In this essay from 2017, Meg Shields looks at some of the most ominous trends in future cuisine — it’s time to talk about weird science fiction food.
At the beginning of Mad Max: Fury Road, Max Rockatansky crushes a double-headed gecko beneath his heel, wipes it off his boot, and eats it. It is a perfect moment ‐ the panicked scuttling of the gecko over the sand as it fatally scurries towards Max’s foot; the crunches; the way the squirming lizard dangles helplessly from Max’s mouth as he turns to the camera. It’s a brief lull before we’re whisked away into 120 minutes of high-octane car theatrics ‐ and it tells us everything we need to know about Max, ever the opportunist, and his hostile, crusty world. As NPR’s Jason Sheehan notes, a similar scene takes place in Road Warrior, in which Max chows down on some dog food; “a history of lack and desperation completely told with nothing more than a hungry stare, a fork, and a single can of Dinki-Di.”
In science fiction, food can ground what is otherwise unfamiliar, if not outright ungraspable. And I relish these moments; when strange speculative worlds are crystallized by something as ordinary and common as eating, cooking, or sharing a meal. And while unsurprisingly the foodways in science fiction are themselves far from ordinary, the undeniable relatability of the need for food prevails. How food is represented in sci-fi affords audiences the opportunity to better understand these brave (and often terrifying) new worlds and the characters who inhabit them. In this way, depicting food and food-acts in sci-fi is indispensable to the genre’s project of ‐ to bum a quote from Rod Serling ‐ making the improbable possible.
Below are some of my favorite comestible trends in science fiction; ways in which food appears in sci-fi, and what these appearances can tell us about just how doomed we are (spoiler: very). Full disclosure: writing this article made me super hungry, which is less a problem of ramen than of cockroach bricks looking a heck of a lot like licorice.
1. Space Heroes Eat Noodles
As Seen In: Blade Runner; Battlestar Galactica; The Fifth Element; Cowboy Bebop; Almost Human; Prometheus.
It’s been noted that the sci-fi noodle trend likely has its origins in Blade Runner. And truly, noodles are coherently enmeshed into 2019 L.A.’s landscape; their iconography boasting a cultural hegemony and an almost casual metropolitanism. Ex-professional robot bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s introduction is moderated through a portable noodle bar ‐ he is “rumpled, used, and unshaven,” and the noodle bar compliments: bustling, no-nonsense and shrouded in dulled neon. Deckard, heroically, just wants to be left in peace with his noodles ‐ not hassled by the LAPD to resume blade-running. And while Deckard eventually resigns, for all his endearing gruffness, he takes his noodles with him. Barring any anxiety around globalization ‐ if there is a sinister downside to a future of noodle-ubiquity it’s the worthwhile price of an increased sodium intake.
Ominous Rating: 1 delicious street noodle bowl /10
As Seen In: Star Trek; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Gene Roddenberry’s utopic vision extends to food; a future where if you can dream it, you can eat it (so long as the desired molecular structure is on file). The ability to synthesize a wide variety of materials instantaneously, has made it so that minimal human labor is required to accomplish the necessary task of acquiring and preparing foodstuffs. Picard sums it up nicely in First Contact: “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” There is, admittedly, a sinister element to the automation of such an intimate and artful human activity. I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, and the “queasy horrors” that supposedly come with trying to find love for people who have no use. Queasy indeed. And whether or not you find this threat compelling, there’s always the wrinkle posed by Douglas Adams: that for all its well-intentioned politics, post-scarcity food automation might produce something that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
Ominous Rating: 3 cups of synthetic tea. Earl Grey. hot. /10
3. High in Protein
As Seen In: Snowpiercer; Star Trek; Galaxy Quest; Enemy Mine; Titan A.E..
The prevalence of bugs as food in sci-fi rests on the question of the physicality of what folks are able and willing to eat. This, consequentially, is complicated by the fact that the “horridness” of eating bugs is culturally specific, and tends to stray from any desperate act of self-sufficiency into a vague ostensibly comedic xenophobia. Snowpiercer (a.k.a. “Apocalypse Runaway Train”) skirts this quagmire; offering the ingestion of bugs as a class critique rather than a cultural one (though, of course, such things invariably overlap). The revelation that the tar-coloured gel blocks consumed by the inhabitants of the back cars are made of ground up cockroaches is not awful because eating bugs is gross (reminder: “babies taste best” is a thing). Rather, the horror rises out of resonance: like the bugs, the back-dwellers are “interlocked in a hellish vision of crawling, squirming movement” ‐ a violent, theoretically humane cycle, mechanistically imposed to preserve the balance of the train’s ecosystem. All to say: the “bugs” part of let them eat bugs, is less disconcerting than alimentary social darwinism, or the coding of insects as something the masses will have to eat when we fuck the planet up enough.
Ominous Rating: 5 cockroach jello bricks /10
4. Oppressive Mush™
As Seen In: Brazil; The Matrix; Alien.
In her essay “Futuristic Foodways,” Laurel Forster suggests that “food and science fiction provide a valuable means of understanding the link between the individual and [the] controlling powers around [them].” In this way, both food and sci-fi are deeply concerned with the effects of technology, the body, and where the two intertwine insidiously: how human lives are contorted to align with technological needs, rather than the other way around. While the unholy trinity of food, body, and oppressive entity is brought together most dramatically in Alien, my heart belongs to Brazil. In Terry Gilliam’s retro-futurist indictment of bureaucracy, the act of eating is a thoroughly disconnected experience; one more subservient to pretence and the superficial implications of eating than eating itself. Lunch is ordered off a menu of pictures and numbers, and Sam, ever at odds with the baffling systems of his world, struggles to communicate with the waiter, who, unsatisfied with a qualitative description, demands a number. When the food arrives it is in the form of regrettable, bland lumps as inert and passionless as the patrons of the restaurant. Here taste, skill, and texture are supplanted by grotesque technological overkill that leaves Sam frustrated and dissatisfied in what will prove to be symptomatic of a larger institutional incompatibility.
Ominous Rating: 8 dehumanizing blobs of product /10
5. The Most Dangerous Game (People!)
As Seen In: Soylent Green; The Road; Pandorum; Delicatessen; Cloud Atlas.
The cannibalism in Soylent Green is terrifying in part because it is institutionalized; because a corrupt corporate perspective has brought about, and made room for, an equally corrupt corporeal one. It’s an anxious vision of the future that has become no less pressing since 1973: an overpopulated, polluted world struggling to cope with a previous generation’s untempered industry. Soylent’s gut-churning, infamous confirmation, that the hunger of the general public is at once the problem and the solution, is deeply upsetting; as putrid and sickly as the color of Soylent itself. And it’s a specifically modern fear: that the moral decline brought about by corporate evils can be made manifest ‐ like some horrible demon that understands marketing and mass-production. In this way, Soylent (film and foodstuff) presents a supremely damaged oroborus where urban and moral deterioration go hand in hand, and overconsumption leads to self-consumption.
Ominous Rating: 10 horrifying Cormac McCarthy cannibal cellars /10
Though this article would seem to prove otherwise, there is an unfortunate tendency in sci-fi to put human hunger in stasis; to make little to no reference to how characters cook, eat and interact with food. No matter, it seems. We’ll subsist off lasers and stardust. I find this to be a stale, incomplete vision of the future. To omit food is to omit visceral and deeply intimate world-building; to side with hollow sterility over a lush and infinitely interpretable alimentary language. The act of eating, with all its complexities and subtext, is an inextricable part of being human. I have to believe that however disconcerting our future, we don’t actively divest from such a fundamental part of ourselves ‐ that, when given the choice, we choose street noodles over a food pill.