Jan 30 2014 10:00am

Food of the Future

Science fiction has a bad reputation as far as portraying food goes—people are more likely to remember the yeast in Asimov’s Caves of Steel, the “earl grey, hot” from Star Trek, and the food pills from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Worse, they’re more likely to say fantasy has better food. Is this actually true?

Six science fiction authors—Elizabeth Bear, Aliette De Bodard, Ann Leckie, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, and Fran Wilde—gathered at a virtual Food of the Future roundtable to hash out the possibilities.


Aliette de Bodard: What are the issues with portraying food in SF?

Fran Wilde: I think one of the biggest issues is pre-set notions of what food is okay in SF. Many stories show Westernized food concepts—the teacup, the vat of oatmeal (with apologies to Tuf Voyaging)—and how a society sticks to those preconceived notions (chickienobs, from Oryx & Crake, are rather familiar in their presentation, if not their origin.). Instead, stories that focus on growing and creating food that works realistically in its setting and is evocative of future problems, like taste (see Alex Daily Macfarlane’s “Found” in Clarkesworld, and Matthew Sanborn Smith’s “Beauty Belongs to the Flowers” at There’s also the impact of various far-flung cultures on what people are willing to try eating, and the physicality of what they are able to eat. These are what capture my interest these days. Stories with food that reflects future technologies beyond the matter compiler or the food pill. I think, frankly, that future food will be more exciting, and possibly more dangerous, than we can imagine.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew: It’s often not portrayed at all, I think, since it’s considered perhaps too prosaic or domestic? Drinks yes—bars, cantinas—and drugs (cyberpunk!) but not so much with the food, and very rarely food shared between family. Food seems to be a marker of scarcity or plenty in the abstract, but there’s not much attention paid to the actual dishes, preparation, taste. Or indeed where all of it comes from! Not that details about dinner logistics are necessarily required, in my opinion, but a lot of it does come across as inconsistent (who’s doing the cooking and how come a space station has fresh milk if they don’t keep cows?). Another issue—some food items are treated as horrid stuff eaten by the starving, but in some cultures eating bugs or frog legs would be perfectly normal, not a mark that you’re scavenging from waste disposals! The ideal food, as eaten by the rich and cultured in SF, does tend to be what’s considered ‘normal’ and refined in contemporary standards. Including dairy byproducts full of bacteria.

Elizabeth Bear: A lot of writers at various times just didn’t think through or anticipate cultural change, the demands of space colonization, and so forth. I get a lot of mileage for myself as a writer by reminding myself that Kimball Kinnison pan-frying steaks in space is probably a failure of vision. Vat meat, maybe. (Not as big a failure of vision as Heinlein’s smoking hoods, so you can enjoy your cigarette without polluting the space ship, but close.)

For some reason—I’m not sure why, possibly because it annoys me when made-up worlds lack supply chains—I’ve always wondered about what people in space would eat, and tried to extrapolate it. Here on Earth, we have never hesitated as a species to adopt new cuisines and ingredients as soon as we’re bloody well exposed to them. (Within the culturally reasonable confines of our biases, of course: I’m not running out to sample casa marzu any time soon, and I nearly vomited when exposed to limburger.) We go running after flavors with almost as much energy as we go running after sex. The history of world cultural exchange is the history of the spice trade. Heck, saffron and vanilla are still two of the most precious substances on earth, by weight.

And I can’t see a future in which trade and cultural exchange persist and that fusion doesn’t increase. People move to new places and adopt local foods into their cuisines. So it seemed very reasonable to me that people on a generation ship would plant kudzu, for example, which is low-maintenance and very nutritious. And you’re much more likely to get your protein from insect or plant sources if you have to ship everything up a gravity well. Noodles stick together well in a microgravity environment. So, for example, Asian-style cuisine is very convenient to adapt to the demands of space! (Avoid drippy sauces, though.)

I’ve been interested for a while in how SF tends to take what seems to me to be an unrealistically Apollonian view of… well, of everything. We’re nerds, and we tend to treat our bodies and everything related to them as annoyances. Meat puppets just get in our way. I’ve learned in my middle age that the better I maintain myself, the less of an annoyance I am, and I’ve also learned that my brain and body are not an us-and-them situation but really, it’s all me. But the larger geek culture would rather have as little to do with physical needs as possible. So we’ve got soylent and 3D printed sushi, and this is all going on just as we’re also really starting to understand how thoroughly our bodies and minds are one thing—and how bad for our bodies and minds all the nuisance-free sustenance we spent so damned much time inventing in the fifties, sixties, and seventies turn out to be.

Food pills, man. Where’s the phytochemicals in that?

Fran: Just loving Elizabeth’s answer. KUDZU. There’s a reason they call that stuff mile-a-minute. I can see tendrils escaping the farm-bay and getting into everything.

Ann Leckie: That’s a good point about annoyance with bodies. I wonder if some of that isn’t a holdover from a sort of mid-century preoccupation with efficiency that’s kind of held over in science fiction. It brings to mind conversations I’ve had or overheard with folks who assert that, for instance, once we’re in space we don’t need a calendar or clock tied to Terran astronomy, therefore we would of course have a more “rational” way of keeping track of time, that would of course be decimal. Or that in a space habitat where you could control the temperature, there would be no reason for clothes. Indeed, making and washing clothes, not to mention spending time dressing, would be a waste! As though everyone would just agree that this new clock would be better and questions of existing systems were irrelevant. Or as though clothes were of course entirely functional in such a basic sense—we only wear them to keep warm! Think of all the time and money we could save by going naked!

Same, I think, with food. Imagine all that wasted time cooking, not to mention eating! The waste of resources! When, of course, it’s all quite functional and more or less efficient, just on a very different set of terms.

