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In many near-future dystopian science fiction settings, prices on some items, particularly natural things created by natural processes as opposed to created in laboratories via synthetic processes, are quite high. This is particularly the case if the setting is specifically shown to be one of severe environmental degradation, where agriculture is difficult or natural agricultural products unsafe, or where most natural-born animals are extinct. People just take it for granted that certain things are not to be had for regular folks, or that if they are, they're grown in batches in laboratories, or in the case of animals, they may be machines designed to look like the real thing.

Can be written off as Artistic License Biology, if it's not justified by pollution or disease having reduced the remaining real organisms' fertility. Making more of themselves is something that living things tend to be pretty good at, after all.

This trope typically occurs when one character encounters an object, usually food or an animal, and questions the owner about it. They may ask "Is this real?" to which the owner of a synthetic item/cloned animal replies "Of course not." Or if the character is meant to be fabulously wealthy, or only the best will do, and the item is natural it could be "Of course."

See also Future Food Is Artificial, Commonplace Rare, Black Market Produce. A counterpart is Worthless Yellow Rocks; both can exist in the same work.

Examples of Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap include:

Anime and Manga

  • In Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Togusa asks Batou if his basset hound is a clone, remarking that the real thing (as though a clone is any less real) is expensive. (Batou also feeds his dog real food, but this is not presented as an issue of cost, but one of taste.) Ghost in the Shell is set in a world recovering from war, not (demonstrably) one with a thoroughly devastated environment, however, so the trope borders on cliche here.
    • Of course in a world where cybernetics and androids are so plentiful, it could be that some people keep robotic pets that don't have the living and training needs of a real live one.
    • In the GITS: Stand Alone Complex series, the robotic Tachikomas regard all-natural motor oil as a real treat, much better than synthetic oil. Batou treating "his" Tachikoma differently from the rest, by regularly treating it to natural oil, is a catalyst for the robots developing individuality and self-awareness. That and the anomolies caused by the oil corroding part of its circuitboard.
  • In one episode of The Big O, pet animals are in fact so rare that everyone is quite shocked when Dorothy finds a cat. The owners come and take it back despite how attached Dorothy has gotten because it's really their son. A mad scientist turns people into animals because they're so incredibly rare. Or something. Later, it gets turned into a giant monster. They're that rare, apparently.
  • In Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0, this trope is played straight when the kids get shown a giant aquarium where specimens of pre-2nd impact sealife are preserved. Rei muses that they are the same as her and can't live outside this sheltered environment. Also, the fact that synthetic meat is the norm. The sheer dissonance between the kid's bewilderment at their first time seeing sealife, and Kaji and Misato's painful memories of the 2nd impact (Misato did not want to come because she would remember the event ; Kaji wanted the kids to know what life was before 2nd impact), makes for a very dramatic moment as the viewer realizes this trope is in full effect. Slice of life AND backstory exposition, AND character drama all rolled into one.
    • Also in the series, Misato thinks that buying the EVA pilots a steak dinner would bankrupt her. Realising this they take her to a fast food place instead.
  • In Clover, one character owns an organic cat but disguises it as a robot so people won't steal it.

Comic Books

  • In Voltaire's Chi-Chian series, there is a story of a blind pleasure-robot. Her eyes were stolen because they were made of the most valuable substance on the planet - pure wood.
  • The vast majority, if not all, of food in Judge Dredd falls into one of three categories: Animals that we would not normally consider food like rat, as most domestic animals seem to be extinct, extremely mutated plants (this is the source of most meat) that can grow in the toxic environment of cursed earth or made entirely of chemicals.


