Food and Science Fiction: 1

What was the first science fiction story to feature food?
As I began to write this post, I really had no idea. I thought this would be easily answered thorough research and that a chronology would be established and a nice neat list would emerge. However, before I could answer that first question I realized I had to answer another question: what is the first science fiction story? And there is no clear consensus on this that I can find. People don’t even agree on what science fiction is. Which lead,  annoyingly,  to yet another question; what is science fiction?

I read that one way to define a science fiction novel or movie is that it is always about what may happen or what will happen. I am not content with this and, like Robert Heinlein I also need some science. Or in Heinlein’s case the “scientific method” and its effect on society. Throw in themes of  hubris and offending technology versus the “natural order” and you have a formula I recognize as science fiction. If we accept these definitions, sci-fi then cannot exist before the invention of science. Asimov is widely quoted as saying  “true science fiction could not really exist until people understood the rationalism of science and began to use it with respect in their stories”. If I accept this (I do not) science fiction is a by-product of the Age of Enlightenment and or the Industrial Revolution, hence no sci-fi until the 1650’s or as late as the 1800’s. But I also recognize the science of the natural world and empirical investigation, that of classical antiquity, not only Asimov’s modern (and western) definition. So in my search for the first sci-fi with food references this gives me a starting point thousands of years in the past and a broad definition of sci-fi.

In the case of many modern sci-fi stories food may be used to underscore the differences between the familiar and the alien. However finding very early stories that qualify both as sci-fi and reference food is not so easy, even with the very generous parameters I established. So in the case of proto-science fiction‎ I must settle for just a mention of food and a perhaps tenuous sci-fi pedigree. Here then is my, by no means definitive, list.

Daedalus and Icarus (ca 1325 BCE)

The myth of Daedalus and Icarus may qualify as the first recorded sci-fi because of these elements: description of the invention of wings held together by wax (technology),  the alteration of the natural order by allowing men to fly, and the warning theme of man’s all too limited science proving to be his undoing. But where’s the food? The honeycombs from which came the bee’s wax? They got the feathers from one kind of bird or another; did King Minos ever wonder why Daedalus and Icarus ate so much fowl?

There are a few oblique references as father and son take flight Daedalus looks back at the island of Crete and sees a fisherman catching fish, a shepherd with his flock and a ploughman in the field.  Then, before poor Icarus plummets into the Aegean,  they fly by the island of Calymne which is “rich in honey”.

Ramayana and Mahabharata (circa 4th century BCE)

The Ramayana and Mahabharata are the longest epic poems ever written, 50,000 and 200,000 lines of verse respectively. Acting as a literary Rorschach test, they are seen as spiritual revelation, religious homage, holy text, historical accounts of alien visitations and Sanskrit literary fiction. The Ramayana has even inspired a comic book version set in a distant post-apocalyptic future; Ramayan 3392 A.D. The Ramayana and Mahabharata and their antecedents, the Vedas, are among the most fascinating and imaginative writings in history. For some, the passages describing warring gods, “flying cars” and weapons of awful destructive power are readily accepted as early science fiction. For me, the meaning of the amazing events and descriptions of technologically advanced apparatus remain open to the vagaries of interpretation, translation and the distortions of time and culture.

While there are many incidental references to food in both epics, some are symbolic of spiritual nourishment or food is the analog of wealth or used as proof of religious devotion. But there are other references, which are integral to the story and so for this exercise the more compelling.

In the following passages from which I quote, we have Romesh C. Dutt to thank for the conversion to English verse around 1898-1899. The epics are ascribed to the Indian poet Valmiki. However, like Homer and the Iliad the stories have grown in the public domain. The story of the Ramayana is nominally about the efforts of prince Rama (seventh Avatar of Vishnu) to free his wife Sita, from her abductor Ravana:

World-renowned is Rama’s valor, fearless by her Rama’s side,
Sita will still live and wander with a faithful woman’s pride,

And the wild fruit she will gather from the fresh and fragrant wood,
And the food by Rama tasted shall be Sita’s cherished food!

Sita, is described as “god-like” and is directly related to life giving food, as she was born magically and spontaneously from a field furrow. Later in the epic she is exiled to the wilderness and lives on wild fruits which today bare her name; Sita-phal called the food of exiles.

Later in the story Rama’s brother Bharat, speaks to Rama of flying cars (Vimanas) and food:

Guard thy forts with sleepless caution with the engines of the war,
With the men who shoot the arrow and who drive the flying car,

Guard Kosala’s royal treasure, make thy gifts of wealth and food,
Not to lords and proud retainers, but to worthy and the good!

For various reasons (read the full story) Rama does not want to return from exile and accept the crown so a learned Brahman, Jabali, is sent to persuade Rama using sophistry and the secular augments of “Nastikas”, the non-believers:

Ah! I weep for erring mortals who on erring duty bent
Sacrifice their dear enjoyment till their barren life is spent,

Who to Gods and to the Fathers vainly still their offerings make,
Waste of food! for God nor Father doth our pious homage take!