I’m not sure I buy that fascination with that particular sort of efficiency is entirely nerd-based, though. I think it might be interesting to answer that question—where did that fascination with time saving and that particular sort of “efficiency” in the US in the forties and fifties come from?

Rochita Loen-Ruiz: Fran talked about the annoyance with bodies and I think that encapsulates the issue between food and science fiction. I wonder how much of it is related to the way in which we look at science and our perception of the sciences as detached and logical, whereas our relationship to food is one that is more complex as it’s often related to emotional and physical bonds.

What Elizabeth says about supply chains and cultural exchange affecting our food taste is also true. I think that a person who’s adventurous enough to voyage out into space would also be adventurous enough to want to try different flavours and different dishes. I think fusions are an inevitable result of culinary excursions.

There are quite a lot of interesting developments in agriculture—how fields are planted, how to make fields more productive, terraced farming, miniature farms, hybridization of produce, the irrigation and fertilization of soil. These developments affect the kind of food that we will be eating in the future and the way in which we prepare these foods.

I remember visiting an exhibit on future food at one of the museums here in The Netherlands where a lot of future foods were made from beans and legumes.

It would be interesting to see these kinds of developments taken into consideration in science fiction work.


Arthur Dent tea Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Fran: What is the SF book with the most memorable food, and what’s the likelihood that that food is actually possible in that world?

Aliette: Can I give a negative example? The one I remember most vividly is Arthur Dent trying to teach the food synthesizer to make tea in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and how that terminally slows down the entire ship because the computer is so busy making that perfect cup… It’s a bad example because (a) the future of Douglas Adams’ novels is actually a little richer, food-wise (it’s one of the few series I can think of that has a plot set in a restaurant), and of course (b) it’s pretty unlikely that we’d have a synthesizer that can just make everything at the drop of a hat: where is it getting its materials from? Where does the energy for conversion come from? (I know this is a rather improbable ship in-universe, but I always thought the improbability was going a little too far there…).

I know a lot of futures, especially in classical SF, have food synthesizers portrayed as the end-all of food preparation, but I’ve always thought that was dreary rather than liberating: as someone who enjoys the act of preparing food (and the rituals and companionship inherent in the act of preparing large amounts of food: stuff like making fried rolls is a collective endeavour in the household—you have to, if you’re making stuffing for 80 rolls, shaping them, and frying them in batches!), the idea of always getting it ready-made, even if convenient, makes me more than a little depressed. Then again, I’m the one who never quite got the hang of food processors…

Benjanun: As a positive example, the most recent I can think of is Aliette’s novella On a Red Station, Drifting where a lavish multi-course banquet is turned into a battlefield for family feuds, not just the ceremonial poetry but also the preparation that goes into it. There’s attention paid to what is possible and what can be done in a time of scarcity where the station is flooded with refugees—the sacrifice that’s made to make the banquet possible in order to receive a high-ranking dignitary. It’s an especially culturally rich sequence.

Elizabeth: Benjanun grabbed Aliette’s story, so I’m going wreck-diving for some older examples that were formative for me. I was thinking of Tuf Voyaging, as well. For those unfamiliar, it’s a mosaic novel by George R.R. Martin (which I have great affection for) in which his mushroom-obsessed protagonist travels about the galaxy in a genetic-engineering-equipped ship with a zillion cats, solving the food crises of various worlds. It’s been ages since I read it, though I have a copy here and should reread. I do recall that it spends a good deal of time with Tuff challenging the food assumptions of the various cultures he meets. Everybody wants to eat meat! And Tuff can’t convince them that mushrooms are much more sensible. He has a hard life.

I also remember James White making something of this in his Sector General stories as well—he does a pretty good job talking about the challenges and logistics of keeping every patient and staffer in a giant multispecies multienvironment hospital fed when they all have grossly different metabolic needs, and sometimes you are sharing your brain with doctors of five different species, all of whom eat different things, to great comedic effect. (There’s one where they’re trying to get the space brontosaurs to eat, for example.) I also remember T. J. Bass focusing on food very extensively in The Godwhale—both the joyless consumption of stuff that just exists to keep life in the shivering frames of a massively overpopulated, ecologically devastated planet… and the resource war that ensues when good food becomes available again.

And of course, there’s the Spice, in Dune.

Janeway Star Trek Voyager Replicator

Ann: Aliette’s point about food replicators is an interesting one, to me. On the one hand, I agree that the idea of replicators/synthesizers totally taking over food production leaves out the very important social aspects of cooking and eating. I also think, though, there can be a sort of fetishization of “real” cooked food. ST:TNG and Deep Space Nine did feature characters who cooked because they enjoyed it, which I do like. But there was also the occasional “replicators don’t taste like home-made” thing going on. I find that kind of interesting, particularly if there’s a situation where replicated food is a good deal cheaper and/or easier to obtain. There might well be a class/economic divide in such a situation, and that would make “my homemade recipe is superior to your supposedly identical replicated version” sound maybe not the way Star Trek writers intended it to. I have to admit, it sounds that way to me even so, given the fact that where I live, a fair amount of processed, pre-prepared food is a good deal cheaper than the ingredients to make something (not even mentioning the need for time, equipment, and knowledge in order to turn that into a meal). And on a tangent, I think even SF that pays attention to food often misses the way that class and wealth affect assumptions of what’s “good” food and what isn’t, in some of the same ways writers can forget that, say, USian ideas about what’s food and what’s not aren’t actually universal.