  • An early example of this is in Soylent Green, where one character is excited about having "hundred and fifty bucks a jar of strawberries."
  • In Blade Runner, the planet's deteriorating condition has killed off most large animals, causing people to keep synthetic pets.
  • In Mamoru Oshii's Avalon, the wealthy (compared to the abject poverty of her fellow players) Ash feeds her dog quality food, as contrasted to the gruel that her peers survive on.
  • The Matrix has elements of this, and all the food that isn't gruel is virtual.
    • An Expanded Universe comic has it that in the early days of Zion, a group of its citizens got together to raid a supply of genetically engineered grain, cultivate it (using UV emmitted by the Machines' power lines), and make flour and bread from it. The bread became a delicacy in spite of its low quality. After the Machines destroyed the crops and killed all the farmers, Zion had enough stored grain left to continue making bread to be consumed at a once-a-year ceremony, which lasted at least as far as the time of Morpheus.
      • Which is why, in Reloaded, some Zionites give Neo bread as a sign of admiration. It's the equivalent of giving him gold, frankincense and myrrh.
  • In the distant galaxy of Kin-Dza-Dza, one of the transplanted Earthlings discovers that the wooden matchsticks he's carrying in his pocket are actually the most valuable things in the system, as every last scrap of naturally-occurring organic or mineral material had long since been converted into one kind of fuel or another. Water is bought by the drop, and food is made of plastic.
  • In Waterworld, potted plants and the soil to grow them in are considered valuable trade goods, as are non-sea-derived materials such as paper.
  • In Demolition Man, society is entirely vegetarian. When they visit the 'scrap' society, he eagerly eats a hamburger. It's not beef... but at least it's not human. It's actually rat. He doesn't care and keeps on eating.
  • German sci-fi movie Sturzflieger. At the end, the protagonists grow rich when they discover a store room full of chicks (not as in The Chick).


  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novella upon which Blade Runner was based, goes into this trope in more detail than the film. Real animal pets are considered the ultimate status symbol, and new editions of a blue book are published listing each species's going rate. Many species are thought to be extinct. The main character owns an electric sheep, but conceals the fact that is artificial. At the end of the book, he discovers a toad, thought to be extinct, and thus priceless, but it turns out to be artificial as well.
  • Although the future depicted in the In Death series is not especially dystopian, soy and vegetable imitation foods are very common, and it is a mark of Roarke's Fiction 500 that he always drinks real coffee, smokes real tobacco, and eats real beef. The coffee in particular is insanely expensive, and is made much of by Eve and her fellow cops.
  • Schismatrix is set in a future founded by refugees of an ecological meltdown on Earth. Outside of cockroaches, most animals are extremely rare, and in certain places the same goes for food that isn't artificial.
  • Elizabeth Moon's space opera series Vatta's War. With humanity scattered across space, the puppy Jim the stowaway finds is a mysterious novelty to most of the crew, though Jim, coming from a backwater world that relies on animal labor, knows what it is. Real food can be had but won't keep for long trips in space so it is a special treat supplemented by nutrition bars and MREs. When the main character's ship takes on refugees from other ships after a war breaks out, a snotty-ass captain makes a big deal about his personal stock of expensive raspberries being divvied out as rations.
  • Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (on which the film Soylent Green was based) is another example of this trope. Even soy-based faux steak is expensive and worth practically rioting over.
  • The War Against the Chtorr. When the government wants to hire the luxury airship Hieronymus Bosch, they have to use chocolate (among other things like coffee, oil or gold) in payment as money is becoming increasingly valueless.
  • In the Saga of Recluce books Mag'i of Cyador/Scion of Cyador by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., an indication that the Empire is in decline is the increasing rarity of coffee.
  • Inverted in Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling, when the protagonists have a long gripe session about all the great junk food they miss, now they've been reduced to growing food naturally.
  • Similarly inverted in the movie Zombieland, where the drive of one of the main characters is to find a stash of Twinkies. After all, plants still grow after a zombie apocalypse, but with the Hostess kitchen shut down, snack cakes become an endangered species.
  • This trope is present throughout much of Isaac Asimov's fiction, although it's gone into more detail than usual in The Caves of Steel.
  • Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, in which one of the phyles bases its entire economy on providing luxurious hand-made goods for the Neo-Victorian elite, while everything else is produced in matter compilers.
    • Similarly, diamond is now one of the cheapest materials you can have (because, being a simple crystal of carbon atoms, it's very easy to make in your matter compiler) but glass is a luxury good.
  • In The Merchants Of Venus, rich people are wearing wood jewelry.
  • Neuromancer has a scene where Molly is chastising Case for not eating his steak - noting that it's not vat-grown and it was incredibly expensive because "they had to raise a cow for years" to get said steak.
  • World War Z featured this when Arthur Sinclair was trying to negotiate with cattle ranchers to use their land to grow much-needed crops - they agreed only if their breeding stock remained untouched.

