TT: Eating Out in Space

JANE: Well, Alan, I always enjoy reading your “wot I red on my hols” column, but I’ll admit, the last one was particularly gripping, especially the part where you talked about water contamination in your town.

Klingon? Human? Vulcan?

Klingon? Human? Vulcan?

ALAN: Yes – it’s been a fraught few weeks. More than a third of the population was infected with campylobacter from our water supply. We still have to boil all our water before we can drink it. If anyone wants to find out more about what happened, you can read my article here.

JANE:  I hope the water system is cleaned up soon.

One of the details that fascinated me was how your personal background had already provided you with skills to deal with the situation.

If I may quote you: “Also I’m a stickler for hand hygiene during food preparation, which also helped. I studied chemistry at university and there’s nothing like a session in a chemistry laboratory to teach you about the importance of clean hands – some of those chemicals are nasty.”

ALAN: Indeed so. As I quipped in the article, chemists wash their hands before they go to the toilet…

JANE: Which reminds me of a bad joke I heard at an SF convention years ago, but I think I will spare you.

ALAN: Please don’t spare me.

JANE:  Okay, but remember, you asked for it.  Here it is:

A Klingon, a Human, and a Vulcan are discussing how civilized they are.

The Klingon says, “We are so civilized that we always wash our hands after using the toilet.”

 The Humans retorts, “Humans are so civilized that they wash their hands before and after using the toilet.”

The Vulcan responds dryly, “Vulcans don’t pee on their hands.”

ALAN: Nice one! Clearly I must have had a lot of Vulcan ancestors.

JANE: But you still wash your hands before…

Your recent adventures combined in my head with a panel I was on a few weeks ago at Bubonicon about food in SF and Fantasy.  Maybe because the panelists included a retired medical doctor (Sage Walker) and an environmental engineer (Laura J. Mixon aka M.J. Locke), the panel took some interesting turns.

I found myself thinking that it’s been a while since you and I delved into one of our favorite topics: Food!  Although I’m sure we’ve mentioned food in SF/F in passing, I’m not sure we’ve ever really focused in on it.  Are you interested?

ALAN: Indeed I am. Probably the most famous food item in science fiction is soylent green. That was actually the title of a movie which was based upon Harry Harrison’s Malthusian novel Make Room! Make Room! Both the film and the book are set in a massively overpopulated world where soylent green is everybody’s main food.

In the movie it is revealed that soylent green is made from dead human bodies – a fairly revolting thought which is done purely for shock value. The idea makes no practical sense and it has absolutely nothing to do with the themes discussed in the novel. As the word “soylent” clearly implies, the foodstuff is actually made from soya beans and lentils. The people of this future world are all largely vegetarian, though not necessarily by choice.

JANE: Ah, yes, “Malthusian” themed novels – that is, those dealing with the fear of overpopulation and consequences – were a big deal at one point in SF.  Make Room!  Make Room! (published in 1966) is strongly representative of the trope.

ALAN: I heard Harry Harrison discuss the movie several times, both in private conversations and in public talks. He was very bitter about the way Hollywood had butchered his book. The novel’s pro-contraception message as a mechanism for avoiding the population crisis was completely missing from the film. Harrison claimed that Hollywood was afraid of offending the film’s Roman Catholic viewers, and he’s probably right.

Both the film and the book do have some very effective images of the horrors that an overpopulated world would bring. But the book is by far the stronger of the two.

JANE: It’s odd but, although the panel I mentioned above was actually titled “Soylent Green: It’s a Cookbook,” I don’t think we ever discussed it.  That’s the way of panels…

ALAN: That title reminds me of a rather famous shaggy dog short story by Damon Knight. It’s called “To Serve Man”. The alien Kanamit race promise to bring peace and plenty to the world. They provide unlimited power and boundless supplies of food. Everybody turns into happy lotus eaters, becoming fat and complacent. However one rather cynical character is sure that the Kanamit must have an ulterior motive. He manages to get his hands on a Kanamit book and a dictionary. The book has the title How To Serve Man. Clearly the Kanamit really are as charitable as they have claimed to be. However once he translates the first page of the book it turns out to be a cookbook. We are being farmed…

In 2001, the story was awarded a Retro Hugo Award as the Best Short Story of 1951.

JANE: And it should!  I actually have a “To Serve Man” cookbook.  It’s very silly.  The type of meat in any recipe is replaced with “Man,” so there’s a certain amount of guessing involved – and unless, of course, the chef really wanted to use human.

ALAN: Knight seemed to like that kind of thing. His short story “Eripmav” (read the title backwards) is about a vegetable vampire who is finally killed with a steak through the heart.

JANE: Ouch!  On that line, you might enjoy the excellent “Bunnicula” books which feature a rabbit who just might be a vegetarian vampire.  They’re for kids, but adults tend to get more of the jokes…

One thing we did discuss on the panel was the fact that food is actually a very important SF element for a wide variety of reasons.  One is that, despite the fact that in most TV shows and movies space adventurers can go to a planet and eat the local plants and animals without any problem, this is highly unlikely.

