World Building: What are Your Characters Eating?

Food is a basic need for life, yet it is one of the factors that many science fiction novels gloss over. What’s for dinner probably isn’t important to most science fiction storylines. I agree with this most of the time but you, as the world builder, should know how your character’s basic needs are fulfilled. The space ships often have some high-end tech, like air scrubbers, in order to deal with replenishing air and water, but carrying tons of groceries for a long voyage isn’t feasible. Of course, some stories use cryogenics to avoid issues, but if it isn’t available in your world? How do your spacemen get food?

Some examples

Star Trek simplified the problem of unending supplies of Saurian brandy and Earl Grey tea by inventing replicators. The early 1966 show mentioned chefs in the first season episode, “Charlie X” but after that, food simply appeared when the right memory card was inserted. Otherwise, the cuisine had a tendency to look like Play-doh geometric shapes whether the crew ate on the ship or planetside.

Star Trek food

Makes you wonder if Capt. Kirk ever sang “Cheeseburger in Paradise”.

In Star Wars, the writers didn’t deal with food since much of the action took place on various settled planet. In those cases, they ate whatever fruits, veggies, and grilled indigenous creatures that wandered by. One wonders if some of the Storm Troopers might think, “Ewoks, thems good eatin’!” Most trips on the ships were so short that a few bagfuls of groceries could allow everyone to get by.

Several episodes of Firefly focused on vittles being a finite and valuable resource for the frontier planets. They stole and sold protein bars to colonists and smuggled cows to backwater planets. It also pointed out how rare and expensive raw vegetables and fruit were since Shepard Book used a small box of strawberries to gain passage on the ship.

Yet in my opinion the one that handled food as a limited resource the best was The Martian. This film showed eatables coming in a finite number of vacuum-packed allotments until Mark Watney began growing potatoes to survive. How much would this story have suffered if he simply used a replicator? A lot. The film’s tension was all in how he survived, which included stress over dwindling supplies and partial starvation.

My Choices for My Book

In my manuscript, Ride the Comet, my people live in asteroid mines. Water and air are purchased by the huge tankful and put through scrubbers to make the resources last longer. However, no process is 100% effective, so the miners must occasionally buy more. Since the families live within the rocky walls permanently, I felt that shipping foodstuff in from old Earth should be expensive enough to cripple the buyers. Therefore, somehow the miners had to produce food for themselves.

The idea of greenhouses and hydroponics is cool because they can help clean gray water and scrub the air. The one thing an asteroid mine could provide is a large room. Dirt from the mine  mixed with composted trash could eventually lead to enough soil for crops inside a cavern and hydroponics basically works soil-free. Yet that answer isn’t as simple as picking any seeds you want and jamming it into the ground. I had to think about what crops grew well in these conditions. Wheat and sugar cane require a lot of space, water, and air to get the end products of flour and sugar, so they aren’t good candidates. On the other hand, lettuce, beans, peas, tomatoes, and strawberries produce large crops without a lot of soil depth or leftover biological trash.

What about meat? Lifting cows out of Earth’s gravity well and transporting them to the Belt would waste considerable resources. Some stories solve this by only shipping fertilized eggs and artificial wombs, which I suppose would work if you had that kind of tech. However, once the cow, chicken, or pig (for examples) are born, they still need to eat something. Growing grass for cows takes valuable area from human-supporting crops.

No cows

Bossie is not welcome in the Asteroid Belt

My solution in Ride the Comet? Some small animals, like chickens, mini pigs, or rabbits are transported from the home planet and bred for food. Tanks could be set up for growing fish while purifying water. Beef would likely stay a pricey canned or dried treat while a thick steak could cost a month’s salary. Most likely, the average cook would use supplies like meats, dairy, flour and sugar sparingly because they would all be imports and therefore expensive.

I got my ideas about the meats from my year of living in Japan in 1989. Since the country is an island, beef was costly compared to pork and chicken. In addition, any non-fish meat tended to be expensive and most were purchased as small chunks rather than roasts or whole chickens. Japanese recipes only called for a quarter of the amounts I used in America. For example, I might use a pound of hamburger in my spaghetti in America but only a quarter pound while cooking in Japan. I filled in the rest with mushrooms, olives, and onions and held off on the Parmesan cheese. Also, dairy products were not as common as in the United States either. We found milk, cheese, and sour cream in small quantities in the grocery stores but they are not used in most traditional Japanese recipes.

