MIND MELD: Food in Science Fiction versus Fantasy
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week we asked about Food and Drink in SF.
This will, I will admit, be a purely foodie view: I enjoy cooking, I enjoy eating, I enjoy reading about cooking and eating. And for a long time, it seemed as though we foodies were, if not the minority in genre, then certainly underserved.
There were the banquets in fantasy, of course, and the trail rations, and sometimes even a discussion of where the food came from, but – like bathroom breaks and sleeping – it often seemed tossed into the pile of “boring, don’t write about it.”
And science fiction? Mainly, science fiction mentioned food in context of technology: food-pills, space-age packets, vat-grown meat, etcetera. I suspect that many writers of the time had been heavily influenced by the early space program, and extrapolated their SF on the actual science. Surely, science fiction was saying, we had more important things to do than cook – or eat!
Even when they were dealing with an important, food-related issue (overcrowding, famine, etc), MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM made it a (very serious) punchline. So did “To Serve Man.” But scenes of characters preparing their food, or even enjoying it, were notably, if not entirely, absent.
(even CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY made the “too busy to eat” point with the 3-course-meal-gum…)
It would be easy to suggest that this was because so many of the SF writers pre-1980 were male, and cooking was a ‘female’ thing. It’s entirely possible that there was a cultural aspect to this – and in today’s world, where Alton Brown has made it trendy to be a male food science geek, that aspect may be broken down forever. But even in the 1950’s there were men who embraced the sensual and social aspects of food….
Maybe they were writing fantasy?
But old-school Fantasy wasn’t much better, much of the time. Yes, there was no way to avoid the fact that your characters had to eat: but the default seemed to be….stew. Be it in a tavern, or over a campfire, stew was what heroes (and armies) on the move seemed to eat. And nobody seemed to be enjoying it much (to the point where Guide to Fairyland has a very specific point or two to make about stew.).
So yes, fantasy had more food-related scenes, but I’m not sure that was much better than “they popped a protein pill and a dessert pill and were off to save the Earth” mentality of so much SF.
But somewhere around the 1980’s, more writers started writing about their characters actually sitting down and having meals. It’s been more obvious in fantasy, yes – I suspect because the nature of fantasy puts it closer to the everyday, physical aspects of our lives – but SF is starting to catch up (Klingon cuisine might have had something to do with that.).
Perhaps not coincidentally, food science and food psychology developed during that time as well. While we were finding new ways to manipulate our food sources, from cloned sheep to genetically modified crops exactly as Heinlein and others had described, it was also discovered that given freeze-dried chunks of ‘food,’ astronauts simply chose not to eat. In fact, current Space Station menus focus on rehydratable solids (scrambled eggs, oatmeal) and old-school dried meats, fruits and nuts.
Conclusion? The human mind may want Science! But the human stomach wants Taste! (and color, and smell, and texture, and description….).
When I was a teen in the mid-sixties, devouring every single SF or F book I could find in the library, SF seemed to be filled with a similar set of tropes—everybody in one-piece uni-suits, their food a single pill a day. (That would be humans. Aliens seemed to have a taste for Long Pig.)
It seems to me that the sixties saw the end of Progress Above All, though so much of the SF I read still depicted the future as chrome-and-steel utilitarianism, earnestly freed from the unscientific clutter of serendipity and syntonics. And few things were more “scientific” than those food pills. What was up with that?
I realize that stories communicate with one another, sharing and extrapolating ideas. But given that, might there be a correlation between the writers and the fact that this was the time fast food was coming into popularity, on the heels of “modern cookery”, i.e. everything frozen or canned, usually dosed with chemical preservatives, and the total lack of flavor masked by loads of salt?
At least in my corner of the world, progress had been made in offering a variety of foods in all seasons, and in all regions, but at the cost of taste. If I can venture to extend my experience outward, was the dismal prospect of yet another meal of beanie weenies or spam-and-spaghetti-os or ten cent Swanson frozen dinners of mystery meat, powdered ‘mashed potatoes’ and canned corn one that got those writers thinking that future progress would do away with eating altogether?
Those stories about the earnest progress-worshippers in their uni-suits did not seem to take into account that one of the few things that unites humans all over the world, whatever their origin, age, gender, or time, is and has been food. Our important holidays are organized around food. Our recreation includes food. Our weddings, funerals, days of triumph as well as days of commiseration all feature food and drink as an important element. We do business over a meal, we scope out a possible partner by sharing food. Wars were won and lost over securing (or losing) supply lines.
