The Piper sic-fi classic sums up the philosophical question of what does it mean to be "sentient", and what we really mean when we attach "sapiens" to our genus "homo". By focusing the novel on the struggle by compassionate humans to designate a species of alien on a colonized planet, Piper opens up a forum to speak on how we determine whether species are first or second class, and deserving of rights on an equal basis with humans. If the Enlightenment tells us that "Man is the measure of all things", how does this get complicated when we move out to the stars?
On the idea level the novel works, in setting up a context for discussion of sentience and rights, while blending in elements of corporate greed that frame the discussion. The working out of the plot, however, is just too facile and easy, as if the question is easily answered in favor of the Fuzzies based on a shared intuition of fairness.
Ganim's variety of voice and accent helps spice up the story, and make it relevant to today's audience.
Pollan's examination of the cultural, moral and socioeconomic tradeoffs we make when eating food is a deep and exhaustive consideration of the consequences of seeming simple choices. By structuring the work around 4 meals, he presents four alternative relationships to nature and the world, and lays bare the personal consequences of each. I found that the detail was, at times unnecessarily fastidious, as when Pollan agonizes over the authenticity of hunting, but not killing, the wild boar in his hunter and gatherer meal, and then taking us through the process again, just so he can personally pull the trigger. I would have rather he had just lied, and took credit for the first kill.
The mix of science, economics and gastronomy was what I would like the Food Network to really be about. The personal perspective of the book sometimes got in the way, but gave it a visceral feel that kept my interest.
What did I learn from the book? That sorting out the food chains involved in what I eat daily is way too complicated to really address it in real life. I would have liked to see an epilogue that explained the way Pollan has worked it out. He hints at this at the end, but doesn't ever present a cogent agenda for how making responsible choices about food fits into the real world of budgets and schedules that we have developed since making the evolutionary choice to not spent most of our waking hours feeding ourselves.
I learned how mushrooms are gathered and the physiology of corn. I learned more than I would ever really want to about the beef industry, and the ecology of grasses. Overall, it was an enjoyable read that will stick with me longer than the meal of boar and mushrooms Pollan serves to his friends at the end of the book.
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