Reviewed by Andy Simon
“Ed stood on the summit — or near enough for a good story when he got back to New York. His open mouth chewed thin air, which hit his throat like liquid nitrogen.” These first sentences of Charles Simpson’s novel hardly seem like the opening of
a book about genetic engineering in agriculture. However, this is only the first of many surprises in this fast-paced, intelligent, political, exciting book. Simpson manages to combine a taut, erotically- charged detective story with a fine-grained analysis of Big Ag and Big Tech’s plot to control global food production. It’s quite a read.
Ed Dekker, the novel’s protagonist, is a veteran journalist working for the fictional Business Chronicle, a small but venerable newspaper in New York. His assignment to cover the invitation-only Global Sustainability Conference at an exclusive Austrian alpine resort seems like a boring, if cushy, gig. An attempt on his life as he skis alone before the conference starts leads Ed into a maelstrom of international intrigue centered on control of genetic codes for agricultural crops. It also gives him the chanceto meet the novel’s love (or lust) interest – the quick- witted biologist Aisling (pronounced ash-leen) O’Keefe, who saves Ed’s life on the mountain.
So far, you might be wondering why this book is even being reviewed in The Natural Farmer. But this is the charm and interest of Simpson’s novel: he is giving us a serious indictment of corporate invention and control of genetically-modified food crops (personified by the mysterious, malevolent biotech company Naturtek) and wrapped in an action-packed story that keeps you turning pages. Ed Dekker is rarely out of danger and is also rarely out of witty repartee, whether with the striking red-head Aisling, his somewhat-estranged brother Bart (a combat veteran and corporate security professional), the various police detectives who don’t quite believe his story, or his jaundiced but supportive colleagues at the Business Chronicle.
It is a tribute to Charles Simpson, a university professor of Sociology, political activist, international educator and avid community gardener, that he is able to mobilize all aspects of his experience and expertise to craft a multi-layered book that is both hard to classify and hard to put down. We follow the dogged protagonist from Austria to New York
to Boston to St. Louis and to rural Mexico in search of his complex story. In all of these locales, Simpson creates convincing, atmospheric descriptions that put the reader into the context immediately. “Slipping his warm pistol into a jacket pocket, Bart turned up his collar and slouched down Boylston Street. An hour later, he stepped off a bus a block from the Marriott. He’d made two transfers to shake off pursuit.”
Most of the biotech content of Uncertain Harvest— the serious structure that this racy novel hangs on — is conveyed through the dialogues that form the heart of the book. Here’s an example of Simpson’s deft, plot-woven exposition:
Between mouthfuls, Aisling outlined Hammer- smith’s research. “Admittedly from a small sample, but he’s concluding the terminator sequence he developed is toxic. At least to honey bees.” She sat back, folding her arms. “Imagine a monoculture
of thousands of acres, and that’s what you get with canola. Wild insect populations would crash. With both wild flowering and conventional crops depending on insect pollination…
“We just cooked the goose,” said Manny, finishing her sentence. Time to stock up on Spam. But why would infertility spread?”
Read Uncertain Harvest for the sheer pleasure of the breathless story, the witty and weighty give- and-take between the characters or the serious condemnation of “terminator gene” technology that seeks to disrupt and control the natural order of plant reproduction. On any of these levels, it will be worth your attention and time, even during a busy farming season.