Nutritionally balanced pills, and no mention of any drink beyond some kind of synthetic coffee? It just wasn’t happening.
Fantasy in those early days, as I recall, didn’t do much better with gustatory verisimilitude. It seemed to. I think that this was because so much fantasy was written against a vaguely medievaloid backdrop, and one thing writes grew up knowing about Medieval Times was that everybody lived in castles, and your castle had a big hall that featured feasts.
What was served at these feasts? Other than some sort of roast beast turning on a spit, and everybody quaffing ale before tossing bones over their shoulders to the dogs, the phrase that kept showing up was “delectable viands.” That and “sweetmeats.”
What exactly was meant by “delectable viands?” Wanting to know, I read closely, but got few clues. All I could glean was that tables always groaned under their weight. Judging by the jokes the Harvard Lampoon guys made about meals in Bored of the Rings in 1969, I wasn’t the only one to notice this lack of detail in a certain strain of epic fantasy.
As for sweetmeats, it took a while before I found out what they were—meanwhile, I’d read a few books in which the author seemed to think that these were synonymous with sweetbreads. Um, no.
In recent years worldbuilding in both SF and F has made exponential leaps in sophistication, including how food is handled. Are contemporary writers better than those who wrote the books I grew up on? I can’t answer that, but I do know that research became exponentially easier not only with the Internet, but also, I believe, as more women were admitted to upper-level grad schools, and instead of writing yet another dissertation on Shakespeare or some other famous white male figure, branched out into social history and social science. Including how the common people lived, worked, lived, and died.
I know this is kind of dead-horse-meet-stick, but hey. Take a look at the non-fic written on fascinating subjects over the past thirty years—subjects you might have wondered about, if you are as old as I am, but could find scarce material on except maybe in Braudel and the French quantifiers—and see how many female names show up.
Anyway, back to food. Hydroponics, vat-beef, synthetic grains—as scientists in the real world experiment with flavors, hardier strains, mixed grains, meat-substitutes, and pocket gardening on a micro level, we read about it, we buy it, and it shows up in fiction. The mind-boggling array of drinks we see in grocery stores, fermented and carbonated and non, gets its equivalent in fiction, instead of the former ales, wines, and nectars of fantasy, or fake coffee of SF.
How characters relate to meals has also changed in the direction of sensory pleasures. It’s okay now to depict characters enjoying an enjoyable meal, and even to convey details through all five senses. But then, novels are no longer confined to sixty thousand words, as they were for a time—perhaps in a swing away from those long, leisurely Victorian doorstops.
Speaking briefly as a writer, I find it fun imagining what grows in a given climate and soil, how people prepare it, how the food fits into the culture—and what others think of it. One person’s tasty treat is another’s disgusting dish, just like in real life.
It doesn’t necessarily surprise me that SF set on spaceships has a robotic or perhaps utilitarian approach to food: our own experiences in orbit and beyond have that NASA ice cream and Tang imagery attached to them, and the idea of taking food out into the void has these immense logistical challenges: the basic dilemma is either to bring a farm along with or eat some kind of processed instant food.
Once we get back down to unearthly planets, though, I can think of some great food-related SF bits. Mary Doria Russell has all the stuff about tasting and testing food in THE SPARROW, for example, and I think one of her characters is actually killed by that process. Maureen McHugh does something so thoroughly amazing with agriculture in MISSION CHILD that I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet, and Kristine Smith has all sorts of interesting alien customs built around food and other mouth-based activities in her Jani Killian novels.
I can barely get my characters out the front door before I’m wanting to send them for Thai food or at least a good espresso. How a culture does food is a key expression, in my opinion, to how they do everything. It’s simply too delicious to ignore.
For one thing, in science fiction, you can often assume the food as we know it exists. Which makes it less a distinguishing mark of the world than in fantasy where period details really set the tone and say so much. There are exceptions, such as alien planets. I know Robert Silverberg did well in his Majipoor series. And Timothy Zahn touches on it in the Quadrail series. Those are two science fiction examples off the top of my head. I did a whole post on food in my Davi Rhii universe at Jaleta Clegg’s blog: Guest Post: Food in Borali System. In fantasy, I have paid much more attention to it. Diet does speak to the economy and health and other factors. If they are a sheep-focused agricultural society vs. beef, the diet will be affected. What if particular vegetables are scarce? So, in a sense, fantasy requires more consideration of these things because if you have someone in your epic fantasy with a medieval setting fixing hamburgers or barbecue, the believability goes out the window.