Star Trek still—I’m kind of intrigued by the way that the standard foods of various non-humans are sometimes portrayed as downright disgusting. Gagh, for instance, or “blood pie” which I’m sure was meant to sound weird and disgusting, but it won’t sound that horrible to someone who likes blood sausage, I would imagine. Or the Galaxy Quest spoof of Klingon food, kep mok blood ticks. (There’s that blood again!) It’s kind of...interesting, the way that “really, truly foreign food” is painted as something really gross and horrible, something no human would ever want to eat (and yet, of course, the assumption is that “human” tastes are basically USian). At the same time, it’s kind of cool that to some extent in TNG and more, I think, in DS9, people seem to have developed an appreciation for the various kinds of foods available, in a way that’s more realistic to me than “urgh worms and blood no human could possibly eat that aren’t the aliens weird.” I think there’s a kind of tension there, not necessarily one the various writers intended.

Galaxy Quest kep mok blood ticks

Rochita: Heh. Funny that you mention blood pie—there’s actually a dish in the Philippines called “dinuguan” which is meat and innards stewed in vinegar and fresh pork blood. I’m not particularly fond of it, but it’s a special dish and if it’s served at a feast, people are bound to go: Ooohhh...dinuguan.

On books: I recently read Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree where food and food preparation are innate to the story. Kaaron’s very good at evoking scents and tastes and the atmosphere of preparing for a feast. I liked the attention to detail, the interaction between those who went to gather the food, the women who were cooking together, and the scents and tastes as well as the description of the feast being prepared. These things convey a clearer and more rounded image of the society and the world occupied by the people of the tree.

I’ve also always liked how food is a natural and sensual part of the worlds Nalo Hopkinson creates. The attention to taste and texture all serve to heighten my enjoyment of her worldbuilding. I think it’s in one of Nalo’s books that there is thought given to the way in which food is grown in the future—I’m not perfectly sure as I’ve lent out the book to a friend, but I think it’s in Brown Girl in the Ring where her character starts out thinking about the seedlings that she’s growing. (I could be wrong, but I do remember a scene like that in one of Nalo’s works.


Elizabeth: If time and space and fictionality were no object, what would you eat?

Fran: Good question. With the advantage of time-travel, I’d like to sample a historical dessert called (in English) a subtlety…. also known as an entremet, or an illusion food. These things, as such things often do, began as a simple break between courses, sometimes with a spot of entertainment. They evolved into enormous marzipan creations—castles, allegorical scenes—complete with staging and musicians. I’m guessing the results were ridiculously inedible, but I’d like to see certain historical figures try to eat one and maintain their dignity. Going forward? I’d love to see what tastes we make our own once we do start traveling beyond our own world. What spices we find on other worlds, if any. Whether something cooked or brewed in zero-G or high-G could be viewed as superior to a similar item from Earth. Tastes will change, but enjoyment won’t. There’s a great scene early in Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension where Alana is totally immersed in a moment of taste. She says her sister sends her things from her travels—sometimes things that aren’t so great—as gifts, and this one fruit—a plumberry—just sweeps her away.

And I’d like to try anything Aliette wants to cook.

Ann: Time and space no object? I’d want to try basically everything I possibly could.

I also was taken by the plumberry in Ascension! I definitely appreciated that moment, that attention to food, to what was available or not, what was luxury or not, and the importance of how things taste.

Aliette: Well, I’d try that cup of tea the Heart of Gold ends up producing at the end of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—with all that computing power at its disposal, this must be something extra awesome!

Otherwise, I would totally sign on for food tourism in Ancient Vietnam, and particularly the Imperial Banquets, which must have been quite something—the multiple rich dishes, the careful harmony of hot, sweet, sour, bitter and salty; the choicest ingredients… I’d probably come out stuffed, but it would be well worth it.

Benjanun: Can I cheat and say I wish I had an infinite stomach and the metabolism to match? (It is surely science fictional enough—cyborgs with optimized metabolism!) I live in Hong Kong, a city rightly known for its delicious food among other things, and not a day goes by without me wishing I had more room for dim sum, noodles, char siew in all its forms.

Rochita: I can vouch for Aliette’s excellence as a cook. When I was a child, I used to wonder what Turkish Delight tasted like. In my mind, it took on magical and heavenly proportions. I think it wasn’t until a few years ago that I got to taste real Turkish Delight—needless to say, my imagination of it was much yummier...

One of my Clarion West classmates wrote a piece where a character was preparing Ethiopian bread. I’d been wanting to taste it since then. Last year, a friend brought us to a restaurant run and managed by an Ethiopian friend. I finally got to eat the bread I’d read about and it was delicious. I also love the communal way of eating where we could all take from the same dish.

Writer friend, Sylvia Spruck Wrigley wrote a fantastic story called “Excerpt from the Geusian Ladies Society Manual” with out of this world recipes that I really enjoyed reading. Now, if they were humanly consumable, I would love to try some of those.

There’s still nothing like congee with lots of ginger though. It’s my favorite comfort food.

Fran: Rochita, I’m on record calling out Edmund a terrible candy narrator for that Turkish Delight scam. What a disappointment. And yes! I liked Sylvia’s story a lot.


Firefly Serenity Fruity Oaty Bar

Rochita: I found myself wondering about snacks and junk food. Would we still be eating potato chips in the future?

Aliette: I read a fascinating article in the Economist (here) about how Japan was fighting the invasion of Western junk food by inventing soy-based snacks that were meant to be more healthy. There’s already quite a bit of regional variation in Western junk food (France has a lot of Emmental-based snacks and gougères, littles puffs with cheese; the UK has fried vegetable crisps and crackers). Vietnam (and probably other countries in Asia) has fried fruit instead of fried potatoes; and snacks there can include fried dough, steamed buns, and a lot of hot appetisers (I’ll always remember the day we spent in the Mekong delta, where we stopped at 3 o’clock in a house on stilts for drinks and homemade fried rolls!).

The snacks of the future are probably still going to exist; and so is junk food—my guess is that potato chips might be on their way out in a more health-conscious society, but of course there’ll always be that need to indulge in something that’s really, terribly bad for your health but tastes oh so good.

