Another book I’m reading (actually listening to) right now is the The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. This is biopunk, possibly my favorite genre when it is done well. I won’t spoil the plot below, but I’ll tell you some of the background on what is going on in the society about halfway through the book, so if you prefer to read it and discover this gradually, then stop reading now!
The interesting thing about this society (Southeast Asia, supposedly about 100 years in the future), is that it has very advanced scientific and technological knowledge compared to our current society, and yet it is extremely energy and resource poor compared to our current society. All food seems to be genetically engineered by a few western companies (“calorie companies”). At some point there has been a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. At the point in the book where I am now, there are hints that these companies themselves have engineered the pests and diseases that brought this about. We don’t know why – maybe as a form of competition to attack each others products, or maybe to attack non-genetically engineered organisms. Whatever the original strategy, these plagues have devastated natural ecosystems and come back to attack the company crops themselves, and also to sometimes jump to humans, so that everyone is sick and starving and the companies are trying to hunt down any surviving stashes of biodiversity.
The society is also extremely energy poor. Climate change and sea level rise have been devastating, and fossil fuels seem to be entirely gone with the exception of coal, the latter rare and used only by the government for pumping in a last-ditch effort to keep the ocean at bay. There is some methane available from digesting animal manure, again tightly controlled by the government. For mobile power, they wind “springs” using animal power, including “megadonts” which sound like reconstituted mammoths. I have a couple questions on plausibility here, neither of which detracts from the story which I am really enjoying. First, which such advanced biological technology developed over 100 years, it is surprising not to see solar power, wind power, fuel cells, or even nuclear power. In fact, there seems to be no form of electricity at all. Second, I imagine mammoths would eat a lot. Let’s say you grow food, feed the mammoths, have them wind the springs, then digest their manure to obtain methane all very efficiently. I find it hard to believe that if you took whatever you are feeding the mammoths and digested it directly, you would not obtain more energy. The exception might be if the mammoths go foraging themselves and eat something that grows naturally on land that will not grow anything else, and that particular plant is digestible by mammoths but not by methane-generating bacteria. With a very limited range of plants available, maybe this is not all that implausible in the bizarre universe of this book.