Now, in science fiction, of course, aliens are going to eat differently. Think of Alien Nation, where they got drunk on sour milk and ate raw meat. You can’t just ignore it but it’s easier to forget about because historical research is often less of a factor.
I can’t think of many Science Fiction books that focus closely on food, or at least bring the ritual of food and drink to the fore. I can think of snippets. Douglas Adams’ Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster comes immediately to mind, as do the many scenes set in the bar on the Enterprise in ST:TNG. (Guinan, anyone?) But just take a look at Fantasy. You can hardly shake a finger at a Fantasy book without pointing to an elaborate meal. The Song of Ice and Fire even has its own cookbook, for goodness sake!
Some of the reasons why are obvious. Food and drink and the customs that surrounded them were much more important to the people of the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and into antiquity than they are to us today. There are exceptions, of course, but I think as a general rule this is true, and certainly of the stylized version of those eras we portray in our fiction. I’m not so convinced, for example, that a farmer in the middle ages would treat their ploughman’s lunch much differently than the farmhands of today, but there’s no denying that religious observances, holiday feasts, and special occasions like birth and death and marriage were treated very differently then than they are now.
To me that’s the key to why food is used in Fantasy as much as it is. It’s a window into culture. What people eat tends to show what’s available. It gives clues to not only the types of game and fish available, but which (for cultural or religious reasons) are actually eaten. It can shed light on the types of farming employed, the richness of soil, the climate, the types of spices readily available, how efficient and widespread the system of trade is in this society, and so on. The way food or drink is prepared can also have strong significance, whether things are pickled or roasted on a spit or placed in the earth to slow-cook for days. Whether certain types of food are avoided or valued beyond all sense of reason. The use of alcohol can shed light on the sanitary conditions of the environs. And all of those things can be wrapped up in religious observances or cultural celebrations.
To put it more bluntly, in Fantasy food can be and often is used as shorthand for culture, whereas in Science Fiction it … isn’t. At least, not as much. As our lives have become busier with less time for everything, food and the rituals around it have taken on less meaning. Add to that our expectations of everything becoming easier, faster, smaller, more convenient, and all-around just “better,” and it leads to an expectation—perhaps unfounded, but a natural tendency nonetheless—that food will be of relative insignificance in the future—or at least, our stylized version of the future we portray in our fiction. My personal hope is that there will be a renaissance of home cooking and restaurants that provide nutritious foods, but our minds are trained to look at trends, and the trends of today lean toward simple, easier caloric intake. Who’ll have time for food in the future? Just give me a pill. No, an injection. Or better yet, alter my genes so I can absorb everything I need from a patch I change once a month.
In the past, the search for food, the primal directive to stay alive, ranked much higher in our hierarchy of needs. Today that basic need is obscured by the veneer of commercialization, and so we tend to rank it somewhere between the a hope for a good night’s sleep and our desire to catch a good movie. And that, to me, is why food plays such a large role in Fantasy while being relegated to little but an afterthought in Science Fiction.
Why the focus on food in fantasy that you don’t usually find in science fiction? I think a lot of that is simple familiarity. Contemporary fiction doesn’t describe the experience of sleeping in a warm, comfortable bed, because most of us do it all the time and it’s unremarkable and tells us nothing about the character. The lack of it would be notable, even important, but, like breathing, we all do it. Who talks about it? Science fiction deals in our world, a world like ours, or the future of such worlds. The assumption is that they will have what we do today, unless told otherwise. We know about food and beds and everyday life in a culture like ours. Who needs that explained?
Fantasy takes us to places and peoples that can be entirely out of our experience. On a world where malevolent magic restricts sunlight to once a season, I’m going to wonder what in the heck they eat. In a society populated with talking animals, do they eat meat? That’s an enormous question that tells us so much about the people and the culture. Unlike a science fiction set in a world we can compare to or at least extrapolate from our own experiences, fantasy often deals in cultures less technologically advanced. They had to be much more concerned with obtaining and preparing food. There’s no take-out Chinese when you don’t feel like cooking, or a McDonalds at every exit when you’re traveling.
It’s not the food necessarily that’s the issue, it’s the obtaining and preparation of it. It has defined much of human history, it’s been the impetus behind technological advancement, or the lack thereof. Fiction reflects our own worlds, however fantastic we make it. Chew on that for a while.
In many cases, Fantasy food is rich because it shows us all the opportunities of the world the author has created, even if the world itself is spare and harsh. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is of course a great example, but also look at Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars, and Catherynne M. Valente’s tea and coffee fairies in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland. Fantasy food can capitalize on familiar tropes (the feast, the inn, the begging bowl) and expand them, or reverse them.