Elizabeth: Potato chips, cookies, seaweed snacks, rice crackers, Pocky, tamarind what-have-you… where’s the line between street food and junk food? I don’t want to live in a world without dosas.

Snack foods have gotten more diverse in my lifetime (and both better and worse—I remember when Doritos were a bit “exotic,” but my goodness I would rather have dried chili mangos, for example—but we’ve also reached what might be Peak Cheez Food here in North America. Surely the supply of “edible” petroleum by-products has to give out eventually..) and I think that’s a positive trend, and one that will continue.

There’s regional diversity in junk food even within the U.S.—Moon Pies vs. Whoopie Pies, Hostess Cakes vs. Little Debbie or Drakes, and so on. (Once upon a time, Smartfood was a local New England thing, and Snapple came from upstate New York, and they were both quite good. Now they’re owned by Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola, respectively, and the woman who invented Smartfood now makes Annie’s Mac and Cheese.)

Diversity is a social good in junk food, as in just about everything. And I don’t just say that because I’m totally hooked on wasabi nori chips.

Fran: Oh sweet potato chips and vegetable chips, may you never go away. There’s a lot to be said for something quick and crunchy. I can see seaweed and soy snacks still around. Also something along the lines of snack/protein bars with funny names. Something fruity. Possibly oaty too.

Benjanun: I reckon snacks and junk food will never go away, I’d hate to do without red pork pastries, egg tarts and all the other nice things in Hong Kong bakeries. (As for variants, I encourage everyone to look at Japanese flavors of Kit Kat sometime. Green tea! Tasty too, but a little sweet.) I like to dream that in the future we’d find some way to eat delicious things without them being bad for you… so that’s more junk food eaten rather than less!

Ann: Yeah, junk food’s not going anywhere. The specifics of what’s being snacked on, and what’s considered “junk” and what’s “healthy” will change, of course, depending on what’s available. I can’t see potato chips being popular where there’s not land to grow potatoes in, or where frying in lots of oil isn’t easy or convenient. But it’ll be something, and depend on it, some of it will be frowned on as unhealthy or disgusting or just “not good food.” I’d be inclined to predict that there’ll be a class/financial/prestige aspect to it, too, but maybe that’s just me.

There’s always going to be something salty (or sweet!) and junky to snack on, though, if it’s even remotely physically possible.


Firefly Serenity crew

Benjanun: What do you think food in SF could tell you about the setting, the characters, and the tone of the story if anything; can it advance the plot?

Fran: Cutting off a line of supply for any culture that needs food from outside (space station cultures, for one) will immediately raise the stakes for a plot, and possibly bring out the best and worst in various characters. ::goes to look for examples::

Elizabeth: Fran, I just recently read a story, “Water Rights” by An Owomoyela, that deals with the resource-management issue—water is sort of technically a foodstuff, right? Additionally, Ann Leckie does some cool stuff with tea in her new novel Ancillary Justice, where it gets used as a trade good, as a status symbol, and a pivot around which social tension revolves. It can also be a point of social conflict (sometimes played for laughs, a la the intersection between Klingon and human tastes in ST:TNG). Food is also generally pivotal in Karen Lord’s work, both in terms of plot, character development, and worldbuilding.

Food is also a point of characterization. A character is reflected in what and how and when they eat no less than a culture is. Are they abstemious? Methodical? Adventurous? Do they have the same breakfast every day? Are they harried takeout addicts? Do they cook? Not cook? Try and fail?

If they have special dietary needs (restrictions, a huge caloric need, vampirism, whatever) how do they manage that?

Benjanun: Ooh, I didn’t even think of the huge caloric need—but now that you mention it I wonder if all the augmented soldiers and so forth would need a lot more caloric intake than most of us. And you’re very right that how people eat is hugely important: there are different cultural contexts for serving food in courses or serving it all at once, eating from your own dish or having communal plates from which everyone picks. Utensils too, if any is used at all… SFnal cultural and environmental factors would affect much of what utensils are made of, if they are used at all, and can add to the verisimilitude in world-building. Yes to the point about characterization! How someone eats can go a long way in telling the reader about their personality. I’d also like to think that when you’ve limited space to tell the story—in short fiction, for one—food and food preferences can hint at the wider setting, at the characters’ lives beyond what’s going on at the moment.

Aliette: Well, I’m biased, but I think food reflects both the setting and the characters to huge extents. Fran and Elizabeth have already talked of the importance of lines of supply and cultivation conditions, ie food that is a reflection of the circumstances of the world; but I think it goes beyond that. Food, attitude to food and the manner of food preparation and food intake are revealing of culture: what does it mean, for instance, that a particular spacefaring culture thinks food not important, versus another one that celebrates it to the point where food metaphors are everywhere? (true story. In Vietnamese, one of the ways you can ask news of someone is “have you eaten rice yet?”). What ingredients are taboo and why and when? (fish on Friday for Christians; or how some people in Vietnam, especially old people, eat no meat for a period of time in order to comply with Buddhist creed). What dishes are specific to one class/ethnic group/regional group? (when trying to determine where someone came from, my grandmother said “tell me what they served you and I’ll tell you where they’re from” And she did! It was uncanny). And how does the manner of eating those dishes reflect the people eating them? (In France as elsewhere, your table manners brand you as being from a particular segment of society; but it goes further than that: contrast, for instance, the communal Vietnamese restaurant meals where people order food that will go well together, with the more individual French meals where everyone orders and eats their own dishes)

Obviously, I’m very much a believer on how food can advance the plot as well. The one example that comes to mind is a scarce kind of food that acquires huge importance, the prototype for this being Dune’s Spice and the central role it gives to the planet Arrakis; but there are other things as well. For instance, when reaching a new planet, what will you be able to eat and where will it come from? There’s a sequence in Maria Doria Russell’s excellent The Sparrow where the characters have just landed on an alien planet and are testing the local flora and fauna to find what they can eat. And, finally, banquets are always a good place to have lavish description of foods while the characters are busy getting information and/or plotting—there’s more than a few banquets in Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor series that made me salivate!

