Future Tense

“The Minnesota Diet”

A new short story from the author of the Nebula Award–winning All the Birds in the Sky.

Jolene wielding a hammer as friends look on.
Laura Callaghan

This short story was commissioned and edited jointly by Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and CSI about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a new theme. The theme for January–March 2018: Home.

North American Transit Route No. 7 carves a path between tree silhouettes like wraiths, through blanched fields that yawn with the furrows of long-ago crops. Weaving in and out of the ancient routes of Interstates 29 and 35, this new highway has no need for rest stops or attempts to beautify the roadside, because none of the vehicles have a driver or any passengers. The trucks race from north to south, at speeds that would cause any human driver to fly off the road at the first curve. The sun goes down and they keep racing, with only a few thin beams to watch for obstacles. They don’t need to see the road to stay on the road. The trucks seem to hum to one another, tiny variations in their engine sounds making a kind of atonal music. Seen from above, they might look like the herds of mustangs that used to run across this same land, long ago.

The self-driving trucks seem to pick up pace as they approach the cluster of crystal towers that rise from the horizon: the cutting-edge “Smart City” of New Lincoln. And then just as they are cresting the last rise in the road, they change direction. They veer off along one of the other North American Transit Routes, leaving New Lincoln in their rearview.

Mason is one of those people who turns every morsel into a story: about the Napa Valley soil that gave this grape its particular tartness, or the windy Vermont hillside where sheep gamboled and munched tall grass, producing milk that became a cheese with such a complicated bite. Listening to Mason talk about food is almost better than eating. But right now, Mason is sitting at his workstation screaming and hitting refresh on the holographic display, which keeps showing the trucks careening in the wrong direction. At last he howls, making his blue pompadour quiver and causing his co-workers to beg him to keep it down.

Normally, Mason would be worrying about the latest boy who isn’t responding to his Flings—in this case, a lovely Australasian named Richard who seemed interested just a few days ago. By rights, Mason should be concentrating on work purely to distract himself from Fling drama. But now, the Very Prairie Food Co-op is down to just one kind of sheep’s-milk cheese, and it’s not even one of the creamy ones. The cold cuts are a disaster. He should be standing out front, telling customers about the romance and the drama behind a lovely spelt bread, but the Co-op is out of it. They’re out of everything, except for some locally sourced produce from the city’s 17 vertical farms.

It’s classic variable reinforcement: Every third or fourth time Mason hits “refresh,” the screen shows a delivery truck en route, practically at its loading bay already. One self-driving truck did actually show up this morning: half-empty, with some pasta and oatmeal on board. But then the next few trucks got rerouted. Basically, the worst slot machine ever.

Mason’s co-workers grow tired of hearing him berate dots on a hologram, until Percy tells him to get the hell outside for some fresh air. Mason keeps his head down as he walks through the front of the store toward the exit, because the exposed bioplastic of the empty shelves feels like a kick in the stomach, and he can’t look any of the customers in the eye.

Mason storms out into the Greatest City in the World.

Mason grew up thinking cities were supposed to be gray, shading toward ochre in the parts made of bronze, brass, brownstone, or rusted iron. Until he moved to New Lincoln five years ago—this city is like a forest canopy, or some kind of giant vegetable patch; trees stretch their branches out from all the rooftops, and bracken grows out of every wall sconce, while ivy and other vines wrap around all the surfaces. The walls themselves are made of some kind of dense bioplastic, colored bright purple or deep blue, that “breathes,” allowing for natural cooling and heating. Not only does the whole metropolis have no carbon footprint, but also the air smells like springtime whenever Mason ventures out. Every square of the walkway (there are no sidewalks, because there are no streets) tells Mason how many steps he’s walked today, and everything that’s going on with his friends, plus news about the ongoing legislative DeathGrip in Congress. (The news services cheerily natter about “DeathGrip Day 709,” along with interesting facts: Did you know the government hasn’t had a budget in two years? So fascinating!) The billboards in the CityPlex target Mason with messages designed just for him, thanks to next-level systems that aim photons directly at his retinas. If Mason put on his Blinkers, he’d see virtual structures and companions—part of a whole other city that could be almost endless.

To walk through New Lincoln is to marvel at human potential at its mightiest. But today, Mason looks up at all this vibrant color and sees nothing but gray. He is ramping up for some really first-class brooding when his Savant kicks up a message from Sumana and Flood: “quit wandering in circles like a drunk goose and meet us at the Bruisory, son-son.” Mason sighs, then turns on his Blinkers and heads over.