On the other hand, science fictional food reveals limitations in equally marvelous ways. Dining in space and on new planets requires the development or recalibration of several important angles: line of supply, food production techniques, and transport.
Science fictional food is served in the context of alien cultures and varying digestive and nutrition systems. When you add in the effects of low-, high-, and zero-gravity on the production of food, the serving of food, and the effect of food on the body, you’ve got a lot of details to deal with. Science fiction loves details. All those limitations are a rich environment for science fiction writers to ply their trade, and they do — sometimes with hilarious effect.
The historo-cultural perception of spacefood is in part an outgrowth of military culture. For US-based authors and readers that means the MRE and its predecessors, the C-Ration and the MCI. These meals are self-contained, easy to transport and cook, and notoriously bland. The logical end to the MRE trajectory is food-in-a-tube and the food-pill, where you don’t have to worry much about transport or cooking. Heck, you don’t even need to waste time chewing.
But there are a couple of problems with this approach.
First, boring food. Boring food tastes different in space – awful, in fact. NASA has amped up the spices on food shipped to the space station because bland is bad. In 2002, Astronaut Peggy Whitson even jokingly barred entry to the International Space Station unless visitors from the Space Shuttle Atlantis could prove they’d brought hot sauce and salsa.
Boring food kills morale. There’s a reason why the protein-slurry from the Matrix and the protein bars from Firefly horrify us so: imagine eating that for your entire life. Then imagine eating it in space. Yuck. So science fiction writers have to keep the good food coming in order to keep their characters happy, and their readers happy.
Second, food, and the eating of good food, allows for socialization in ways that food pills and food-in-a-tube don’t. In the generation ships and space colonies of the future, as well as the Blade-Runner-style urban hives, the politics of eating sets up its own limitations and opportunities. Dining scenes where foods are bewildering or practically inedible (Neal Stephenson’s Anathem has some particularly memorable scenes); cultural clashes where a favored food of one group is forbidden fruit for another, or worse (there are many examples, but James White’s Hospital Station series approaches this in small and large contexts); finding commonalities in strange settings — these are areas that sf foodies explore exceedingly well.
Production and cooking is another of those areas where science fiction writers are doing a great job plumbing limitations and exploring opportunities. Hydroponics and algeaics abound on generation ships (Elizabeth Bear has branched out to kudzu and silkworm pupae) and space stations (An Owomoyela’s “Water Rights” [The Edge of Infinity anthology]) and now we’re seeing writers imagine how more sf foods can be developed and enhanced (Check out Matthew Sanborn Smith’s Beauty Belongs to the Flowers [Tor.com], George R.R. Martin’s Tuf Voyaging, Margaret Attwood’s Oryx and Crake, and Aliette de Bodard’s “Immersion” [Clarkesworld]). Joe Haldeman has also pointed out that with freeze-drying techniques and a decent supply of water, anything is possible to carry in a small space – from vegetables to quail and lobster. We’re not limited to astronaut ice cream any longer. (See Haldeman’s Starbound.)
Science fictional food is a place where basic needs and advanced technologies meet. Where it’s plain that nearly everything in the universe eats somehow. From micro-biotics to black holes. The possibilities are astounding.
Plus, I’ve heard there’s a great restaurant at the end of the universe.
It is difficult for me to think of the portrayal of food in fantasy or science fiction without thinking of Diana Wynne Jones’ entry on stew in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Her point it a good one – if we are lazy in our writing, we’re going to have a bunch of people eating stew, when to do so would be ridiculous at best and impossible at worst.
Like anything else in fiction, food can be used well or used poorly. One of what I think is the most affecting uses of food in fiction comes not from SFF, but from the television show, The Tudors, where the execution of Anne Boleyn is juxtaposed with Henry’s consumption of a swan, a royal bird, baked back into his feathers, and so we see Henry rip apart this beautiful creature with his own hands for a moment’s pleasure, just moments after we’ve seen Anne beheaded.
In SFF, there are a few scenes with food in that really stick with me. One is the way Cat Valente uses food in Palimpsest. There are a number of scenes where food – whether fortune cookies or very small birds whose bones cut your mouth – plays a key role. And what Valente does so well here is that the food does something in the text. It enhances the situation, contributes to character or atmosphere. It tells us something about the people and the kind of story that they are in.
