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Neon Samurai: You know, in all my 29 years, I've never had a real steak.
—Shadowrun: Shadowtech Sourcebook
In the future, things are going to change drastically—including our diets. Whether it be from the destruction of arable land, food processing technology becoming cheaper, or just plain ethnocentrism, eventually, real food will become a luxury item, unavailable to all but perhaps an elite few. So, what does the rest eat? Processed foodstuffs, based usually on soy or yeast, loaded up with artificial flavors and engineered to be nutritionally complete—but not the least bit tasty or satisfying.
Future Food Is Artificial is a staple of Cyberpunk and other Dystopias because Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap, and is often first clue that the Utopia we see isn't quite what it seems. However, it is also common in the Harder varieties of science fiction, particularly Space Operas; gardens on spaceships are Truth in Television, but battery farms on board anything less than a Generation Ship strains just about everyone's Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
The Darker and Edgier version of Food Pills (it probably first appeared in fiction as a subversion thereof), and the black sheep cousin to Veganopia. Assuming it's not recycled, this sort of future food usually comes from a Multipurpose Monocultured Crop.
It's also a component of many Utopias as well; if synthetic food is impossible to distinguish from the real thing, then why would you want to consume the parasitic organisms that pervade just about all food? It is possible that once tasty synthetic food is invented, awareness of contaminated food could become comparable to current awareness of sanitation as opposed to The Dung Ages. The average person might find the idea of choosing to risk food poisoning to be similar to the notion of choosing to risk cholera and dysentery by drinking Cool, Clear Water.
Alternate Reality Games
- The Halo ARG I Love Bees features a scene at a restaurant, where a character gawks at how the menu has real tuna, instead of what is implied to be this. Further implications of human society relying on this includes a mention of how Customs Agents were bribed with four goats.
Anime and Manga
- In Rebuild of Evangelion this is partially the case for humanity. Following Second Impact sea life is all but extinct and many of the coastal arable lands are now underwater. Additional climate changes have devastated agriculture and wildlife, further reducing food sources. The exact amount of replacement food in any given meal is never explicitly stated but what passes for meat is at least two-thirds artificial.
- Also implied in the original series. The fact that Misato, a Colonel working for the agency saving the world, would break her bank buying three steak dinners says something about the new pricing of meat.
- In Vandread the Men of Tarak subsist off of Pellets. Some of these might be better than others.
- In Future Police Urashiman the protagonist Ryuu is hilarious about an deli offering original spaghetti. Sadly it's only for upper class g-men.
- "Munce" is the staple diet of Mega-City One citizens in Judge Dredd comics. It's a kind of high-protein plant, usually highly processed by the time it gets to the consumers because it happens to look like a human head. Sometimes munce is even made out of dead humans.
- Another example is the Gunge product line, consisting of delicacies like the Slime Sauce, Bacteria Soup, Maggot Steaks, Black Widow Spider Wine matured for a week in an old boot, and Mould Jam. When the initial release sparks huge protests, the Justice Department outlaws Gunge, buys the factories and re-releases the products under a artificial brand.
- In Soylent Green, the people are forced to subsist on unappetizing synthetic red and yellow biscuits made of soy and lentils, until a novelty product is released... green biscuits. Of course, if the idea of eating plain artificial food wasn't bad enough, the movie has one more gut-punch for you...
- In the novel the movie was based on, Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! soylent steaks made of soy and lentils were an expensive item. Otherwise, they were just a minor detail of the dystopian future.
- The disgusting tapioca-like goop that the Neo and his fellow rebels eat in The Matrix. When Cypher makes the deal to rebel, he notes that he'd rather be eating virtual steak than that real protein... stuff. In an early draft of the script, the meal of choice is giant cockroach; whether that'd be better or worse than the runny synthetic gruel it ended up being is debatable at best.
- In Alien the crew eats synthetic "food" which resembles spagetti or cabbage. In the movie, there is not much talk of what it is actually made of. In the novelization however, Parker says something to the effect of "Why would you care what it's made of? It's food now." - and it's strongly implied that the "robochef" actually uses the crew's waste to produce the meals.
