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Old MacDonald Had a Farm–Mike Resnick

I’m not much of a science fiction fan, but my interest in farm-related literature took me into the orbit of author Mike Resnick, whose story “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” presents a sort of buccolic dystopia with echoes of Brave New World and Soylent Green.

In Resnick’s story, a reporter finds himself in the first group to visit the New Zealand farm where the Butterball has been developed. This creature is not a particularly large-breasted turkey but a 400-pound eating machine. Converting 100% of its feed into body mass and with 100% of its body mass edible, the Butterball is a wonder of modern agriculture. Throw those figures in with the fact that Butterballs can go from birth to reproduction in 12 months with litters of 10 to 12 and you have a very efficient protein-creating machine.

The problem, the reporter discovers is the rather disconcerting habit that the Butterballs possess: speech. As the the press group enters the barn, they hear thousands of strange voices saying “Feed me.” Others say “Pet me.” Eventually, the narrator encounters a Butterball apparently capable of very simple conversation.

The ethical questions that Resnick raises in this story, hewing to a strictly secular worldview as far as I can see, are ones that hark back to the very beginning of human agriculture. In Genesis 1:28, we find God telling man to reproduce and take dominion over the earth. In “Old MacDonald,” humanity has reproduced to the tune of 11 billion people and the developer of the Butterball, Caesar Claudius MacDonald, has exercised dominion to an unheard of degree.

Reproduction, with or without the biblical warrant, seems a natural and positive form of human life. But when do we cross the line and reproduce excessively? When do become too fruitful as we multiply? And by a similar token, we might ask at what point animal husbandry becomes animal abuse. Resnick has certainly crossed that line with barns full of talking Butterballs, eager to “Go to heaven,” but where does the actual line run?

And of course the two questions interlock. Human ability to manipulate nature determines the carrying capacity of the land in humans. When we become too squeamish to consume our talking Butterballs, we consign millions to starvation. At least that’s the story in Resnick’s universe.

I’m reminded, as I read this story, of Abraham and Lot deciding to go their own ways. Lot looks down into the Jordan valley and opts to make his place among the cities and “pitched his tents near Sodom” (Genesis 13:12). As people separate themselves from the reality of nature, interrupting its rhythms, artificially increasing its production with hormones, re-sequencing its genetic matter, eliminating its diversity, and otherwise distancing itself from the cycle of sun and soil, ethical questions become more difficult. Such is the message of a great deal of farm-based literature and of the Bible.


Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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