BEIRUT: Humorous science fantasy is not easy to pull off, but when done well it can be excellent. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels have been delighting children and adults alike for decades with their refreshingly irreverent take on a cast of stock characters – from witches to trolls to Death himself – their self-parodying style and helpful aphorisms like “It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it.”
Then there’s “Food Wars.” Released late last year by Shadi Hamadeh and Mairi McLellan, this youth-targeting novel combines fantasy, humor and teenage love with the unlikely topic of food security.
Hamadeh is director of the environmental and sustainable development unit at the American University of Beirut, while the Scotland-based McLellan has authored a series of educational children’s books called “What do the Grown-Ups Do?”
Hamadeh (who conceived the story, characters and plot) and McLellan (responsible for transposing them into written form) released the book via U.K.-based self-publishing facilitators AuthorHouse and it’s not hard to see why it might have had trouble getting approval from mainstream publishers.
Like many self-published novels, “Food Wars” is a hit-and-miss affair.
The novel is basically an awareness-raising vehicle for “teens aged 10 to 89,” as Hamadeh puts it, to draw attention to such global issues as the extinction of plant and animal species, food and water shortages, the danger of genetically modified crops eradicating agricultural diversity, food waste, excess packaging and the proliferation of plastic, the dangers of fast food and the destruction of the rainforest.
These serious topics are wrapped up in a wild narrative package that features a cast of eight teenagers, who turn out to be the Keepers, possessed of Mother Earth’s ancient secrets. Their enemies are besuited men named Mr. Corporate, Mr. Deal and Mr. Big of The Food Masters Inc.
The bow on top? All eight teens come from countries plagued by a specific problem resulting from global attitudes to consumption.
The novel’s unlikely hero is Philip “Porky” McGregor, a Glaswegian teenager so overweight that as the novel begins he suffers heart failure as he’s about to bite into his fourth cheeseburger of the day. Awakening in hospital, Porky begins Googling fast food and is incensed by the temerity of big chains like “McDollars” serving up heart attacks and marketing them as “Cheery Meals.”
His seven sidekicks originate from around the world.
Kitchi, a young Native American boy, is disillusioned with outdated traditions like the Buffalo Dance, which seems meaningless when the buffalo have long since been eradicated. Abala, an Ethiopian boy, is forced to flee his village when it’s attacked by soldiers who seize the land.
Amy Wong, an ambitious Chinese student, is horrified to learn that genetically modified rice crops have failed and rural populations are starving to death. The stateless Lastro hates his life on a fishing boat, consoling himself with the sound of whale song.
Bina, an Indian girl whose sister and mother have been horribly crippled by some sort of chemical leak, is distraught when her father sends her to Scotland for an arranged marriage with a cousin she’s never met. Serenity is faced with the destruction of the rainforest outside her Brazilian home, where she lives with her indigenous mother, a herbal healer, and her father a Norwegian conservationist.
Finally Jasmine, who belongs to a tribe of roving Yemeni Bedouins facing food and water shortages, is known for her frugality.
These characters are awakened to their roles as Keepers by the discovery of an object – a bison horn, a piece of nutmeg, a packet of wild rice – that causes their bodies to become hot and their fingers to tingle uncontrollably.
So far, so weird.
It’s only after a disembodied voice has informed them of their mysterious role that the really bizarre adventures begin. Each protagonist undergoes a psychedelic trip, Magic Roundabout style. Bina, for example, feels “her head expand” before being attacked by giant tentacled monsters while on a taxi ride through rural India.
Lastro is swallowed by a giant whale. He lives in its heart, where he bathes in a warm pool and feasts on seaweed, and is routinely sprayed out of its blowhole so he can drink rainwater from its back. This makes him so happy that he is forced to “sober up.”
Kitchi turns into a flying bison.
Amy runs away from mysterious assailants seeking to steal her rice and is carried thousands of miles in a basket by sentient Kudzu vines.
As the protagonists draw closer to one another, the world gradually begins to heal itself. People stop buying frozen food in favor of fresh fruit and vegetables. Livestock escape their pens and run free. Extinct plants sprout from the earth. For some reason all of this happens in bold type.
The evil businessmen, meanwhile, attempt to counter the teenagers’ good work by dispatching ancient monsters to harass them – each straight from the respective teen’s cultural mythology. In Yemen, ghouls mangle Jasmine’s foot and slaughter an entire Bedouin tribe, while Abala is menaced by the Inkanyamba, a weather-manipulating serpent.
(What’s the message here, incidentally? That faith in traditional mythology is dangerous? Surely not.)
Most surreal is Bina’s foe, a genetically modified vampire who she finally identifies as Vetala, a blood-sucking demon. This mouthy antagonist chases Bina down a hallway shouting “Where to now, Indian slut?” The sheer inappropriateness of this remark might provoke a snort of laughter from teenage readers.
“Food Wars” displays evidence of an extremely fertile imagination on the part of Hamadeh and is competently penned by McLellan. Although poorly camouflaged, the message of the book may provoke reflection in young readers.
The main problem with the novel is its inconsistency.
The wilder plot elements are likely to appeal to child readers, while leaving teenagers cold, yet the (minimal) focus on teenage romance and occasional outbursts of wildly inappropriate language appear to be aimed at a rather older audience.
“Food Wars” is no Discworld novel.
“Food Wars,” by Shadi Hamadeh and Mairi McLellan is published by AuthorHouse. To order a copy visit www.secretfoodwars.com.