  Arthur Sinclair: "Tender, juicy steaks - can you imagine a better symbol for our artificial pre-war standard of living?"

    • It's a point only because the Solanum virus is fatal to all life, but only cause humans to turn into zombies. For anything else, it's just fatal and results in their flesh becoming unsafe for human consumption.
  • In the Vorkosigan universe, this applies to some planets but not others. The heroine of the first two novels is from Beta Colony, a high tech but barely habitable desert planet, who winds up on on Barrayar, which has a breathable atmosphere, lots of running water, and trees all over the place, but is also socially and politically and to some extent technologically backwards on account of having been cut off from contact with the rest of the galaxy for a few centuries (only ending a couple of generations before the action of the books). She has to remind herself that on this planet things like wooden buildings and furniture mean poverty, not wealth.
  • Played with in several Star Wars Expanded Universe novels:
    • In the X-Wing novels, the heroes visit the home of Biggs' father on Tatooine. He's a very wealthy moisture farmer and shows this by having a study with imported hardwood and sculptures with running water.
    • In another novel, it is mentioned that one of the greatest status symbols on the City Planet Coruscant is unused empty space.
  • An interesting non-sci-fi example appears in Erich Maria Remarque's famous novel All Quiet on the Western Front. One of the soldiers in the story is overjoyed when he discovers an actual cherry tree in bloom during a march across the countryside to a new position. Since he (and the others) have spent entire weeks on the western front of World War One, this is hardly surprising - the frontline being a lifeless war-torn muddy wasteland and all. And the less said about the rations given to soldiers in the latter parts of the war, the better...
  • The MacGuffin in The Windup Girl is a seedbank of natural plants; all plants in the outside world have been displaced by their more aggressive genetically engineered counterparts.

Live Action TV

  • Kaylee eating a strawberry in the Firefly pilot. It was orgasmic.
    • Later Jayne buys a bushel of apples and everybody reacts to this as an amazing treat and question his motives.
      • On many of the planets, fresh fruit is usually available, but isn't the most practical to carry on a spaceship. Simon mentions that the food on a spaceship is considerably worse than planetside.
    • And the goods in the pilot episode were food.
      • This may be less of an SF trope nod and more of a reference to historical piracy and smuggling. In the golden age of sail, for instance, molasses was probably the most common booty cargo.
  • In an inorganic variant, a bandit chieftain in the story The Creature from the Pit from the original series of Doctor Who was once seen to wax rhapsodic about the amazing treasures his group has stolen: precious items of iron, zinc, and even nickel! Needless to say, this scene takes place on a metal-poor planet, where only members of the elite who got them by robbing and betraying an inoffensive alien ambassador can boast such prizes.
    • Not to mention his Famous Last Words after being stabbed: "Tempered that really...tempered steel?"
    • In The SunMakers, Gatherer Hade is shown to be one of the richest members of the evil company that controls a dystopian society on Pluto by his having a desk made of real mahogany. The member of the oppressed underclass who admires it has only seen a picture of a tree, and even the Gatherer himself mispronounces it "ma-ho-ga-ny". Later, he offers the Doctor a raspberry leaf as a rare treat.
  • The environment is fine in Babylon 5, but space travel is still expensive and the eponymous space station is too far from Earth to ship much food out. They've got a positively huge artificial farm, but it only grows "essential foods" (And Takashima's (and later Ivanova's) illicit coffee plants). Even for the command staff, a shipment of real eggs is seen as an amazing luxury. At least they're not on a warship; One of the first things Captain Sheridan says when he arrives is "Do you have real showers here?".
    • And the answer is that yes they do, but only for the officers and VIPs. The rest have to do with sonic showers due to the limited water supply.
      • Babylon 5 also grows oranges and nectarines. Steak is rare, though the medical staff can apparently fudge the paperwork to import one for "research". Spoo, is readily available, but it costs 50 credits an ounce.
    • The price and difficulty of importing foods is highlighted in one second-season episode when Garibaldi tries to obtain certain Italian ingredients for a birthday treat.
      • Ironically, the dish in question, bagna càuda, a kind of Piedmontese fondue/hotpot, is a rather simple food. It's just that some authentic ingredients (must be anchovies) are hard to come by 10.5 lightyears from Turin, and Dr. Franklin would have nothing of Garibaldi trying to import them openly.
  • A deleted scene in Battlestar Galactica mentions that the meat locker is the most heavily guarded area on a spaceship because the last remaining steaks, burger, fritters, etc, in the universe are there. Later in the series we see the fleet is reduced to eating algae-derived food, and fruit and cigars are valuable black market commodities.
  • Stargate SG-1 has an odd example. A Big Eater Goa'uld is unfamiliar with and can easily be bribed by foods he's never heard of... like chicken and turkey. We don't know much about the ecology of most planets in the galaxy, but apparently the Transplanted Humans that make up 90 percent of all aliens didn't take any fowl with them.