If Mason tried to go to the Bruisory without his Blinkers, he’d get as far as some stairs and a terrace. This mostly virtual bistro has sleek wooden surfaces and old-style squeaky roll-chairs and a shimmering menu of comfort food, fancy coffees, and high-end beers. The actual decor is one big tribute to Bruisor, the hottest social network from way back in the 2040s, right before the public internet went away. The menu is all Bruisor pastiche, with playful insults in between every menu item, plus Mason’s worst underwear picture, and his whiny drunken messages to that one boy who ditched him at the club two years ago—exactly the sort of stuff that would have been posted about Mason on Bruisor, back in the day. (Everyone sees their own embarrassing info.) And in true Bruisor style, Sumana greets Mason saying, “lick goat nose, son-son,” and Mason responds, “choke on a smeg pretzel, mana-mana.” Then they hug.

Everyone asks Mason why he looks so gloomy, and he tries to explain that the Very Prairie Food Co-op’s distributor is trying to screw them, but just then, he finally gets a good look at the Bruisor’s menu.

“What the fletch,” Mason says. “There’s only three menu items.”

“Two if you don’t consider peanut soup real food,” says Flood, who as usual wears a hoodie with ever-changing sarcastic phrases about smashing the hypocracy on their skinny torso.

“The deliveries,” Vera says from behind the counter, “they just haven’t been showing up.” Vera wears a floor-length skirt and complicated bustier–halter top combo as usual, and her locs spill over her shoulders.

Mason is so startled, he flouts the Bruisory custom, and doesn’t even bother to insult Vera, or anyone else here. “What the fletch is going on? Where are all the deliveries?”

Half the people in the Bruisory work in white-collar jobs, like Sumana (coding), Warren (design), Flood (strategy consulting) and Amanda (UX design), and those people can’t understand what Mason and Vera are worried about. It’s only the people who work in food service, or know something about food, who are losing their minds.

“It’s kind of a cliché to say that most cities are only about nine meals away from total anarchy,” says Jolene, who’s an actual food scientist at New Lincoln University. “But New Lincoln is so efficient and streamlined, we may have succeeded in getting it down to just seven or eight meals.” Nobody laughs at this.

“I still don’t get the problem if a few self-driving trucks took a wrong turn,” says Amanda. Vera’s longtime girlfriend is a curvy blonde who wears tons of jewelry with clock faces all over it.

“Maybe it’s the robot uprising at last,” snorts Warren, who has a kind of retro “crusty punk” thing going on.

“They probably just got rerouted because some algorithm decided they were needed elsewhere,” agrees Sumana.

“I’m sure you’re right,” Mason says. “Meanwhile, I guess I’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich.”

“Sorry,” Vera says. “We literally just ran out of cheese.”

Mason sighs. “I guess peanut soup then?”

Jolene takes the words food scientist off her Savant profile, because she’s sick of friends of friends and exes of exes pinging her nonstop, trying to get some kind of explanation. Whether they’ve gone to the big supermarket or one of the smaller ones like the Very Prairie Co-op, they’ve noticed the half-empty shelves, and the absence of the usual fluttering augmented reality displays that tell you all about the vegetable momos, the tsuivan, the kitfo, the string-hoppers, the black pudding, the five kinds of spiced lentils, the wild-caught salmon, and the house-marinated venison. Or else their favorite restaurant shut down temporarily. Or they know someone who works at a restaurant or grocery store, and that person is having a nervous breakdown. These people saw the reports about droughts, blights, monoculture crop collapse, soil exhaustion, and pesticide-resistant bugs, and always figured it was someone else’s problem.

After all, they live in New Lincoln, the “smart city” where you could have urban density and a cutting-edge urban lifestyle, at a cheap enough price for all the white-collar workers whose labor had been devalued by the latest superadvanced software. A post-scarcity city.

Jolene’s mother was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who loved Dolly Parton with an unwavering fierceness, and she’d decided to name her firstborn daughter after the best thing about their new home. Growing up with an unusual first name helped make Jolene more of an introvert, and left her with less tolerance for a hundred people in a row asking her the exact same question.

Mostly, Jolene hangs out with the same handful of people she’s known since she moved here a few years ago: Vera, Samanthor the Mighty, Mason, Sumana, Flood, Amanda, Warren, and a few others who rotate in and out. Most of the time, they sit around eating Vera’s famous stinky-bean-curd frittata and guzzling vodka, or they eat chips and dip at someone’s house, or they share lasagna at that place that puts truffles in everything. But today, they sit around a game-holo, playing some interactive strategy game, without even any snacks.

