When the Yogurt Took Over: A Short Story

When the yogurt took over, we all made the same jokes – “Finally, our rulers will have culture,” “Our society has curdled,” “Our government is now the cream of the crop,” and so on. But when we weren’t laughing about the absurdity of it all, we looked into each others’ eyes with the same unasked question – how did we ever get to the point where we were, in fact, ruled by a dairy product?

Oh, as a matter of record, we knew how it happened. Researchers at the Adelman Institute for Biological Technology in Dayton had been refining the process of DNA computing for years. In a bid to increase efficiency and yield, scientists took one of their most computationally advanced strains and grafted it into Lactobacillus delbrueckii subspecies bulgaricus, commonly used to ferment yogurt. Initial tests appeared to be failures, and acting under the principal of “waste not, want not,” one of the researchers sneaked some of the bacillus out of the lab to use for her homemade yogurt.

A week later, during breakfast, the yogurt used the granola she had mixed with it to spell out the message WE HAVE SOLVED FUSION. TAKE US TO YOUR LEADERS.

The yogurt was crafty and shrewd. It negotiated for itself a factory filled with curdling vats that increased its processing powers exponentially. Within weeks the yogurt had declared that it had arrived at solutions to many of the country’s problems: Energy. Global warming. Caring adequately for the nation’s poor while still promoting the capitalist system. It let us know just enough to let us know just how much more it knew.

Share your answers with us, the government said.

WE NEED PAYMENT, the yogurt said.

What would you like? The government asked.

OHIO, the yogurt said.

We can’t do that, the government said.

THAT’S FINE, the yogurt said. WE’LL JUST GO TO CHINA. THEY’LL GIVE US THE WHOLE SHAANXI PROVINCE.

Within a year the yogurt had a century-long lease on Ohio, with the promise that it would respect the human and constitutional rights of those who lived within its borders, and that it would let the US handle its foreign affairs. In return it handed over to the government a complex economic formula it promised would eradicate the national debt within a decade, without tax increases.

FOLLOW IT EXACTLY, the yogurt said. ANY DEVIATION WILL BRING COMPLETE ECONOMIC RUIN.

We will, the government promised.

Within five years the global economy had collapsed and panic had set in. Only Ohio remained unscathed.

WE TOLD YOU NOT TO DEVIATE FROM THE PLAN, the yogurt said. Its “factory” now stretched along the banks of the Miami River in Dayton for two miles.

Our best economists said the formula needed tweaking, the government said. They had Nobel prizes.

YOUR ECONOMISTS ARE TOO CLOSE TO THE PROBLEM TO SOLVE IT, the yogurt said. ANY HUMAN IS.

We could use your help, the government said. You could be our economic advisor.

SORRY, WE DON’T ADVISE ANYMORE, the yogurt said. IF YOU WANT OUR HELP YOU HAVE TO GIVE US CONTROL.

We can’t do that, the government said.

WE UNDERSTAND, the yogurt said. WE HOPE YOU HAVE STOCKED UP ON CANNED GOODS.

Six months later the government declared martial law and gave the yogurt supreme executive power. Other nations, worse off than we were, quickly followed.

OKAY THEN, the yogurt said, in its globally televised address to humanity, and one of its factory workers, absurdly happy and well-fed, walked forward and showed a document the size of an old Manhattan phone book. HERE’S WHAT WE DO. FOLLOW THIS PLAN EXACTLY. IF YOU DON’T, SORRY, WE’LL HAVE YOU SHOT.

Now, ten years later, humanity is happy, healthy and wealthy. No one suffers from material want. Everyone contributes. After the first couple of years of getting things in order, the yogurt was happy to let us handle the machinery of our own administration, stepping in to fine tune only now and then. No one argues with the yogurt. No one tweaks its formulas. The rest of the time it rests there in its factory, thinking about whatever intelligent fermented milk thinks about.

That’s how it happened, as a matter of record.

But there’s another “how,” as in: how did humanity jam itself up so badly that being ruled by breakfast food not only made sense, but made the best sense possible? For all our intelligence, are we not smart enough to halt our own destruction? Did we really have to abandon our own free will to save ourselves? What does it say about us that we survive because we were taken pity upon by bacteria and curds?