Tabletop RPG

  • In Paranoia real food, as with everything, is distributed according to security clearance. Infrareds get nothing, Reds get real food as a reward, and so on up; it isn't until Blue that a clone gets nothing but real food.
  • In Shadowrun, the in-character "shadowtalk" interspersed through the sourcebooks occasionally contains remarks like "I've never once had a real steak". Everyone but the ultra-rich evidently lives on cultured fungal protein and krill. Synthetic leather and tobacco products are also standard, as is "soycaf" instead of coffee.
    • Inadvertently gets a laugh in the Tir Tairngire sourcebook, also from Shadowrun, when it's mentioned that the elves have somehow re-created extinct species for their wilderness areas. It's funny in that both of the named species, grizzly bears and gray wolves, are not only still alive and well today without any magical or cloning assistance, but they would have had to go extinct, all over the world and also in captivity, in less than a decade after the supplement was published, in order to meet the timeline suggested for their "extinction".
      • Also, depending on wording, it's unlikely that the species Canis lupus ever went extinct in captivity, unless the setting is also completely devoid of dogs, since technically domestic dogs are a subspecies of gray wolves. (To be fair, the reclassification of Canis domesticus was fairly recent, and after thousands of generations of human-controlled breeding, dogs no longer look or act much like their wild cousins. Still, they are interfertile and are currently considered the same species.)
    • Taken to the point that a Running Gag was to mention things like Imitation Cheese Substitute.
    • Fourth Edition cuts back considerably on this. Sure, your average shadowrunner is still subsisting mostly on soy, but you can still find most of what you'd see in RL 2011 in the shops of Shadowrun 2070 for not much more than the equivalent price. It's just that most shadowrunners are in a state of Perpetual Poverty.
  • In past editions of Dungeons and Dragons which include the Elemental Plane of Air in their cosmology, dirt is considered a valuable commodity on that plane, as it's made up of gas-filled space. Anyone who wants to build a floating castle must either import some dirt to build it on, or (more cheaply) use magic to solidifly a cloud for a foundation.
  • In the Mystara D&D supplement "The Shadow Elves", the subterranean elf city's grandest and most-admired public avenue is lined by a dozen or so small trees, grown from precious cuttings brought down from the legendary surface and provided for with fertilizer and artificial lights. Elven tourists come hundreds of miles through twisted tunnels and caverns just to see them.