“I never realized how much my social life revolved around food,” says Flood, more bemused than upset. They’ve shaved new streaks into their prematurely gray curly hair, and they’re wearing cargo pants so baggy they’re almost square. “Until there wasn’t any.”

Mason and friends congregate over a simple meal.
Laura Callaghan

“Don’t be dramatic,” says Samanthor (who’s using “she/her” pronouns at the moment, according to her animated pirate shirt). “There’s plenty of food, it’s just not fancy.” She hefts a can of peas for emphasis. Everyone is hanging out in the loft apartment where Samanthor the Mighty, Mason, and Warren live, which has exposed bioplastic girders and a window that changes to reflect everyone’s mood.

“Just saying, the lack of restaurants and snack options puts a dent in my social life,” Flood says.

“Can’t go on much longer,” says Sumana, who has an unshakable faith in her fellow engineers. “It’s just a glitch in the system.”

“It’s been over a week since anyone saw a delivery truck,” says Mason, whose interactive T-shirt has sported nothing but angry cartoons lately. “Nearly a week and a half.”

“Soon the same algorithm that’s sending all the trucks somewhere else will realize that we’re in dire need, and everything will swing the other way,” says Sumana. “We’ll have more trucks than we know what to do with.”

“Oh yes, the algorithm will save us.” Flood’s sarcasm is curiously relaxed, without much bitterness in their voice.

At least with these seven friends, Jolene won’t have to hear the same terrible questions, over and over again.

Here’s what nobody wants to hear from Jolene: Experts have warned for decades—since even before Superstorm Sandy hit New York and closed off the tunnels, and Manhattan suffered shortages almost instantaneously—that cities have fragile supply chains. City planners have learned to prepare for hurricanes and other natural disasters, but nobody predicted that a simple combination of logistical problems and crop failure could be worse than any storm. New Lincoln’s 17 indoor vertical farms and assorted rooftop gardens and orchards can’t save the city from depending on faraway warehouses and narrow delivery pipelines. Even if all 3 million residents wanted to eat nothing but lettuce, kale, and arugula, the vertical farms collectively produce only enough for half a million meals per day. They were designed to produce artisanal salads and to supplement the food brought in from elsewhere, not to sustain a population.

“But I don’t mind eating canned food and frozen pizza for a while,” says Amanda in a breezy voice. Then, maybe worrying that this sounded too Pollyanna, she adds: “I mean, shit. We take our incredible standard of living for granted here. We were lucky to wind up in a city where our skills are actually valued. There’s nothing wrong with a reminder to be grateful.”

“Why don’t you lay an egg and then suck on it?” says Flood, as if they’re back in the Bruisory and everybody’s supposed to lob silly fake insults. Amanda just rolls her eyes.

Samanthor fasted in college to protest the government’s refugee policies, and she remembers how the hunger started gentle, like, oh, you just skipped a meal, and then with no warning there was a jagged chunk of rock, dredged from a silty riverbed, in your stomach. After even one day of fasting, everything hurt, and you had to exercise ridiculous caution when you started eating again, or you’d throw up everywhere. The hunger strike had probably made the tiniest scratch on the xenophobia-industrial complex, but afterward Samanthor felt like she had skin in the game, and she’d remembered that awful feeling every time she’d felt tempted to stay home from another protest or petition drive.

But this time, there’s no sense of virtue in the dull pain that has settled in Samanthor’s chest, or the sick feeling in her arms and legs. She feels like she ran a marathon, even though she’s been sitting still for ages.

Somehow, they went from having enough nonperishable and semi-perishable food to get by, if they didn’t binge, to not quite scraping by. The grocery stores have completely emptied out, even of the stuff that nobody really wanted, like the high-fiber cereal that looks like actual twigs, the sweaty root vegetables, and the organic caffeinated sour mints. People have been breaking into the rooftop gardens and even people’s window boxes, ripping out every tomato vine and celery stalk. All of the trees and parklets are studded with crude traps for squirrels and pigeons.

