Land & Nature / Science & Artifice


Artificial meat. Hmm. A burger made in a petri dish. Not entirely inspiring. And it’s not just the price, which is sure to fall anyway. It’s the artifice. The marriage of science and agriculture didn’t always make us queasy – hybridising plants seems a brilliant idea – but the invention of GM crops was for most people a step too far, despite the fact that it was the basis of the Green Revolution which revolutionised food security in India, Pakistan and Mexico in the 1960s. Of course our distaste has been partly caused by the fact that the big GM food companies such as Monsanto have tended to be bullies and scumbags, but there’s something about the scientific alteration of nature from the inside that gives us the creeps. And artificial meat, that’s not even science and agriculture, that’s science without agriculture, and that seems profoundly weird, Frankensteinian.

Though you have to admit that morally it has a lot going for it. No need for pigs to be slaughtered at six months (come to think of it, there’s no need for that anyway) or indeed slaughtered at all, no need to wreck the planet’s ecology by farming cattle, extra land for growing plants. In fact, it gives us a chance to find out what would happen if we all became vegetarians, without us having to become vegetarians. And presumably artificial meat will be easier to modify and improve than natural meat. So perhaps it will be possible to create meat that tastes more delicious than meat does now.

With that debate going round in my head, the other day I came across Mizora, a strange utopian novel written by the American Mary E. Bradley in 1880-1881, originally serialized, and then produced in book form in 1890. Like most novels which imagine a utopia, it’s hard going, because everybody and everything is so bloody marvelous; there’s not much in the way of plot, or character development, or tension. (Come to think of it, a lack of development is an inherent feature of most utopias – they’re trapped in their own perfection.) But it’s an interesting book in many ways, the first portrait of an all-female, self-sufficient society, a bizarre mixture of socialism, feminism, eugenicism and a fanatical enthusiasm for science, and a passionate plea for universal education.

The Princess Vera Zarovitch, shipwrecked in the Arctic Ocean, lives with the Esquimaux for a winter. She sets out in a boat, is drawn into a whirlpool and finds herself inside the earth, in an enchanting, and possibly, she thinks, enchanted land – Mizora. The inhabitants are all female. Men are extinct. Three thousand years ago they were replaced in government by women after a revolution, (At the time of Bradley’s book, the pioneering Norwegian feminist Gina Krog was arguing not just that women should be allowed to vote but that they should be included in government, on the grounds that they would bring a different understanding and approach.) Soon afterwards, men were found to be redundant after the discovery of human parthenogenesis, and gradually phased out. The description of the extinction process is rather coy – it’s not entirely clear whether the men died out naturally, or whether they were killed off.

Everyone is beautiful. Everyone is healthy. Everyone lives to a great age. Everyone is charming, clever, talented. It’s all about education, education, education. ‘The poor should possess exactly the same educational advantages that are supplied to the rich. Educate your poor and they will work out their own salvation. Educated Labor can dictate its rights to Capital.’ (Good stuff!) There is no crime. No envy, jealousy, malice, falsehood. No disease. Death brings no grief. ‘Why should we mourn for what is inevitable?’ There is no religion – it’s not necessary.

Everyone is blond. (Alarm bells.) ‘‘We believe that the highest excellence of moral and mental character is alone attainable by a fair race. The elements of evil belong to the dark race.’ ‘And were the people of this country once of mixed complexions?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And what became of the dark complexions?’ ‘We eliminated them.’’ Oh, right.

Above all, though, Mizora is dependent on the ingenious appliance of science, and the invention of life-enhancing technologies. Travel is by airship. A sophisticated long-distance communication medium, Pepper’s-Ghost-meets-Skype, is available. The problems of living inside the earth are overcome with artificial light and artificial weather. Rain is produced by ‘discharging vast quantities of electricity into the air.’ (On the ball! Edison had demonstrated his incandescent light bulb on December 31st, 1879. And prescient…. A hundred-odd years later, artificial weather is a fact, albeit unintentional artificial weather. And the first attempts at intentional artificial weather are under way.)

Mizoran food production is highly technical. Fruit and vegetables are still grown normally, but ‘there is always more or less earthy matter in all food derived from cultivating the soil, and the laboratories are now striving to produce artificial fruit and vegetables that will satisfy the palate and be free from deleterious matter.’ All meat is already artificial. ‘I was supplied with something that resembled beefsteak of a very fine quality. I afterward learned that it was chemically prepared meat.’ Animals are extinct. ‘This was one cause of the weird silence that so impressed me on my first view of their capital city. Invention had superceded the usefulness of animals in all departments.’ Eek. The aim of all this is a purer kind of food (clean eating!), leading to increased vitality and longevity. (In 1876, John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of the corn flake, had taken over Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan, where he offered the health benefits of a purer diet and five yoghurt enemas a day. Health was in the air, as it is now.)

Eventually the Princess feels homesick and returns to America, taking her Mizoran guide Wauna, who promptly dies. And that is that. Personally I would have wanted to escape from this queasy utopia a lot sooner than the Princess. Though I might have been tempted to stay long enough to taste an artificial artichoke.

Words by Orlando Gough

Sign up here to be the first to hear about our new collections, events and our latest magazine articles.