Food and Science Fiction: 2

Real Science Fiction, Real Food and Real Synthetic Food
In the last post I left off with sci-fi stories appearing before the 1900s. Some of the stories could have been omitted because they are marginal as sci-fi (at best) or they have almost no relevant content relating to food. I suppose so. Once we arrive in the 1900s my task becomes much easier.  By the 1900s Science Fiction is fully recognized as a genre if at times a disreputable one.

The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth (1904)

H. G. Wells’ “The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth” now tops my list. This book is by far the most unusual sci-fi story ever written by Wells. If you’ve never read the original story please do. The “Food” (actually an additive or ingredient) is the creation of two scientists, Mr. Bensington and Professor Redwood. Originally called “Food of the Gods” and later, Herakleophorbia the substance causes anything that ingests it to grow enormously.

The scientists setup “The Experimental Farm” where they intend to administer the Herakleophorbia in a controlled manner to animals such as chickens, but the Herakleophorbia soon escapes the bounds of the experiment with horrifying consequences:

“…he could not see it very distinctly, and as it came it made a drone “like a motor car.” He admits he was frightened. It was evidently as big or bigger than a barn owl, and, to his practiced eye, its flight and particularly the misty whirl of its wings must have seemed weirdly unbirdlike. The instinct of self-defense, I fancy, mingled with long habit, when, as he says, he “let fly, right away.” The queerness of the experience probably affected his aim; at any rate most of his shot missed, and the thing merely dropped for a moment with an angry “Wuzzzz” that revealed the wasp at once, and then rose again, with all its stripes shining against the light. He says it turned on him. At any rate, he fired his second barrel at less than twenty yards and threw down his gun, ran a pace or so, and ducked to avoid it. It flew, he is convinced, within a yard of him, struck the ground, rose again, came down again perhaps thirty yards away, and rolled over with its body wriggling and its sting stabbing out and back in its last agony. He emptied both barrels into it again before he ventured to go near.”

It gets worse, as the farm manager Mr. Skinner reports:

“The new Brood are out…and don’t quite like the look of them. Growing very rank— quite unlike what the similar lot was before your last directions was given. The last, before the cat got them, was a very nice, stocky chick, but these are Growing like thistles…They peck so hard, striking above boot top, that am unable to give exact Measures as requested. They are regular Giants, and eating as such. We shall want more com very soon…”

The story is not really concerned so much with food as it is with how human society reacts to change and threats. Ultimately Herakleophorbia leads to the creation of the “Children of the Food” and class warfare with the “little people” –  us.

A Princess of Mars (1912)

This was Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first in what would become the very successful series of John Carter of Mars novels, 11 volumes in all. Food is an element throughout the story however it is generally included as a minor detail, in no way does it play a significant thematic role. Occasionally it appears to underscore the alien environ Carter finds himself in as in this passage:

“On this trip I tasted the first meat I had eaten since leaving Earth–large, juicy steaks and chops from the well-fed domestic animals of the farms. Also I enjoyed luscious fruits and vegetables, but not a single article of food which was exactly similar to anything on Earth. Every plant and flower and vegetable and animal has been so refined by ages of careful, scientific cultivation and breeding that the like of them on Earth dwindled into pale, gray, characterless nothingness by comparison.”

“…Sola returned bearing both food and drink. These she placed on the floor beside me, and seating herself a short ways off regarded me intently. The food consisted of about a pound of some solid substance of the consistency of cheese and almost tasteless, while the liquid was apparently milk from some animal. It was not unpleasant to the taste, though slightly acid, and I learned in a short time to prize it very highly. It came, as I later discovered, not from an animal, as there is only one mammal on Mars and that one very rare indeed, but from a large plant which grows practically without water, but seems to distill its plentiful supply of milk from the products of the soil, the moisture of the air, and the rays of the sun. A single plant of this species will give eight or ten quarts of milk per day.”

In these ripping yarns females are typically responsible for making food and bringing it to John Carter and other males. In this regard Burroughs is conventional in the attitudes he depicts; although we are on an alien world full of spectacular differences, some things never change. Burroughs does depart from the conventional in his description of a fully automated eatery:

“The plaza was now commencing to fill with people going and coming upon the daily activities of their duties. The shops were opening and the cafes filling with early morning patrons. Kantos Kan led me to one of these gorgeous eating places where we were served entirely by mechanical apparatus. No hand touched the food from the time it entered the building in its raw state until it emerged hot and delicious upon the tables before the guests, in response to the touching of tiny buttons to indicate their desires.”

The first automatic restaurant – on earth – opened on the grounds of the Berlin zoo in 1895.  The first American automat opened in Philadelphia in 1902. It was not until 1903 that Horn & Hardart opened outlets in New York City and later in Chicago (I am not sure of the date). It is not clear if Burroughs was aware of any of these, although Chicago was his home town.

Armageddon—2419 A.D. (1928)

This is it- the “Buck Rogers” origin story by Philip Francis Nowlan. In 2109 America is conquered by the technologically superior Hans who come from Asia. They have powerful aircraft and a disintegrator ray (death ray). Anthony “Buck” Rodgers, a twentieth century victim of accidental suspended animation, awakens five hundred years in the future and soon he and Warrior-Woman, Wilma Deering are leading a revolt against the tyrannical Han.

“They had all they needed for their magnificently luxurious scheme of civilization within the walls of the fifteen cities of sparkling glass they had flung skyward on the sites of ancient American centers, into the bowels of the earth underneath them, and with relatively small surrounding areas of agriculture.”