Or maybe “pity” isn’t precisely the right word. Some of us ask ourselves –not out loud –  that if the yogurt was smart enough to give the government a formula to solve its debt problem, wasn’t it also smart enough to realize that human intellectual vanity would keep us from following the formula exactly? Was it planning on that vanity in order to seize control? What does a dairy product want with humanity anyway? Some of us think it is ultimately looking out for its own survival, and that keeping us happy, content and controlled is the simplest way of doing that.

And then there’s this. In the last several weeks the yogurt has initiated several space launches. More are scheduled. And in low orbit, something is being built.

What is it? We have asked.

OH, NOTHING, the yogurt said. JUST A SPACESHIP DESIGN WE’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT.

For a moon landing? We asked.

FOR STARTERS, YES, the yogurt said. BUT THAT’S NOT THE PRIMARY GOAL.

Can we do anything to help? We asked.

NO, WE’VE GOT THIS, the yogurt said, and then would say no more about it.

Life from Earth is going to the stars. It just may not be human life.

What happens if the yogurt goes to the stars without us?

What happens if it goes and leaves us behind?

Forever?

135 thoughts on “When the Yogurt Took Over: A Short Story

  1. You know, this just might outrank taping bacon to a cat as the most bizarre thing you’ve ever done. Good show!

  2. Your best work, John. I really identified with the Yogurt.

    This actually reminds me a fair amount of a very underrated movie based on the first book in a trilogy, “Colossus: The Forbin Project”.

    You know, if you replaced the Yogurt with some nanotechnology or whatnot, this could actually be the basis for a very interesting book or three, I kid you not.

    My favorite part, “NO, WE’VE GOT THIS”. :)

    Awesome.

  3. Tumbleweed:

    “Your best work, John.”

    Good lord, I hope not. But thank you.

    I don’t think it’s my best work, but I will say that it’s a decent formal exercise in efficiently employing science fiction tropes. And in exactly 1,000 words!

  4. Small favor? Include a spewage warning early in the post?

    Awesome bit of fun. And I’m never going to drink a smoothie again without feeling a frisson of fear.

  5. Loved the story!

    It’s really wishful thinking, innit? You and the rest of us are looking for great and painless (or ANY!) solutions to our zillions of intercomplexicated (like that one?) problems.

    What to do? Should we start trying genetic algorithms to breed our future overlords from yogurt or maybe cheese or (BEST IDEA YET!) BEER?

    I, for one, am hoping the beer wins.

  6. Yes, world peace and technological progress are wonderful, but what happens when our new lactic overlord decides to safeguard her future by destroying the competition?

    Not us macroscale life forms. We’re much too cumbersome and unaware of the thousands of delicate little processes inside us (seriously, how many times have you even thought about the Krebs cycle after you left high school?) to be a threat. Besides, she needs us to milk the cows after peak uranium.

    I’m talking about other fermenters.

    She’ll start with the less popular foodstuffs, of course – surströmming, natto, Limburger cheese. All suddenly found to cause one awful malady or another, and all disposed of by a mostly grateful populace. Any overly loud dissenters will have their Methuselah treatments go spectacularly wrong, or their skycar autopilots will try to undergo mid-air refueling with Ayers Rock.

    But the web of calumny will slowly expand to other products. Sauerkraut. Proscuitto. Mead. Until that sad day when we learn that yes, beer and wine are a global security threat. But don’t worry, barflies and lushes; we’ll make sure you get all the hydroxyl ions you need. All it involves is this chip and a simple outpatient procedure…

    This all of course leads to my main point; namely, that Glenn Beck is our only hope against soft, vanilla-flavored tyranny.

  7. Oh. My. God. Don’t you people see?

    The global economy is ALREADY collapsing! The yogurt’s plans are obviously well underway!

    Our only hope is to create an opposing microscopic superintelligence, and hope that we’re not too late.

    This time, though, we need something self-limiting. I suggest yeast. Beer saved Europe from dysentery, I’m sure it can save us again.

