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In space, no one can hear you retch

soylent green
Soylent Green: the Malthusian Catastrophe at its finest.

Ever notice how disgusting the food of the future looks? Food that comes in pill form. Soylent green. Food that comes out of a replicator. It's pure nutrition. Efficient fuel. And food love is apparently an antiquated notion to our descendants. With the exception of Captain Picard's cuppa Earl Grey, there's little to no enjoyment involved in sci-fi cuisine.

The supposedly non-fiction news is no better. Consider vat meat. Bland packaged foods that won't wreck the space craft. Overfished oceans depleted of sea life. Molecular gastronomy advances that produce edible paper menus. Genetically engineered hybrid crops developed, owned and distributed by transglobalmegacorps.

And I guess I'm part of the problem, too, having taken part in a low-budget sci-fi spaghetti western that does nothing but subliminally re-enforce the assumptions that the food of the future is, at its very best, bland, packaged and the color of metal. (In Planetfall, the bar drinks are green and the food either arrives in mylar packets or in the form of shiny silver "space potatoes.")

Like it or not, I'd wager that culturally internalized visions like those revealed in sci-fi and fantasy fiction may, in some way, work to shape our collective futures. It's certainly possible that prescient sci-fi writers like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Philip K. Dick only tapped into the trends of their respective times, extrapolating possibilities that happened to crystallize. But isn't it also possible that in the same way individuals use visualization or mantras and organizations use mission statements, a society unconsciously feeds off its collective dreams (films, graphic novels, books, tv shows, etc.) while inventing its future?

I'm not trying to suggest that sci-fi as a genre needs to take up the gauntlet (or pot holder, as the case may be) and lead the media in creating brave new visions for the luscious, fresh, juicy, robust meals of a much tastier future.

And it doesn't need to be writers and filmmakers that invent our culture's dreams for a delicious, sustainable future (and just as a side note, when I say "sustainability," I don't just mean responsible fishing or integrated land management. I'm thinking of the way delicious food is sustainable food. It sustains you physically, mentally and emotionally. Thus, a sustainable diet encompasses meals you want to eat again and again.).

I realize that storytelling is about conflict and drama, not food porn, but wouldn't it be wonderful to see some of the meals of the future depicted in the lush brushstrokes we currently seem to save for our visions of the past? Or are we already too sad and cynical to believe that the citizens of 2050 or 3075 or 3000 would ever sniff and savor and salivate over their suppers?

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Anonymous M. said...

I enjoyed "in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-retch.html"

The cuisine of Wells and Zamyatin is presumably intended to be dystopian, although Wells wrote at a time when the "digestive biscuit" had become entrenched in English consumption patterns.

The so-called "Golden Age" of American science fiction that Asimov and Dick moved in (and out of) was largely driven by men whose experiences in the Depression, WWII and Korea may have left them all too ready to abandon hope or much interest in pleasures of the table.

The characters of the stories of that era are also busy about their adventures, with little more time to dine than Jack Bauer. I actually watched the first episode of _24_ this season; not least of all the flabbergasting gaps in logic and reason presented was the complete lack of interest in food (of any sort!) shown by a man leaving two years of foreign solitary confinement and headed towards supposed imminent death.

Characters often eat, and eat well, in Jack Vance fiction. Well, sympathetic characters, anyway:

"I noticed classical ruins out near the space terminal. Do they represent the 'New Concept'?"
"The original structures were the gift of a mad philanthropist. The 'New Concept' was dietary -- vegetarianism, in fact, mixed with stints of meditation. For fifty years the settlers lived in the great Temple of Organic Unity. They ate alfalfa sprouts, collard greens and odd bits of the native vegetation. The human form is wonderfully adaptable. The settlers adapted all too well, and there they are now--" Mayneth pointed to the pack of lank animals grazing under the thicket "-- having their lunch...
Speaking of lunch, we might as well go examine our own."

--from Chapter II of _The Book of Dreams_

Another Vance novel, _Wyst: Alastor 1716_, should figure in any meditation on the subject of food in speculative fiction. His treatment of life in an experimental society reminiscent of _We_ is, ah, *informed* by food-- its means of production, use as an expression of social status, and description.

Of course, when a society has a word for "raw food-slurry", and that word is "sturge", there isn't going to be much in the way of food-porn. Vance has a gift for salacious food description, but it is primarily expressed in his fantasy output.

Thus, the work that I most immediately thought of on reading your post was the "Haviland Tuf" cycle of stories by George R.R. Martin (no stranger to good food, judging by book-jacket photos):

[...] The savories were of two sorts--tiny pastries stuffed with deviled cheese and mushroom pate, and what appeared to be small snakes, or perhaps large worms, cooked in an aromatic orange sauce. Tuf fed two of the latter to his cat, who devoured them eagerly, before lifting one of the pastries, sniffing at it, and biting into it delicately. He swallowed and nodded.
"Excellent," he pronounced.
"So that's a cat," said Tolly Mune.
"Indeed," replied Tuf, tearing off some mushroom bread--a wisp of steam rose from the interior of the loaf when he broke it open--and methodically slathering it with a thick coating of butter.
Tolly Mune reached for her own bread, burning her fingers on the hot crust. But she persisted; it would not do to show any weakness in front of Tuf. "Good," she said, around the first mouthful. She swallowed. "You know Tuf, this meal we're about to have-- most S'uthlamese don't eat this well."
"This fact had not escaped my notice," said Tuf, lifting another snake between thumb and forefinger and holding it out for Havoc, who climbed halfway up his arm to get at it.
"In fact," said Tolly Mune, "the actual caloric content of this meal approximates what the average citizen consumes in a week."
"On the strength of the savories and bread alone, I would venture to suggest that we have already enjoyed more gustatory pleasure the average S'uthlamese does in a lifetime," Tuf said impassively.

-- from "Loaves and Fishes", collected in _Tuf Voyaging_

Food porn in the service of character and plot; now that's tasty fiction. A side note: the calorie is the unit of currency on S'uthlam. Now there's a dystopian thought.

Another story in this sequence introduces the "meat beast", as Martin christens vat meat. As a vegetarian gourmand, Tuf is not sympathetic: "If one chose to employ metaphor, one might liken them to giant edible cancers.".


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