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Unnatural diets

Composing fiction in synthetic media

Rachel Rodman 31 March 2012

Strange brews: all in the name of science

These experiments have generated new types of literature, many of which possess an odd beauty

It proved more difficult to reproduce foods in the laboratory than 1816, François Magendie fed dogs on sugar and water. Their eyes dried out, ulcerated, and burst...We now know that these artificial foods could not sustain life because of their inadequate protein and vitamin content.

- Frances Rachel Frankenburg, Vitamin Discoveries and Disasters

Media for the cultivation of microorganisms contain the substances necessary to support the growth of microorganisms...Even slight differences in the composition of a medium can result in dramatically different growth characteristics...

- Ronald M. Atlas, Handbook of Microbiological Media

Most fiction is grown in nutritionally complete media, containing non-limiting concentrations of the 26 letters of the alphabet, A-Z. With this diet, a literary work can synthesize any word that it requires. It can also assemble letter-diverse sentences, as, for instance: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Some fiction, however, is grown in “drop-out” media, from which one or more letters is withheld. In 1939, for instance, Ernest Wright composed the novel Gadsby in artificial media without the letter E. Gadsby is crippled by the absence of basic words – the, be, have – but survives through the use of alternative phrases. “Wedding cake,” for instance, becomes “an astonishing loaf of culinary art, all fancy frosting, and chuck full of raisins and citron, which is always cut upon such an auspicious occasion.”

With Gadsby, Wright demonstrated that E is not an absolute dietary requirement. In 2001, author Christian Bök pushed this question further. His report, titled Eunoia, describes experiments in six new drop-out media, each far more restrictive. Each medium contains all twenty consonants, B-X and Z, but is supplemented with only one of the six vowels: +A, +E, +I, +O, +U, or +Y.

In the +Y medium, development is halted entirely. Proto-narratives die at early stages. A typical section, “Jynx Synch/Try/ Psych/Tryst Ptyx,” has absolutely no meaning. Moments of coherence – “My Rhythms” or “Spy Glyphs” – do not exceed two words. Of these, several simply serve to emphasize the works’ severe physiological problems. They refer to illness (“Lymph Cyst”), abnormality (“Pygmy Gyms”), and death (“Crypt Styx”).

The remaining five media, +A, +E, +I, +O, and +U, do support viable narratives. This viability is particularly evident in excerpts describing construction, synthesis, and mechanical facility:

+A: “...all hands stack sandbags and start a spartan camp. A campman, smart at campcraft, can spark a match...”

+E: “Men smelt the steel; then the deftest welders weld...The best sled ever hewn gets erected.”

+I: “I rig this winch with its wiring; I fit this drill with its piping.”

+O: “Folks who work on looms knot knots to form cloth goods...”

+U: “Ubu lugs stuff; Ubu tugs stuff. Ubu puts up fulcrums. Ubu puts up mud huts...”

Although viable, these narratives do differ in apparent health. These differences reflect the fact that the five letters serve different physiological functions. The +A- and +E-grown narratives appear the healthiest. Both have complex plots, driven by well-defined characters. The first (+A) describes the peak and fall of an Arab politician: “Hassan drafts a Magna Carta and asks that a taxman pass a Tax Act – a cash grab that can tax all farmland and grant...what hard cash Hassan lacks.” The second (+E) rewrites portions of Homer’s Iliad: “Westerners revere Greek legends. Versemen retell the represented events, the resplendent scenes, where, hellbent, the Greek freemen seek revenge...”

The +O-grown narrative appears more poorly nourished. Individual sections treat a range of topics, including weather patterns (“Cold stormfronts...blow snow onto fjords”), farming (“workfolk groom colts born of broncos”), and international trade routes (“Scows from London go to Moscow”). There is, however, no central story. Events end with a deliberate non sequitur, “How now brown cow.”

The +I-grown and +U-grown narratives appear more severely malnourished. Both are much shorter (approximately 50% [+I] and 25% [+U] the size of +O-grown narrative). The first describes a camping trip, complete with climax (“Christ, this ship is sinking”). The second, more diffuse, describes the exploits of “Ubu.” Ubu experiments with art (“sculpts junk”), has a ménage a trois with “Ruth plus Lulu,” then drinks heavily (“full cups”). In both, narrative focus is lost in the final section: +I: “...whilst Viking knights fight griffins...” and +U: “Gulls churr...”

