Fictional Foodstuffs: The Snacks Of Science Fiction

A recent paper by Jean P. Retzinger titled Speculative visions and imaginary meals: Food and the environment in (post-apocalyptic) science fiction films (published in Cultural Studies) has gotten me thinking about science-fictional food. Helpful Pasta&Vinegar has offered three short quotes (under the "fair use appetizer" clause, no doubt).

Unfortunately, this essay costs serious money to download (I could easily purchase take-out for the family with that much cash), so I decided to prepare my own article out of the ingredients at hand in my own little database.

Here's the first excerpt:

"Familiar foods serve as an anchor in an altered world (evoking both nostalgia and parody), whereas unfamiliar food may become one of the clearest measures of how far we have journeyed from the present."

No one went further for food than Lazarus Long and the Howard Families. In Heinlein's Methuselah's Children, mysterious aliens offer genetically modified plants with incongruously familiar flavors:

Lazarus was exploring alone some distance from the camp. He came across one of the Little People; the native greeted him .. and led Lazarus to a grove of low trees still farther from base. He indicated to Lazarus that he wanted him to eat.

Lazarus was not particularly hungry but he felt compelled to humor such friendliness, so he plucked and ate.

He almost choked in his astonishment. Mashed potatoes and brown gravy!

". . . didn't we get it right? - . ." came an anxious thought.

"Bub," Lazarus said solemnly, "I don't know what you planned to do, but this is just fine!"
(Read more about genetically modified food)

And nothing demonstrates tongue-in-cheek "unfamiliar food" better than this image from Galaxy Quest, in which the eager-beaver engineers of Thermia have created foodstuffs for the different crew members based on the "historical documents," which turn out to be episodes of a television show.


("Are you enjoying your Kep-mok blood ticks, Dr. Lazarus?")

Here's another bit from Retzinger's article:

In nearly every instance where food is prepared, shared, and eaten in science fiction films, it aids in what Vivian Sobchack (1988) describes as science fiction’s central theme: a ‘poetic mapping of social relations as they are created and changed by new technological modes of ‘‘being-in-the-world’’ ’

Douglas Adams remaps corporate-wise with the Nutri-Matic:

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic examination of the subject's metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject's brain to see what was likely to go down well.
(Read more about Adam's Nutri-Matic)

Fans of course recall that the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, which manufactures the Nutri-Matic, has a complaint department which "now covers all the major landmasses of the first three planets in the Sirus Tau Star system."

Here's a radical remapping of social relationships:


(Soylent Green wafers from Soylent Green)

The last of the Retzinger vintage:

"The presence of food at the critical junctures in which the familiar and the strange, the past, present, and future all collide lends materiality to the answers being worked out on screen. (…) Science fiction food scenes help obscure, expose, perpetuate, and challenge the divisions of culture and nature. “

I'm not entirely sure what this passage means; however, I think it would go down better with a nice glass of cold, blue milk from the original Star Wars film.


(Bantha Milk from the original Star Wars film)

The only conclusions that I can draw from looking at my Food in Science Fiction section is that 1) sf fans are a carnivorous bunch who would frankly prefer to grow their own protein. ChickieNobs (Atwood, 2003), Pseudoflesh (Herbert, 1969), Carniculture Factories (Piper, 1961) and Butcher Plants (Simak, 1961) - it's a long list.

And 2) convenience is very important, viz. Automated Restaurants (Burroughs, 1912), Autonomic Food-Processing (Dick, 1964), Food Brick dispensers (Niven, 1970), Synthetic Food Dispensers (Campbell, 1934) and more.


(Star Trek food synthesizer)

I'm curious if readers have any favorite sfnal foods - let me know.

Thanks to Pasta&Vinegar for bringing Retzinger's SPECULATIVE VISIONS AND IMAGINARY MEALS to our attention; see also the news articles in Food in Science Fiction for current efforts at sfnal food in the real world outside your local theater and bookshop.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/30/2008)

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