When I first heard author Michael LaRonn say that he had written a story containing "terrorist vegetables,” I knew this was one I had to read. A Vegetable Liberation Front? Bring it on! I was not to be disappointed. In the front matter, he warns that “this book, quite frankly, is going to be the craziest thing you’ve read in a long time, if not ever.” He’s not wrong. Where else could you read sentences like, “A nearby passenger car struck the guard, then rolled over and spilled out a family of hysterical fried chicken wings.” I knew that Food City was going to be my kind of book.
Overweight and diabetic, Kendall Barnes, is lucky to be alive. Following a life of unhealthy eating, he has suffered a heart attack and is close to death. In a desperate attempt to save his life, his doctor has plugged him into “Moderation Online,” a virtual reality role paying game designed to teach patients the importance of healthy eating. By turning healthy foods, such as vegetables, into characters with names and personalities, players will gain a positive experience of them and associate them with a healthy diet. It’s all perfectly safe, its designer assures Kendall’s wife. What could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, a hacker manages to infect Moderation Online with a virus. Now, Kendall inhabits a role playing game in which fast foods also have names and personalities – and vegetables have become the bad guys. The result? He finds himself pals with French fry security guards at the Festival of Harvest, where vegetables are hunted down and slain with cutlery.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Food City and loved the wackiness. There’s something wonderful about reading an author taking full advantage of the possibilities of virtual reality and letting their imagination run wild. Who could not warm to hamburger hounds, blue liquorice hovercycles or yellow and white cheeseburger-box tanks?
Beneath the fantasy, there is also a serious side to the book. The reason Kendall’s life is in danger is because of his love of processed food, and it could be said that the book itself is a form of Moderation Online for its readers, emphasising the importance of healthy eating in a fun, enjoyable manner.
The great thing is that Food City conveys its message without ever losing its entertainment value. One reason it’s able to do so is through it use of video game food characters. This allows it to depict scenes that would feel excessively realistic if they involved humans. Seeing video game potatoes and turnips hunted down with cutlery is one thing, seeing the same happening to people is another. This makes an important point. Look behind the Festival of Harvest and you have the Two Minute Hate. The video game setting shows that the sort of mentality seen in Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn’t only happen in dystopias.
In a similar fashion, the war between the Gourmans (fast foods) and Vegetables is a neat allegory for the division between people who otherwise have much in common. It is hard not to be touched when milkshake scientist Dr Geoffrey B. Foster and his children make friends with their marrow (Zucchini) neighbours - Slim Pepo and his family - after defecting to the Vegetable kingdom. Despite their differences, they find they have much in common.
To find out, then, that Gourman security slaughtered Slim Pepo’s family after abducting Geoffrey was a real shock. In a humorous book, it was a moment of real pathos and the understated manner in which it was written made it all the more poignant; the fate of the vegetables sadly symbolising all too much of human history.
Artemus peeled off, and the rest of the vans followed. Geoffrey fell into the grass. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness was Slim and his family, piled on top of each other, burning.
The star of the show, however, has got to be Kendall Barnes. Overweight, childish and cowardly, you just can’t help rooting for him! He is hapless, always overtaken by events, yet you know he wants to do the right thing and has paid a high price for indulging in foods he enjoys. The author deftly balances the comic and serious elements in his character, so that one never undermines the other. I loved his “Hey, what about me? Don’t leave me!” mentality and the way he always seemed to be playing catchup, yet I always got the feeling of someone heroic waiting to emerge. His character arc hit the sweet (or should that be savoury?) spot.
I must confess, I'd been expecting the story to focus more on Kendall’s real life story, rather than being inside the game the whole time. This certainly wasn’t a biggie and never spoiled my enjoyment, but I did wonder when we would see the consequences to Kendall of the game going wrong. The good news is there is a sequel which does precisely that! Salad Days takes the story forward, with Moderation Online’s creator trying to figure out how to restore the game. What will that mean for Kendall Barnes? Will he come good and learn to live healthily? I look forward to finding out!
In short, Food City is good, clean fun and you will come away with a warm feeling. If you’re looking for something fun that’s just that little bit different, then I definitely recommend you read it.