- Humorously depicted in Brazil, in which meals at a fancy restaurant after an extravagant ordering ritual turned out to be scoops of mush along with a picture of the original meal they were intended to simulate.
- Word of God states that the only food
leftaffordable to most people on Earth in Avatar is spirulina. Waitaminute, then where did they get the coffee and the scrambled eggs from?
- That's pretty obvious—they grow it there on Pandora. After all, in a setting where the uncurable-on-Pandora medical cases are euthanized in place, they surely won't ship the food from the Earth. And having an automated chicken farm and a couple of greenhouses isn't all that expensive.
- Possibly, but the trope still applies on Pandora. In the extended version, there is a scene in which Grace is forcing Jake to eat some food they have at the mobile station, and Jake mentions how at least he knows what he is eating when he is with the Na'vi.
- That's pretty obvious—they grow it there on Pandora. After all, in a setting where the uncurable-on-Pandora medical cases are euthanized in place, they surely won't ship the food from the Earth. And having an automated chicken farm and a couple of greenhouses isn't all that expensive.
- Flavo Fibes from Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.
- Apparently Luke's ration bars are this in The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda actually asks him "How you get so big eating food like this?"
- Judge Dredd has its own send up of this: "Eat recycled food. It's good for the environment and OK for you!"
- Implied in Trancers. Jack Deth has been sent to the past from the future and is given beef Chinese food, prompting him to say "Beef? Like from a cow?"
- A subject of dissent among the Tomanian people in The Great Dictator.
Hynkel: "What are they dissenting about?"
- In William Sleator's House of Stairs, meat is a luxury.
- In a good many Isaac Asimov novels, especially the Elijah Baley series, people are vegetarian through no particular choice of their own—the Earth is so overcrowded that real meat is a luxury most people can't afford, and artificial yeast-based proteins grown in vats ("zymoveal") are the food of choice for the working class.
- His short story The Evitable Conflict features pleasant yeast-copies of steak, and mentions they can copy anything from meat to crystallized fruit.
- But in the late Foundation novels, some of these yeast-based proteins are luxury foods grown on Trantor in the Mycogen sector. Bland gloop exists, too, for mass consumption. And the Mycogenians keep the very best for themselves.
- Another short story, 'Good Taste,' focuses on the orbiting colony Gammer, where fungus/yeast based cuisine is Serious Business and all recipes are based on standard extracts. The protagonist enters the annual cooking contest tries to reintroduce the subtly different flavour of real garlic and other seasonings, but the judges are disgusted by the idea of eating 'growths from the ground.'
- In his Lucky Starr juvenile novels the yeast farms feature again and are often a plot point.
- The Lost Boys in House of the Scorpion live off of plankton. Subverted in the fact that it is not done out of necessity, better food exists and is obtainable, but because the Keepers won't feed them anything more decent. One character mentions the plankton is used only for animal feed.
- In the novel The Space Merchants (by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth), there's a giant growing fleshy lump called "Chicken Little" (it was originally a piece of chicken heart tissue) that they carve slices off: the working man's "meat".
- Even better yet, it's fed by hundreds of tubes carrying raw yeast in from a multi-story yeast farm above it, tended by hordes of perpetually abused sweatshop workers.
- This is actually based on a real-life experiment; Dr. Alexis Carrel, an early-20th-century biologist, kept a culture of cells from an embryonic chicken heart alive for over 20 years. Unfortunately, after Carrel passed away, the culture was destroyed for unknown reasons, and nobody has been able to replicate the experiment since.
- Mostly because no one was crazy/dedicated enough. Living tissue cultures are nothing new, and growing the complete organs is a cutting-edge medical technology—mostly for transplants, though, not food.
- One of Kilgore Trout's stories in Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions tells of a planet where all food is made from petroleum and coal, because its animal and plant life had been destroyed by pollution. The planet's dirty movies showed vivid color footage of people eating fruit, meat, vegetables, and other such foods that didn't exist any more.
- Similarly, Robinette Broadhead from Gateway was a "food miner" before accepting the Call to Adventure; specifically, he mined oil shale that would be processed to grow fungi that would be processed into food. Bob wonders at one point about the days when oil flowed out of the ground and people just used it to run cars.