Elizabeth: What Aliette is saying about the narrative importance of the type of food and how it’s prepared and served resonates very strongly with me. And it reminds me of a Jack Vance novel in which one of the scientifictional elements has to do with a cultural quirk in which this one particular people treats eating with the same sort of heavy taboos that the modern West hangs around sexual activity. (Vance was a world-traveler, a member of the merchant marine, and he does some interesting things with cultural relativism in an era when it was largely ignored.)

Rochita: I actually have to thank Elizabeth for introducing me to Vance. Before you told me about his work (at Clarion West), I’d never read anything of his. I need to read more of his work though.

Fran: Elizabeth, “Water Rights,” from Jonathan Strahan’s Edge of Infinity was exactly what I was thinking of there. Water is absolutely tied to food—both in that humans need water to live, and—as with some of Joe Haldeman’s freeze-dried delicacies (I’m thinking Starbound in particular)—they need water to cook and grow food.

Dune is a good point of reference for water issues—and the politics surrounding water wasting too. That scene at the first Arakeen dinner where guests traditionally toss their towels on the floor, and the staff watches intently because they plan to sell the squeezings from the towel out the back—and you realize that the dinner guests’ waste has become incorporated into the local economy and someone will suffer if that pattern changes. You really see the interconnections there.

Speaking of waste—Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema deals beautifully with dumpster cuisine. His characters not only construct elaborate gourmet meals from store castoffs, but feed a community with it. Learning just how to do that is part of the growth arc for Trent, the main character in the near-future YA dystopia, and it’s also an excellent metaphor for going off the main grid and not only surviving, but thriving.

Insofar as food advancing the plot goes, in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, what characters eat, and when, is central to the story’s outcome. I’m thinking particularly of the later banquet scenes, which he tells from both the dining room and the kitchen, so food preparation and clean-up becomes a focus, as does what’s eaten. But soon after we meet Erasmus, he visits his garden patch (called a ‘tangle,’), and we hear about members of his Math brewing beer and baking bread. Now I want to go plot map Anathem by all the places where people eat together. Hmm.

Ann: Yes, I’m definitely with Aliette on this! Food is an excellent way to do very elegant worldbuilding, the kind that can make a fictional world seem real, like it extends way past the edges of the frame. Regional and class differences are just the tip of that iceberg, as she points out.

Good point, Fran, about the water wastage in Dune—those are the kind of worldbuilding details that really ring true to me, something that from one point of view is selfish and intentionally humiliating, but from another angle, well, those folks need the water! It’s a bit too easily resolved in Dune—just give the people some water when there’s a banquet, remove the humiliation! All better! Most such situations in real life aren’t that easily “fixed” or the humiliation or other negatives quite so obviously, maliciously intentional, but I like that it was there and thought about.

And Vance! Vance did a lot of interesting things with food, in a lot of his work, I think. I started trying to think of what Vance books involved food more or less significantly in the plot and decided it would be shorter to try to list the ones that don’t. I’m probably exaggerating, though, working just from memory the food looms large.

In the end, most stories are about people, and relationships. And food—its supply, its preparation, its sharing and exchange, is often an important part of how we relate to other people. So as Fran says, food as a plot mover can be as big as cutting off (or obtaining) a crucial supply, but it can also be as subtle as the refusal or acceptance of an offered dish.

One of the (many) things I loved about Zen Cho’s “The House of Aunts” was the role food played in the story. Food and cooking are important to Ah Lee’s aunts, even though they can’t really taste the food and only eat human innards. So does Ah Lee, and so she doesn’t eat lunch at school, but when she meets a boy she likes, she wants to pack a lunch so she can eat with him—and then he’d like to taste her lunch, and of course that’s terribly inappropriate but Ah Lee can’t really explain why! I really liked the way that food was integral to that plot.

Aliette: Oh yes, “The House of Aunts” was fabulous, but I especially liked the discussions in the kitchen with the aunts, and the importance of making human innards taste like they’ve been cooked.

Benjanun: I recall that they fry human intestines to look like yau ja gwai—that being a common street food here, I’ve never looked at them the same way since! (I still eat them, for they are delicious).

Rochita: I also loved that part about “The House of Aunts”. Even in present day society, the way we approach food and food preparation varies from culture to culture, from society to society. I can’t help but think of the difference between approaches to food in the Dutch culture and in Filipino culture (for instance). There’s a huge difference between how we eat and prepare food at home in The Philippines and over here in The Netherlands. Even the dynamic that goes into preparing for a feast or a dinner together is much much different. I think that food and the entire culture that goes with food—the preparation and the consumption and everything else around it gives us insight into how the culture/society of the world of story works.

We always think that we need those little details to tell us about the world of an SF story—like a door irising open (for instance) instead of sliding open. It’s the same thing with food.

I remember this coming up in a discussion with Sophia McDougall when she was working on Mars Evacuees—at some point we talked about what kind of food second generation Filipino kids would be likely to eat and I mentioned champorado (chocolate rice). It’s one of those things that’s likely to clue a reader in on the fact that these kids while having grown up in a culture not their own, still retain a connection to the culture that belongs to their parents. But don’t you notice how certain kinds of food are connected to certain memories?


Final Round-Robin Question: Describe Future Food in Ten Words or Less. Go:

Elizabeth: Since the 2047 Tea Blight, no-one has joy.

