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.
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?