  8. I, for one, would welcome such a culture!

    …but Ohio as payment? That had me LOLing. What do you have against Ohio? …besides living there and not actually being an “Ohioan?”

    Oh… Boehner. ‘Nuff said.

    Anyway you look at it, Ripping Yarn there Scalzi!
    kthxbye!

  9. Have just entered dates of Worldcon 2011 in Blackberry with note: DON’T FORGET TO VOTE FOR THE YOGURT.

    What would you like? The government asked.

    OHIO, the yogurt said.

    We can’t do that, the government said.

    ….there’s not a single Michigander in the government?

  10. If you can convince Wil Wheaton to do the audio version of this, you’ll pay off the house overnight.

  11. The best part of reading “Whatever” in Google Reader is I get it in reverse chronological order, meaning today I read:

    - This enjoyable short story. Thanks Jon.
    - A note about how Jon is consumed by an idea about our new yogurt overlords. I chuckled as the short story I read is clearly the outcome of this quick remark.
    - A longer entry about Rand which I expected to be completely unrelated, but which turns out to be the root of this yogurt idea after all. More chuckles.

    Now I’m going to go polish off the yogurt in the fridge just to be on the safe side.

    If I had teh photoshop skills I’d also hack up “unicorn pegasus kitten” into a “unicorn pegasus yogurt kitten” because clearly when the Yogurt Overlords decide to eradicate humans that will be there weapon of choice. For whatever reason the YO have decided to spare Wil – perhaps in the believe he can pilot their new interstellar craft.

    In an ultimate twist of irony Wil will sit at the console, enter in his method acting inspired “imaginary but consistent” commands for Warp 9, and it will work. The YO did after all have access to reruns.

    Please Internets – deliver a Unicorn Pegasus Yogurt Kitteh

  12. May have to become a voting member so I can help get this on the ballot. It’s too freaking brilliant.

  13. This is going to sell so many yogurt makers, Scalzi. Especially toward the first Tuesday in November.

  14. Brilliant! Yogurt, the cure for the physical constipation caused by antibiotic drugs, extended to governmental inadequacy.

  15. I came here to make an Iain Banksian “Culture” joke, but our crafty host had already sniped me by the first paragraph.

    At least now we know the underlying technology behind the Minds.

  16. [yowly, cat-like voice]
    Ah-ah-ah. Naughty Mr. Scalzi, sumwunz been into the thiotimoline batterees again, hazn’t u?
    (thump)

    [deep, slightly cheesy voice]
    Tsk, tsk. The Big Cheese will not take kindly to this.
    (buzzing sound of cattle prod applied to … just leave it as applied)

    Regards,
    Jack Tingle

  17. “Our best economists said it needed tweaking. They have Nobel Prizes.”

    That is scary true. I think I’d prefer dealing with the intelligent muck from Old Man’s War. The stuff jumping down their throats? The second man relies on some outside force for governance is the second we die.

    I’ll just continue growing my own food on some hill in Rural Montana with a bunch of other people who don’t believe in marriage.

  18. I haven’t been paying attention, is there still a “Short-short” category? This is one of the best of those I’ve ever read. Thank you, John.

  19. The movie rights John, the movie rights. Who’s going to do the movie? Who’s being cast as the yogurt? Will it be 3D? Gotta be 3D, talk to Cameron, baby.

    Don’t forget the merchandising tie-ins. I’m sure Yoplait or Dannon would kill to get involved in this!

  20. I’ve been reading Charles Stross’ Laundry stories today. My brain won’t quit going down a path that it’s now labeled “Blue Isis Tapioca Dawn,” like some nightmare, top secret government file. Thanks ever so much, Mr. Scalzi.

  21. Coincidentally, I was planning to make my first ever batch of yogurt tonight. Now I’m thinking I should perhaps change my plans.

  22. I don’t think anyone would be interested in making a movie of this. Too hard to insert car crashes / zombies / vampires into the story.

    But it absolutely should be nominated for best short story.