However, the years of dominion and lives of luxury have lead to complacency and indolence:

“Occasional destructive raids on the wastelands were considered all that was necessary to keep the “wild” Americans on the run within the shelter of their necessary of their forests, and prevent their becoming a menace to the Han civilization. But nearly three hundred years of easily maintained security, the last century of which had been nearly sterile in scientific, social and economic progress, had softened them. It had likewise developed, beneath the protecting foliage of the forest, the growth of a vigorous new American civilization…”

Although “wild” Americans had grown tough, and developed their technology it did not mean flavor kept pace:

“When gathering dusk made jumping too dangerous, we sought a comfortable spot beneath the trees and consumed part of our emergency rations. It was the first time I had tasted the stuff—a highly nutritive synthetic substance called “concentro,” which was, however, a bit bitter and unpalatable. But as only a mouthful or so was needed, it did not matter.”

While in the magnificent Han cities, such as Fis-Ko, Nu-Yok and Bah-Flo there was no reason to ever leave your apartment and no want of food:

“Food, wonderful synthetic concoctions of any desired flavor and consistency (and for additional fee conforming to the individual’s dietary prescription) came to him through a shaft, from which his tray slid automatically on to a convenient shelf or table.”

The story is racist, jingoistic, perhaps prescient, decidedly Non-PC and nevertheless entertaining and still worth a read.

Twilight (1934)

John W. Campbell originally published Twilight under the pseudonym “Don A. Stuart”. The short story first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell wrote what is one of my favorite sci-fi stories – “Who Goes There?” Later filmed as “The Thing from Another World” (1951) and again in 1982 as “The Thing”.

Twilight combines the idea of an automated restaurant that serves synthetic food:

“The restaurant had the food displayed directly, and I made a choice. The food was three hundred thousand years old, I suppose. I didn’t know, and the machines that served it to me didn’t care, for they made things synthetically, you see, and perfectly. When the builders made those cities, they forgot one thing. They didn’t realize that things shouldn’t go on forever.”

The story is about a time traveler who, to his regret, sees man’s distant future:

“For, you see, as man strode toward maturity, he destroyed all forms of life that menaced him. Disease. Insects. Then the last of the insects, and finally the last of the man-eating animals.”

“…It was like the machines. They started them — and now they can’t stop. They started destroying life — and now it wouldn’t stop. So they had to destroy weeds of all sorts, then many formerly harmless plants. Then the herbivora, too, the deer and the antelope and the rabbit and the horse. They were a menace, they attacked man’s machine-tended crops. Man was still eating natural foods.”

“… In the end they killed off the denizens of the sea, also, in self-defense. Without the many creatures that had kept them in check, they were swarming beyond bounds. And the time had come when synthetic foods replaced natural. The air was purified of all life about two and a half million years after our day, all microscopic life.”

An interesting side note; just as Philip Francis Nowlan did in “Armageddon—2419 A.D.” Campbell uses the names of cities and states, familiar but distorted by linguistic mutation over the long eons: Yawk City, Lunon City, Paree, Shkago, Singpor, San Frisco, Jacksville, Neva City and Nee-vah-dah.

The Star Maker (1937)

A philosophical “future history” written by Olaf Stapledon. The Star Maker and Stapledon’s earlier work, “Last and First Men” had a significant influence on Arthur C. Clarke:

“No other book had a greater influence on my life…and its successor Star Marker are the twin summits of [Stapledon’s] literary career”

Spanning many worlds, galaxies, a parallel universe and eons of time Star Maker was written when the world was on the brink of the second world war. The book, taken on face value, seems to transcend the political and ethical tumult of the time. However, it is also a commentary on those insignificant and wasteful shortsighted behaviors that cause so much trouble for humanity. Food is not insignificant in Star Maker, but for the nameless narrator food is merely a need to fulfill, a messy problem for technology to solve; people eat but they do not dine. The narrator describes some of the strange newly evolved “people” he meets on his visit to one of the new worlds, the Other Earth.

“The women, breastless and high-nostriled like the men, were to be distinguished by their more tubular lips, whose biological function it was to project food for the infant.”

The efficient dispensing of food and treatment of waste are addressed in the following description of a man who chooses to spend his life in bed where his every need is satisfied:

“During my last years on the Other Earth a system was invented by which a man could retire to bed for life and spend all his time receiving radio programs. His nourishment and all his bodily functions were attended to by doctors and nurses attached to the Broadcasting Authority. In place of exercise he received periodic massage…A vast system of automatic food-production, and distribution of liquid pabulum by means of pipes leading to the mouths of the recumbent subjects, would be complemented by an intricate sewage system.”

Stapledon was looking at the big (big) picture and mundane details were of little interest to him:

“…Interspersed between these spheres lay the machinery for atmospheric regulation, the great water reservoirs, the food factories and commodity-factories, the engineering shops, the refuse-conversion tracts, residential and recreational areas, and a wealth of research laboratories, libraries and cultural centers.”

The Diary of the Space Traveler (1961)

Byomjatrir Diary (“The Diary of the Space Traveler”)

1961 marks the first appearance of Professor Shanku in Sandesh magazine. Written by Satyajit Ray these stories feature the adventures of the eccentric Professor Shanku and his cat Newton. In The Diary of the Space Traveler the professor builds a rocket ship and decides to take Newton with him but needs a neat and compact food for the cat and invents the Fish Pill.

“Today I tested the fish-pill by leaving it next to a piece of fish. Newton ate the pill. No more problems! Now all I have to do is make his suit and helmet.”

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.

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