Evaporated Milk and Murderous Sociopaths: Some Thoughts on Popular Dystopian Fiction

For the past few years, I have followed a Young Adult/YA author named Mindy McGinnis. She blogs, records podcasts, and shares a lot of great content on her author website: Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire. The tagline for her website has always been, “Where writers talk about things that never happened to people who don’t exist.”

It’s a fun website to follow, and it’s been a great resource for me as an indie author, especially in regards to information about traditional publishing. I’ve submitted query letters to Ms. McGinnis before, and then shared links to her review comments here on my blog. I respect her as an author, and I appreciate all of the work she does for the writing community. I have gained a great deal of knowledge because of her tireless efforts to support other writers.

Because I have been one of her followers for years, I have noticed that Ms. McGinnis will sometimes repeat blog posts. In one post that she originally shared on Thursday, March 3, 2016, she asked the following question of her readers:

“Why is evaporated milk still a liquid?”

No one who follows her blog ever posted an answer.

On September 6, 2018, Ms. McGinnis shared that same post again, and I reread her question:

“Why is evaporated milk still a liquid?”

I thought: if no one else can answer this question for her, then I ought to, because I can. It’s not something I have to research, it’s just known data floating around in my head.

Because I also follow Ms. McGinnis on Goodreads, and since it’s much easier for me to interact with people on that site, I decided to share my answer in the comment thread for her blog post, which is open to the public:

“On evaporated milk: over half of the water has been removed from the fresh milk, and that is part of what gives it a much longer shelf life. Evaporated milk doesn’t have nearly the sugar content of condensed sweetened milk (which relies heavily on the sugar to prolong its shelf life.) Evaporated milk was really popular before widespread refrigeration became a thing. It’s also still a staple of a lot of poor American families, especially those who cannot afford refrigerators or electricity in their homes. I grew up in poverty and drank a lot of evaporated milk growing up. I would guess that it would also be a good choice to ship in bulk into refugee camps and places that have had their electrical grid shut down, as after flooding or a hurricane.”

Ms. McGinnis soon responded to my comment with this one:

“That’s so interesting – thanks!”

I was glad to receive positive feedback as well as an expression of gratitude. Since I love few things more than being helpful, being told I’ve shared useful information is like drinking a cup of coffee to me: it’s always a win.

Later, however, I realized I had made myself sick to my stomach by posting that answer. My heart pounded, I broke into a sweat, and I felt anxiety and dread. My entire nervous system started screaming these words at me: WHY DID YOU DO THAT?? YOU SHARED THAT IN PUBLIC. WHY MUST YOU DO THESE THINGS? WHY?? My thoughts were accompanied by a nonstop string of vomit-head emojis that scrolled through my brain like subtitles. Even now, reading that answer makes me feel ill.

You might wonder: why, though? It’s just straightforward information, isn’t it?

To which I would respond: yes, and I don’t regret sharing my answer. It’s just very shameful to admit those things in public. I want to be a courageous person, but I cannot escape my own feelings of shame, even when sharing straightforward data.

Given that information, you might also wonder: if sharing that answer feels so awful, why not delete the whole comment? Why not just take it down, and pretend those words never happened?

And I would respond by saying: yes, of course that would be logical.

In a purely rational way, I know that I can delete my answer and pretend it never happened. In this case, my gut was roiled, but remained insistent that I should not pretend this had never happened. My problem wasn’t that I had shared something true, but that I had shared something deeply painful, something layered in the bedrock of shame. My experiential knowledge of evaporated milk is deeply tied to my shame. I can tell myself to be brave and not be ashamed. But this is like telling the sun to stop shining. Feelings are feelings. You cannot bottle them up. You just have to feel them and move on.

Mostly, I did this. I felt it, and then I moved on.

And then Ms. McGinnis posted another blog a few days ago that made me recall “the evaporated milk answer,” and I realized I had something more important to share than a comment about milk.

Lingering unspoken in my comment was everything else that my answer incidentally exposed: that what I would consider to be basic, experiential knowledge of life was in fact so foreign to this other person, another American author who is my own age, that she posted a public question about it, not once, but twice.