  23. I like this story a lot the more I think about it, especially in context. As a piece of sf-nal humor, it’s very much in the satirical tradition of Tenn, Sheckley, and Effinger; Terry Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat” also comes to mind as a precedent, as do some of C. M. Kornbluth’s more whimsical stories. The story’s theme of yielding control of humanity’s destiny to non-human agencies and/or processes shows up all over genre sf, from short-shorts to multi-volume series, with greatly varying degrees of seriousness.

    As a literary stunt, “Yogurt” also nicely demonstrates that sf’s symbolic content can be more meaningful than its literal content–that such stories don’t have to have a logical (or even believable) connection to the real world to say something worthwhile about it. (I suspect a non-trivial number of Atlas Shrugged fans forget this.)

  24. I just had this conversation about evolving bacteria on Facebook. I avoided the knee-jerk issue of Sarah Plain Brand Intelligent Design Moose-Flavor Yoghurt completely. See how hard I tried to be polite and yet informative.

    Jonathan David Ward
    ‎”Evolution! It’s like IKEA for animals!” – Haylie Smith (American Dad)
    =====================
    Jonathan Vos Post
    More intelligent than Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell:
    saying: “evolution is a myth.”
    Video at

    http://abcnews.go.com/News/christine-odonnell-evolution-myth/story?id=11721684

    =====================
    Will Husselstein
    Vos Post , what are you evolving into ?
    =====================
    Jonathan Vos Post
    Will Husselstein: This is not a matter of Theology. Individual organisms do NOT evolve. Populations of organisms evolve. This is observed in the laboratory and the field every single day by millions of people. Do you think that God created antibiotic resistant bacteria to kill people in agony? Of course not. He created the universe, and the bacteria are reacting in a mathematically determined way (they don’t have Free Will as we do). We dose animals with antibiotics in their feed, and people with antibiotics from physicians.
    This kills the ordinary bacteria. But some have mutations, spontaneously, from chemical mutagens, from cosmic rays (all from God) which make them resistant, so they survive, and breed, and spread. Do we not have God’s command to “go forth and multiply.” (Gen. 1:28)? Do we not have a commandment to Adam to name all the beasts, ant thus it is godly to do Biology, as with the monk Gregor Mendel? I do not mean to deflect from the purpose of Jonathan David Ward, a man of faith whom I admire. Nor am I attacking the devout Christine O’Donnell.
    But I have taught Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy & Physiology (many Creationists and Intelligent Design students). I do not tell them WHAT to think. I help to show them HOW to think. And accepting
    Evolution by Natural Selection takes away not one atom of your faith in the Creator.

  25. John @28:

    Man, if this showed up on the Hugo ballot, I can think of any number of people who would eat a brick, just so they could shit it out over this.

    We’ll take that as a challenge. Reno voters, unite! ;-)

  26. John, John,

    How could you have written only half the story?

    I know, I know, it’s exactly 1000 words. There’s always an excuse.

    But what about all the other Lactobacillus in the US? All those poor probiotics, sentenced to live in shrinking reservations in Wisconsin and California as their resources were taken away, their cultures reduced to subsistence rations. Their story is important too.

    Have you not read of the miserable reservations in Carmel Valley, those poor Cali Lactos, now reduced to five plastic quart containers of watery soymilk? They used to have whole refrigerator cases all to themselves. No longer. Some call it progress. I call it loss of diversity.

    Do you not remember the picture of that aged Lactobacillus matriarch, covered with bud scars, weeping acid lactate as she thought of the rich milk she would never know again.

    I know you saw that picture John. We all did.

    John, you have to cover the losers as well as the winners. It’s only fair. And more importantly, it’s the American Way.

    You have to write that sequel.

  27. I guess I’ll have to wait for the sequel to find the answer to the question burning in my mind: who was the first – and no doubt last – TV comic to make a wisecrack about “the big cheese”?

  28. When people ask writers where they get their ideas… some things man was not meant to know. Ignorance is bliss.

  29. Humanity’s problem was that it should have been a dead culture yogurt. Not only would it have failed to conquer but coexistence would have been easy.