- Minor subversion in the Vorkosigan Saga. Cordelia, the protagonist, is from a utopia-ish planet, and has recently moved to the more primitive former-Lost Colony Barrayar. She's used to eating carniculture (real meat, raised in a vat instead of a killed animal), and the fact that what she's eating used to be alive gives her a moment of pause. She still eats it, and enjoys it, but puts it down to her pregnancy making her have strange cravings. (Maybe she's right; in a later book her son says she "never eats anything but vat-protein if she can help it," and carniculture is common on Barrayar as well. But Cordelia ate the fish her son caught, because she loves him.)
- Later in the series, we're introduced to butter bugs, which are being designed to eat the Bizarre Alien Biology of Barrayar's ecology and produce human-edible food.
- Surprisingly, this makes an appearance in the Star Trek novel Starfleet Academy: Collision Course. In these pre-replicator days, there are many references to "resequenced protein" as something people eat when they've no choice. In particular, breakfast at the Adademy consists of resequenced protein in thin pink slices and thick white slabs, vaguely resembling bacon and eggs. According to Spock, they were originally created as emergency shuttle rations.
- Used in The War Against the Chtorr novel "A Day for Damnation" to feed a herd (victims of a plague that affects intelligence) in San Francisco.
We pushed up near one of the bales. It looked like it was made of big pieces of yellow farfel. It smelled yeasty and buttery.
- In a pair of books by Jody Lynn Nye, Taylor's Ark and Medicine Show, the artificial food is called "nutri". The main character laments more than once that she craves the stuff, unflavored, when pregnant.
- In Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series, the Serfs are fed "nutri-food", processed goo that can be shaped to various textures, while the Citizens can get anything up to and including bear steaks.
- This is a minor plot point after Stile goes into hiding-he asks Sheen to go get him some food, preferably some pudding or something else that won't change much since the only way to smuggle it to Stile is by eating it. When she gets back, she activates whatever passes for a gag reflex in gynoids and vomits up a double handful of pudding that does look distressingly used. Stile manages to eat it by telling himself that in the games, the standard nurti-hork can and usually is shaped into various disgusting things like puke and engine oil, and he just has to pretend this is what's happening now.
- In a short story, by Arthur C. Clarke, all food is completely synthetic, but they can make exact copies of ANYTHING. One company introduces a food range of synthetic human flesh.
- Transmetropolitan has human meat come from "bastards," cloned humans grown without neural tissue, here the central product of a growing restaurant chain.
- Another Clark story, The Deep Range, has a weird version of this: there's no suggestion the Earth is particularly overcrowded or polluted, but land-based agriculture has apparently been phased out, replaced by plankton and farmed whale steaks.
- In The Goodness Gene by Sonia Levitin, synthetic food is part of the Government Conspiracy; dictator Hayli claims it's supposed to protect people from bacteria found in natural plants & animals but really it's to protect him from a deadly allergy to peanuts and his severe germophobia, as well as to keep the populace dependent on the government. Still, people living in fringe communities are allowed to eat farmed food, though it's discouraged.
- Averted in The Parafaith War by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. The main character eats a lot of algae crackers and drinks a lot of Sustain (like a cross between an energy drink and a protein shake), and a breakfast with real eggs, real juice, and real bread for toast costs him about a month's salary. But that's just because shipping foodstuffs between solar systems is incredibly expensive and he's posted on a planet undergoing terraforming, so it can't support its own food production yet. When he visits home, on the capitol world of his society, he has plenty of real food available. The problems in Utopia are a bit deeper than what's in the fridge.
- In David Zindell's Requiem For Homo Sapiens, the people of Icefall eat foods from the 'food factories', as their world makes the north pole seem warm and arable. This massively freaks out the adopted cave boy, Danlo, who has been raised to pray for the soul of every animal that he eats.
- Subverted in Peter F. Hamilton's Fallen Dragon - most food is created artificially, but there is plenty of room for farmland. It's just that synthetic foodstuffs are indistinguishable from the real thing and natural food Squicks the hell out of most people. The protagonist innocently eats a non-vat steak and vomits when he is told it came from a cow.
- Larry Niven's short story Vandervecken makes reference to a substance called "Dole Yeast"
Roy: (in reference to the price of food in the asteroid belt) Ye Gods, The Prices!
- In Good Omens, Famine (in the guise of Dr. Raven Sable) develops CHOWTM, completely indigestible food which allows you to slim yourself down the terminal way. Then later on:
MEALSTM was Sable's latest brainwave. MEALSTM was CHOWTM with added sugar and fat. The theory was that if you ate enough MEALSTM you would a) get very fat, and b) die of malnutrition. The paradox delighted Sable.
- Space Captain Smith plays this for laughs with Synthetic Ham (Sham), Sham Lite (Shite), Synthetic Curry (Slurry) Sham sausages (Homage) and synthetic bacon (Facon)
- Most animals in Neuromancer have been killed by a pandemic, and "meats" are grown in vats. When protagonist Case refuses to partake a steak in a posh restaurant on the Moon, his partner Molly replies "gimme that. You know what this costs? They've gotta raise a whole animal for years and then they kill it. This isn't vat stuff."
- In the section of Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty set in the future, the population produces only one type of food. It is small, squarish, and cracker-like. The artificial colours indicate what vitamins each cracker provides. They are tasteless and textureless (although one of the blues has a slight flavour).
- Played for laughs in Harry Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero. Soldiers are fed with a thin soup that contains all the nutrients needed to keep them healthy, but tastes like drek. Some soldiers get cards from home that can be rehydrated into chocolate bars or other, actual foodstuffs. Our Hero, Bill, gets a card from home that rehydrates into ... a larger card that plays tinny, annoying, "inspiring", military tunes and slogans.
- And then there's dehydrated water, a necessary staple when deployed on an alien planet. You just add water and you get... water! Though it doesn't taste as good as regular water.
- Small Minded Giants by Oisin McGann, set in an enclosed city in which the population is waiting out an ice age, includes several references to this trope. Foodstuffs eaten by the working class main characters include spirulina, and the rather mysterious sounding Promeat and Veggie-soy. Fruit and meat are strictly for the wealthy. It is also mentioned that most people's staple diet is based on genetically modified soya beans and that the cheapest food available is made from processed waste.
- In Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net (set Twenty Minutes Into the Future), there's no shortage of 'real' food, but one major character eats only synthetic so as to avoid the toxins that real plants put in their tissues to discourage animals from, y'know, eating them.
- The Millennial Project recommends doing this with algae of all things in order to properly feed the denizens of space habitats, algae being quite easy to grow hydroponically and some species containing complete proteins.
Live Action TV
- In Star Trek: The Original Series, food is made from dehydrated tablets. And kids will apparently eat the resulting food without being forced. In The Next Generation, replicators make food from Pure Energy, so it obviously never came from anything that was ever alive except in some kind of cosmic sense.
- Not exactly pure energy. The replicator uses transporter technology to rearrange the molecular structure of some kind of raw material (basically any sort of solid matter) into the molecular structure of edible food. This process can also be used to fabricate tools and spare parts. A line from an episode of Enterprise suggests that the crew's "waste" products are also used for the "raw materials" that are fed into early versions of the replicator....
- Firefly: in "Out of Gas", the gang makes an entire birthday cake for Simon out of protein. And, of course, there's Kaylee's reaction to Book's strawberries in the pilot, to say nothing of the way she eats them later... mmmmm...
- And the valuable cargo looted from a derelict ship in the pilot? Nutrition bars, of the sort issued as rations to brand-new colonies; thanks to the central Alliance government's utter disinterest in doing anything to support any brand-new colony which can't survive entirely on its own, these ration bars are much more valuable as loot than the ingots of precious metal they're initially portrayed to be. Especially as each one can feed a family of four for a month.
- On the other hand, many of the worlds they stop off at are largely occupied by agricultural settlements, so it's not as if real food is difficult to acquire. The protein bars they seem to mainly live off in space are likely chosen because they're cheap, have a high calorie-to-mass ratio and can probably keep for long periods without refrigeration; sort of like the futuristic version of MREs.
- Possibly a bit of Fridge Brilliance, as that agriculture is probably sold to central Federation worlds or on the Black Market, and therefore cannot be consumed by the people farming it. There were several instances of the crew smuggling cows and horses between planets for profit.
- In the dystopian Alt!world discovered by Wendy Watson in the course of her duties as Sidekick to The Middleman the only food available to the masses is aerosolized soup. This is listed as among the main complaints of the mad scientist trying to escape this dimension.
- Farscape has food cubes, although Rygel seems not to mind.
- In Lexx, the eponymous spaceship/dragonfly dispenses food for his/her crew as a green, orange or blue slime through an organic-looking tube. It's stated several times during the show that the food consists of processed "organic material" Lexx him/herself ate before. Considering Lexx often consumes parts of inhabited planets or passing starships, this leads to slightly disconcerting implications.
- Terra Nova, in the 22nd century AD real food is rare, when colonists arrive in Terra Nova they need to drink an enzyme solution to help their systems adjust to the plethora of 850,000th century BC fruits and vegetables.
- In Shadowrun the lower classes were limited to artificially flavored soy and fungus products.
- And Nerps, of course!
- Infamous dystopian-black-comedy Paranoia offers multiple brands of synthetic foods to the player characters—Algae Chips, soy chewing gum, Bouncy Bubble Beverage and the (extra super) infamous Hot Fun among them. There is no real quality-control process, however, or at least none that hasn't been compromised by cost-cutting technicians; the number of flavor varieties available to the player, meanwhile, depends on his security clearance. The writers have even started using the names Soylent Red, Orange, Yellow and Green in homage.
- And of course, Friend Computer is happy to report that no one has ever accidentally fallen into Food Vat #4589B and gotten processed with the yeast strains, nor do recycled cadavers ever supply the protein content for Vita-Yum Meal Substitute Bars.
- In the more recent editions, it's not just the High Programmers who get to escape this; one of the perks of Red clearance is that you get to eat a real apple once a month or so, with the promise of more if you continue to be promoted.
- In Feng Shui, one of the many unpleasant things about the dystopia of 2056 (equal parts capitalism gone berserk and Stalinist repression) is the awful vatfood. Side note: protein-based bio-plastics have replaced the petroleum version, and almost everything a person living under the Buro uses is disposable. Meaning the bowl and sporky-thing-that-can't-be-weaponized you eat with might just be better nutrition and flavor than the actual food.
- In many of the Warhammer 40,000 novels, particularly the ones involving Forge Worlds and Hive Worlds, 'food' is very easy to come by... as you can find public food paste dispensers dotted everywhere that seem to be described akin to soap dispensers in bathrooms.
- The Dungeons & Dragons magic item Murlynd's Spoon is a serving utensil that once a day magically provides enough bland (though a 0th level spell can explicitly alter taste...) gruel of unspecified nature to keep a party of four Medium-sized creatures (or eight Small creatures) fed. The "create food and water" spell does the same thing, with a note that characters who have put skill ranks into cooking can conjure slightly more appetizing dishes. Very few Dungeon Masters require players to keep track of food, though.
- Similar to the above is the Gift: Cooking in Werewolf: The Apocalypse, which allows its possessor to turn any old trash into mush that is perfectly sustaining but looks and tastes like "warm, wet cardboard." Granted, the Gift belongs to the Bone Gnawers, a tribe composed mostly of homeless and vagrants.
- Werewolf's Asian supplement, Hengeyokai, includes a variant of that Gift that creates—what else—rice.
- Car Wars uses processed, flavored algae as its major source of food.
- The Transhuman Space setting, with its "fauxflesh" vats, can be either this or Veganopia depending on how the GM wants to play it, and on what part of the world you're in. Real meat is illegal in the EU, but just expensive (and possibly frowned upon) elsewhere.
- Cyberpunk2020 features the Kibble that's described to have the same aspect, smell, and flavor of the dog food from which it takes its name.
- Once the player is partially Stroggified in Quake IV, they replenish their health by consuming a substance that is not only produced from recycled people, but is literally named "stroyent".