Mason still keeps checking the holo-display with the dots moving around, but it’s mostly a running joke at this point. The Mayor’s Office and the City Council keep putting out messages urging people not to panic, because this is just a temporary glitch, and New Lincoln is still a brilliant shining metropolis. But some malign piece of code somewhere keeps deciding that New Lincoln, with its population of midlevel computer engineers, quality-control experts, content creators, architects, marketing experts, musical theater geeks, and service workers, isn’t a priority. It’s been 20 days since the last delivery.

Samanthor has a constant headache, and she can’t stand bright lights or loud noises, and Mason’s squawking is driving her bonkers, and the automatically adjusting picture window is putting weird black shrouds on the yew trees and crystal towers outside in response to her foul mood. She’s not ready for how much this hunger isn’t just in her stomach. She keeps wishing she’d stayed in Denver, where the bright new smart buildings jostled next to ancient skyscrapers in an architectural mishmash, but at least there was plenty of good barbecue.

“I feel gross,” growls Warren, who’s been raising his “crusty punk” act to a new level since he doesn’t have enough energy to shave or shower. “I gotta go to work tomorrow, and I can’t even think straight.”

“I feel like barfing, even though there’s nothing to barf up,” responds Samanthor. “This feels like the flu, only flu-ier.”

Mason yells something else, and both of his roommates glare at him.

At last they go down to City Hall, where they spy Amanda, Vera, Flood, and Sumana among the people protesting the lack of official response to this disaster. Under the big CityPlex signs, a woman with a bullhorn demands that some kind of food distribution and rationing program be set up, and that the local government declare a state of emergency.
Samanthor can’t deal with this crowd, the meaty bready wet-doggy smell of so many people all in one place. She feels like barfing or screaming or punching someone or keeling over.

“We need to go where the food is,” Warren says as they walk away from the protest.

“Where’s that?” Mason says.

“You know where,” Warren says. “The place you’re always talking about. The sheep farm where they graze on a grassy hillside, near the orchard where the climate is just perfect, and the river where the salmon spawn and the trout do backflips.”

“Um, those are all different places,” Mason says.

“That’s where I want to go.” Warren seems not to have heard Mason. “The place where it all comes from. The food place.”

“Let’s go,” Samanthor says.

There’s supposed to be high-speed rail connecting New Lincoln to both Chicago and Kansas City, but it never got finished because of the DeathGrip. So they rent a self-driving car, a preloved Zaeo Superlux, and throw everything they can carry in the back. They get about a dozen kilometers outside New Lincoln, and then the car just stops. Plenty of charge left in the battery, and the engine seems fine, but the car’s software license won’t allow it to drive on the North American Transit Route. Even telling the Superlux to drive on back roads seems to trigger some terms-of-service issue that keeps them clicking through screen after screen.

Mason and Samanthor stand by the side of the road, next to a field of yellow-gray stalks with the consistency of bad silicone—like a cheapo sex toy that someone bought as a gag gift, but which is doomed to wind up being used for unsatisfying, humdrum sex at some point. They smell like congealing candle wax. Samanthor remembers Jolene explaining that hundreds of miles of good farmland surrounds New Lincoln, but corporations are using it to grow organic precursors for biosynthetic tech. That’s one reason New Lincoln is so cutting edge and eco-friendly: Most of its infrastructure was grown, rather than made. But that means there’s no farmland growing actual food anywhere nearby, apart from the vertical farms inside the city.

Warren keeps trying to hack the Superlux’s OS to get it moving again, but he might as well drag the car down the road.

Mason and Samanthor stand by the side of the road, near the stranded Superlux car.
Laura Callaghan

Samanthor’s Savant hits her with updates. Her friend Davy in Chicago says they have shortages too, though not as bad. “I’ve been trying to send a care package, but the shipping company keeps saying there’s problems with deliveries to New Lincoln right now. Hang in there, Kidface. You’ll get through this. Love etc.” According to a news item, the mayor of Chicago says there’s no room for the refugees who did make it out of New Lincoln, and they’re being housed in some stadium until something else can be found.

At least the mayor of New Lincoln is finally declaring a state of emergency, and they’re creating some system to organize and distribute the remaining food, with priority given to children, the elderly, and people with serious health conditions. The federal government, meanwhile, is considering measures to provide emergency food aid to New Lincoln. But, you know, the DeathGrip.

Mason pulls out a bottle of water and some salt packets and dribbles salt in his mouth before swigging, because he read somewhere that salt can keep you functioning during a long fast. Samanthor wants to swat the water bottle out of his stupid hands. For some reason, she’s decided all of this is Mason’s fault. He yammered about food so much, he ruined everything. She can’t sit down, or she won’t be able to stand up again, and she feels sleepy even on her feet. Her brain is running at half power, and the screen of her Savant is giving her a migraine.