You might be thinking: so what? We all know different things at different times in our lives. What does this matter?

To which I say: yes, we do know different things at different times. And I certainly don’t expect anyone to know basic details about evaporated milk.

Ms. McGinnis, however, is not just “anyone.” She is a traditionally-published author whose debut YA novel, Not a Drop to Drink, involves the hard work of survival in a dystopian future. The book came out in hardback in 2013. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the content of this novel, here is a brief synopsis, which I am copying from the novel’s Google Books page online:

“Fans of classic frontier survival stories as well as readers of dystopian literature will enjoy this futuristic story where water is worth more than gold.

Teenage Lynn has been taught to defend her pond against every threat: drought, a snowless winter, coyotes, and, most important, people looking for a drink. She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty or doesn’t leave at all.

Confident in her own abilities, Lynn has no use for the world beyond the nearby fields and forest. But when strangers appear, the mysterious footprints by the pond, the nighttime threats, and the gunshots make it all too clear Lynn has exactly what they want, and they won’t stop until they get it. . . .

New York Times bestselling author Michael Grant says Not a Drop to Drink is a debut “not to be missed.” With evocative, spare language and incredible drama, danger, and romance, Mindy McGinnis depicts one girl’s journey in a frontierlike world not so different from our own.”

*****

I have no problem with authors writing about water shortage, survival, and dystopian futures, whether the books are aimed at adult or young adult readers.

My problem is in the execution of this book, and the assumptions that Ms. McGinnis had when she wrote it. Many of her assumptions were faulty or just flat-out wrong, and were further on evidence when, three years later, she posted her question about evaporated milk. That is not a question I would expect from someone who had written a book about human survival in a dystopian American future set in Ohio. Mentally, it makes my brain start careening, unmoored, into a space I call: DID I REALLY JUST READ THAT.

In other words, it stresses me out. Other blog readers might also have been stressed out, which could explain why no one answered her question.

Not a Drop to Drink is not about evaporated milk, but drinking water, and how Ms. McGinnis portrayed people who were faced with a water scarcity. Her novel is about how people react when vital resources are limited.

On December 3, 2018, Ms. McGinnis shared a blog post about how she was inspired to write this novel. Here is a passage from that post:

“Sometimes we can’t pinpoint exactly when or how an idea came to us, but for my debut novel, Not A Drop to Drink, there was a definite lightning bolt moment. In early 2010 I saw a documentary called Blue Gold: World Water Wars, all about a looming freshwater shortage for our planet. I was terrified. Shaken to my core.

We all need water to live. If we don’t have it we’ll die in about three days. Because I am the way I am, I decided to do a little research about the process of dying from dehydration and walked away from that even more disturbed. I’m a worst case scenario kind of person. In today’s world, if you don’t answer my text or call me back in about an hour, I’m going to assume you’re dead.

That’s me.

So, after watching this documentary I consoled myself with the fact that I have a pond in my back yard. Small, and with bits of fish poop and algae, but the possible desperate times might call for desperate measures, and I assured myself that if I had to, I would drink my pond. But… I’m no fool. What happens in a world where there’s a shortage of something we all need to survive? How do people behave?

I know the answer to that. Badly.”

*****

By “badly,” Ms. McGinnis means that people descend into lawless depravity and become murderous sociopaths. Her novel stars a child who has been raised to murder anyone who steps onto her property, and she does so without feeling guilt or remorse. The girl’s mother has raised her to kill, and her mother feels no guilt or remorse when she murders unwitting trespassers, either. The vast majority of people in this novel operate with an “anything goes” mentality, also known as: “I can kill anyone and feel fine about it because EVERYONE around me is a threat to my survival, since water is a scarce resource and we all need water to live.”

Once again, I am struck by the difference between what I consider to be basic, experiential knowledge of the world and what Ms. McGinnis assumed to be true: that people faced with a scarce resource become depraved monsters who teach their young children how to be murderous sociopaths, a la Not a Drop to Drink.

