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Black As Blind

Land of Milk and Honey

By C Pam Zhang 

24 Nov, 2023

Doing the WFC's Homework

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C Pam Zhang’s 2023 Land of Milk and Honey is a stand-alone near-future SF novel.

As crop-killing smog spreads across Earth, leaving famine in its wake, people across the planet unite to do what humans do best: scapegoat minorities and engage in ethnic cleansing programs.

Asian-Americans were high on the US’s list of people to eject. Nevertheless, the protagonist, an unnamed chef, hopes to one day earn enough points to return to the United States. To do so the chef will have to clear the debt she inherited from her late mother — America no longer wants the bodies of its former citizen but it most certainly expects to be paid all monies owed. Yet earning enough money seems impossible.

Enter a visionary oligarch, who is looking for skills that the chef can offer.

The chef, now hired, relocates to a mountain once Italian, now reserved for a community of the exceedingly rich. Although Italy has not been spared the smog, the mountain redoubt hosts advanced biological laboratories. Species unknown elsewhere can be found in the labs, seed stock that will be able resurrect lost species once conditions allow. Or perhaps the seed stock can be used to feed the extremely rich.

Despite lying on her CV, the chef passes the tests demanded of her by her employer. However, as the employer’s biologist daughter Aida explains, this is no great achievement. The oligarch has a rare talent for turning disaster into income, but he has no taste. As long as the chef’s creations have the appearance of high cuisine, the rich man will accept that they are what they seem to be.

In fact, the chef’s primary attraction for the rich man is her egregiously fraudulent CV. The rich man needs a woman of Asian extraction with a capacity for falsehood. The rich man’s wife Eun-Young was a key visionary in a grand survival project, one that will take the rich to their final, best, refuge. Eun-Young left, perhaps disenchanted with the results thus far. The chef’s new role is to pretend to be Eun-Young.

The chef is no actor and she does not look like Eun-Young. No worries! The extremely rich are not known for their perception. Additionally, many of them are extremely racist. As long as the chef looks Asian and never speaks, nobody will look closely enough to notice the masquerade. The very rich will believe that all is still well, and continue to finance the project.

The rich man dearly needs his backers to remain confident. The presence of an enclave of extremely rich, well-fed people has never been popular with starving Italians. The government is certain to eventually curry favour with the mob by taking back the land ceded to the project. Before that happens, the project has to relocate to the next refuge.

The next step in the project will be expensive. Not everyone will be making the trip.


Special cat note. There is a cat. It is not healthy. However, it does not die a thematically appropriate death.

People who enjoy food will be pleased to know that food is lavishly described in this novel. Fans of conventional punctuation will be less pleased. For some reason all dialogue is italicized and quotation marks are absent. I blame the famine.

I have not left out the names. The closer to the core of the plot, the more likely that characters will be named by their role. The narrative is first person and the chef doesn’t need to refer to herself by name. Her employer, as important as he is to the world, is important to the chef as employer and Aida as her father, thus that is how they refer to him. Despite the lack of formal names, the characters are effectively portrayed.

While people are presumably starving in droves, and while there are definitely moments of mob violence, this is a much less violent novel than one would expect, given the global famine. It helps that the governments of the world are not completely useless; rather than simply let people starve, new (rather unpalatable) stock foods have been created from the plants that have survived.

I am not entirely certain how the author meant this short novel to be read, but it functions effectively as a critique of the notion that wealthy folk can carve out for themselves well-appointed, well-defended Galt’s Gulches from which to watch the world burn. Grand plans may not be realizable with the technology available … and in any case, the world has their address.

The above may sound pretty bleak, but amid the famine, ethnic cleansing, implied mass extinctions, and mob violence, there is some hope. People, even the rich, can choose productive responses to crises … once they’ve eliminated all of the other possibilities. I enjoyed the novel. Perhaps you will as well.

Land of Milk and Honey is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).