 And the food by one partaken, can it nourish other men,
Food bestowed upon a Brahman, can it serve our Fathers then?

Finally, there is a rather gory passage about a sacrificial meal including the sacrifice of a horse:

Birds and beasts were immolated for the sacrificial food,
Then before the sacred charger priests in rank and order stood, 

And by rules of Veda guided slew the horse of noble breed,
Placed Draupadi, Queen of yajna, by the slain and lifeless steed, 

Hymns and gifts and deep devotion sanctified the noble Queen,
Woman’s true and stainless virtue, woman’s worth and wisdom keen! 

Priests adept in sacred duty cooked the steed with pious rite,
And the steam of welcome fragrance sanctified the sacred site, 

Good Yudhishthir and his brothers, by the rules by rishis spoke,
Piously inhaled the fragrance and the sin-destroying smoke! 

Severed limbs and sacred fragments of the courser duly dressed,
Priests upon the blazing altar as a pious offering placed, 

Vyasa herald of the Vedas raised his voice in holy song,
Blessed Hastina’s righteous monarch and the many-nationed throng!

True History /  True Story (ca 150 CE)

It is much easier to find early fiction that features food, than to agree on which story is the first true science fiction. Many have called True History (written in the 2nd century) by Lucian of Samosata (ca 125 AD – 180 AD) the first sci-fi story. Regardless of your personal view on this, there are food references in True History as the protagonists travel on a sea of milk, cross a river of wine and find an island of cheese. They catch and eat the wine-fish which makes them drunk.

They enter a vineyard made up of women who are half grapevine (women above the waist and below rooted to the earth) who’s grapes the men try to pluck to the displeasure of the grapevine women. The protagonists later take sides in the war between the inhabitants of the Sun and the Moon. Some of the combatants are Millet-shooters and Garlic-fighters; some wear helmets of giant beans, and the Stalk-mushrooms who use mushroom caps as shields and stalks of asparagus for spears. Also we meet the Puppycorns and dog-faced men who fly on winged acorns.

We are told that the moon men all eat the same food; smoke from flying frogs cooked over coals. And all they drink is dew squeezed from the air. We learn that their noses run with honey and they sweat milk from which they make cheese.

During their travels they eat a lot of fish and meet the Broilers, an eel-eyed-lobster-faced people, the Mergoats (men above and catfish below), and the Crabclaws, the Codhead, Solefeet and the Clan Crawfish.

True Story is an outlandish satirical yarn, the spiritual parent of Gulliver’s Travels and Hitchhikers Guide.

Theologus Autodidactus (ca 1268 and 1277 CE)

May have the first description of food broken down to sustain life – metabolism. Not sure if this qualifies as proto sci-fi or just a new scientific postulate. It is at least about food. Theologus Autodidactus also criticizes the idea of wine being used as self-medication, an idea held by Ancient Greek physicians as well as some unorthodox Muslim physicians in his time, despite the Islamic prohibition of alcohol. The novel further argues that the consumption of alcohol, along with the prevalence of homosexuality among a small minority of Muslims at the time, were the cause of the Mongol invasions. Not much of a postulate coming more than a century before the advent of  “Occam’s Razor”.

Demonstrating knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology Theologus Autodidactus attempts to explain Islamic religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy.

The Golem of Chelm (ca 1540)/ The Golem of Prague (ca 1560)

Are the elements of the Golem folktales (there are numerous versions) science fiction? Is there any science in the stories? Is there a  connection to food? On the surface, no, no and no. But I cannot stop thinking of this spiritually motivated object-lesson also as a tragedy of hubris and the misguided human manipulation of the natural order with profound if misused knowledge. Ok, that does sound a little like sci-fi. Well then, what about the food? There are the vicious and ludicrous claims underlying the “Blood Libel”, that Prague Jews were using the blood of Christian babies for rituals. In the story the libel is the inspiration for Judah Loew ben Bezalel, (16th century chief rabbi of Prague, known as the “Maharal”) to create a golem to defend the ghetto from anti-Jewish attacks and avenge the libel.  There is also the sacred scroll that in some versions of the tale is placed in the mouth of the golem, and this symbolic manna that brings the lumpen clay behemoth to life. The themes of secret knowledge used to create a  pseudo-life that would inevitably turn on its creator and destroy him seem all too familiar as themes in modern sci-fi.The history of imbuing the inanimate with life is long – Pygmalion, the Golem, Frankenstein. I think it is the implacable and mute irresistible force of the Golem that makes it scary. Qualities reminiscent of cyborgs and the silent all-powerful Gort.

