A reader going by the handle Sylvain linked me to a cool paper a few days back; it’s something I would have killed to have had back when writing Blindsight. Are you ready for this?
A tick that turns its victims into vegetarians.
Look to Commins et al for the peer-reviewed details; the tl;dr version is that a bite from Amblyomma americanum provokes a delayed allergic response to a certain monosaccharide found only in red meat. Meaning that if one of these little fuckers bites you, nothing happens for a month or two. Then you go into anaphylactic shock the next time you bite a hamburger.
Of course, it’s not that simple or that unambiguous (we are talking tl;dr, after all). There are nuances— one of which is, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose isn’t found in avian flesh, so bird meat is still okay. Another is, it’s not found in primate flesh either— which means that if you’ve really got a taste for red meat, you don’t have to give it up just because some nasty bloodsucker bit you. You can always resort to cannibalism. And if eating within your exact species is problematic, you can still get away with it so long as you keep it in the Family.
You can see why Sylvain read this and thought of me; set that alpha-gal allergy back fifty thousand years, give it a genetic component, and voilà: a far more elegant rationale for the obligate cannibalism of vampires than I ever managed with my overwrought handwaving about gamma-protocadherin (which has, as some of you know, painted me into a bit of a retconny corner). Too late for that now.
But, thought I, what a great secret weapon for PETA to fall back on when they get tired of waiting for vat-grown meat to pass the smell test, when they finally admit that all the Paul McCartney documentaries in the world aren’t ever going to dent rib-consumption in the heartland. All you have to do is seed ticks— or hell, tweak bedbugs; they’re way more ubiquitous in urban environments, and most governments don’t even regard them as a health hazard because they don’t vector human diseases. Tweak bedbugs for alpha-gallergy induction, set them loose throughout the Bedrooms of the Bourgeoisie, wait for all of Texas to topple facedown into their rib-eyes. Now there’s a great idea for a story.
In fact, it’s such a great idea for a story that some upstart named Leigh Cowart already beat me to the punch, combining a throwaway thriller scenario with a kickass nonfiction account of the background biology (warning: don’t know if you’ll be able to get through to that last link. It seems to be on some kind of time lock). Even worse, she’s a really good writer with actual veterinary credentials; she did a better job than I could have.
So, late to the party (Commins et al came out two years ago), all that’s left for me is to spread the word. And to add perhaps one new element to the story potential arising from this discovery, one small fictive twist that I don’t think anyone else has yet beat me to: perhaps PETA’s solution, even if enacted, wouldn’t be so final after all. Maybe you don’t have to go back to the Pleistocene to envision tough decisions being made in the name of keeping red meat on the table. Maybe there are places where, even today, proscriptions against cannibalism might be— loosened a bit— in the name of maintaining an old and honorable tradition. And those ecovegan nutbars are nothing more than tewwowists anyway, pure and simple; we can’t let them win, no matter what the cost.
There’s a reason they call it the Lone Star tick.