It’s difficult to talk about food in SFF without mentioning The Hunger Games, of course, and again, I think that, particularly in the first book, Suzanne Collins uses food very well to help situate the reader in the world of Panem (which, of course, means bread). There is the dire situation in District 12 and then the scenes of utter excess in the lead up to the Games. It’s an excellent way to illustrate the grotesqueries of Panem’s society. You know, aside from forcing children to become murderers in exchange for food.
Finally, although it’s not a specific scene (except for the moment when Emilio Sandoz recalls learning what “Ils sont les innocents” meant), Mary Doria Russell’s use of food in The Sparrow is very impressive. It is a line that runs through the entire book, to a devastating end.
I’m currently rereading The Lord of the Rings and the first half of Fellowship keeps making me hungry. I’d forgotten just how important food is in this story. Obviously, the hobbits are obsessed with it. It plays an important role in the house of Tom Bombadil too, and the first thing they do in Rivendell, once Frodo has recovered, is to have a giant feast.
This is because food is more than just sustenance. We create rituals around food. We congregate around it, celebrate with it. We complicate it, and obsess over it. It can recall powerful memories of time, place and people, and we all have deep emotional connections to food — sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. In the hands of hobbits, food becomes homeliness, safety and security.
[Side note -- I totally just had to run downstairs and make dinner because writing this is making me STARVING! See what I mean about the power of food?]
So this is why I think food features so prominently in Fantasy. Traditional Fantasy harkens back to the old-school. It’s all about order overcoming chaos, with its valiant heroes, and the return of rightful kings. It’s dirty, people make things with their hands, ride horses, and live near fireplaces under thatched roofs. It’s comforting. The kind of food that gets described in a lot of Fantasy is just the same. Stews and ale, right? Slabs of cheese, rough bread, and mulled wine. It’s warm and rough and earthy — comforting. I’m going to bring this all back to where I started, with The Lord of the Rings. Why am I rereading it? Partially because after watching The Hobbit I needed to cleanse my pallet with the real thing. But mainly, because it’s like coming home. It’s a story and characters I know well, I grew up with them, and it’s comforting to return to their sides.
Now, Science Fiction can be quite different. A lot of traditional Fantasy borrows from the past — or at least a mythologised, idealised version of it — but the future is uncertain. I think food is treated differently in Science Fiction because of the way it effects our emotional response. Making food scarce, sterile or contaminated says a lot about the world it’s in. A world in which food is reduced to protein slush is a world where memory and sensation is less important. Sheer survival, or hard economic realism, takes priority over ceremony. Making food a mere practicality, rather than a ritual, changes the way we view those people and that society on a basic, emotional level. It’s almost like shorthand — you can say a lot about a people by the way they eat.
On the other hand, there are questions of logistics. Is it necessarily practical to grow food on a star ship? House livestock? Even storing enough food to supply an entire crew would be a right pain in the arse. You can totally see how something like a replicator would come in handy!
I’ve been talking about traditional Fantasy and dystopian Science Fiction, because that’s what came to mind when I read this question. But there are nuances within every genre, and I’m sure the food within them is different too. Not all Fantasy is traditional and not all Science Fiction is grim about the future of the human race!
But for the most part, I think food is treated differently in Fantasy and Science Fiction because it has such close ties to our emotional responses. How we grow, prepare, and consume food says a lot about who we are as individuals and as a society.
The genre is such weird territory, sometimes—and it inspires such wonderful questions! Why in the world would there be more scenes of food being prepared and consumed in fantasy than in science fiction? I know it’s trite to say this, but I honestly think it’s got so much to do with how we think of the process of eating.
COOKING is followed by EATING is followed by SHI**ING
It’s “earthy,” the whole equation.
When we think of cooking, we generally think of a kitchen—a place where, despite many innovations in culinary technology, we’re still pretty much doing the same thing we’ve been doing for eons: applying heat to various foodstuffs. It’s long been theorized that in the near future we’ll be over this embarrassingly, um, demonstrative method. We’ll pop a pill into a cup of water, or simply push a button.
Raw meat? Over a fire? You gotta be kidding. That’s fantasy-land for sure!
And then the act of eating itself, the mastication of foodstuffs (assisted by saliva!)— doesn’t that just seem so low-tech? I mean, come on already. Can’t a freaking android chew it for me and then spit it directly into my foodport? Better yet, the pill idea! Or maybe a laser injection of nutrients.
What if food could be directly teleported into my tum-tum? How cool would that be!
The point is that, in the future, I shouldn’t have to do all that difficult chewing. At least in fantasy-land, I might someday use those abnormally built-up jaw muscles to bite someone’s ear off in battle, but in the year 2345 I’ll hardly need a mouth at all!