Somnium (1620 – 1630)

In Somnium (“The Dream”) a fantasy written between 1620 and 1630, by Johannes Kepler, a young man (Duracotus) is transported to the Moon by magic. The story describes how earth looks when viewed from the moon, and is considered the first scientific treatise on lunar astronomy. In the story the boys’ mother, the Icelandic witch Fiolxhilda gives her son (banished for prying into her magic) a drowsing draught to help him survive his journey to the moon during a solar eclipse. Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov have called this the first science fiction story.

The New Atlantis (1627)

I hesitated including this in the list. Although it has all of the criteria necessary to be counted as early science fiction: a speculative discussion of what science might be in the future, descriptions of an “idealized” society, ruminations on food, drink, horticulture, animal husbandry, and a description of a “eugenics” program. Frances Bacon also anticipates many inventions that did not happen for centuries. The New Atlantis is almost a definition of “speculative fiction”. Nevertheless, I felt it wanting. At times it just seems like a big list as the “Atlanteans” enumerate all the wonders of their society to the visiting Englishmen.

One redeeming quality of the work is the frequent mention of drink, brew-houses, cider, ale and wine; the pursuit of piety and the social ideal is thirsty work:

“I will not hold you long with recounting of our brewhouses, bake-houses, and kitchens, where are made divers drinks, breads, and meats, rare and of special effects. Wines we have of grapes; and drinks of other juice of fruits, of grains, and of roots; and of mixtures with honey, sugar, manna, and fruits dried, and decocted; Also of the tears or woundings of trees; and of the pulp of canes. And these drinks are of several ages, some to the age or last of forty years. We have drinks also brewed with several herbs, and roots, and spices; yea with several fleshes, and white-meats; whereof some of the drinks are such, as they are in effect meat and drink both: so that divers, especially in age, do desire to live with them, with little or no meat or bread.”

Man does not live by drinks or cocktails alone and the story has much to say about cooking and baking and food of all kinds:

“Breads we have of several grains, roots, and kernels; yea and some of flesh and fish dried; with divers kinds of leavenings and seasonings: so that some do extremely move appetites; some do nourish so, as divers do live of them, without any other meat; who live very long. So for meats, we have some of them so beaten and made tender and mortified,’ yet without all corrupting, as a weak heat of the stomach will turn them into good chylus; as well as a strong heat would meat otherwise prepared. We have some meats also and breads and drinks, which taken by men enable them to fast long after; and some other, that used make the very flesh of men’s bodies sensibly’ more hard and tough and their strength far greater than otherwise it would be.”

The English were at sea for a year as they searched for the island of Atlantis. Fortunately the “Atlanteans” understand the medicinal uses of food and seem to have a cure for scurvy:

“…Soon after our dinner was served in; which was right good viands, both for bread and treat: better than any collegiate diet, that I have known in Europe. We had also drink of three sorts, all wholesome and good; wine of the grape; a drink of grain, such as is with us our ale, but more clear: And a kind of cider made of a fruit of that country; a wonderful pleasing and refreshing drink. Besides, there were brought in to us, great store of those scarlet oranges, for our sick; which (they said) were an assured remedy for sickness taken at sea.”

Unlike the mocking, even satirical tone of Thomas More’s “Utopia”, Bacon believes “New Atlantis” describes an attainable improvement on society, if not in the present, then in the future. Pet peeve: how anyone reading New Atlantis (or any work by Bacon) could mistake the heavy prose style of Bacon for that of Shakespeare is beyond me.

Frankenstein (1818)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley may not be seen as the inventor of modern sci-fi because Frankenstein is viewed as a gothic horror novel first and sci-fi second. Although it has all of the elements of modern sci-fi: the hubris of Victor Frankenstein, science-gone-wrong and the monster turning on the creator. And the food? I won’t go too deeply into the Prometheus connection except to note MWS seems to see the gift of fire as leading to the loss of innocence and humankinds’ lust for hunting, killing and cooking meat. Near the end of the book the monster tries to convenience Frankenstein to allow him to escape to South America: “I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man and will ripen our food.” The monster suggests his superiority to blood-thirsty man because he eschews meat. I think lamb would be great with acorns and berries. I see a recipe coming on.

A Tale of the Ragged Mountains (1844)

In Poe’s tale of mesmerism and time travel, the only mention of “food’ is the protagonist’s habit of drinking a strong cup of coffee followed by morphine for “breakfast”. Precious little by way of sci-fi either but I include it because I am clutching at straws.

“His imagination was singularly vigorous and creative; and no doubt it derived additional force from the habitual use of morphine, which he swallowed in great quantity, and without which he would have found it impossible to exist. It was his practice to take a very large dose of it immediately after breakfast each morning—or, rather, immediately after a cup of strong coffee, for he ate nothing in the forenoon…”

No explanation of the mechanism that transports him through time is ever attempted. Although the mysterious nature of the Ragged Mountains and his morphine altered state may be factors.