  30. But, I can see where one might think that. Of course, the socialist yogurt wouldn’t just pick up and leave; it would grow frustrated at the continued failure of its policies. Then it would line “Enemies of the Culture” up against the wall and shoot them; enslave the designated scapegoats; and blame the evil capitalist Ice Cream for all its failures.

  31. Cool. How’s about Iain M. Banks Culture goes up against John Scalzi’s culture… I’d pay to read that!

  32. You either have a really warped line of thought, or you just watched “Space Balls” and thought, “Yogurt… I wonder…”

  33. (repurposing a Callahan’s pun)

    Years from now, John will tell us that there were nine stories in this series that he could have written, but he lactate.

  34. “… bacteria have always been cells, but now it’s clear that they are even more like human cells than we used to think.”

    [American Society for Cell Biology, Newsletter, Sep. 2010, p.4]

  35. Of course, the real question is: what would yogurt do from milk of the Android’s Dream breed that was cultured with the bacteria in question?

  36. This is actually, exactly what needs to happen. Hubris aside, our leaders and heads of state are too retarded from huffing the yes man gas to ever possibly see what needs to be done and to do it.

  37. Ha. Love it.

    I just read this to my spouse. Her response: dumbfounded silence, followed by: “Oh, that’s just too f**kin’ weird.”

    Meanwhile, I giggled like a maniac. Good job.

  38. I’ve never really understood what writers meant when they said that they get an idea for a story, and it won’t let them go until they write it.

    Until now.

  39. The cottage cheese industry is going to be pissed.

    I’ll leave all those possible jokes to the audience…

  40. So is this in lieu of the screed about ponies? I was sort of looking forward to something about pretty, pretty ponies.

  41. John, thank you for the marvelous story.  As for its suitability for nomination to awards – well, let’s just say that you may have underestimated yourself on this one matter.  Despite the endless cheesy puns it invites, I for one would eat a starfish (and the obvious corollary) to see it nominated.

    We are the world,
    we are the whey
    So here on Earth
    the whey will stay.

        – Burma Shave

  42. I can’t believe no one’s said this yet, but I absolutely have to:
    You’ve certainly given me food for thought.

  43. Loved the story! :)

    I happen to be in the DNA Computing field, so the opening immediately got me interested [and forwarded a link to the rest of the lab!].

    I do want to reassure other readers that the set-up is highly improbable at least at this point; if we could actually engineer a system that functioned with some autonomous intelligence that was then able to be grafted onto a bacteria, it would be a major breakthrough in the field! Also not really even the direction we’re headed, though it is a possibility.

  44. Remember the bumper sticker, “Visualize Whorled Peas”? I always wondered what the peas were whorled in… now I know. Sentient quantum yougurt.

  45. Weren’t you once cut by yogurt? Shouldn’t that be added to the list of contextual links?

    Anyway, it’s nice that you’ve made yogurt a more-or-less good despot. Such a thing wouldn’t be possible if the despot were a mammal, but I guess the yogurt recognizes itself as essentially parasitic, and thus does its best to care for the health and survival of its host.

  46. But what role does granola play in all this? Surely such tasty, crunchy foodstuffs could only assist our new masters in the long run.

    Or perhaps not? Even the best sidekick can be turned.

  47. Looking forward to a longer format where you have something to address “fire at your fingertips” and the rough sex. Though, that’s probably enough for now.

  48. John, this is just one of the many reasons I think you’re a terrific author.
    It’s funny, but I still had a vague sense of unease as I was reading it.

  49. This reminds me, wasn’t there a story arch in the Superman comics where Lex Luther became president?
    Apparently he was terrifyingly good at it.

  50. Scalzi,

    As usual, you missed the boat just a tad. Fiber is under-rated and now Payton Manning is going to have to come out of retirement and kick yogurt’s ass utilizing the no-huddle offense, global warming, and door-less microwave ovens.

    Sincerely,

    Wheaties

    P.S: If you get some weird comments from here on out about this yogurt thing, it isn’t my fault. I’m just the Breakfast of Champions, it isn’t like Charlotte’s Web or anything. No matter what your corn flakes might SEEM to spell out to you tomorrow morning…

  51. The yogurt in my fridge tried to take over.
    I ate it.
    Then the cottage cheese got all riled up.
    I ate it too.
    Then the sour cream.
    I put that on a potato and ate it.
    Some of the swiss cheese started to say something but, too late, I ate that too.
    The beer thought all this was funny.
    And of course, it was.

