This completely obscure eco-science-fiction novel by Naomi Mitchison from 1983 shares a title with another obscure novel, by Vladimir Dudintsev of 1956. Naomi Mitchison was not a Communist, but staunchly socialist, and had visited Russia in the 1930s. Both novels deal with the paradox of the individual’s intentions being devoured by the forces of the state (Dedintsov) or Big Business (Mitchison). Mitchison’s novel is about genetic manipulation and modification of plant cells to create wheat, rice and other crops that can be distributed free to the world’s hungry to get rid of world hunger for ever. It’s a utopian dream with a predictably dystopian result, since nothing comes from nothing, and nothing in life is ever free.
I could not get my head around the economic argument in this novel, since the premise of the plot is that when people have free food, they are able to work harder, learn faster, and generally pull themselves up by their bootstraps to a better standard of living. Not if they’re farmers or in any way involved in the food business, one would think, since who is paying for the free food? The big corporation who supplies it in the novel, and pays for the scientific research worldwide to produce these new superfoods, has what seems to be an inexhaustible income stream, and does very well with profits once free food has become the norm, but I really could not work out why.
Anyhow: that’s a detail. Not By Bread Alone is mainly concerned with the dangers of rampant scientific invention colliding with social processes, and feels even more relevant now than it was thirty years ago. If people do not have a relationship with the land and the food they grow on it, their food is worth less to them, emotionally and psychologically. Mitchison tells the story of scientists in India working on early GMOs, and contrasts this with traditional life on an invented Aboriginal autonomous territory in Australia’s North-West Territories, whose people refuse the FreeFood as well as alcohol. They nurture their spiritual growth and connections to the land, remaining a whole and healthy people. When a Sikh scientist joins them, his religious beliefs let him find commonality with their spirit-life, as do the ecological beliefs of Neil, the Australian farmer who has abandoned his FreeFood farming to escape the corporation’s clutches.
This novel gives a powerful sense of wide and varied representation at the centre of the world-wide struggle. The USA and North Americans are barely mentioned (this is SO refreshing in a genre that the USA has dominated since its earliest years). There are as many female as male characters with speaking roles; there are more non-white protagonists than white. The two leading women characters – a scientist and a lobbyist – are lovers, and the leading Aboriginal character is a pilot and a mother. Naomi Mitchison was over 70 when she wrote this novel, totally in touch with ecocriticism and with gender politics. She wrote with a farmer’s understanding of food production (she’d farmed her land throughout the Second World War) and with a biologist’s understanding of the science (she trained as a geneticist before the First World War). Her narrative style is elliptical and assured, swooping from mind to mind to layer the free indirect speech with dialogue. Her technique is assured and very well-practiced (she published her first novel in 1923, fifty years earlier than this novel, so what she knew about delineating character was probably everything that could be known. Not By Bread Alone is more than an eco-critical curiosity, it’s a serious dystopic novel about a future of food uncertainty and terrifying consequences when the science goes wrong.
8 thoughts on “Eco-dystopian sf curiosity: Naomi Mitchison’s Not By Bread Alone”
Thanks for this review — I will track down a copy. I get the impression that you were less thrilled with this one than Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Right?
Yes, Memoirs was fun and enjoyable to read, the story was compelling (even though there wasn’t one). Not By Bread is merely … interesting; for its times, for her advanced thinking on the subjects, for the diversity in her characters though almost nobody else was bothering with this, even in sf, at the time, but not for storytelling.
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I need to read more Mitchison. The Corn King and the Spring Queen and Travel Light are two of my favorites but I’ve not delved into the science fiction — it’s not easy to find.
It definitely isn’t, but I bought all three of them on abe quite easily, and cheaply. I review her third sf novel, Solution Three, tomorrow …. I’d also recommend The Blood of the Martyrs, I think that’s her greatest novel.
I will definitely look for it, thanks!