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0 Comments | Dec 03, 2009

Times Record Review

‘World Hunger’: A scary first novel

Former Brunswick resident Brian Kenneth Swain imagines a ‘what if’ scenario involving genetically modified foods that is sure to haunt his readers
Special to Living

“World Hunger” is both the title and the context of Brian Kenneth Swain’s provocative and riveting first novel.

Swain, who grew up in Brunswick and now lives in Houston, takes the controversial topic of genetically modified foods out of the realm of dry and frequently arcane scientific discussion and delivers a page-turning tale of corporate greed that propels scientific idealism into an unintended fiasco— unleashing into a world already beset by starvation new strains of insects with insatiable appetites and attributes that might well make them invincible.

Title: “World Hunger”

Author: Brian Kenneth Swain

Publisher: iUniverse Inc.

Price: $18.95 paperback

ISBN: 978-0-595-44308-6

His novel tells the story of Vanguard Corporation, an agricultural company led by a greedy CEO that has developed a new line of genetically modified seed products. “Project Evergreen” is a shoot-for-the-moon gambit, a process that creates seed varieties “simultaneously more pest and disease resistant, faster growing, higher yielding, more nutritious and drought tolerant” than any previous genetically modified foods.

Two scientists — the older “genius” Phil Barett and his protegee, the idealistic and somewhat harried single mother Julia Croft — oversee the testing of this new product “under live field conditions.”

The 4-acre-to-5-acre test plots are located in four distinct regions and involve different crops: Santa Marta, Colombia, bananas; Maygyr, Belas, spring wheat; Calcutta, India, corn; Nueva, Loja, Ecuador, dry rice.

Swain skillfully takes the reader into the closed boardrooms and scientific labs of Vanguard and out into the field test sites, where initial reports of Project Evergreen introduce troubling complications that soon unfold into a corporation’s worst nightmare: Strains of “super bugs” that are larger, more aggressive and resistant to pesticides and disease than their natural counterparts. The bad news is that these new species evolved after ingesting the new GM crops being tested by Vanguard.

Demonstrating a flair for horror writing that combines Stephen King realism and fantasy in believable ways, Swain delivers several scary scenes that will haunt most readers for hours, if not days, after putting down his book.

To his credit, Swain does not wrap up his horrific tale with a comforting ending in which the good guys (namely “us”) defeat the bad bugs that our well-intentioned but scientifically flawed tinkering with Mother Nature released into our world of hunger. No such comfort is offered: His ending is true to the realities of co-evolution, the biological principle in which a mutual evolutionary influence takes place between two species, with each party in that relationship exerting selective pressures on the other and thereby affecting each others’ evolution. For evolution, typically, does not produce overnight outright victory for any species, now matter how dominant and seemingly in control it might appear to be in relation to other species.

We humans typically think of “world hunger” as uniquely our problem to solve. Swain reminds us that, in fact, it’s a universal condition of this world of limited resources and that when we begin to tamper with the delicate equilibrium of the natural world we might well tip the relative balance between predators and prey in ways that won’t necessarily wind up in our favor. In other words, another species’ “hunger” might well overtake our own and begin to limit our food options far beyond the original conditions that motivate our research and development of genetically modified foods.

But the author introduces a complication in his introduction to the novel — and that is the fact that he does not intend his readers to put down this scary book and immediately take up the cause of environmental zealots who wish to ban all forms genetically modified food.

“For what it’s worth,” he writes, “I am of the view that GM technology has a great deal to offer the human race, but that, like all scientific endeavors, great care is required in its implementation. Perhaps even greater than normal levels of evaluation and discretion are called for in this case for the simple reason that we are talking about a technology that ultimately ends up inside people’s bodies. Add to that the likely irreversibility of some potentially adverse consequence, and good judgment would suggest a measured and deliberate pace of development, one that doubtless flies in the face of the typical corporate mindset.” (Emphasis added by this reviewer).

This is an introduction, then, that readers skip or ignore at their peril. And that’s because Swain’s novel so convincingly portrays some potential dangers of genetically modified foods that readers might well conclude his purpose is to scare us all into becoming diehard advocates of natural foods.

There is much to recommend about this 300-page novel published by iUniverse, Inc. Swain’s main characters are believable and likeable (with the exception of the greedy CEO, who gets caught by a kind of “instant Karma” that is both poetic justice and a horrible fate you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy). The plot moves swiftly through its complications to a climax that is unsettling and true to biological realities. The writing is lively, engaging, thoughtful and timely.

Brian Kenneth Swain, a featured poet at the Poetry Society of Texas and Houston Poetry Fest, as well as on Pacifica and NPR radio, proves in “World Hunger” that he knows a thing or two about writing fiction in this, his first published novel.

He’s written a uniquely 21st century tragedy, one that puts a modern face to what the ancient Greeks knew so well — that human failing known as “hubris,” in which, blinded by overconfident pride, we create the conditions that lead to our downfall. Like the Greek poets, he leave it to us to learn from the mistakes made by his tragic heroes.

James M. McCarthy is managing editor of The Times Record.

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