Ah, shitting: now we’re getting somewhere. Clearly—and I mean clearly—voiding oneself is more appropriate to the gritty realities of fantasy-land than the clean Apple- designed flight decks of the future. I mean, really, would a person in the Middle Ages even have noticed if you dumped a big one right on their chicken-bone-littered dirt floor?
Pooping? So not futuristic. I hardly feel appropriate doing it in 2013! I’m actively offended when someone comes to my house and does it in my personal bathroom. It seems so savage.
“Yay! Conan visited, and he left his smelly friend behind!”
But in all seriousness here, there is an odd lack of emphasis on eating in science fiction— a lack that can’t be accounted for with poop jokes. (Yes. It’s one of those rare instances where poop jokes don’t solve the problem.)
I think there’s much that could be said about certain genres of fantasy that glorify “exotic” peoples and locations by discussing food so frequently, as if such cultures— those which are more “primitive” by the writer’s standards—value the baser enjoyments like eating more. As a corollary, a great deal might be said about our own cultural priorities. Why would food be any less valuable to an “advanced” people?
Bear in mind, please: I don’t want to add more questions to the discussion. Frankly, I’d rather make poop jokes. Still, it deserves some thought, that fact that we are so ready to discount food in science fiction and make it a common feature of fantasy.
I don’t think SF or fantasy lend themselves more to food intrinsically: I remember reading in the Nineties a string of epic fantasy books where characters seemed to eat mostly badly-cooked venison and stew (an idea the bone-headedness of which was satirised by the late Diana Wynne Jones in her awesome The Rough Guide to Fantasyland)–as a food description, this doesn’t really do much better than the Soylent green discs.
I think it’s because a lot of people don’t necessarily think about food as a worldbuilding detail; and to some extent, I think it’s because a lot of Western cultures have lost their “appreciation” for food at the same time as cooking fell out of fashion. Most cooking used to be, if not labour-intensive, at least an activity that required a fair bit of time in the kitchen (making stew, for instance, doesn’t require much effort but does need time and attention); and since, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and of both World Wars, it’s very common for both members of a couple to work away from home, the time available for cooking has naturally decreased; and to some extent it’s become a hobby, especially with the rise of ready-made food which makes eating at home much easier. All, this, I think, contributes to visions of the future where the drudgery of cooking is no more, and the proteins we need for eating are directly fed into us–without valuing either the process of cooking or the process of eating, both as a sensory experience and as a bonding one (meals are family gatherings, but again they are gradually losing that value as families drift further apart, and there is less and less time for those gatherings).
There are exceptions, of course; there are cultures where food is still important (both my cultures, the French and the Vietnamese, worship food, albeit in different ways and with different cooking bases); there are writers fascinated with food (Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear and John Courtenay Grimwood come to mind, off-hand) . I hope this trend continues, and that we draw futures where it’s still important to know what you eat, who you eat it with, and the process by which it got that way.
I’m not so sure that Fantasy does do more food than SF. What I do know is that with the exception of works such as Soylent Green, food and drink don’t drive the plot. They’re details of setting and character, and as such lend a necessary touch of verisimilitude to both Fantasy and SF.
When Picard asks the replicator for his Earl Grey tea (hot) that tells us something about the level of technology in his civilization, as well as something about him personally. Likewise in Firefly, the importance of fresh food is underlined several times (Kaylee gives Shepherd Book preference as a passenger because of the strawberries: Jayne uses his share of some booty to buy apples); and what about the significance of the crew regularly gathering around a table to eat?
It isn’t just on TV and film that we see this kind of treatment. Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Julie Czerneda, Robert J. Sawyer – all include eating scenes, and even restaurants in their SF novels, and occasionally have fun with the idea of alien cuisine. Certainly if we think about Robert Heinlein, we might recall an early scene in Farmer in the Sky, where Bill prepares supper in what sounds very much like a microwave oven – thereby establishing the “futuristic” setting (as well as Heinlein’s claim to having first conceived of the microwave).
If there is more food and drink in Fantasy, it might very well be because including it requires no such invention, extrapolation or speculation, only a little research. Most fantasy worlds are a facsimile version of the past of our world – medieval, renaissance, etc. – whether the basic setting is western European, Aboriginal, Middle Eastern or Asian. It’s fairly straightforward to find out what foods were eaten in what seasons and by whom, what would be available in what kind of climate, how food was stored, preserved and transported, and over what distances. Judicious use of that kind of detail establishes climate, time of year, trade conditions, social status, and the level of technological (or magical) development.
