Food Science Fiction Precedes Fact

Food can play an important, sometimes aspirational, often surprising role in science fiction and fantasy. Creators often slip in references to food to reinforce the ‘otherness’ of their world. For example, in Roger Vadim’s 1968 film Barbarella which stars Jane Fonda; (after 154 hours of sleep) Barbarella approaches the planet of Tau Ceti and is woken by her spaceship who declares “Prepare to insert nourishment”, producing a glass of an unappetising brown liquid. Viewers are instantly transported to a distant and not entirely desirable future. But how far away is that future? In terms of the food, the technology is already here. Soylent was developed by Robert Rhinehart and his team “after recognizing the disproportionate amount of time and money they spent creating nutritionally complete meals”. A powder that users mix with water, Soylent contains protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, and vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron and calcium- all of the elements of a healthy diet. Classified as a food (rather than a supplement), it can be bought with food stamps in the U.S. and provide a complete substitute for conventional food.  “Prepare to insert nourishment”- the only difference between Soylent and Barbarella’s sustenance is that hers is dark brown and clear whereas Soylent is biscuit coloured and turbid.

An altogether more covetable portrayal of fictional food is in Roald Dahl’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In The Television-Chocolate Room both bars of chocolate and the unfortunate boy Mike Teavee are teleported across the lab. Scientists around the world today are successfully teleporting photons (light particles) from one place to another. That is a long way from the idea of teleporting a solid object but proves that it is possible. Another Dahl-esque technology that we’ll be seeing more and more of in the near future is 3D printed food. The list of foods already being printed is awesome- including chewing gum, lollipops, cake decorations, chocolate, pasta, ravioli, quiche, designer fish and chips, and hamburgers. Last year NASA paid mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor $125,000 to make a pizza printer for their astronauts. As I write, a kickstarter campaign that’s already raised four times it’s goal in funding with several weeks to go for PancakeBot is in operation. PancakeBot has been invented by Miguel Valenzuela for his two young daughters.  A video on their Kickstarter page shows PancakeBot re-creating a drawing by one of the girls, of a rocket in space. The outline is printed first so that it browns more on the hotplate than the second fill layer, creating a startlingly effective rendering. When it comes onto the market consumers will be able to print pre-loaded designs or use the S.D. card slot or Mac and Windows compatible software to create custom designs.

The final depiction of food in fiction I’m going to share with you is from Arthur C Clarke. There are quite a few examples in his work that spring to mind but the short story I’ve chosen contains the most disturbing and challenging of all. In Food of the Gods we enter our world- in a future wherein food is synthesised from water, air and rock. A biochemist representing one of many companies who have been put out of business by a new product, Ambrosia Plus, is addressing a U.S. Congressional Committee. He explains that, although this society realises that eating meat is a barbaric obscenity shamefully practiced by ancient people, they still crave the long established taste- therefore much of the food they enjoy is indistinguishable from meat on a fundamental level. When Ambrosia Plus exploded onto the market the scientists at his company were analysing samples and trying to work out what it was that people loved so much about it… It took a while but they finally realised that the product is identical to human flesh. Dun Dun Duh.  Frankenstein eat your heart out. Literally. Correspondingly, on the 5th August 2013 in London, the first lab-grown beef burger was eaten and proclaimed “close to meat”. Mark Post, a vascular biologist, grew the burgers in-vitro from cattle stem cells and brought a whole new dimension to the idea of cruelty free meat. They are predicted to be on supermarket shelves in twenty years.

Science and technology are fast realising the culinary dreams (and nightmares?) of fiction and the change in the way we produce and eat food from now to 2050 is going to be exponentially greater than the difference from 1950 to now. It may well look fantastic to us and it’s going to include us too- the possibilities are only as limited as our imaginations.

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