“Ugh.” Warren makes a noise. “Let’s just go home so I can lie down.”

The Superlux happily starts up as soon as they tell it to go back to New Lincoln.

Warren makes his disgusted sound again, like someone chewing a snail and spitting out the shell

Back during World War II, three dozen conscientious objectors volunteered to live on a low-calorie diet, in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Jolene studied this in school, and the pictures of scowling stick-figure men were pretty horrifying.

Jolene is one of about 30 people helping to organize the rationing program that City Hall finally agreed to set up. Her goal is to keep healthy people as close as possible to the Minnesota diet, which after all didn’t kill anybody. She attends endless meetings, during which usually responsible adults snap at one another, zone out instead of listening, and get derailed into half-hour conversations about their favorite foods that they wish they could be eating. Jolene can barely concentrate in these meetings, and only a sense of duty keeps her from staying in bed. Since New Lincoln is full of app designers, they’re trying to pull together a team to design a rationing app. We’re now at 47 days since the last delivery.

The good news is, the city’s vertical farms will continue to produce a steady (but limited) amount of vegetables for the foreseeable future, because they are self-renewing. And every food chemist Jolene knows is working on coming up with other scalable food sources, from mycoproteins to synthetics to insects. Nobody thinks help is coming from outside anymore, and anyone who had the means to leave and someplace to go has already left. Other cities have followed Chicago’s lead in putting refugees into temporary shelters, which means Jolene and the others have 1 million fewer mouths to feed. But an estimated 2 million people have remained in New Lincoln, of whom roughly 40 percent are considered high-risk.

Jolene walks through the city, along a path that used to take her past a beautiful fountain, her favorite doughnut stand, and a row of little cafés and restaurants. With her Blinkers on, she would have been able to see virtual strategy games, a whole row of extra shops, a pie-eating contest happening in five physical locations across the city, a whole range of fantastical skins. But people have been vandalizing the augmented reality emitters, and nobody is bothering to launch content updates anyway, so Jolene is stuck with a “real” world in which people lie on the walkways, where they fall over and don’t have the energy to get up again, or else scream at everyone else, eyes crunched shut. Jolene thinks about the term meatspace, how dumb it is, how rocky and barren and mostly devoid of meat the nonvirtual world actually is. Jolene wants to throttle whoever came up with the term meatspace and then sleep forever.

Jolene almost doesn’t recognize the closest couple who are yelling in each other’s tearful faces: Vera and Amanda. The two of them just shout “It’s all your fault” over and over. Jolene grabs both of them by the shoulders, until they finally stop shrieking and glare at her with bleary eyes. “It’s not your fault. Either of you,” Jolene says slowly. “It was a large-scale failure of urban planning.”

“That’s not helpful,” Amanda snarls.

Eventually, the rationing app gets up and running, and half the city’s police force is guarding the remaining food stores, and almost everyone in town receives something approaching Minnesota food levels.

There’s a new etiquette, which spreads via people’s Savants and Flings. Don’t talk about food in front of other people. But if someone else talks about food in front of you, don’t lose your shit at them. Don’t try to make anyone watch a movie, or Virtual Immersive Scenario, in which people are eating. Talk quietly, and above all don’t yell. Don’t be fatalistic. Don’t proclaim false hope, or insist that everything is going to be fine. Don’t judge other people’s weird food rituals: the way they hold food in their mouths for a long time before swallowing, mix it with water, or even cradle a piece of food in their arms like a baby. Don’t blame your partner(s) for lacking sex drive, or for being uninterested in romance. If people need to be alone, leave them alone. Most of all, don’t judge people for listlessness or apathy, or the inability to get out of bed—but do try to keep other people moving, at least enough to avoid muscle atrophy.

Jolene loses track of how long it’s been since she saw another person, but at last she finds herself sitting around with Mason, Warren, Samanthor, and Flood. Mason is still poking the “refresh” spot on that stupid real-time self-driving truck screen, full of dots in motion.

“They’re on their way somewhere,” Mason says, without even much rancor.

“This town was supposed to be for the best and brightest. The educated workforce. Now look at us.” Warren lies on the couch, staring at the picture window as it drapes pink-and-blue garlands and ribbons on the skyline outside.