So I feel the need to share some basic data about water scarcity and human behavior here on my blog post.

For the sake of clarity, here are the two questions again:

What happens in a world where there’s a shortage of something we all need to survive? How do people behave?”

Ms. McGinnis, no doubt, considered the answer to be obvious: “Badly.” Many people would agree with the answer she gave.

I disagree. I believe Ms. McGinnis made a great error in her thinking. I believe most dystopian fiction errs greatly in this regard, and I know that Ms. McGinnis is certainly not alone in her answer. The fact that her answer is so commonly believed to be true made me want to speak out, and use my own voice to share a different response.

Here is how I am compelled to answer those same two questions, regarding how people behave when they have a shortage of something they need to survive, such as water:

There are ALREADY **millions** of human beings who currently live in close quarters with other people who all have a daily shortage of water. Many people in the U.S. might know them by the word “slum-dwellers.” Many people in the U.S. might also be aware that slum-dwellers are impoverished people who are often illiterate, and many of these people face long daily walks and/or long waits in line to get a small amount of water, most of which is used simply to stay alive (to drink and to cook with). Because water is such an extremely scarce resource, and is often untreated and sometimes tainted as well, these people do not take daily baths, wash their clothes every day, or waste the precious water they have. They must use time and energy to carry their own water to their homes each day.

Other people who face daily water shortages are homeless, and don’t even have the comfort of a slum dwelling for basic safety. There are many, many homeless people in the U.S. and around the world. And in many American cities, areas called “ghettos” often feature rental properties that don’t have running water. Sometimes these apartment buildings and houses are condemned, even when they have tenants inside them. Sometimes people have no other choice but to live illegally in condemned property. Sometimes people in condemned properties are thrown out into the street when the authorities discover they are breaking the law. Sadly, these people are often young mothers with children.

Many people in the U.S. have a lot of negative ideas about slum-dwellers, homeless people, and people who live in homes that lack running water. I’ve heard educated, financially successful people in America call people in poverty ignorant animals. Beasts. Useless sh*ts who deserve to be dead. Nothing but a drain on society. The scum of the earth.

That last one is especially popular in the United States: the scum of the earth.

As a child who grew up in poverty, and can never forget what stark deprivation feels like, I take none of this lightly. When I hear these slurs, they all take a toll. I don’t know if I will ever be a person who is not hurt by these words. Feelings are feelings, after all. We cannot deny them, no matter how much we might wish to ignore or suppress them. At best, we accept them, feel them enough to let them pass, and move on.

Here in America, where we generally don’t use terms like “slum-dwellers” for people who live in shanty-towns, isolated shacks, or condemned apartment buildings, we are much more comfortable with terms like white trash, hillbillies, and garbage. All of which I have been called before. I have never been called these things and not been hurt by them. Whenever I do something like type an answer about evaporated milk, or talk about slum-dwellers in a blog post, I am trying to break my own silence about what I am and where I come from and what I know. I am trying to find a way through the bedrock of my shame. I am trying to have a voice.

If anyone wants to learn about how people behave when resources are scarce, I would encourage them to read well-researched, informative nonfiction books about people who live in poverty. There are books written about the daily lives of slum-dwellers all over the world. There are books about people who live in poverty in any kind of circumstance: rural shacks, isolated condemned buildings, on city streets, etc. Anyone who is curious about how large groups of people interact with each other when water is scarce, I recommend that you read some nonfiction that reports the facts on the ground.

In these books, you’ll discover that illiterate people, impoverished people, and people without adequate access to water are still fully human beings.

And I need to say that again, because it is just that important: they are still fully human beings.

Unlike what Ms. McGinnis believes, these people are *not* murderous sociopaths who kill others without remorse. They do not shoot each other with rifles while they’re waiting in line for water. They are not barbaric monsters who have no compassion or reasoning capability because of their daily hardships. And to use science to answer Ms. McGinnis’s questions about scarcity and behavior, research actually shows that people who live in poverty possess much higher levels of empathy than people who have been raised in affluent communities. And in terms of sheer population numbers around the globe, there are statistically more people living in poverty and near-poverty than there are people in affluent neighborhoods. This is as true in the United States, including the state of Ohio, as anywhere else.

