Thursday, January 10, 2013

Worldbuilding: Space Opera and the Future of Food

 I take the food aspect of worldbuilding pretty seriously, as you can tell.   This is just as true in Sci-fi and Space Opera as it is in Fantasy. 

On some level, I've often been disappointed by a lot of the SF I've read and watched along these lines.  Not that I necessarily want some sort of long infodump of alien farming, but food sourcing gets elided quite often.

Take, for example, the Replicators on Star Trek.  I kind of hate them.  They're a cheap answer to a major element of civilized culture.  On TNG, it even gives them the "high ground" to look down their nose at another species that still, you know, eats actual meat.  Because in their enlightened future, they don't need to deal with any messy reality of food production.  How do we feed ourselves?  We talk to a hole in the wall, and it appears like magic.

But taking magic tech out of the equation, the practical realities of how people produce, store and prepare food-- especially on long, deep space flights-- should be a worldbuilding element the writer is aware of, even if they never talk about it much. 

A fantastic resource Space Opera writers should check out is Mary Roach's Packing for Mars.  In it, Roach digs into every little practical "but what about this?" question that NASA was thought of (and they really thought about all of them), and solutions they've come up with, as well as the ones they still struggle with.  Food supplies for a manned mission to Mars is a major concern.*  The whole book is worth the time.

Alien foods are another thing to consider, specifically in terms of humans eating alien foods.  Now, biochemistry is not even remotely a strong suit of mine, but I'm given to understand that it's highly unlikely we'd be able to digest alien biomatter, let alone extract useful nutrients out of it.  Presuming no negative reactions**, it would just pass through our systems untouched.

However-- they still may be interesting to eat. Spices, for example.  We don't really get useful nutrients out of pepper or cinnamon or cumin, but they all make food more interesting. Alien spices can create unique culinary opportunities.   And that's also where xenobiodiversity can come into play, especially in terms of interspecies trade.  In the future you build, the trade of raw materials will, of course, be crucial, but there's nothing unique to, say the gold or molybdenum*** found on Earth compared to the gold or molydbenum on Starkasia or Paxica or wherever else people go in the galaxy.  But paprika?  Now that's something you can't get anywhere else.  That could be worth quite a lot out there.


*- As is the human waste element, which Roach gets into as well.  There were NASA scientists who suggested the possibility of having the problems solve each other: the waste material could be purified and used as a raw protein base to be repurposed as a food supply.  Scientifically possible.  But astronauts in the discussion shot this down: "We're not eat shitburgers on the ride home."
**- Which, I would imagine, would be more likely to be allergic reactions rather than toxic ones. 
***- Or whatever matters.  "Molybdenum" is just a fun name.


Angelique said...

Did you watch Voyager? They had to address this issue. DS9 didn't talk about obtaining food much, but inter-species culinary exchange was the big draw of the Promenade. Enterprise was the absolute WORST when it came to attitudes about food.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Voyager started out addressing the issues, but over time let it slide. While it never abandoned Neelix running the galley, it made it clear that it wasn't as necessary as it used to be, the replicators were handling their needs fine.

Enterprise, I felt, was a mix of good and bad. They had actual food, really cooked (though one cook feeding a crew of 80 for three meals a day would have been exhausted...), but at the same time, yeah, terrible attitudes. Namely, Trip and Archer always being jerks to T'Pol (and other Vulcans) over vegetarianism. I didn't get that.

Michael Caton said...

Angelique - I kind of suspended disbelief about most things related to biology on Star Trek. Not only do all the aliens look like us and we can eat their food, we can reproduce with them. Just add unicorns while you're at it. But I think I was most offended every time they came back in time to a parallel modern-day, because the world they arrived in clearly didn't have the Star Trek show, or they would have been recognized.

Sue me but my favorite ST series was Enterprise. Not just because I thought T'Pol was hot.

Since I mentioned Anathem in my last comment - interesting piece there about trying to eat human food from an essentially parallel universe, where the subatomic particles were just a little different, and so were the masses of the atoms and therefore their kinetics, and the thermodynamics of the proteins that they built. So when the protagonist ate some food from someone he suspected to be an alien, it just passed right through him. But Stephenson made a big mistake (or just willingly overlooked it for the plot) when he had those aliens settle on a planet made of atoms they couldn't digest.