Not, as I’ve already noted, that fictional characters generally spend a great deal of time eating and drinking (or performing other bodily functions if it comes to that). Where they do, where you find more detail than is necessary for verisimilitude, it’s usually because the author has a particular interest. My own characters tend to do quite a bit of eating and drinking for example. Must be because of all the chefs in the family. Certainly not because I eat and drink a lot.
Food does appear in SF: the “everything tastes like chicken” discussion in The Matrix, Asimov’s story “In Good Taste”, the soup in Stranger in a Strange Land, and of course the restaurant at the end of the universe. But what it means in SF is usually quite different from what it means in fantasy.
Many branches of fantasy are rooted in folklore and fairy tales, which are full of food imagery and symbolism. The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Persephone and the pomegranate seeds. Don’t eat with the Sidhe under the hill or you’ll be trapped there until who knows when. Food is currency and belongingness and magic, and it’s intimately related to concepts of home and love and nurture and wellness and obligation and culture and the physical self. These are all topics that fantasy tackles (or at least acknowledges) a lot more often than SF does.
Also relevant is the distinction between food as fuel and food as leisure pursuit. While food as fuel certainly exists in fantasy (from Tolkien’s lembas to Pratchett’s dwarf bread), food as leisure pursuit almost never appears in SF, because leisure pursuits in general don’t appear in SF. You don’t see people savoring delectable food in SF for the same reason you don’t see them doing embroidery or going to the opera: there’s not much room for that sort of thing in a go-go-go SF thriller or adventure plot. In fantasy, the extravagant feast is a sign of wealth and status, but a lot of SF takes place in settings where economic concerns are glossed over (it’s post-apocalypse and everything is scarce! it’s a spacefaring future and everything is government-funded! we live on a space station/generation ship and everything is socialized!) so there’s no place for markers of wealth, and status is displayed by other means.
No matter how post-human we get, I think food will retain its ability to evoke a particular time and place. I’d like to see an SF story where someone complains that the replimats on Titan just don’t recreate Julia Child’s waterzooi the way the replimats back home on Mars used to do; or a box of sweets smuggled into a Space Corps cadet’s luggage, to be traded for other cadets’ goodies or consumed in a bout of homesickness; or the SFnal equivalent of Proust’s madeleines.
Long ago, I read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist—which of course is neither science fiction nor fantasy, but a Gilded Age crime novel that spends a lot of time with detailed descriptions of food, gourmet meals, and restaurants—and I was amazed at how interesting it all was. I don’t think I’ve been similarly fascinated by the treatment of food in fiction before or since.
It makes sense to me that food would tend to be treated in more detail in traditional fantasy novels than in science fiction. One obvious explanation for why is that the author has historical writings to draw on for interesting details, but there is also the point that the food has to be obtained, prepared, and presented by someone on-site, and this character could very well play a big part in the story. Beyond that, in traditional cultures with feast days—or cultures prone to starvation—food is naturally going to be an important facet of world-building.
Contrast this to the modern world. In my adult life I’ve gone from cooking dinner nearly every night, to cooking one to two nights a week, at most. I don’t feel that preparing rice in an automatic rice cooker and heating up some premade insta-food from Costco really qualifies as “cooking,” and meals like this just don’t seem worth talking about in any detail: “They had dinner—brown rice and some prefab dish from the local superstore. Another meal to forget.” So if science fiction seems less involved in the ritual of meals, maybe it’s because there just isn’t that much to say about a meal that isn’t a gift of skill and labor by someone you know, or someone at least within your community.
But whether I’m writing science fiction or fantasy, I confess I’m not fond of writing about food. It’s a background element that just isn’t that interesting to me, but nevertheless implies a lot about the structure of the story world. Where does food come from? Who prepares it? How is it prepared? Is there a possibility of scarcity? The answers will say a lot about the level of technology, the state of farming (or of replicators), transportation and economic systems, etc. In science fiction it sometimes seems easier to make up the big, world-changing elements of a future society, than to deal with the everyday things like eating a meal. So replicators are grand, and pre-packaged meals from some great central factory are just about as good. We are living in a science-fictional world.
I’m going to be slightly contrarian with this one, because – with all due respect to my fellow writers – the representations of food that I’ve seen in both science fiction and fantasy need work. Characters discuss plot points over lunch without even really getting into what lunch is, while the actual meal and, more importantly, the culture of food remain unexplored.
