Bread Overhead
by Fritz Leiber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1958

included in —

A Pail of Air
Day Dark, Night Bright
Deadly Moon and Other Tales
  (The Moon Is Green and Other Tales)
The Fritz Leiber Megapack

April 2022

An unbearable lightness of bread

I was probably about eleven years old when I first read "Bread Overhead" as part of my burst into science fiction, finding it quite funny, although with a storyline as light and airy as the future bread that is its subject. Re-reading it occasionally over the years as my background knowledge grew, I was able to see and appreciate how much Fritz Leiber put into his story. Even among the richest of science fiction short stories, this is not only funny, but sharply satirical against a multitude of foibles of our target-rich culture, all based on some thoughtful extrapolations into a not-too-distant time. It reads lightly but is packed.

In this too-plausible future, wheat harvesting has become fully automated with vertically integrated "walking mill" combines which handle everything from harvesting through grinding and sifting and baking to packaging and shipping. Naturally, competition between food mega-corporations is severe, and the Managerial Board at Puffy Products always is looking to make their bread loaves lighter, fluffier, and cheaper. Our story begins when a couple of apparently simple decisions make everything go wrong, to the consternation of millions.

Here's the action and setting that routinely, inexorably, lift the Puffyloaf story to the skies:

As a blisteringly hot but guaranteed weather-controlled future summer day dawned on the Mississippi Valley, the walking mills of Puffy Products (“Spike to Loaf in One Operation!”) began to tread delicately on their centipede legs across the wheat fields of Kansas.

The walking mills resembled fat metal serpents, rather larger than those Chinese paper dragons animated by files of men in procession. Sensory robot devices in their noses informed them that the waiting wheat had reached ripe perfection.

There are a couple of key themes. I'm sure my parents grasped background and nuances that my eleven-year-old first reading could not.

Automation, both in the giant combines on the prairie and in a couple of intelligent robots serving with the humans on the Managerial Board.

Manna from heaven, as in the Bible, Exodus 16:1-36, although here it comes baked and wrapped. Hence, "pie in the sky", a still-current phrase for too-lofty optimism, from labor activist Joe Hill's song for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies), "The Preacher and the Slave" (1911) — itself based on the famous hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By" (1868). Leiber's feminine robot, Rose Thinker, derives "Bread Overhead" from Joe Hill's phrase.

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die

You won't forget the Puffyloaf. Aside from the onrushing humor and the rich social satire, we have dashes of romance, and a far-fetched but positive speculation about the future beyond the story, all combined beautifully.

"Bread Overhead" is a classic science fiction short story. Ultra-light but packed, in the best tradition of Puffyloaf.


© 2022 Robert Wilfred Franson

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