The “dystopian future” that many authors consider “a thought experiment” to explore in their fiction is the daily, lived reality of millions of people around the world.

Here are some important facts I wish more authors would consider before penning their dystopian fiction:

  1. People who live with water scarcity are not monsters.
  2. People who live with food scarcity are not monsters.
  3. Illiterate people are not monsters.
  4. Poor people are not monsters.

*****

I would **really** appreciate it if dystopian authors would STOP demonizing the poor.

Impoverished people have considerable amounts of kindness, compassion, and love. They communicate with each other. They help each other. They laugh. They love their children. For all of the hardship, deprivation, and cruelty these people face every day, there is still a lot of love in the world of the poor.

The hardscrabble, survivalist “dystopian” life on display in a lot of popular fiction is not just “a thought experiment” that authors “invent” for their stories. That incredibly frightening and difficult life is a daily reality for a great number of people today. If you’re a person who is lucky enough to have never known what it feels like to go without food, water, or a roof over your head, then please understand that many people are not so lucky. They are already living that “dystopian future” fictionally depicted in books like Not a Drop to Drink. Resource scarcity does not mean that poor people have lost their humanity, or their ability to love and care for strangers. Study after study has actually found the opposite to be true: poor people have high levels of empathy and compassion, even when things like water are scarce.

So please, authors of dystopian fiction: **please** stop demonizing the poor. I grew up being called white trash and garbage, by my schoolteachers, librarians, and other educated members of society, people with college degrees and access to books. I learned at a young age that the word “poor” is often used to say that something is “low quality” or simply “bad.” I’m already well aware that society wants me to believe I am a bad and useless person because I grew up poor. It would be nice if educated people started penning stories that stopped sending that message. It’s a terrible thing to say to anyone. And also, it’s not true.

 

 

 

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6 Responses to Evaporated Milk and Murderous Sociopaths: Some Thoughts on Popular Dystopian Fiction

  1. There is a sociological theory about the “culture of poverty,” which includes the fact that people in poverty recognize that social ties are how you survive, and their family definitions are more expansive, because pooling resources is essential.

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    • Yes, and research about the culture of poverty appears in books like “The Other America,” “Random Family,” “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” and other popular titles like “Nickel and Dimed” and even “Hillbilly Elegy.”

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  2. mary says:

    Thank you for this post! I think the cutthroat, dystopian world is the upper-middle class, extreme capitalist world that millions of Americans already live in. BTW, you might enjoy SFF author Seanan McGuire. She, too, grew up poor and wrote about it very movingly.

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  3. Anna says:

    Thanks for speaking up, Melissa! I have a feeling that these monstrous caricatures of people are what affluent people imagine themselves to be like, to act like, if they were forced to live in scarcity. Maybe it is for such authors that we need more novels written about the goodness and generosity that often goes hand in hand with suffering. I suppose too many of us (affluent persons…) like to believe in the greedy, vengeful, and just plain bad in people (and in themselves). But why? Does it make for better storytelling?

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    • That’s such an excellent question, Anna! Thank you for reading and taking the time to voice it. For myself, I answer your question, “But why?” in this way: people who benefit from the status quo also benefit from maintaining the status quo. Demonizing those who are disenfranchised, oppressed, or otherwise harmed by the status quo (i.e. the people who are perceived as “less than” by their “betters”), allows those of privilege to maintain their harmful behavior. Lying about marginalized people — by believing that they are all innately immoral, lazy, criminal, ignorant, or what have you — allows the status quo to continue unchecked. Commercial art profits heavily from telling a story that supports people in power — i.e. the people who have the money to spend on the art that is turning a profit. It’s a sad and horrific feedback loop of cruelty and immense hypocrisy. And it leads to the publication and mass appeal of novels like “Not a Drop to Drink.”

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