The Mysterious Island (1874)

Jules Verne wrote the novel as a sequel to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The story begins in the American Civil War, during the siege of Richmond, Virginia. Five northern prisoners of war escape by hijacking a balloon and land on the Mysterious Island. Food is mentioned constantly through out the book. First there is no food, then there is too little food. Or the food is not good enough. They are always looking for food, preparing food, eating food or wishing they could eat:

“a few handfuls of shell-fish, which was indeed wretched and insufficient food”, “…and procure more strengthening food than eggs and mollusks…”

“Herbert offered him a few handfuls of shell-fish and sargassum, saying,— “It is all that we have, Captain Harding.” “…it will do—for this morning at least. He ate the wretched food with appetite, and washed it down with a little fresh water, drawn from the river in an immense shell.”

There is almost a recipe of a sort:

“This game was eaten fresh, but they preserved some capybara hams, by smoking them above a fire of green wood, after having perfumed them with sweet-smelling leaves. However, this food, although very strengthening, was always roast upon roast, and the party would have been delighted to hear some soup bubbling on the hearth…”

“…Pencroft only considered them in an eatable point of view, and learnt with some satisfaction that their flesh, though blackish, is not bad food.”

“The settlers in Lincoln Island had still one privation. There was no want of meat, nor of vegetable products; those ligneous roots which they had found, when subjected to fermentation, gave them an acid drink, which was preferable to cold water; they also made sugar, without canes or beet-roots, by collecting the liquor which distils from the “acer saceharinum,” a sort of maple-tree, which flourishes in all the temperate zones, and of which the island possessed a great number; they made a very agreeable tea by employing the herbs brought from the warren; lastly, they had an abundance of salt, the only mineral which is used in food… but bread was wanting”

Bitch, bitch, bitch. These guys were never happy. A fascinating aspect of the book is the shear variety of animals they kill for food, many of which are today extinct or endangered.

The Time Machine (1895)

H.G. Wells embraced and wrote about all aspects of carnality: sexuality, mortality and hunger; the need to survive and what you will eat to do so. Food and eating are at the heart of this story. It is after all food that defines the relationship between Morlock and Eloi.

“…the Journalist was saying—or rather shouting—when the Time Traveler came back. He was dressed in ordinary evening clothes, and nothing save his haggard look remained of the change that had startled me.”

“The Time Traveler came to the place reserved for him without a word. He smiled quietly, in his old way. ‘Where’s my mutton?’ he said. ‘What a treat it is to stick a fork into meat again!’ ‘Story!’ cried the Editor.

‘Story be damned!’ said the Time Traveler. ‘I want something to eat. I won’t say a word until I get some peptone into my arteries. Thanks. And the salt.’”

The Time Traveler then tells his guests the story of his journey to the distant future and his first meal with the Eloi:

“…With a pretty absence of ceremony they began to eat the fruit with their hands, flinging peel and stalks, and so forth, into the round openings in the sides of the tables. I was not loath to follow their example, for I felt thirsty and hungry.”

“Fruit, by the by, was all their diet. These people of the remote future were strict vegetarians, and while I was with them, in spite of some carnal cravings, I had to be frugivorous also. Indeed, I found afterwards that horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, had followed the Ichthyosaurus into extinction…”

“And suddenly there came into my head the memory of the meat I had seen in the Under-world. It seemed odd how it floated into my mind: not stirred up as it were by the current of my meditations, but coming in almost like a question from outside. I tried to recall the form of it. I had a vague sense of something familiar, but I could not tell what it was at the time…”

“Then I thought of the Great Fear that was between the two species, and for the first time, with a sudden shiver, came the clear knowledge of what the meat I had seen might be. Yet it was too horrible! I looked at little Weena sleeping beside me, her face white and starlike under the stars, and forthwith dismissed the thought.”

“…I tried to look at the thing in a scientific spirit. After all, they were less human and more remote than our cannibal ancestors of three or four thousand years ago. And the intelligence that would have made this state of things a torment had gone. Why should I trouble myself? These Eloi were mere fatted cattle, which the ant-like Morlocks preserved and preyed upon…”

“…However great their intellectual degradation, the Eloi had kept too much of the human form not to claim my sympathy, and to make me perforce a sharer in their degradation and their Fear.”

Well, that’s my list of the earliest examples of sci-fi books with food. I have arbitrarily set a cutoff point at 1900. Unfortunately this means I can’t include H. G. Wells’ “The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth” first published in 1904. Not to worry, I’ll make another list.

If you want a much better definition of science fiction you can visit Richard Treitel’s site where you will find “Definitions of What Science Fiction Is and Is Not”. Also very interesting is this list “The 51 Sub-genres of Speculative Fiction“. I doubt either resource will prove definitive or wholly satisfactory, but they are interesting.

Leave a Reply