The use of these media is in addition linked to physiological problems. Some are very severe. The +A-grown narrative concludes abruptly with a fatal epileptic fit: “alas, alack: a shah has a grand mal spasm and, ahh, gasps a schwa, as a last gasp.” The +U-grown narrative, similarly, concludes with complete pulmonary failure: “burst lungs succumb.”

Symptoms occasionally occur in pairs. The +A- and +I-grown narratives display a similar syndrome, marked by dermal inflammation and upper limb weakness.

Dermal Inflammation:

+A: “a blatant rash (raw scars that can scar a man’s scalp and gall a man’s glans”

+I: “itching livid skin (skin which is tingling with stinging pinpricks)”

Upper Limb Weakness:

+A: “Carpal pangs gnarl a man’s hands and cramp a man’s palms...”

+I: “twist this infirm wrist, crippling it”

Narratives grown in four of the media (+A, +E, +I, and +U) show symptoms of gastric problems, suggesting that the letter O may serve important roles in stomach function.

+A: “Cramps as sharp as darts and barbs jab and jag at gastral tracts.”

+E: “Retchers retch; belchers belch”

+I: “spitting bilic spit”

+U: “Ubu’s plump gut hurts...Ubu upchucks lunch”

In each narrative, finally, nutrient deprivation is accompanied by necrotic and unhealthy tissue, characterized by internal violence.

+A: “A Spartan axman...grabs an ax and hacks at a swart clansman: whack, whack.”

+E: “...wrestlers wrestle these skewered men (men’s knees get threshed; men’s necks get wrenched)...”

+I: “I slit this fish in its gills, knifing it, slicing it, killing it with skill.”

+O: “Lots of potshots...mow down throngs of cohorts...”

+U: “Gruff punks club Ubu. Butch thugs drub Ubu. Ku-klux cults kung-fu punch Ubu.”

While Wright, Bök, and others have worked in minimal media, others have experimented in supplemented media. In 1955, for instance, Dr Seuss published a report, On Beyond Zebra, which describes experiments in a medium containing 46 letters, only 26 of which are naturally occurring. The remaining 20 – Fuddle, Thnad, Yekk, and others – are synthetic. These letters permit the synthesis of novel words, much as, in the laboratory, artificial amino acids permit the synthesis of novel proteins. Humpf, for instance, “a real handy letter,” is dimerized to construct “Humpf-Humpf-a-Dumpfer.”

Seuss’ medium shapes a new narrative, characterized by breathless exuberance and endless possibility: “When you go beyond Zebra,/ Who knows..?/ There’s no telling/ What wonderful things/ You might find yourself spelling!” This narrative is in addition marked by several physical enhancements. There is a cow with approximately 100 sets of udders, a bird with an exceptional tail (“the longest that’s ever been heard of”) and a pack animal with an unusual profusion of branching horns (“These horns carry all that he needs on a trip.”)

At the same time, Seuss’ letters also disrupt essential functions. Most crippling, perhaps, are two errors in shadow assignment: “The big one, you see, has the smaller one’s shadow./ The shadow the small Thnadner has should be his...A terrible mix-up in shadows! Gee-Whizz!” There are in addition errors in developmental patterning, resulting in a loss of distinction between the anterior and posterior. One creature, a Quandary, is particularly severely affected: “He just stands there and worries. He simply can’t stop.../ Is his top-side his bottom? Or bottom-side top?”

These negative effects have slowed the commercialization of Seuss’ alphabet. None of the letters has been approved for general use. Early trials have however shown a limited efficacy in the treatment of literary diseases (dwarfism, writer’s block, etc.), where the benefits may outweigh the risks. Follow-up experiments, aimed at modifying Seuss’ original functional groups, may prove particularly important.

Using artificial media, authors have begun to categorize the natural letters via their physiological roles and to investigate the extent to which synthetic versions might mimic or enhance them. Their experiments have generated new types of literature, many of which possess an odd beauty. Their unnatural diets – too little, too much, or too strange – impart striking derangements. They have bone malformations, as might follow Vitamin D deficiency, or an altered urine color, as might follow the consumption of methylene blue. They bear untraditional shapes, thinned by partial starvation or glutted by metabolites that they are not quite capable of digesting. Their eyes burn weirdly in their modified skulls. Their voices, shaped by ill-made throats, rasp vivaciously: I am alive, and I am stunning.