Video Game

  • In the Video Game tie-in to the Blade Runner movie, the player character Ray has an artificial dog named Maggie you can play with Genre Savvy players probably realize it'll lead to an heart-rending Player Punch later, and the crime Ray was initially investigating involves the slaughter of several real animals including a rare tiger. Then it gets complicated: the shop owner was selling fakes but fudging records and tests so they were considered 'true' (and more expensive) animals
    • It's noted in the game and novel that animal life is held in higher regard then humans — considering Crystal's reaction is nearly identical to walking in on a murder of a child.
  • In Xenosaga, we view one of Ziggy's memories in which he gives his son a robotic dog as a pet, as he was regretfully unable to obtain a real one.
  • Bioshock. The city of Rapture, for whatever reason, does not contain enough farmland for growing nonessential crops or raising cattle, so real beef and tobacco aren't available except through Fontaine's smuggling operation. Somehow, Rapture's scientists have managed to synthesize both from what they do have on hand, which seems to be mainly sea life, and it's implied that customers generally don't mind.
  • Since the sun will turn anyone without proper protection into stone in Digital Devil Saga 2, this makes any plants you find quite valuable.

Web Comics

  • Freefall takes place on a planet being Terraformed, so organics are worth considerably more than gold or diamonds.
    • Sam once remarks that if interstellar travel weren't so expensive he could become very rich trading trash between Jean and his primitive homeworld.

Real Life

  • Russian sturgeon caviar. Some centuries ago, it was just a byproduct of fishing. Now it is VERY expensive, because sturgeon is close to extinction.
    • There is an old Polish recipe for sauerkraut and caviar. That's right, people used caviar to season sauerkraut!
    • Not quite on the same level as caviar, but the demand that the employer not feed them salmon more than two times a week was fairly standard for hired hands seeking employment in XVIII century Russia.
  • In Jack London's stories set in the Yukon, salmon is mentioned repeatedly as mainly fit to be sled dog food, while actual settlers and Gold Rush pioneers pay exorbitant prices in hard-dug gold for any non-locally manufactured food such as eggs.
  • In the U.S. lobster used to be a poor man's food (see The Other Wiki) until it was possible to ship it to urban centres, where it became a delicacy. Cod is going the same way nowadays due to overfishing.
    • Back in the 19th century there was a rule in most prisons not to feed lobster to the prisoners more than a few times a week, since it was considered cruel towards them.
    • Although, being the 19th century, this probably refers to the furry old lobster rather than the one we know now.
  • Similarly, oysters were once the food of the poor in Britain (though still considered a treat). Noah Claypole the "charity-boy" in Oliver Twist eats a large quantity.
  • Wild-caught fish, shellfish, and certain meats tend to be far more expensive than farmed.
  • In the first year or two after a new species or strain of livestock comes into demand, they can be temporarily hard to come by, as their owners prefer breeding their stock for future profits over selling them now. For example, when llamas first began to see use as sheep-guards and environmentally-friendly pack animals in the United States, only gelded males were available for these purposes: breeding animals cost far too much. Ditto for exotic pets.
  • Thomas Edison once declared that, "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles". Whilst the latter half of this boast hasn't entirely come true (generic candles are fairly cheap), it is indeed much cheaper to run a light-bulb that produces the same amount of light as an equivalent candle for the same amount of time as that candle can burn for, even if you factor in the cost of the globe itself (as it can probably continue alongside hundreds of successive candles before burning out).
    • Unless you're using batteries. Especially the non-rechargeable ones.
  • As the standard of living in the Developed world has risen since the middle of the 20th century the cost of labor intensive products have risen dramatically to support this standard, while technology improvement has made the cost of products that can be mass produced fall dramatically. The result is that products once made by skilled craftsmen are now virtually unobtainable, while anything produced by machines are often so cheap to be completely disposable.
  • Free range or organic foods tend to be more expensive then the industrial kind.
    • Which calls to mind two things: You get what you pay for, and you are what you eat.
  • And on the other side of the trope: Vitamin enriched puffed soy cakes? USD4.50 for a 6"x14" cylinder. Available flavors include cheese, bacon, chocolate, and probably half a dozen others (including something that probably shouldn't have used green food colouring {{[[[Shout-Out]] ?}}])