SF and Food: The Future Shall Be Fed

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When I think about representations of food in science fiction, I’m struck by the fact that a lot of science fiction simply washes over the issue of production and distribution. Food is almost always “around” in SF literature. After all, most SF characters have to eat something from time to time (though they never poop). However, very little of the genre actually directly addresses the future economics of food, and even when it does, it’s usually a cursory glance. The one exception might be the dystopian genre, especially Soylent Green (1973). Since dystopia and starvation go hand in hand, the genre is naturally concerned with food.

This isn’t universal, of course. As I discussed in my post on SF and domesticity, Ann Leckie’s Radch Trilogy has given great attention to tea1 and its role in Radch society. Tea and its distribution also receive a lot of attention in Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water. But the narratives aren’t necessarily about the issues surrounding production and distribution, despite any functional society requiring considerable attention to these factors. Even Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War only grants a small portion of its narrative to the food problem; brief though the section may be, it is a somewhat thorough imagining of how interstellar war might affect food production (and how that same issue might be affected by other social developments).2

The absence of food issues is probably a little obvious:  aside from the role of food in people’s personal lives, we’re generally detached from food production as a society. We know where to get it and we know there are people who make it for us3, but most of us are unlikely to know where our food was grown or packaged, who picked it or cooked it, and so on.4 Even if you don’t necessarily think it should be this way, you’d have to agree that we don’t actually need to know these things. Our daily lives do not depend on knowing where our food comes from (beyond abstractions) or who produced it, and so we compartmentalize or simply ignore the information.However, not knowing (in the sense of true understanding, not simple knowledge) has social consequences. It allows us to ignore what may be going on in our backyards or even make us susceptible to propaganda designed to influence our political views. We’ve known for decades that U.S. food production has been propped up on the backs of immigrants, many of them without the legal status necessary to protect them from labor abuse. The use of illegal or immigrant labor is nothing knew, and it certainly won’t disappear from our future per se. Hell, even Star Trek: Discovery suggests that we may never shed the use of prison labor from our culture.5 But the ethical implications of cheap labor in any form, especially in food production, should be readily on our minds. After all, food impacts basically everything. Our environment (and vice versa) and social world are drastically affected by the food we consume. Look at the Dust Bowl or the fact that there are still parts of our own society — and the world at large — where food isn’t accessible for everyone, from food deserts to famines and so on. But we still remain detached from these issues except where they directly affect us, and we create clever ways to keep that detachment by donating to organizations to “fix it” or finding ways to blame the affected people for their own conditions. Reality isn’t that simple. Fixes aren’t that simply. Blame isn’t that simple.

Science fiction should be better able to address these problems, particularly as our world changes politically, socially, and environmentally. In this sense, I think SF has a responsibility to humanity to reflect on our present and imagine our future, not in a predictive sense but in the purely extrapolative sense that makes so much of SF worth reading. I also think SF has a responsibility to the humanness of humanity. Films like Sleep Dealer may not address food per se, but they do look at the broader question of water rights, immigration, and so on. They are models of how dystopian narratives can serve a social purpose, even if that isn’t necessarily the intent. It shares a legacy with Soylent Green, a film deeply dependent on a declining society built on scarcity and suffering. But dystopian narratives cannot be our only way of looking at food production and distribution or other social/technological issues. We need the inherent optimism of SF to tackle these problems more readily, if not as a focus, then at least as a major concern.6

That’s my hot take, anyway. What do you think? Are there any great works of SF that focus on food distribution and production? Suggest them in the comments!

  1. It counts as a food. Shut up.
  2. This topic was suggested by my good friend, Jen Zink. Follow her on Twitter.
  3. Some of us may even make our own food on a limited basis or occasionally go to a farmer’s market or a local farm
  4. This holds true in general. Even a restaurant is detached from food production, albeit slightly less detached than the rest of us.
  5. Some would call this a new kind of slavery.
  6. I am, of course, not suggesting that there isn’t any SF that does this.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.


5 thoughts on “SF and Food: The Future Shall Be Fed

  1. Quick thoughts: Farmer in the Sky addressed the issue early on, but the space farming colony was more of a framework for adventures and a salute to the “pioneer spirit” than detailed economic worldbuilding.
    I can’t think of much SF or F at the moment that focuses on food production, although numerous SF works talk about balanced ecology in habitats. The Vorkosiverse talks a little about terraforming and vat meat (and there’s an amusing/mildly horrifying plot thread in Ethan of Athos about how someone puts the food system at Kline Station to an unintended use. (“Newts, news, who will buy my newts?”)

    • Yeah, when Jen suggested the topic, I struggled to come up with any work that focused on food production. I’m sure some works exist, but it just seems like the majority of SF focuses on other narrative concerns.

  2. One of the SF-nal segments of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas centers on a burger chain staffed by clone workers in the near future. We do see where the burgers come from in gory detail. Put me off eating burgers for a week or so, even though I know we don’t have that kind of burgers.

    Talking about prison labour and food production (and coincidentally, I hate the fact that a supposed post scarcity society like the Federation still uses prisoners as cheap labour), for the better part of a year I’ve been working on an SF novel set on a dystopian planet that incarcerates people on more or less flimsy pretexts and exploits them as cheap labour. One of the things the prisoners are forced to do is harvesting asparagus, since that is extremely labour intensive and associated with exploitative labour conditions here (I live in Germany’s main asparagus growing region).

    • Oh! Yes, I remember that. It’s in the film, too. Pretty terrifying scene.

      Ah, and now the asparagus thing makes sense. I wondered why you knew so much about that stuff on Twitter. Now I know!

      • The exploitative aspects of harvesting asparagus are a hot issue in Germany every spring/early summer. And since this literally happens in my neighbourhood – I’ve driven past camps for asparagus workers on my way to work at times – I have pretty strong feelings about that. I’ve even considered boycotting German asparagus altogether (since I’m not a big fan of the white asparagus popular in Germany anyway), though I have no way of knowing whether the conditions under which the stuff is harvested in Spain or Greece are any better. Most probably, they are not.

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