Fantasy tropes tend to treat food like Renaissance Faire leftovers. There’s lots of meat and potatoes, a big mug of ale, but nothing too exotic – unless said meat is carved from some fantasy creature. But hey, it’s still basically barbecue, right? At least it’s fresh off the bone and tends to be a more visceral experience.
Science fiction, on the other hand, often sterilizes the food experience so that it’s reminiscent of the stuff in tubes the Apollo astronauts ate. Food becomes the source of bad jokes and complaints, or is simply ignored as one more bodily function we won’t have to worry about in…The Future. (As a kid, did anyone else eat “astronaut ice cream,” that freeze-dried block of crap that you thought was awesome because the astronauts ate it? It was decidedly not awesome.)
Speaking of crap, I think the biggest cliché in SF/F writing about food is that it’s gross and awful. The evil goblins and/or aliens eat gobbets of raw flesh torn from the corpses of their enemies because They Are Evil. Other non-humans pop wriggling, writhing, wormy things into their mouths and chase them with battery acid because They Are Different. The humans – and the reader – are grossed out. They either see their worst fears confirmed or nobly overcome their revulsion. Been there, done that, ate the t-shirt.
I want to see food treated like the cultural institution that it is. This spring, I’ll be visiting Japan, where dining habits are very different. For example, it’s a major taboo to jab your chopsticks into your rice and leave them standing up, but slurping your soup is considered quite appropriate. That’s just another continent – how different would dining habits be for a fantasy setting or another planet?
I want to see settings that really get imaginative about food. Would a carrot grown in the soil of Mars taste differently from one grown on Earth? What about grapes? Imagine the terroir arguments wine geeks would have over a Martian vintage. I’ll have the 2117 Cote d’Mars, please. And not in a squeeze-tube, thank you.
In ancient days, ritual magic and religious rites often featured food and wine, both consumed amongst the participants and made as sacrifices to deities. Should not more advanced fantasy settings include food in their magic and culture? We can do better than dwarves craving salted pork, people. (Though as a homebrewer, I have to say…keep the ales.)
We as genre authors put a lot of thought into our settings. Creating imaginative dishes and a new food culture around them can be daunting, but I bet someone out there can do it amazingly well. In fact, I may have missed some great food-related genre fiction – if I have, please let me know in the comments section!
Well, there is one canned answer, which is that SF is more about the tech and the Big! Ideas!, and food is kind of, well, mundane. But F is more about lower tech and/or magic, so food plays into it more.
Then again, there is the criticism sometimes leveled against F, which is that nobody ever eats (or cooks) anything but stew. Lack of culinary imagination is not unique to the kids with the rocket ships.
We might speculate that the apparent disparity is accidental: SF has yet to produce authors on the scale of Tolkien and Martin, both of whom were/are much interested in food, and whose characters conduct themselves accordingly. Or that SF authors who did or do think about food try to think about “future food,” and since our SF future is often a direct reflection of our present, we tend look at the ways in which the food of that present differs from the food of the past, and extrapolate from there.
Hence, if processed food is prevalent in our era, we speculate that the diet of the future will become ever more highly processed, until we end up with replicators and food pills and Soylent Green. We may also speculate from the space program, the logistics of which dictate that supplies weigh as little and be as easy to transport as possible. Even if we’re writing generation ships, there’s still the issue of growing or raising enough Earth-style food to support the population of the ship. And once we get to the planet we’re aiming for, will humans be able to live on the flora or fauna there, or will its environment support flora or fauna that will support us (a concept Poul Anderson addressed, among others)?
I’m not actually sure SF is less about the food–just certain strains of SF, and there’s usually a reason for the lack of food imagination. Dystopias, particularly. If we’ve trashed our environment and fallen into toxic political systems, there may not be anything left to eat but Soylent Green (which, as we all know, is people). Big-ticket space opera certainly has its share of lavish and exotic banquets–Dune and its sequels are full of them. Star Trek has its replicators, but those are producing everything from Tea, Earl Grey, Hot to Romulan ale to heart of targ. A check of the Star Trek Wiki produces several screens of food and drink, organized by species. Most of what turns up there is a version of what we have on Earth, that’s true, but at least the universe is trying.
So maybe it’s simply that fantasy, which is grounded in a form of our past, has more to work with, because the past is full of food lore; but SF being generally in the future has to invent more–and writers have enough to do with building the world and the tech that by the time they get to the food, they’re ready to take a few shortcuts.
Or else we’re just waiting for SF’s Tolkien or Martin to appear, and then SF will be perceived as being about the food, too.
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