Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Eating Rites

Food in science fiction too often gets short thrift; its quality is inversely related to advances in technology. From the nutrition pills in Gernsbackian SF to the slabs of green and brown and orange paste in 2001: A Space Odyssey, food is often seen as no more than fuel.  The equivalent of those freeze-dried meals astronauts must massage into palatability with warm water. Dole yeast. Chicken Little. Food bricks. Crop algae. Syntho-steak. 'Take your protein pill and put your helmet on,' as ground control tells Major Tom. The future is food even faster than fast food.

Elsewhere, food is an exotic test of character, digestive system and morality. The trial-by-combat of the alien banquet in Iain M. Banks' Excession, for instance, or the talking beast which lugubriously points out its best cuts in Douglas Adams' The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe.  And sometimes food, or the lack of it, is the engine of the plot.  In Adam Roberts' By Light Alone, the majority of the world's population subsist on the photosynthetic nutrition of their hair; only the rich can indulge their base appetites. In Thomas M. Disch's magnificently bleak The Genocides, an alien food-crop overwhelms the Earth and threatens humanity with extinction. In Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, the hero, Severian, consumes not only the flesh of his lover, but also her memories in an anthropophagic rite that's a dark parody of Holy Communion.

But for the practising SF novelist, how people grow or get food, prepare food, and eat and share food, can be a useful shorthand.  A window on the ordinary unexamined life of the future, and the inner lives of its inhabitants. Severian, who grew up in a parsimonious Guild, frequently refers not only to food, but to times when he is forced to go hungry. Rick Deckard's wait for a meal at a noodle stall in Blade Runner not only tells us something about his character's loneliness, but also something about the crowded multiculturalism of 2019 Los Angeles. In The Matrix, the mucoid slop served aboard the hovercraft captained by Morpheus underscores the parlous state of free humans; it's so bad that the temptation of a tasty virtual steak is part of the deal with the devil made by a traitor. Soylent Green in Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room has nothing to do with the film verson's silly twist, but is a staple food in an overpopulated and undernourished world, made from (geddit?) soy beans and lentils, while the care with which the hero's ancient roommate tends his planters of herbs and onions tells us not only something about their value, but underscores his nostalgia for how things once were.

We're not only what we eat; we're also defined by how we eat it, and how much we value it. But our place at the top of the food chain isn't guaranteed.  As the crew of The Nostromo discovered during their last communal meal in Alien, sometimes we're the meat on something else's table.

(Thanks to those on Twitter who responded to my question about famous food moments in SF with some great examples. Soylent Green and That Scene in Alien were by far the most popular.)


Blogger Michael said...

I've always maintained that you're one of the very few writers who manage to make me feel hungry whenever I read their work. I think a lot of SF authors forgot, or just don't quite understand the role of food in the world, the way it often underpins social transaction and meeting. How many meetings take place over a coffee for instance?

November 09, 2011 9:26 am  
Blogger Nathan said...

Two 'Star Wars' films have interesting food moments that tell us a lot about the director, I think. The practical, fly-on-the-wall domesticity in 'A New Hope' with its flan and blue milk, contrasts with the bizarre, strained formality of the meal shared by Anakin and Padme in 'Attack of the Clones'. One is firmly rooted in a reality of some kind, the latter nicely conceptualizes the vacuousness of the latter trilogy- where characters exist to show of the sfx, rather than exist in a gritty, working world.

November 09, 2011 9:33 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Hi Michael,

Go to any motorway service area and you'll see a dozen business meetings going on. People meeting midway between their respective places of work. There's an awful lot of stuff happening in bars, in SF and fantasy. There are the cliched pub infodumps, but a lot of fun stuff too (the opening of Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road , for instance). Maybe this is a reflection the social life of fans and writers? (I'm guilty of this btw.)

Nathan - lovely contrast. Maybe the meal in 'Attack of the Clones' represents the fake hospitality of the corporate milieu?

November 09, 2011 11:19 am  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

If I ever write another thriller, I will definitely include a meeting at the Watford Gap services. It's the contemporary equivalent of the gloomy teashop in a Graham Greene story.

November 09, 2011 11:24 am  
Blogger Michael said...

The service station idea is lovely. I was always impressed that most of William Gibsons infodumps/info exchanges take place over breakfasts or in little cafes. It seems, to me and my life anyway, a very realistic, or at least non-jarring way of allowing characters to impart relevant point and move everything forward. If its done well, you don't even really notice it, but it adds colour to the story.

November 09, 2011 11:43 am  
Blogger Nathan said...

Yes, Paul, without doubt a fantastic idea- there is a curious, tawdry romance at motorway services. they are like airports in the sense that they are true interzones. William Gibson and Michael Swanwick capture it brilliantly in the opening section of their short 'Dogfight'.

November 09, 2011 11:45 am  
Blogger Nathan said...

I don't tweet, but how about this for a question- where are the most science-fictional services people have stopped at? My offering- Lancaster- that weird observation tower.

November 09, 2011 12:19 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

Paul, please do write another thriller. I miss them. Egg and chips in a Little Chef as the Low Men enter...

Re food in SF, there's Fwee Swong (sp?) in Banks's Consider Phlebas. "Bounty from the sea!" All his followers eat the worst kind of crap.

I've just been watching the original BBC Quatermass 2, where the mysterious government facility has the cover story that it makes "synthetic food". Nobody bats an eyelid in 1955, but it turns out to be horrible black corrosive goo, toxic to all living things on Earth. It is, though, synthetic food for the alien blob-creatures.

November 10, 2011 8:43 pm  
Blogger Adam Roberts said...

One day I plan to write a sf novel all about food. Oh, wait, I just did!

November 11, 2011 4:43 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Those old motorway service stations feel as if they belong to another timeline - the one that we might have reached if we decided that engineers rather than bankers were a Good Thing. Not necessarily a better future, but different.

A little bit of synchronicity, Pete: just watched Quatermass and the Pit in the new Blu-Ray release. That series foreshadowed all kinds of trends.

November 11, 2011 5:15 pm  
Blogger Dan Miller said...

Alastair Reynolds does a really good job with this in House of Suns. Nothing brings home "these people live in a post-scarcity environment" like eating delicious croissants off of high-quality plates in the middle of an emergency.

November 11, 2011 8:55 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

I saw BBC's Q'mass and the Pit recently too, albeit not in bluray. Is it digitally restored or something? Anyway, it's utterly fantastic, even though the ending is better in the Hammer movie version, with the crane rather than a rather anticlimactic bit of chain.

I'm having a Nigel Kneale-a-thon. Next it's First Men in the Moon, and then Year of the Sex Olympics!

November 12, 2011 6:21 am  
Anonymous Lee said...

Did anyone mention the floating Chinese takeaway in The Fifth Element?

November 15, 2011 10:32 pm  

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