On writing

Food in science fiction

Current thoughts on food in science fiction

Pills as meals doesn’t look like it’s ever going to happen

Food in fantasy genres gets a fair amount of press. Some of it focuses on how impractical writers can be or even the perfect fantasy novel meal, and of course there’s lots of talk about how impractical stew is (I’ve written this one myself ). George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire seems to particularly inspire people to write about the food in it.

But what about the food in science fiction?

Soylent green comes to mind as probably the most infamous, but there’s lots of food out there. Technovelogy lists food in well-known science fiction novels.

A lot of early science fiction contained food pills taken by spacers, protein grown in nutrient tanks and lots of packaged meals being rehydrated or reheated in microwaves (or an equivalent).

Except for rehydrated/microwaved meals, that reality hasn’t happened yet. Nor does it seem likely in the near future. NASA, for example, found that when they tried to compress food down to dried cubes, their astronauts didn’t eat it. In a study published in March 2011, planning for longer-term space missions such as a manned trip to Mars is for a mix of:

  • irradiated wetpack foods (irradiated to kill any bacteria that might spoil the food),
  • freeze dried foods,
  • low moisture natural foods such as nuts,
  • extended shelf-life bread products,
  • powdered drinks, and a small amount of
  • fresh fruit and vegetables.

Developing the NASA Food System for Long-Duration Missions by Maya Cooper, Grace Douglas and Michele Perchonok

Note that the fresh food is included for crew morale, rather than as a dietary necessity. Also current NASA missions have no capacity for refrigerated storage, so all food must have a long shelf life.

Designing a food system for our own universe

We’re currently world building for our Linesman novels. Here we have ships that move through space by passing through an alternative dimension, which cuts down travel time down to manageable distances. Travel between populous worlds takes hours or days, while even the isolated rim worlds can be reached in weeks.

From here we extrapolated what we see as trends in modern cargo and passenger carriers on land, water and in the air. With the exception of the small people carriers (cars, which seem to be getting smaller) carriers are getting larger. We’re in the era of the super-tanker and the super-liner. Even the planes are getting bigger.

We also assumed that there would be no issue with:

  • carrying frozen goods, and that
  • somehow, in our world, humans have been re-engineered to not have to worry about alien micro-organisms killing them (because, after all, that’s a whole other blog, and once you get started working that out, it will hijack your story)

Thus for short-duration trips we imagine that most ships will work like ships do currently here on Earth. They take in supplies—a mix of frozen, fresh and dried—enough to last the trip with maybe a bit over, and resupply at the next world. Some food would be pre-prepared, ready to microwave, while some food would be cooked, much as it is now in our own homes.

Matthew Johnson, in From Farm to Fable: Food, Fantasy, and Science Fiction commented that biggest gap between the present and the past is not what we eat, but when we eat it, because until methods of storing food and transporting them were invented, most foods could only be eaten in season. That won’t be a problem in the future. Thus the food will be a mix from any world, any season.

We also have space stations, whose inhabitants spend months at a time on board the station. For these, we imagine that they will use something like hydroponics and produce their own fresh vegetables.

So our future travellers will eat foodstuffs from various worlds, but preparation and storage will be much like it is today. While there will be compressed emergency rations, these won’t be common fare, only for emergencies. The only pills will be medical, perhaps to provide essential vitamins and minerals for crew whose genetic makeup has changed from the human norm.

As for the food the aliens eat. That would be telling.

If you are interested in food from novels, particularly fantasy and science fiction, you might like to visit Food Through The Pages.

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