Fran: You don’t consume Xlagli; Xlagli consumes you. Brighter complexion, guaranteed.

Benjanun: Spliced poetry-fruits excavated from the bellies of dead ships.

Aliette: Memorywine, fermented in the light of a dying star.

Rochita: Siargan spiced rice, clears up sinuses like nothing on earth.

Ann: Cabbage stuffed with rice and spiced space station reservoir catfish.



Reading and Viewing List From the Roundtable:

Written word

  • Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Pan Books, 1979, 1980)
  • Margaret Atwood, Oryx & Crake (Doubleday, 2003)
  • T. J. Bass, The Godwhale (Ballantine, 1974)
  • Zen Cho, “The House of Aunts”, Giganotosaurus
  • Aliette de Bodard, On a Red Station Drifting (Immersion, 2014)
  • Cory Doctorow, Pirate Cinema (Tor, 2012)
  • Frank Herbert, Dune (Chilton, 1974)
  • Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner Aspect, 1998)
  • Jacqueline Koyanagi, Ascension (Muse, 2013)
  • Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (Orbit, 2013)
  • Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo (Small Beer Press, 2010) and The Best of All Possible Worlds (Del Rey 2013)
  • Alex Dally Macfarlane, “Found” in Clarkesworld
  • George Martin, Tuff Voyaging (Baen, 1986)
  • An Owomoyela, “Water Rights”, in The Edge of Infinity, ed. Jonathan Strahan (Solaris, 2012)
  • Matthew Sanborn Smith, “Beauty Belongs to the Flowers”,
  • Neal Stephenson, Anathem (William Morrow, 2008)
  • Jack Vance, Various Works
  • Kaaron Warren, Walking the Tree (Angry Robot, 2010)
  • James White, Sector General novels (Del Rey, beg. 1962)
  • Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, “Vintage Millenial Cookery InfoManual by the Geusian Ladies Society”, Crossed Genres


Movies and TV series

  • Galaxy Quest
  • Star Trek: the New Generation; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  • Firefly


Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. When coupled with a tendency to read the dictionary for fun as a child, this led her inevitably to penury, intransigence, and the writing of speculative fiction. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Campbell Award winning author of 25 novels and almost a hundred short stories. Her dog lives in Massachusetts; her partner, writer Scott Lynch, lives in Wisconsin. She spends a lot of time on planes.

Aliette de Bodard lives and writes in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction, which has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Asimov’s and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, earning her a Nebula Award, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Her latest release is the SF novella On a Red Station, Drifting. Visit her website for thoughts on genre and her latest attempts at cooking.

Ann Leckie’s first novel,Ancillary Justice, debuted from Orbit in 2013. Her short stories appear in Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition edited by Rich Horton. She is the founder of GigaNotoSaurus and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is an escapee from Mundania. She is a graduate of Clarion West and is an Octavia Butler scholar. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and electronic publications including the Apex Book of World SF 2, The End of the Road anthology, We See a Different Frontier and most recently in Clarkesworld Magazine. She has upcoming work in Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 9, Steampunk World and Outpouring-Typhoon Yolanda Relief Anthology. She writes the Movements column for Strange Horizons.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew enjoys writing love letters to cities real and speculative, and lots of space opera when she can get away with it. Her fiction appears in Clarkesworld Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year and Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Fran Wilde can program digital minions and re-load a fountain pen without splattering herself with ink, usually. She produces Cooking the Books: interviews with authors about food in their fiction. Her short stories appear in Asimov’s and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her first novel will debut from Tor in 2015.

Paul Weimer
1. PrinceJvstin
This is something I've discussed in book reviews (particularly of Aliette's works) and in Mind Meld and other things.

Why does SF drop the ball when it comes to food? I don't know, but it seems that many fantasy authors take more care with it than SF authors do, with notable exceptions.

Meals and the communal act of eating is as important, I think, as the actual food consumed. And if in the future, if people eat alone--that is a marker of how *society* has changed, radically. Its useful worldbuilding!

And the 2047 prediction by Bear makes me sad. I don't remember the author, either, but it reminds me of a short story where covert biowarfare between England and France leads to the end of tea.
Deana Whitney
2. Braid_Tug
Thanks everyone, fun dissection. Now I’m hungry.

@Fran: if you want to eat a subtlety, call your local SCA chapter. See if any of the cooks make them. I have a friend in Lubbock, TX that has made many. A few of them were even tasty!

@Benjanun: Lois McMaster Bjuold address the metabolism of her super solider Taura to great effect. One of the drives was to slow it down so she didn’t die too fast.
3. Brian_E
I remember at least 2 episodes in Babylon 5 that dealt with food issues.

I think one of which dealt with the difficulty and cost of shipping specific foods through a blockade, the other dealing with Gerabaldi wanting to cook a specific dish that wasn't part of the diet the doctor had put him on.

Actually, I remember another early in season 1 where Ivanova was growing ... something (oranges?) in hyrdoponics to have fresh orange juice or something.
4. FranW
@princejustin I'm still thinking SF doesn't drop the ball - and if it has in the past, it's certainly picking the ball back up now. When I challenged a panel audience at LoneStarCon to name fantasy foods and SF foods, they were surprised at how many SF foods they could come up with. It's just not the first thing that comes to mind, maybe? Also, I think the food-pill/astronaut-ice-cream image does get in the way. But the truth is, good food makes good conversation, so a decent meal on a shuttle to Mars may make for a happier crew?

@braid_tug - thanks for the great tip! I'll look into that.
Ursula L
5. Ursula
In addition to Taura, who burns through food too fast, Bujold also addresses metabolism with Mark's difficulties maintaining a healthy weight, when his body has the inclination to be a full-size adult man, but has been forced into an induced dwarfism.
6. Cybersnark
And there was G'Kar's commentary on the universality of Swedish meatballs.