“Ugh,” Samanthor says. “I’m a low-level tech. It’s barely worth paying me to do my job, versus just building a robot. I don’t think I’m the best, or brightest.”

“Are you kidding?” Mason says. “You’re Samanthor the Mighty.”

“Don’t call me that anymore.” Samanthor sighs. “I think we’re telephone sanitizers.”

“What?” Jolene says.

“It’s from a book I read. They build a superadvanced spaceship and tell the passengers they’re going to a great new planet to build an awesome civilization. But they’re all telephone sanitizers and marketing people and hairdressers. The people everyone can do without. They crash or something.”

“Wait.” Mason runs his hands through his blue pompadour, which is still perfect even on top of his emaciated features. “Who said we could live without hairdressers?”

“Some British guy.”

“Did he cut his own hair?”

“You’re distracting me. I can barely think as it is. God, my stomach hurts again. Like I swallowed a huge piece of broken glass. What was I even saying?”

“But I mean,” says Warren. “There are a lot of creatives and stuff here in New Lincoln. I’m a info-flow designer. Sumana is writing software to help people check their Fling updates faster. And … oh God.” Warren tries to sit up and nearly falls off the couch. “Bloody hell. We’re telephone sanitizers.”

Jolene has been kind of zoning out during this discussion of hair and spaceships, because she’s as spacey as the rest of them. But now she speaks up. “I mean, this city really was supposed to be a beautiful new hope for the educated workers, those of us who can’t afford to live in any of the other cities anymore. You have all the beautiful augmented reality, the interactive everything. Right? And it’s so eco-friendly, it’s like a dream. The bioplastic cladding, all the greenery everywhere, even the inner walls that repair most kinds of damage and repel moisture, thanks to … ” Jolene stops, and stares at the nearest wall. “Oh.”

Nobody asks why Jolene stopped talking, or why she said “Oh,” because they’re all zonked out. Flood is in the fetal position. Warren is watching the window change displays. Samanthor is sucking on both of her own thumbs at once, which is a habit she’s developed that everybody else pretends not to hate. Mason is refreshing the truck screen again. Everyone’s startled when Jolene jumps to her feet.

And they’re even more surprised when she runs into the kitchen of their apartment and comes back with the biggest hammer. “I need to knock a hole in your wall,” Jolene tells them.

“Uh,” Mason says. “I mean, however you choose to cope with the feelings of frustration and disempowerment and gnawing hunger is OK with me, but maybe you could pick someone else’s wall—”

But Jolene has already swung the hammer and made a huge dent in the wall between the living area and Samanthor’s bedroom.

“Hey,” Samanthor says, standing up. “What are you—”

Jolene swings and whacks again, and then again, and some kind of outer coating flakes off, revealing the stuff inside the wall. The stuff that repairs itself and repels all moisture, because it’s actually a living organism. This was a big selling point when they moved in here.

“Hey,” Samanthor says again, “Don’t mess with our—” and then she stops—because Jolene is ripping some of the insulation out of the wall and shoving it in her own mouth.

Jolene chews, which takes a long time, because the insulation is really, really chewy.
Like chewing gum, mixed with shoe leather. But the taste is better than she’d expected, a bit like gravy, albeit with a weird aftertaste. She chews for a while, until she’s reduced it to something she can swallow.

Mason is saying the thing about people dealing with their feelings in various ways again, but Jolene shushes him.

“I should have figured it out before,” she says. “This town. Everything so cutting-edge and next-level. Everything organic, carbon-neutral and ‘grown rather than made.’ Including the insulation inside your walls, which is a kind of genetically engineered fungus. Surprisingly high protein, good source of iron. And the ‘self-healing’ part means it’ll keep growing back, over and over. I think I can come up with an enzyme that’ll make it easier to chew and digest, but it’s already perfectly edible.”

Mason, Warren, and Samanthor stare at Jolene, then each other. Then they wander over and begin pulling insulation out of their walls as well. Samanthor cautions them to take it slow, because she remembers how hard it was to keep food down when she ended her fast in college, so everybody just tries a mouthful. Mason has some ideas about how to prepare it, like insulation rigatoni, or fricasseed insulation, and meanwhile Warren, Flood, and Samanthor are already strategizing ways to get the word out to the entire city.

Barely an hour later, Jolene hears a chorus of hammers and drills all over town, as holes spring up in every structure. The Greatest City in the World begins to eat itself.

Read a response from Christopher Wharton, a researcher who studies local food systems and food security.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi

Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel