What am I Eating

Science fiction is the speculation of the world we will inhabit in the future through the analysis and critique of the status quo. To become a speculative designer of science fiction, the simplest way is to take a question you have today and rephrase it in the future tense:

What am I eating?

What will I eat?

Then add how long into the future you are asking this question.

What will I eat in 50 years?

While this seems simple, the question “What will I eat in 50 years?” explores the culmination of an infinite number of future outcomes from a myriad of sources. To help us out, we can narrow down what is important about food that we want to speculate about. Where is the food coming from? How do we eat it? To whom are all these questions being asked?

To our future selves or future generations, the answer to these questions may be trivial but to us in the present the answer becomes a blueprint from the futurity that we can reverse engineer. We can then solve for the events that lead up to this particular future.

For example, if the answer to the question “Does our food consist of meat” is NO, then we can reverse engineer that the world stops eating animal products in this specific future. We can also deduce that perhaps the world population size is much larger in this future and the absence of meat is to create more resource efficient foods. Population size is just one event that happens between now and this point 50 years in the future?

Any of these discrepancies between our status quo and the future we are speculating are critiques on the status quo. A change that creates a positive result in the future implies our present world can be improved and is thus a negative critique of the present. A change that results in a worse future is oftentimes critical of a negative path the present is going down. When our present world is compared to a dystopia, we are obviously grateful that our present world is not a complete dystopia but will criticize the aspects of our present that will lead us there. Science fiction becomes a bit paradoxical; when presented about the dangers we might face in the future, we will alter our actions to steer clear of those dangers. This is also why science fiction is not always about speculating a realistic future but rather a believable future.

Short stories, comic books, operas, screenplays, movie props, typography, and undergraduate degree projects are only some of the mediums of science fiction. These mediums ask many questions at once and provide samplings of the answers to let the audience fill in the blanks. For example the Picturephone booth in 2001: A Space Odyssey answers the question of advanced communication between space and Earth in what amounts to a five minute portion of the movie. An experimental technology (at least in 1968 when the movie was made) shown in use helps rationalize the setting of the movie — outer space, a location only inhabitable through advances in current technology.

The Picturephone was a concept developed by AT&T and showcased how we might communicate to one another in the future. Source: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

What Does Eating Look Like

When comparing contemporary science fiction with science fiction from the 20th century there are many overlapping themes related to industrialization, space travel, and artificial intelligence. And while we have made significant advances in these fields since then, a lot has remained the same. On a large scale, we are still faced with the vast unknown of science and technology while remaining on the forefront of innovation. Consequently, on a smaller scale, we still use (almost exclusively) sans-serif fonts to apply typography in a science-fiction movie. The content of science-fiction has definitely progressed yet the visual vocabulary has changed little. As such, when imagining what the future looks like it is hard to imagine it outside of the current visual cannon.

These images are over 40 years apart yet the use of Eurostile and the low-fidelity computer display remain as markers of the science-fiction genre. Perhaps this is also why A Space Odyssey when viewed today still looks so contemporary (aside from the old Bell and Pan Am logos of course).  Above: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 Below: Moon, 2009

While this may seem ironic given how I just previously explained that science fiction works by criticizing the status quo, we also have to recognize how the mentioned mediums also have not changed. And in visual mediums such as movies and comics the visual vocabulary of science-fiction also has to help tell a narrative. Directors and prop makers alike are incentivised to stick to tried and true story-telling techniques to work with these antiquated mediums and to not alienate their audience.

A giant red alert message that blocks other UI components probably isn’t the most helpful but it sure tells the viewer of the movie that something in the narrative is happening. Source: Oblivion, 2013

So while a future that uses only the English language, Eurostile typography, clean sterile architecture isn’t a realistic future, it has become the default for artists because it is an instant marker of the time the piece is set.

At a glance, the setting is still identifiable as a cafeteria but it is apparent it is set in the future thanks to the hanging terminals, glossy white lights in the ceiling, and sans-serif way-finding.
Source: Passengers, 2016

Why Food

Many things will change in the future but we will still need food. Food in science fiction can help the audience relate to a futuristic setting since we can all relate to the topic of food. Food is also hardly an affable or apolitical subject which makes it a prime vessel for critiquing the present.

The protein bars in Snowpiercer imagine food without taste or texture. In the story food becomes a metaphor for power and class divide. Source: Snowpiercer, 2013
The use of food in the film Soylent Green is a critique of overpopulation and the ability to sustainably feed everyone. Source: Soylent Green, 1973
On a more realistic speculation, potatoes become the primary food source for Matt Damon’s character in The Martian who becomes stranded on Mars. Source: The Martian, 2015

“Food can (and should) be a powerful grounding element in science fiction. It’s a hook onto which readers can grab while the whole world around them swarms with spaceships, aliens, dinosaurs or hyperintelligent gerbils bent on world domination because it is something that is common — that we all do, every day. Something that we have done for all of our combined history. Something that we will do until we all evolve into brains in jars or giant robots or whatever.”

—Jason Sheehan, npr.org

How we access and eat our food says everything about the world we inhabit. Currently writing these words amidst the Covid-19 lockdown makes me realize that going to a grocery store has so many implications that we have taken for granted. And being able to order hyper-processed snacks off of Amazon.com and have them delivered to your door within 24 hours shows how close we are to the futures represented in science fiction. For some of us already, meal replacement shakes and drink mixes are part of our caloric intake.When juxtaposed next to beamed on-demand food in Star Trek, however, 24 hour delivery times just look pathetic.

Today, ordering food on Amazon.com or eating a meal replacement shake comprises the vast minority of all food consumed. A future where this access to food becomes the norm would require a lot of changes to our present.

“I think one of the biggest issues is pre-set notions of what food is okay in SF. Many stories show Westernized food concepts—the teacup, the vat of oatmeal (with apologies to Tuf Voyaging)—and how a society sticks to those preconceived notions (chickienobs, from Oryx & Crake, are rather familiar in their presentation, if not their origin.). Instead, stories that focus on growing and creating food that works realistically in its setting and is evocative of future problems.”

—Fran Wilde, tor.com

As an object of consumer culture, food, and the packaging and distribution that accompanies it, tells the viewer what people find important. When food is marketed as healthy or that it has a low carbon footprint, we can deduce that those two qualities are important to the world the food occupies.

My Speculations

With present concerns about how to feed a growing population sustainably, meal replacements (in the form of flavored shakes) could be one way to solve these issues. Meal replacement powder is easy to transport in bulk and is made from plants which means a low impact on the environment. Would meal replacements replace just the calories we consume or would they also replace the entire way we eat? If meal replacements become the primary way to eat, does it matter when we have breakfast, lunch, and dinner? And does it matter what those meals taste like?