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Crime Fiction and the Commodification of Life

Science and the pursuit of profit are often a bad, even dangerous match. Those researchers who sell their skills to the highest bidder are not  scientists so much as they are agents of destruction. Gene splitters and biotech wizards pretending their research regarding the manipulation of plants and animals is done in the name of pure science without regard to its consequences are lying to themselves. Like the universities that hire them, the fact that their research is informed by a corporate desire to commodify life means they too are co-conspirators. In a manner similar to the scientists who developed the atom bomb, the work of biotech researchers is more than just science. Indeed, it is, quite simply, the fate of the planet. If it is not done with the idea of making that future sustainable, then it seems it should not be done at all.

This describes the dilemma author Charles Simpson has situated his debut novel in. A journalist working as a stringer for a mostly online business newspaper is shot at while attending a conference of capitalism’s movers and shakers in Switzerland. Like Davos but without the glitter, his job is to find and report on negative trends which could affect how the paper’s readers (investors) will invest their money. In other words, his job is to discover the information the companies don’t want investors to see. In the case of Simpson’s journalist protagonist—a man named Ed Dekker—this means digging up the negative side effects of a biotech firm’s patented seed products. As one even remotely informed might guess, these seed products are designed to maximize profits for the company Naturtek even more than they would supposedly maximize crop yields for the farmers convinced to use them. Naturally (or actually unnaturally), the seeds do not reproduce themselves so farmers can use them the next growing season. Instead, the seeds they produce, if any, are sterile. This design means that farmers must buy new seeds every year.

As if this weren’t enough, it turns out the patented seeds Naturtek makes are also implicit in the massive death of pollinating insects. This aspect of the product is what brings entomologist Aisling O’Keefe into Dekker’s sphere. Her involvement is ambivalent at best, especially given that one of her paymasters is the very same Naturtek, even though the payroll office that signs her paychecks is at a university in Boston. In other words, her job is just one of the many compromising relationships fostered in the name of research between academia and the corporate monolith we call Wall Street. All too often, of course, the compromises involved alter a scientist’s objectivity, to say the least. Stories abound of university science departments manipulating data and outcomes under pressure from university administrators willing to bend the truth in the name of grant monies. (When I worked at the University of Vermont, men and women who took care of the cows being used in Monsanto experiments designed to prove the harmlessness of the rbGH hormone told me of bovine corpses buried to hide the negative effects of the hormone on some cows. The corpses were not included in the final reports leading to the approval of rbGH. The university received millions of dollars from Monsanto.)

Simpson’s novel, titled Uncertain Harvest, takes the reader from Switzerland to Missouri; Boston to Chiapas; and DC to Long Island. Ed Dekker’s search for a story becomes a crusade for the truth that ultimately involves his somewhat estranged brother—a former Army commando turned security operative, his editor and a sports writer always open to exposing corruption, a medical doctor in Oaxaca, and an executive administrator who works for the newspaper. Their opposition includes corporate executives, the semi-competent Pinkerton-like corporate spies they hire, and various thugs. The story, like most top-notch crime fiction, reveals the criminal nature of the powerful and the infrastructure of politics and money they kill to maintain. That infrastructure is, when carefully and objectively examined, the criminal enterprise that puts all other criminal enterprises to shame. In the real world, it is rarely exposed as such for reasons that seem all too apparent. Consequently, it is up to fiction writers and others working in the world of words and the arts to do the exposing.

In Uncertain Harvest, Simpson carries on this tradition nobly. He tells a convincing tale of corruption and conspiracy in corporate America where any feigned innocence is rightfully challenged and naivete is called out for the charade it is. Along the way, there is love and lust, food and booze, fisticuffs and murder. Uncertain Harvest is a work of crime fiction at the nexus where academia, corporate greed and the end of nature as we know it collide. Simultaneously a well-told tale and a lesson in the commodification of life, it is also a warning whose truths belie its fictional framing.