Poul Andersen built his excellent novel War of the Wingmen around just this premise.  I’m not going any farther because I don’t want to provide a spoiler, but it’s great SF.

ALAN: And that, of course, raises the interesting question of just how would the space adventurers carry their food with them? In real life, we’ve seen the great effort that NASA puts in to keep its astronauts fed – but even dehydrated food, while it minimises storage space, is still rather bulky. Perhaps someone really does need to invent that good old SF standby, the food pill. (See, for example, The Jetsons – one of the best examples of TV science fiction).

JANE: Oh…  Food pills.  We definitely need to discuss those and why they just might not work.  But I need to go cook dinner.  How about next time?


12 Responses to “TT: Eating Out in Space”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Oh Lordy. If you haven’t already, please read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars before you talk about 1960s space food. Her chapter on space food is hilarious.

    The tl;dr version of that was that one reason for certain oft-parodied characteristics of NASA space food was that an Army veterinarian was in charge of the program. Another reason was that, unlike the veterinarians in charge of making pet food, he wasn’t all that concerned with the desirability of the food items so produced. What they were worried about was low weight, lack of crumbs, and dealing with the more-or-less non-existent toilet facilities that awaited the inevitable byproducts of any food they sent up. Actually, that last part has parallels in most SFF literature, does it not? In any case, the real world context that gave rise to the space food is pretty hilarious, when Mary Roach gets her writerly hands on it.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      I’ve read all of Mary Roach’s books. All are hilarious, and all deal with vaguely icky subjects. I’m particularly fond of Stiff which is about what happens to dead bodies, and Bonk which will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about the mechanics and the vagaries of sexual intercourse.


    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Obviously, I need to put her work on my reading list. Now to rediscover TIME to read. Sigh. On the other hand, I am writing.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I think Bonk is my favorite, possibly because I haven’t read Stiff. Her Packing for Mars and Grunts are quite useful for SF design work, if you want that ever-so-slightly realistic touch. And if you want to understand what space food was about.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    “To Serve Man” – there was [or least I remember seeing, which is no guarantee it existed] a cartoon showing a multi-tentacled alien in a chef’s hat and apron, standing at a stove stirring vigorously while pouring over a volume with that title. Perhaps Gahan Wilson, since it would have probably predated Gary Larson.

    I’ve never been able to track it down. If anyone else recalls it and has a pointer to it, would appreciate it.

  3. Paul Says:

    Also a “Twilight Zone” TV episode of “To Serve Man,” which ends with the show’s protagonist boarding the ship with others to “visit” the alien planet when his assistant comes running up, too late to keep him from boarding, yelling what the book of the show’s title really is.

  4. chadmerkley Says:

    One common trope that shows up in a lot of SF is “vat-grown” food sources, especially for meat. A lot of authors seem to like including some minor conflict between people who think the artificial stuff is gross and those who think real meat is disgusting or immoral. A lot of it seems to center around space-based societies versus planet-dwellers.

    My reaction is to immediately find the idea artificial meat completely repulsive. My second thought is maybe it could work for. My auto-immune issues mean I’m allergic to a certain protein that occurs in beef and pork (and as far as I can tell from my research, it’s common to all mammals).

    Maybe I could have a genetically engineered, vat-grown steak someday? Or a bacon cheeseburger?

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Are you allergic to the live animals, or to the cooked meat? I have a bunch of mammal allergies, but they don’t seem to affect my consumption of cooked meat. Cooking changes the shape of at least some proteins, and for me that’s apparently enough. What I am genuinely curious about is whether it’s just me, or whether cooking denatures allergens for other people.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Probably not just you, but it isn’t likely to work for everybody either. For some allergens shape is critical, and affected by cooking, but others are the peptide sequence itself. In the latter cases cooking won’t make any difference – or at least not enough difference.

        Since AFAIK my only mammal allergy is cat, direct testing isn’t really feasible… OTOH, I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to any number of grasses, but eating cereals doesn’t bother me.

      • chadmerkley Says:

        My primary diagnosis is mastocytosis, which causes many food allergies–thankfully not gluten, dairy or eggs, but a lot of other stuff (plant families I can’t eat include Solanaceae, Apiaceae, Asteraceae, Fabaceae, Lamiaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Brassicaeae, Chenopodaceae, Rosaceae…I might be forgetting a few. I usually end up trying to politely refuse dinner invitations).

        The meat allergy appears to actually not be a protein, but to carbohydrate: .
        The last time I looked into this was 8 or 10 years ago, and the info was all in immunology journals rather than Wikipedia. I either misunderstood or mis-remembered the details.

        My current pet theory about all of this is that it is caused by an arbovirus, since I test negative for the known genetic mutation that causes mastocytosis.

      • Louis Robinson Says:


        We’re really at the limit of my own knowledge here, but carbohydrate is very likely correct: there are some wonderfully complex carbs out there. It’s not all glucose, sucrose and starch, by a long sight. How they respond to the conditions in a cook pot is equally complex.

  5. Jane Lindskold Says:

    You people are fascinating! Thanks for the education…

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