It deals promiscuously in false promises, cynical glamorization and low-key psychological warfare.
To which Farante responds by describing what an economist would call “revealed preferences”:
I meet a lot of people who talk that kind of utilitarian guff, Dr. Roriston. . . . Although I must confess that I never yet met one of them who really acted utilitarian. It isn’t easy to separate out people’s needs from their desires, son, and the whole of history proves that people are very often willing to sacrifice things which you’d say they really needed in order to get things which they wanted for reasons you might not approve of – things which would enhance their images. Admen didn’t invent desire, or vanity, or envy, Dr. Roriston – we just recognize their power as motivating forces.
Farante even goes on to argue the adman increases the placebo effect of drugs and helps people be healthy.
It turns out Roriston’s doctorate was in the physiology of taste. He observes that biotech has produced “tissue-culture meat, cereal manna” that provides all nutritional needs except people don’t like the taste. Food scientists go to a lot of effort and companies spend a lot of money to make those foods palatable. Roriston thinks this is madness.
Farante counters that Roriston’s trying to separate needs from desires. People don’t eat just to live. And they don’t want just one taste.
Roriston responds, “in a kind of martyred tone”, that he’s not interested in altering the food to fit people’s tastes. He wants to alter the physiology of people’s taste so they eat the right food in the right amounts.
Farante recognizes that Roriston is a “kind of genius” “good at figuring out theory, but not so hot on the profit side” and really is a utilitarian.
What Roriston wants to do is add a new taste receptor to the human tongue and include a biological switch that satisfies the appetite when the right amount of food is eaten. Specifically, he is going to add a fifth kind of taste-bud to the human tongue. The sensation it produces will be better than the natural kind.
Roriston works for about a year on this project. Safety trials are conducted and passed , but Roriston still feels pessimistic because he can’t customize tissue types for every potential customer if they want to sell them to everybody. Using a saturated pad, he can get tissues in the roof of the mouth and on the tongue to take up the receptors – but they only last for about three weeks.
While this seems a problem to Roriston, to Farante it’s “the miracle of built-in obsolescence”. Farante makes some sympathetic noises but suggests Roriston go through with the patent applications. After all, people will be more willing to try something new if they know it’s not permanent.
Farante starts his ad campaign with the slogan: HAVE YOU GOT GOOD TASTE?. The money rolls in, but Roriston is appalled that manna with Good Taste accounts for only 5% of sales. Candy bars and chewing gum account for more than 80%. That’s because market research, says Farante, found people don’t take a utilitarian view of eating. Good Taste is a fun thing, a novelty.
Mould-breaking discoveries have to be marketed first of all in the leisure-and-luxury sector of the market.
Yes, responds Roriston, but maybe if we spent more money on ads for Good Taste manna . . .
You can’t expect people to “reconstruct their entire gastronomic philsophy” overnight says Farante.
Roriston is a bit worried about the sales of Good Taste stimulants. People shouldn’t be using it apart from food. Farante says they’ve just been trying out sprays for “installing and renewing their buds” even though it’s less efficient than having people suck on a wet pad for ten minutes.
Roriston is still bothered by the temporariness of the altered taste buds, and Farante says Ecomech’s board is pushing for Good Taste Two. That’s not necessary, argues Roriston angrily. Then Farante tells him the story about how Henry Ford’s auto sales took a dive when he refused to paint cars in any color other than black but General Motors would. That convinces Roriston, and he goes off to work.
But, eventually, he tumbles on to what those Good Taste sprays are really used for — oral sex –when he sees the ad slogan ARE YOU THE FLAVOR OF THE MONTH? This leads to a falling out between the two men. Roriton realizes Farante always intended to use his product this way. Farante explains that using Good Taste the way Roriston wanted to would have been a mistake. In four or five years’ time people
will be getting slim using metabolic retuning and somatic sculpture, and eating what the hell they like.
Even admen can’t tell people to do what they don’t want to do.
It’s my job to figure out all the colors, including the ones the inventors can’t see. There’s more than one kind of genius in the world, kid.
Farante leaves Ecomech for another job, and Roriston gets a Nobel Prize and is assassinated by someone who wants their name in the history books. Whether the assassin objected to Good Taste in general or its role in promoting oral sex isn’t explained.
While Farante comes off as a more sympathetic character than you would expect, reader sympathy for him declines a bit when he concludes his account:
But in my heart of hearts – and I’m being as honest now as I know how to be – I can’t help feeling all this grief over the assassination has led to his being a trifle overrated. I mean, he might have been the guy who did the messy business with the test-tubes, but if you want to know the name of the man who really made Good Taste into what it is today, it’s yours very truly, Eddie Farante.
The adman and the inventor may have a necessary partnership, but Farante depicts the inventor as the junior member in it.
The parasite always thinks it’s more important.