Having lived in Alaska for 10 years in the
1980s, this blogger often browses the online newspapers in Juneau and Fairbanks
from his electronic cave here in Taiwan, and the other day I came across an
arresting term I had never heard of before -- "botanicaust."
newly-minted word is
the title of a new sci fi novel by Alaskan writer Tam Linsey, and
since I wondered if she was using the term in reference to an older
word that is part of Jewish history now
-- ''holocaust'' -- I sent her a message via Facebook and asked if we could
Ms. Linsey kindly said yes, and an informal email interview took place
across the invisible wires of the Internet, from Alaska to Taiwan and
back to the San Diego offices of this newspaper.
When I asked how she came up with the title of her novel, and if it was
coined off the "holocaust" term, Linsey said: "You guessed correctly;
I came up with the word by playing off the word 'holocaust'. I love
etymology -- the roots of words. In Greek, the root word 'botan' means
plant, and 'caust' means to burn. In Botanicaust, there is a place
called 'The Protectorate' where the people defend their
city by burning everything within a five-mile radius -- plants,
animals -- even people."
"I focused on the 'botan' prefix because the post-apocalyptic world I
write about has been devastated by genetically-altered weeds, wiping
out croplands and forcing people to resort to other 'nutritional'
methods," she added. "I went through several titles as I was writing,
but I knew I'd hit the jackpot when the phrase Botanicaust came to me
while I was driving."
"Botanicaust" is a dystopian story that takes place some 400 years
in the future. when the world has been destroyed by genetic
In Linsey's narrative, the Earth has become a place, as one reviewer
has already noted, ''where a
outposts of civilization attempt to survive amidst a landscape of
deserts and scrub weeds populated by cannibals who harvest what the
description on the back cover of the book calls 'the only crop left.'
The reader can guess what that ''crop'' is: human beings! Remember, this is
science fiction, so anything goes.
Linsey's book, while not religious in tone, nevertheless delves into
some important and intriguing religious issues: one character named
Levi Kraybill is a resident of a small Christian farming colony known
as the 'Holdout'. The people who live there call themselves the Old
Order, speak German,
follow only “Gotte Wille” (God’s Will) and are patterned on today's
Amish people, according to Linsey.
What caught another reviewer's attention was how ''deeply religious''
the novel is, with the author delving into some of the main
themes found in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible.
Linsey does this with an open mind, and the characters' search for God
becomes a major part of the story.
When I asked Linsey how the idea for the novel came to her, she
replied: "As a certified master gardener, I am very attuned to the
plant world. I’m pretty sure the first kernel of the idea for
'Botanicaust' came to me while pulling weeds in my garden here in
Alaska. Here the battle against non-native species is growing. I
watched invasive sweet clover creep along the edges of the highways
for years. And then one day a stand appeared on my street. I was
aghast. Eradicating the weed takes constant vigilance, which is
impossible on a governmental level – Alaska simply has too much land
to cover. And then I thought – what if these weeds were
bio-engineered, making them even more difficult to control?"
"The idea for 'Botanicaust' had sprouted," she said.
When I asked Ms. Linsey if, as a life-long Alaskan who was born there
and came back to live after going to college in the Lower 48, Alaska
played a major role in the inception of the book, she said: "Alaska is
completely dependent on outside sources to feed the population. If I
remember correctly, we only produce about three percent of our food
locally. I try to grow or hunt for as much of my family’s food as I
possibly can. I like the idea of being self-sufficient if a disaster
were to strike. In writing 'Botanicaust', I pondered who might be the
least susceptible to something like an invasion of genetically-altered
weeds. I also have relatives in Amish country, and have seen how many
of them still have their 'hands in the Earth,' as they put it. That's
why I chose to make the settlement called Holdout an Amish
Linsey's views about genetic enginering informed much of the book as
well, she said, noting: "As far as 'Frankenfoods' go, I am hopeful the
technology can feed the world – my concern is that we are moving too
fast, without a care for the possible consequences. Not only to
consumers, but to the ecosystem in general. Some crops are pesticide
or herbicide resistant, encouraging farmers to spray. Herbicides kill
weeds and increase crop yields, but the weeds not killed by the
pesticide then reproduce and pass along the genetic resistance to the
spray. What will we do when the spray is no longer effective? The same
goes for pesticides. Add to that the fact that genetic engineering
inserts foreign genetic material into our crops (which is not the same
as hybridization; a mouse cannot breed with a plant), and we have the
potential to create consumer allergies or other disorders. Long-term
food testing is not required. The citizens of America are guinea pigs,
with many people eating genetically-modified foods without even
knowing it. In another twenty years, we may see a surge of diseases
and disorders in the children who are currently eating large amounts
of this food. Or we may not. But I think people should have the right
to choose whether or not to participate in the experiment."
When asked how her own religious background might have impacted the
novel's themes, Linsey said: "I do profess to be Christian, but I am
not religious. Some of the things the Christian church celebrates
today are actually of pagan origin, not Biblical at all. 'Religion'
has been warped, in my view of things. I like to think of myself as
more spiritual. Throughout my life, I have studied many faiths –
perhaps not in great depth, but enough to know which path is, or is
not, for me. I pray for guidance and wisdom often. Like Levi in
'Botanicaust', I think each human being needs to search for God (or
the Divine, if you prefer) their own way, on a personal level.''
Linsey sees her first book as part of a series, although she is not
sure yet how far it will extend.
"I intend to write stories about the 'Botanicaust' world until I’m
tired of it," she said. "That may be three books. Or it may be
ten.Another full-length novel is in the works where we get to see how
Eily has adapted to life at the Holdout. After that, I have at least
one more 'Botanicaust' kernel I’m holding onto."