- The Synth Food Paste in the videogame Freelancer plays this trope in a different way: since its production is mostly artificial, it dealt such a massive hit to the household incomes of farmers from all over the Sirius system that there are several farmer rebellions fighting for their right to grow their own organic crops, whose main target is anything that has to do with Synth Foods, Inc. However, nobody says it's nasty or disgusting, and the closest the game ever gets to real example of this trope is an article on the in-game news about factory workers from Leeds being fed with livestock-grade Synth Food, supposedly because the pollution ends up destroying their sense of taste.
- Supplementing the reason why Synth Food Paste is so popular is due to the fact the plant used to grow it can sustain very harsh weather.
- 'Soy Food' in Deus Ex. Apparently advanced nanotechnology lets the user pick a flavour. The Chocolent bars may fall into this category as well, as might the soft drink labelled 'Insert Product Placement Here'. "It is unclear whether this is a name or an invitation."
- In Dystopia, the menu at an abandoned coffee shop sells three different kinds of soy products and no other food.
- In Space Quest 6, the food dispenser in the crew lounge is named "Mr. Soylent," and even comes with a cheeky advertising jingle, ending with "Soylent Clear: Clearly less people, clearly better taste."
- Guess where does the major source of Nutrients come from in Alpha Centauri? Kelp and people once you got recycling tanks.
"It is every citizen's final duty to go into the tanks and become one with all the people." — Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, "Ethics for Tomorrow"
- Fortunately the first uses of genetic engineering techs are developing crops that can grow on the planet.
- BoFu in X3 is a very popular food for the Boron, cheap and easy to make. It is very delicous for them. However no other race likes it. Its sorta like the Pemmican of the Borons since a single morsel can last them a wuorza.
- The Terrans rely on good fashioned MR Es and Carbocakes and Vita Kai.
- In the bizarre 90's PC CD-ROM game Total Distortion, you have a high-tech kitchen that can produce many kinds of custom sandwiches and drinks... that are made from a light-brown substance called Food Goo, sold by the rectangular prism by Taft Foods. As the game reverently sings after every meal, yummm-yummm!
- There's a bit of irony to this: the game takes place in a bizarre alternate dimension, but the kitchen and Food Goo come from good, weird old Earth.
- It's a cheap but effective way to handle shipping costs, the sandwich and drink maker is a state of the art machine which can turn the base nutrients of the food go to something edible.
- In Reprobates, each character on the island awakens each day with a full flask of water and a pack of crackers. The latter are evidently enough to nourish a person for the day, although some also gather edible items from the island itself.
- Space Colony: Your colonists main food source is a green 'soup' created from a bamboo like plant or the local trees. Thankfully it can also be turned into alcohol. Colonists who are feeling really fancy can eat genetically modified chickens, which increases their happiness level.
- In City of Villains the most common food for normal citizens in the supervillain-ruled Rogue Islands is something called NutriPaste.
- In the world of Bionic Heart, almost everyone is a vegetarian in the future because the constant rain and lack of sunlight on a Single Biome Earth makes it impossible to raise livestock and difficult to grow fresh crops. People typically eat a sort of flavored foam instead of real food.
- In the webcomic Alien Dice, the various alien species subsist on foods developed in labs. Their reaction to foods derived from plants and animals are mixed. Lexx vomits upon discovering the source of milk, saying that only animals should consume it. Riley, however, rather enjoys beer, though due to his Bizarre Alien Biology he can't get drunk.
- In Terinu avoiding "food cube" starship rations is a minor luxury for the crew of the Terona.
- Animal products in Schlock Mercenary have been mostly replaced by bacterial cultures, some of the old-fashioned versions being delicacies. On the one end of the spectrum there are dishes like live termites (for uplifted apes), on the other dietary preferences that seem to be not unlike vegetarians of old (except no reasons why it won't be more sound nutrients-wise):
Karl Tagon: [...] would you join us for dinner?
- Futurama makes regular jokes about Soylent products. There's Soylent Cola for a start - the taste varies from person to person. Then there's the episode where Bender tries to be a cook and Soylent Green is a mandatory ingredient in the dishes.
- And everything is recycled, including sandwiches made from old discarded sandwiches.
- May become Truth in Television in a few years, to help reduce the environmental impact of meat and satisfy the Animal Wrongs Groups.
- In all fairness, it is one of the few legumes that has all 20 amino acids for a complete human protein.