Karen Traviss' Star Wars: Republic Commando novels point out that the clonetroopers' increased metabolism makes them an entire army of sugar-addicts. In high school, I used to make jokes about Stormtrooopers carrying an emergency Oreo stash. Turns out I was right.

Farscape has also had food supply becoming an issue for Moya's crew; both as food wafers (played by saltine crackers) and more exotic "real" food. And Rygel's observation that most worlds consider chocolate to be a controlled substance.
Paul Keelan
7. noblehunter
Bujold also had newts as a loathed and ubiquitous foodstuff on one of her space stations. I don't remember if they were just cultivated for protein or they performed some other function in the station's eco-system.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
8. Lisamarie
Wow, this was really interesting to me, as it combines two of my favorite topics! I am not sure we qualify as 'foodies', as I also love to eat many 'lowbrow' things (I certainly hope potato chips never go away!) but I grew up eating all sorts of ethnic foods and in general I love trying new things. To me, one of the main points of going on vacation is to eat the local cuisine - I could care less about shopping, lying on the beach, etc - the way I experience a place is to eat it, heh. I love trying both 'fancy' and experimental foods, but also 'rustic' types of local foods (for example, I live in Wisconsin, so I've enjoyed trying out things such as a fish boil, deep fried cheese curds, etc) -to me it really is a great way to become immersed in the culture. Also, as my family is Sicilian we always placed a HUGE importance on family dinners and meals with extended family. Food is a big topic for me :) My brother in law teases us sometimes about how we have hundreds of dollars worth of Penzeys spices in our kitchen.

Anyway - all that to say, I love when people talk about food and food rituals and customs in books and worldbuilding. I still wonder what a Saldaean ice pepper is like! I would love to eat a loaf of bread with honey and clotted cream, like Gandalf in the Hobbit.

Two things that stick out to me:
1)I found the discussion on 'body annoyance' VERY interesting because this is something that I find interesting on a religious level as well. I'm Catholic and have done a lot of reading about some of the old heresies that involve a rejection of the body entirely, and the way those things still creep into our beliefs today. Not to mention that the summit of our worship service involves...eating. And the whole point of our faith involves celebrating bodily incarnation. Anyway, not quite on topic but something that it made me think about. I reject body annoyance!

2)I'm glad somebody mentioned DS9 because I was going to mention it - I love how the characters talk about going to Klingon restaurants, order Cardassian food or Tarkalian tea or whatever. In my opinion, one of the best things about space travel would be getting to try entirely new cuisines! As for the icky gross out factor, I see what you mean - it was done as a way to make an alien culture seem totally alien and not just eating a human version of maybe it is appropriate, maybe alien food would be completely unpalatable, and unourishing, to us. But it's kind of like that dumb scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where they are eating monkey brains and whatever else (I really hate that movie, sorry) because, oooh, Indians eat weird things!
Howard Brazee
9. HowardBrazee
I notice eating and drinking habits that are alien to this USAmerican - because they were comfortable to the writer. (Obviously people from the rest of the world see a lot more of the reverse). Examples include past authors and smoking or attitudes about women. There's a Scottish writer who has a book that takes place on multiple planets and centuries with characters with a pub culture that seems Scottish to me, not futuristic.
Michael Walton
10. tygervolant
What an informative and insightful article! I am so glad that I took the time to read this, and I thank all those involved for it!
Fade Manley
11. fadeaccompli
My most vivid memory of food in a scifi story is from Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand, in which a particular dinner party requires that people be on cue at all times because of things like giant swinging hooks for preparing and delivering the meat. And where one family refusing to participate in a particular set of politeness cues for food distribution can throw everyone else into complete etiquette shock and flailing, having no polite way to resolve the matter.

When I first read it, part of me went "Oh, that's ridiculously dangerous, no one would really have a food custom like that." And then I thought about all of the potential side-effects of high alcohol consumption, and, well. Mm. No. Plausible!
Beccy Higman
12. Jazzlet
Brian_E - Coffee! Ivanova was growing coffee and the beans were just about ripe, Garibaldi uses his knowledge of it to get her to do something she doesn't want to do. Another Babylon 5 food thing was ?snoo?, can't remember the name, originally from Centari where it is eaten mature, enjoyed fresh by Narn's, and found in one of the human work crew's sandwiches because it was cheap.

I find it interesting how a good description of food will make that food seem attractive, even if intellectually I know I wouldn't like it; the only instance I can recall of this is when The Boy in C S Lewis's 'The Horse and His Boy' steals some radishes and onions which he enjoys raw. As a child I initially thought this sounded wonderful, but eventually realised I don't like radishes or raw onions!
Joseph Blaidd
13. SteelBlaidd
I think food geets a mor visible place in fantasy because hobbits are integral to modern fantasy's DNA. The efficiancy isue is a side efectof SF's sorigin in the industrial revolution which is all about efficency there for one can se the disconenct as manifesting the way that both genres are reactions to industrialisation. Either conciously pre industrial or deliberatly postindustrial.

Food references I can think of.
Butter bugs!!
Rprograming the Acadamy cooking computer in martion swahilly as the inciting incedent in Azimov's Norby the Mixed up Robot.
Stargate Universe is always dealing with the problems of logistics.
I think i remember a James H Schmit shortstory where an indiginous culture that lves on little rock islands in a primaraly ocean world (Think the whole word as like the Galapagos) meeting human explores serves this wonderful shrimp analog at the welcome feast the explores think it willmake a grat trade god ecept that one feas basicly wiped out the spicies. A comon ocurance on the very resource poor world.
Sky Thibedeau
14. SkylarkThibedeau
One thing that always bothered me about Star Treks replicators is that people would be eating Banana Splits all day and would be too heavy to launch into space.
George Jong
15. IndependentGeorge
One of the more darkly funny things in Scalzi's Old Man's War was when they mentioned an alien species brought a celebrity chef to the planet they just took from the CU, and televised a demonstration on the proper way to dress and prepare human meat.
16. JohnnyMac
Elizabeth Bear mentions above one of Jack Vance's novels in which eating is an activity controlled by major taboos and only performed in strict privacy. I believe the one she is thinking of is "Marune: Alastor 933".

