Three Ways to Lose Weight in a Science-Fictional Universe

Science fiction often depicts a shiny future full of technology and other neat stuff. Technology, in its broadest sense, is something that makes life easier. What needs to be made easier? Well, the media constantly reminds us that there is an epidemic of obesity. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an easy way to lose weight?

In “Willing Flesh” by Jay O’Connell (Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2015), a fat guy loses his girlfriend when he breaks her arm by rolling over in his sleep. A TV huckster says, “There is no way to lose weight and keep it off without exercise and calorie control…. But what if someone else could exercise for you?” The TV shows a video of the huckster exercising, with a voiceover: “Even though that’s my body, it’s not really me. I can’t remember a single sit-up! That’s not me. That’s Fat Burner.”

Fat Burner is a “personality implant”, invoked by uttering a trigger phrase. The alternate personality takes over to perform an exercise session. You later wake up with a tired body, in the aftermath of having exercised, but with no memory of it.

The protagonist thinks it’s great. But this being fiction, something must go wrong. He finds that the exercise sessions grow longer and longer. Then he finds that his alternate personality starts manifesting involuntary, without the trigger phrase. He’s losing huge chunks of his life.

The two different personalities within one body are inevitably reminiscent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The difference is that the alternate personality, rather than being evil, is apparently more virtuous than the main personality. After all, the original guy is a fat slob, and the alternate is a clean-living exercise freak. But is a fitness regime inherently good, or can it be taken too far? The story’s conclusion deals with the struggle to reconcile the two personalities and their differing goals.

Cease and Desist” by Jay Werkheiser (first published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, July/August 2015) is a comedy in which a fat guy is visited by a lawyer serving him with a cease and desist letter. The story takes place after the invention of time travel. The cease and desist letter is sent by the fat guy’s future self, demanding that he stop his bad habits, calling it “reckless endangerment”. “He’s endangering no-one but himself.” “Exactly. And that’s who is suing him.”

There are some amusing exchanges around how the legal system works in this milieu — “Objection! Those laws haven’t been enacted yet.” — but the core of the story lies in the conflict between the present and future selves. The protagonist points at his rotund future self and says, “He could have started eating right and exercising at any time. But it was easier to hop in a time machine and force me to do it for him.”

The future self in “Cease and Desist” is like the slob personality in “Willing Flesh”: wanting the benefits of exercise, but wanting someone else to do the hard work. Yet it can never be that simple — not in fiction, anyway, where things must go wrong in order for stories to happen.

My own story “How I Lost Eleven Stone And Found Love” (originally published in First Contact: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 1, June 2011) also deals with a fat guy who wants to lose weight. Incidentally, it’s notable how these three stories are all written by male authors and feature male protagonists. In my case, I wrote a male protagonist because I didn’t want to be accused of “fat shaming” overweight women by implying that they should lose weight; I can’t speak for the other two authors, but I expect their motives might have been similar.

My story takes place after the invention of space travel, in a galaxy full of intelligent aliens — and alien parasites. The protagonist buys an alien parasite as a pet: it inserts a proboscis into his belly, and feeds off him. The result is that he gradually loses weight. It’s a great short-cut, much easier than exercise.

Of course, there must be a complication. Unlike the other two stories, which kept the focus on the protagonist, I introduced a secondary character as a contrast: a female anorexia sufferer. She also wants to use the alien parasite as a way to lose weight. But while the parasite can easily feed off the overweight protagonist, she is dangerously thin and risks going too far. Losing weight isn’t always an advisable goal.

The three stories depict different methods for enabling weight loss: personality implants, time travel, alien parasites. But the common denominator is that the technological fix doesn’t address the underlying issues. That’s the problem with technology. It can give you a short-cut, but it can’t tell you where to go, or the best way to get there.

“How I Lost Eleven Stone And Found Love” can be read online at Fantasy Scroll Mag, and is also in my story collection Escape Routes From Earth.