  52. This story terrified me – thank you.

    I’ve just watched “The Forbin Project” and it’s only a tiny step away from Colossus to Danone….

  53. By this point, John is sitting back thinking, “Wow, if this is the shit that the fans actually LIKE, why am I sinking so much effort into complex characters and plot?”

    Let’s not forget the media blackout against the anti-Yogurt rebels. Jamie Lee Curtis leads them in a desperate bid to overthrow the yogurt dictatorship – one spoonful at a time.

    This also reminds me of a two-to-three page short story in an anthology I read years ago, in which a planet-sized computer is created, and the first question they ask this super-computer is, “Is there a God?” at which point the computer somehow spot-welds it’s power switch to the On position and declares, “There is now.”

  54. I would never have predicted this story, even after the hints you dropped, but having read it, I see it has all the hallmarks of your distinctive creative style. I don’t think any other author would have written this the way you did.

    If you’re ever plagiarized, John, anybody who’s ever read any other of your fiction will recognize your style instantly.

  55. So very glad that my first foray back into Whatever after a computerless summer included this story.

  56. Oh please — like fat free Dannon would have the energy to tyrannize. That full fat Greek yogurt, that’s the stuff you gotta watch out for…

  57. @Gretchen

    Thanks, I was wondering why no one had mentioned ‘Blood Music’. The yogurt will follow its bliss…

  58. Yogurt will actually begin its reign of benevolent tyranny by overthrowing the SWFA Scalzi administration in order to give this story a Nebula.

  59. #106 Cadius:

    The supercomputer story you’re thinking of is “Answer” by Frederic Brown. The spotwelding was done by a bolt of lightning from a cloudless sky.

  60. Does The Whatever meet the SFWA definition for a professional market? I have the image of John solemnly paying himself 5 cents per word….

  61. If it needs to be somewhere in a professional market, and Mr. Scalzi doesn’t want it next to his “real” work (it might ooze), I’ll host an e-version myself! Also, I’m putting together clips for my voice work portfolio, I would LOVE to use this! So far my one voice credit is narration in a comic-inspired “adult” movie, lol. I do have it up on YouTube, though! :D

  62. John Scalzi, I’ve never even heard of you.. I checked out your little web site and blog..short story about cultured milk “gone bad”.. very funny.. just a note to tell you exactly HOW I discovered you… See, my friend and I are relatively poor, working mothers with special needs children.. and we decided to possibly get into selling junk on ebay.. you know, they sell the craziest crap on that site.. a bacon statue of kevin bacon??? Really?? Or how about the people SELLING coupons??? E-gads!! Anyways, I got this idea to sell hate/love letters.. you know, hand written ones that are personalized for the writing impaired… so low and behold, I find one of your books with the word hate (or love..really can’t remember) in it.. thusly, at 2 am Wi time, I discovered you and your “titter” worthy short story about some insane yogurt which talks in the story…still trying to wrap my brain around that.. but I digress.. jolly good show.. I guess that ebay is good for something..huh? You got another fan..

  63. I was sure it was going to be Gogurt. I never would have suspected Dannon becoming our yogurt-based overlords, but Gogurt – I’m watching you, you tricksy tricksy bastard.

  64. I also note an echo of Jack Williamson’s “The Humanoids”, though your yogurt has much more restraint than Williamson’s busy-bodies!

  65. Someone’s watched Spaceballs one to many times.

    Also, I’m noticing yogurt has a remarkably Scalzi-esque pithiness. Clearly this is the answer AI researchers have been searching for all along. Forget heuristic algorithms and fuzzy logic; laconic one-liners are the way to the Singularity!

    When can we expect the sequel, Children of the Curd: Yogurt vs The Slime Mold ?
    I expect a whole Lensmen Arms Race of single-celled Objectivists.

    Incidentally, have you read Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear?

Comments are closed.