Vance was, as Bear mentions, a world traveler and I think his experience is reflected in the fact the several of his major characters who are star travellers (such as Adam Reith of the Tschai series and Kirth Gersen in the Demon Princes novels) maintain a strict policy of not asking what they were being served when they are eating.

By the way, for anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of reading the amazing works of Jack Vance, I will mention that his complete works are available in in ebook formats thru his website (and at very reasonable prices).
17. JohnnyMac
One other thing that struck me in thinking about food in science fiction was how the default assumption about food in the future used to be that it would be: 1. Synthetic and 2. Rationed. Look at Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Anderson. I think this is no longer the case but back in the day it was pretty much the standard. A big part of this, of course, was the actual experience of shortages caused by the Depression and wartime rationing. Also, it was an article of faith that overpopulation would lead to worldwide mass famine.

One example of what I am talking about from Heinlein's 1950 YA novel "Farmer in the Sky" where the young hero makes dinner for himself and his widowed father:

'I'll have supper ready right away.' I went into the pantry and could see that he hadn't eaten lunch, either. I decided to fix him a plus meal.

I grabbed two Syntho-Steaks out of the freezer and slapped them in quickthaw, added a big Idaho baked potato for Dad and a smaller one for me, then dug out a package of salad and let it warm naturally.

By the time I had poured boiling water over two soup cubes and over coffee powder the steaks were ready for the broiler. I transferred them, letting it cycle at medium rare, and stepped up the gain on the quickthaw so that the spuds would be ready when the steaks were--then back to the freezer for a couple of icekreem cake slices for dessert.

The spuds were ready. I took a quick look at my ration accounts, decided we could afford it, and set out a couple of pats of butterine for them. The broiler was ringing; I removed the steaks, set everything out, and switched on the candles. Just as Anne would have done.

'Come and get it!' I yelled and turned back to enter the calorie and point score on each item from their wrappers, then shoved the wrappers in the incinerator. That way you never get your accounts fouled up.

Dad sat down as I finished. Elapsed time from scratch, two minutes and twenty seconds--there's nothing hard about cooking; I don't see why women make such a fuss about it. No system probably."

What I find interesting about this passage is that when RAH wrote it he intended it to sound impressively futuristic and also tasty. Now it strikes a modern reader as a boringly familar nuke-it-and-eat microwave dinner and a very unappetizing one ("Syntho-Steaks"?, "icekreem"?, "butterine"?, bleaagh.)
18. RobinM
The Swedish meatball dish on B5 is Spoo. Talking about all this food is making me hungry. One of the other kind of food Bujold mentioned for her spacestation culture is vat grown meat(yikes.) and being careful which tanks were used in irragation and hydroponics so the clean water and not the grey ?recycled water was used near food.
This article also made me think of a short story I read about a bunch of people on a isolated spacestation or habitat who were going partially blind. They had to send some of their teens for help, because they could still see everything, and the kids were quite suprised to discover that on Earth chickens don't fly around in the air like at home.
Feast and food do seem more common in fantasy and it doesn't cutesy "futuristic" names . The article had given me something new to think about in my world building for ships and space habitats especially.
19. FranW
@fadeaccompli #11 - oh now I need to go re-read Stars in My Pocket.

@JonnyMac #16 - thank you for the title!

@RobinM - would love to know what that story was called.
Chris Meadows
20. Robotech_Master
I'm honestly surprised there wasn't more said about Soylent (the real-life stuff, not Charlton Heston's "people" or Harry Harrison's soya-lentil substance) and what it represents. You could say it's the apotheosis of one branch of science-fictional food—bringing into reality the "generic foodstuff" variously represented as food pills or The Matrix's "bowl of snot."

I mean, this trope wouldn't have shown up in SF so often if it wasn't something so many readers wanted. Maybe not as an all-the-time 21-meal-a-week thing, but which one of us hasn't been frustrated with the tradeoff between easy-to-make and actually-good-for-you at one time or another, or occasionally wished we could just skip immediately from "hungry" to "having eaten" without having to stop whatever we're doing and take the time to whip something up and eat it?

For decades, this idea has shown up in science fiction as kind of an unattainable dream. Now Soylent is actually making it happen. Nutritiously, too.

(And yet, you still can't mention it on the Internet without some wag thinking he's the first person ever to come up with replying, "It's people!")
21. anewname
Great topic. In one of Alan Dean Foster's "Dragon and... " books,
there is a scene with someone preparing a very SFnat but deliciious
meal. It was either in zero/low gravity or using appliances which allowed you to have liquids spinning in the air in spheres. Very imaginative and hunger-inducing.

OTOH, some books set 900 years in the future still have people ordering hamburgers and fries. And how many far-future books have some form of coffee?
Chuk Goodin
22. Chuk
Good stuff, I love well done SF food. Asimov's story "Good Taste" was a cute look at differing opinions about food over time.
23. DanielFranklin
Given Aliette's ten-word sentence, I'm surprised no one has mentioned Yoon Ha Lee, who has a significant number of absolutely fantastic food- and drink-centred stories; & of course Cat Valente, whose fiction tends towards the fantastic but in Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy writes a directly-drink-based mini-space-opera. I commend both authors to you!
24. FranW
@daniel #23 - Love both Yoon Ha Lee and Catherynne Valente. Thanks for pointing those out here.

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