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May 6, 2012

Food Friendly May: Sci-Fi Vs Food

Filed under: Food — Twistie @ 11:45 am

As a child, I read a lot of science fiction novels. I watched a lot of science fiction TV shows and movies. I still dabble in the genre here and there. But there was one thing that kept striking me about those books I read and quite a few of the films I watched – particularly the sort that would go on to be ridiculed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but some better ones, too – was that there was no food.

In fact, there seemed to be an all-out war on eating. In most of the futuristic Utopian visions, food had been replaced with a handful of pills that magically provided all one’s nutritional needs with a swallow of water.

I get where the creators of those worlds were going with that idea. After all, if taking half a dozen pills every day means nobody ever has to starve to death again, well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Okay, I can’t argue that people starving is a good thing on any level, ever. I won’t attempt to say anything so hideously offensive to my entire world view. I’m against people dying of need in the midst of a world of plenty, period.

On the other hand, I’m firmly against throwing out babies with bath water, too. No point in wasting a perfectly good baby you just cleaned and everything.

A world with no actual food always struck me as far too extreme a solution.

Maybe that’s why I found myself so drawn over the years to the world of Star Trek. There’s food. People in some cases actually care about their food. Captain Kirk finally goes ballistic over that whole Tribble situation not when he sits on one in his Captain’s chair on the bridge, but when his order of a chicken sandwich and black coffee from the replicator comes out a plate and cup overflowing with Tribbles.

On Deep Space Nine, the appreciation for a basic human delight was everywhere. The Promenade Deck had not only a Replomat, but several speciality restaurants, as well. Most of the crew started their day with Klingon coffee, and the Captain was famous for his Aubergine stew.

I didn’t care for Voyager… but one line spoken by Captain Janeway has stuck with me over the years. There was a nebula to be explored, and any crew in their right minds nearly a hundred years from where they started would have said ‘the hell with an unexplored nebula!’ But then it was pointed out that this nebula might be a good source of a substance much like Earth coffee. I recognized that cry from the heart when Captain Janeway announced they were going in because: “There’s coffee in that nebula.”

No, those cheap novels I read all those years ago had it wrong. A handful of pills may one day be created that can stave off starvation and malnutrition. When that day comes, that will be great news for people living in the midst of disasters, whether natural or man made. A handful of pills is certainly better than starvation.

But for the rest of us? For the long term? Taking a few pills can never replace the delight of the first bite of a perfectly crisp apple. It can never stand in for the sense of community many of us derive from the Thanksgiving turkey. It won’t bring the comfort of Mom’s chicken noodle soup… or samosas… or empanadas… or whatever your Mom made that made you feel safe and loved.

There are many things I love in speculative fiction, and there are many ideas to be explored. But don’t try to take away one of the most powerful ways in which people bond. Don’t tell me it’s better to never really taste anything again.

For me, the lure of coffee in that nebula and aubergine stew with alien friends is far too powerful.


  1. Oh my, you just gave me an excellent idea for a sci-fi short story. Thank you!

    By the way, I love this post. I was also really turned off the by the ‘magic food pill’ sci-fi stories, which usually also envisioned some utopian master race of large-breasted women and washboard-abbed men. I like that even though Star Trek ‘solved’ the issue of food scarcity, they did it in a way that didn’t demonize food.

    Comment by Big Liberty — May 6, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

  2. @Big Liberty: You’re welcome! I hope I’ll get a chance to read the story I inspired when it’s done. Also, it’s nice to know I wasn’t the only one honked off with that magic food pill concept.

    Comment by Twistie — May 6, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

  3. My father is a (retired now) food scientist. Being an SF fan, I asked him about food pills some 40 years ago. He explained that given that fat was the most calorically dense food substance we knew of, the pill would need to be roughly the size a small coffee can. So I knew even then that it was going to take quite a few scientific breakthroughs before we’d all be eating something other than food.

    And let us not forget the blue milk in Star Wars (when they finally made an Aunt Beru action figure, one of her accessories was the blue milk!). Or that when Lando turned Han and Leia over to Vader, it was over the dinner table. It’s not as much food as in Star Trek, but then, they also had a lot less screen time :).

    Comment by TropicalChrome — May 6, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  4. My theory on the abscence of food: the science fiction of the 60’s that ended up being tv shows and movies was all written by men. Men who did not prepare food, ever, nor were they ever expected to. You can’t write food into a story if you just consume it and assume it’s peripheral. And if you just explained it away in the form of a “pill”, then you’d be assuming it would be peripheral.

    Times have changed. I like to think that Picard’s Aubergine stew could be freely refered to as ratatouille today.

    Comment by ChaChaHeels — May 7, 2012 @ 6:55 am

  5. Ms. ChaCha Heels, I believe you have hit the nail on the head. Makes total sense.

    I would, on occasion, when I am busy and tired and in no mood to think about what to eat, like a food pill to just get me through the day. Give up food entirely? Oh hell no. But sometimes, after a 12-hour workday, I’d rather just throw back a pill on my way to grab a cold beer from the fridge.

    Comment by Jezebella — May 7, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

  6. Aside from the food in Star Trek and all the magic pills, the food item I remember most from a science fiction story is from Charlton Heston’s Soylent Green (“Soylent Green is people!’).

    Comment by lali — May 8, 2012 @ 3:01 am

  7. I always loved in Star Trek: The Next Generation that Counselor Troi had a penchant for hot fudge sundaes, especially when she was feeling down. It was such a small thing–but added a touch of realism to a show that let’s face it, we watched because it was so NOT real.

    Comment by Maggie Cats — May 12, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

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