JANE: Last time you mentioned food pills as an old SF trope. I wonder how long they’ve been around?
ALAN: They’ve been around for a very long time – in 1912 William Hope Hodgson published his classic novel The Night Land. The hero sets out to explore the night land equipped only with food tablets and “water powder” which appears to be dehydrated water (in powder form). Brian Aldiss had a little tongue in cheek fun with this last idea in his 1968 novel Cryptozoic! which has references to something called “concentrated water”. It seems there is no idea so silly that it can’t be used in an SF novel…
JANE: I’ve read some of William Hope Hodgson’s work (House on the Borderland springs to mind), but not The Night Land. Most of what I’ve read is sort of horror, but something with “water powder” sounds like a comedy. Is it?
ALAN: No, not at all. It’s still very much in Hodgson’s typical horror style.
JANE: Hmm… That sound bizarre enough that I may need to hunt up a copy of The Night Land.
ALAN: Amusingly, there really is an American company called Bernard Food Industries Inc. which, just for fun, has been selling cans of dehydrated water since 1964. The cans are completely empty, of course. The instructions on the label tell you to empty the contents of the can into a gallon of water, chill and serve. I imagine they must do a roaring trade since they are still selling their dehydrated water today.
JANE: That sounds like a great item to get for a gag gift or fund-raiser. Any other examples of food pills being used in early SF?
ALAN: Probably the ultimate food pill (before The Jetsons popularised the idea) was in a movie called Just Imagine which was made in 1930. The hero is taken to a café, where he orders a meal of clam chowder, roast beef, beets, asparagus, pie and coffee. Of course, the whole thing is served to him in a single, small pill. He swallows it, and then says that the roast beef was a little bit tough.
JANE: That reminds me of the “eating your words” sequence from The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
ALAN: More seriously, one of Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories (“The Wilderness”) makes a deliberate comparison between the American pioneers heading west across the country in their huge covered wagons full of provisions and a modern explorer on Mars who only needs a “matchbox of food pills”. It’s a very effective image.
JANE: Indeed it is. However, I think one of the reasons that the food pill fell out of use in SF/F is that there’s something about eating that ties into human psychology.
Jack, of Roger’s Zelazny’s short story “Halfjack,” explains why he has undergone the “lateral hemicorporectomy” surgery that has made him into a half-cyborg, rather than choosing either to have an entirely cyborg body or remain more or less human: “…I need a stomach and balls and lungs, because I have to eat and screw and breathe to feel human.”
ALAN: Very much so – eating in general (and good food in particular) is very important to us. Hence, for example, the perennial complaints about the quality of institutional food. James White actually wrote a whole novel (Galactic Gourmet) about a famous chef who takes up the challenge of designing gourmet food for human and alien patients in the Sector General Hospital.
JANE: That sounds like a fascinating challenge!
In Larry Niven’s novel Protector, the alien Phssthpok the Pak is completely at a loss to understand why the Belter Brennan’s ship allows space not only for a kitchen, but for storing a variety of more or less fresh foods.
Niven says it so well that I’m going to quote: “Weight was important in space. Surely the natives could have provided a lightweight food, synthetic if necessary, capable of keeping the pilot fed and healthy indefinitely. The saving in effort and fuel consumption would have been enormous when multiplied by the number of ships he’d seen. Instead they preferred to carry a variety of prepackaged foods, and a complex machine to select and prepare them. They had chosen to cool these foods against decomposition rather than reduce them to a powder. Why?”
ALAN: Ironically, the Pak are, in their own way, completely food-centric as well. However, in their case, food is necessary not to provide fibre or a means of alleviating boredom or anything like that, but because the root that Niven calls “Tree of Life” is necessary to the final stage of transformation. Since (in Niven’s universe) humans turn out to be descended from Pak, I wonder if the human psychological obsession with food might be explained as part of the endless search for the alien Tree of Life root.
JANE: I like that. Even in subsistence-level human cultures – maybe even especially in them – food and the rituals associated with preparing and eating are central. I will resist the urge to go off into myths and legends associated with food, and simply state they are universal.
ALAN: As witness the appeal of the song “Food! Glorious Food!” in the musical Oliver!
JANE: Of course, there are other, non-psychological reasons, for food pills falling out of use in SF (except in the role of emergency or military rations). One of these is a greater awareness that our bodies get more from food than merely nutrients. Fiber, for example, is needed to cleanse various systems, and although fiber can be supplied by pills, my understanding is that it isn’t as effective.
ALAN: And neither is it as much fun. There’s a very important social ritual built around eating. We sit together at the dinner table as a family (or on a date) and we eat and we talk. All that would disappear if we just swallowed a pill and then went on with our day.
JANE: Indeed. And when you look at this social ritual from an alien’s point of view, it makes no sense. You’re going to interact with someone (or a group of someones) by means of conversation, then you stuff food into the orifice you need for conversation. That’s truly, ahem, “unintelligible” behavior.
ALAN: Well, that gives me some food for thought…
Meanwhile, I’ve got a question for you. Perhaps we can talk about it next time over dinner.