Sunday, July 11, 2010

Margaret Atwood's ChickieNobs

One of the many aspects of Oryx and Crake I liked: it has a few passages that read like philosophical thought experiments. My favorite is the initial revelation of ChickieNobs. Crake, super-genius transgenics researcher shows them to Jimmy, his best friend, on a tour of Crake's lab.

"This is the latest," said Crake.

What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.

"What the hell is it?" said Jimmy.

"Those are chickens," said Crake. "Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They've got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit."

"But there aren't any heads," said Jimmy. He grasped the concept-- he'd grown up with sus multiorganifer, after all-- but this thing was going too far. At least the pigoons of his childhood hadn't lacked heads.

"That's the head in the middle," said the woman. "There's a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don't need those."

"This is horrible," said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.

"Picture a sea-anemone body plan," said Crake. "That helps."

"But what's it thinking?" said Jimmy.

The woman gave her jocular woodpecker yodel, and explained that they'd removed all the brain functions that had nothing to do with digestion, assimilation, and growth.

"It's sort of like a chicken hookworm," said Crake.

"No need for added growth hormones," said the woman, "the high growth rate's built in. You get chicken breasts in two weeks-- that's a three-week improvement on the most efficient low-light, high-density chicken farming operation so far devised. And the animal-welfare freaks won't be able to say a word, because this thing feels no pain."

"Those kids are going to clean up," said Crake after they'd left. The students at Watson-Crick got half the royalties from anything they invented there. Crake said it was a fierce incentive. "ChickieNobs, they're thinking of calling the stuff."

"Are they on the market yet?" asked Jimmy weakly. He couldn't see eating a ChickieNob. It would be like eating a large wart. But as with the tit implants-- the good ones-- maybe he wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

"They've already got the takeout franchise operation in place," said Crake. "Investors are lining up around the block. They can undercut the price of everyone else."

From Oryx and Crake, chapter 8, section "Wolvogs." (Page 202-203 in my edition.)

After some story-time has passed, Jimmy seems to eat almost nothing other than ChickieNobs Buckets O' Nubbins. Hilariously gross, just like most of the novel.

I think this would pair well with Douglas Adam's cow that wants to be eaten, to prompt discussion of the morality of meat-eating. My own initial reaction: it would be OK to eat ChickieNobs, but not OK to eat the willing cow.

Douglas Adams's cow that wants to be eaten

Last semester one of my intro to philosophy students reminded me, at a handful of points through the semester, of scenes from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that illustrate philosophical problems. I'd forgotten most of them, so this summer I've been working my way through the Hitchhiker's trilogy. Here's a scene that would work well in a unit on the morality of meat-eating, especially paired with an Atwood excerpt I'll post later. The gang has settled down for dinner at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
[Ford] sat down.

The waiter approached.

"Would you like to see the menu?" he said, "or would you like meet the Dish of the Day?"

"Huh?" said Ford.

"Huh?" said Arthur.

"Huh?" said Trillian.

"That's cool," said Zaphod, "we'll meet the meat."


A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox's table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

"Good evening," it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, "I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in the parts of my body?"

It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters in to a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

"Something off the shoulder perhaps?" suggested the animal, "braised in a white wine sauce?"

"Er, your shoulder?" said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

"But naturally my shoulder, sir," mooed the animal contentedly, "nobody else's is mine to offer."

Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling the animal's shoulder appreciatively.

"Or the rump is very good," murmured the animal. "I've been exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there's a lot of good meat there."

It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

"Or a casserole of me perhaps?" it added.

"You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?" whispered Trillian to Ford.

"Me?" said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes, "I don't mean anything."

"That's absolutely horrible," exclaimed Arthur, "the most revolting thing I've ever heard."

"What's the problem Earthman?" said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal's enormous rump.

"I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing there inviting me to," said Arthur, "It's heartless."

"Better than eating an animal that doesn't want to be eaten," said Zaphod.

"That's not the point," Arthur protested. Then he thought about it for a moment. "Alright," he said, "maybe it is the point. I don't care, I'm not going to think about it now. I'll just... er [...] I think I'll just have a green salad," he muttered.

"May I urge you to consider my liver?" asked the animal, "it must be very rich and tender by now, I've been force-feeding myself for months."

"A green salad," said Arthur emphatically.

"A green salad?" said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly at Arthur.

"Are you going to tell me," said Arthur, "that I shouldn't have green salad?"

"Well," said the animal, "I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am."

It managed a very slight bow.

"Glass of water please," said Arthur.

"Look," said Zaphod, "we want to eat, we don't want to make a meal of the issues. Four rare stakes please, and hurry. We haven't eaten in five hundred and seventy-six thousand million years."

The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle. "A very wise choice, sir, if I may say so. Very good," it said, "I'll just nip off and shoot myself."

He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur. "Don't worry, sir," he said, "I'll be very humane."

It waddled unhurriedly off to the kitchen.
[From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Chapter 17.]