Eating Alpha Centaurian Crickets for the Camera
For the past couple of years, I’ve had this idea for a Nanowrimo novel which involved a team of documentary makers being sent out to some wacky place (either some fantasy land or some weird planet) trying to record some foreign customs in reality show style for audience ratings (because that’s what the executives want) but more often than not falling into one hilarious mishap or another. The original inspiration for the idea was a documentary series that Michael Palin made for the BBC called Himalaya. Palin, of course, didn’t encounter too many mishaps, but it did make me wonder what was going on behind the camera and before the editing.
Some time earlier this year, I began thinking about food shows, particularly culinary adventure ones like that of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Maybe it would be cool to send this fictional band of documentary makers out to some distant planet to try the native foods. This could be ripe for comedy of the chest-bursting alien variety*. But by melding food with science fiction, this led to another question: what has already been said about the future of food by other sci-fi writers?
The answer is: not a whole lot. Sci-fi foods, particularly in old school sci-fi, tend to fall into three camps–pill, gross weirdness, or genetically modified foodstuffs. These ideas are not original. Nor do they lack for counterparts in the real world. Even in pre-industrial times, pills have been created as medicines and nutritional supplements. One could even argue that the bland freeze dried stuff they used to send up with the astronauts and the highly processed foods found in the middle aisles of the supermarket are also pills of a sort. They feed the body but not the soul. There is no pleasure inside a pill**. The gross weirdness can be summed up, in short, by a Klingon banquet with its squishy and wriggly edibles. Which really isn’t weird unless you’re completely stuck in a western mindset. In other parts of the world, fried tarantula on a stick or gooey mopane worms are just some munchies you can pop in your mouth on a lazy Saturday night. As for genetically modified food, we’ve been doing it ever since we’ve adopted agriculture. Our modern methods for directly tweaking the genes is just that, another method. The concept remains the same regardless of whether or not you consider it natural.
At the end of July, I went to a science fiction and fantasy convention called Spocon. One of the talks I went to was held by James Glass, a science fiction writer who also happened to be a physicist. The topic of the talk was about the state of science in general, but 99% of it ended up being about physics. Much of this was due to the audience which was composed of vociferous physics junkies. I was really dissatisfied because there wasn’t any biology, chemistry, geology, or pretty much any other science***. But I wonder if this isn’t a symptom of something else–of hard sci-fi writers wanting to present Big Ideas which try to illustrate why we exist in the first place. Maybe that’s why the subject of food and how it might change in the future is virtually ignored by everyone writing speculative fiction. In sci-fi, food is tribble fodder, not a Big Idea.
If you think about real life for a moment, you can immediately point out the fact that food is absolutely central to our existence. We could very well go about our lives without the existence of spaceships or knowing about muons and neutrinos. While a gigantic asteroid, wandering black hole, or anti-particle parallel universe might someday threaten us as a species, those aren’t the sort of things we worry about from day to day. Instead, we all worry about stuff like dinner^. And not getting any dinner (or breakfast or lunch) is a far more immediate danger to us individually. We may not think much about it, but the way food has evolved throughout human history has had a profound effect on our lives. Think about the invention of agriculture which have changed our active habits to more sedentary ones as well as given us more free time to develop civilization. Modern transportation and processed foods have revolutionized the human palate. Because of what we eat, it has changed how society functions and how we view the health of our bodies. Who’s to say that a future revolution in food–one that we can’t even imagine–will change us further?
One idea I’ve been pondering about is how not only future food may be tailored to us but how we may already be custom tailored for certain foods. When I went to the American Society for Microbiology conference in May, I attended a lecture on wine by Sakkie Pretorius. Most of the lecture was about identifying strains of yeast and possibly genetically modifying the organism so that they would metabolize the grapes in such a way to give wines certain flavors and aromas^^. At the end of his talk, the speaker made some very interesting remarks. He noted that it’s already known that some people can detect certain flavors while others cannot. And while some people might like these flavors, other people might prefer others. Maybe there’s a genetic component to this, he speculated, and perhaps in the future when large scale human genome sequencing is extremely cheap, wine companies could capitalize on this–by targeting certain wines to particular markets.
Nowadays in industrialized societies, thinking about food is confined to how it will affect our health. Some could say that it’s become an obsession^^^. Current dialog is about organic food or corporations who say they’re going to feed the world but care more about profit. No matter where you fall in the debate, I think it’s good to have this discussion–because with the combination of personal medicine and the commercial possibilities inherent in such future technology, who knows what our views on food will morph to. It’s just that sci-fi writers are completely ignoring this revolution. Just as they’ve completely missed the boat on the Internet even a few decades ago.
So back to the possible Nanowrimo project that I’m currently contemplating. If it’s going to be about food in the future, I’m definitely going to attempt to weave all of these ideas into the narrative. Although I admit that the first approach I’m going for will be more akin to space opera with ray guns# rather than some philosophical magnum opus with lots of jargon like “metabolically compatible” or “gustatory stimulation”.
*May the Schwartz be with you.
**Gustatory pleasure, that is, little blue pill notwithstanding.
***I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised after all. The speaker was a physicist.
^Unless, as they say, we pass through some Singularity and humanity evolves into energy beings with metabolisms akin to a perpetual motion machine. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about this happening in our lifetimes, though.
^^Or you could do this to the grape instead. But it’s easier with yeast because along with E. coli and the fruit fly, it’s one of the workhorse organisms in biology. Compared to the grape, the yeast genome is well studied and the organism can be manipulated genetically far more easily (and faster due to generation time).
^^^Check out one of Michael Pollan’s latest oeuvre.
#The ray guns probably won’t be used on any villains. Instead, they might be used on cheese. Wiggling cheese.