Of course, your story probably doesn’t have to go to this much detail, but you should know them in your head as you write. Food acquisition must make sense. If your Captain Courageous Spaceman has a hungering for hamburgers all the time, you must know where the beef and buns are coming from even if the captain doesn’t. Little details like this is what makes the reader dive into and stay in a story rather than going, “Hang on! They’ve been on a five-year mission for three years. Where’d the apples come from?” Keeping the reader engaged in the hardest part so make sure the answer to “what’s for dinner?” actually makes sense in your world.


Sci-Fi Agents: Where are they gathering?

A few days ago, I posted a message on the Fantasy & Science Fiction Writers Facebook page.

Does anyone know about a writers’ conference that focuses on sci-fi and/or fantasy? I’m going to Thrillerfest in a few days to pitch my sci-fi book but I feel like it is the wrong venue.

The response I got was varied, interesting and in some cases disheartening. I’d like to share some with you and my thoughts on them.

The First Group of Responses

Many people focused on the “sci-fi” and “con” aspect and started posting multiple suggestions of purely fan-oriented conventions for that. As you know, I like entertainment cons as much as the next person, but it is not where I would go, pitch in hand, to search for an agent. First of all, to my knowledge, agents don’t have a reason to go as a professional to a general sci-fi/fantasy con. If they go, I would assume it is because they go for the love of the spirit of sci-fi and don’t want to be pestered with newbie writers. Like others enjoying the genre, they might just want to dress up, see some panels, and sing some filk.

Metropolis girl

I’d love to cosplay this character.

The years (and it has been many years ago) that I’ve attended these conference, you couldn’t tell who a publisher, agent, artist, or writer was unless they were on a panel or in the Dealers’ room. It is not like they wear giant neon signs, arrows swaying over their heads, or even halos. Therefore, if they are there, how does a writer find them? Once the writer finds the agent, how do they go about “discussing” anything without seeming to be obnoxious? These are the things I worry about because I’ve very shy at crowded conventions.

On the other hand, when they go to organized writers’ conferences, they know they are going to be hit up with pitches. It is just another day on the job for them. When the same conference has a pitch fest, the event becomes a golden opportunity for writers to approach them in an organized safe way. This is best for both. Agents don’t want to be chased into the bathroom (as one person on the Facebook page related) or have their dinner interrupted with an overzealous author. At the same time, those authors that respect boundaries might have difficulty knowing when it is proper to approach an agent. I’m shy, generally speaking. At a pitch event, I can bring it on. When I’m standing in line for drinks at a conference break, I can’t. I honestly think the agent wants a break by then. So I try to abide by the rules of polite society and common sense, but that begs the question of when to approach them in a nonorganized way at a sci-fi convention.

The Second Group of Responses

I got some good recommendations for possible general writing conferences, most of which I already knew about.

  • Pikes Peak Writers Conference: This is a very good regional conference and I enjoyed the one time I went. It wasn’t too pricey (as conferences go) but only had around six agents (can’t remember actual number) of which only four might be interested in my work. For all the cost of the registration fee, hotel, air flight, and more. I spent a lot of money to meet these folks.
  • Thrillerfest (which I’m attending next week): This is a pricey national conference. The event is huge with lots of opportunities for learning, socializing, and pitching. I’ve gone four times before. I feel like I get good “bang for my buck” at larger, national conferences like this and the Writers’ Digest ones.
  • Push to Publish: I’ve never been but it was recommended to me.
  • Philia Writer’s Conference: I’ve never been but it was recommended to me.
  • Writing Excuses week long cruise: I’ve never been. I researched it and it talked about a lot of famous authors, over three hundred attendees… and one agent. As much as it would be fun, it is not a good option, in my opinion, for meeting multiple agents.

K. Tempest Bradford, who is a media critic and writing instructor, stated that I should concentrate on the conventions that have a high percentage of agents/editors who won’t mind doing a little side business. Again, how would I know about these people unless they literally have signs on them? She recommended these general sci-fi cons. I only know about the one that I commented on.

Third Group of Responses

This was the disheartening group because it seemed filled with bitterness. I’ll paraphrase it as “Pitch fests aren’t worth it. The agencies only send their newest, crappy agents, most agents hate these events, etcetera.” I have no idea what agents think about these pitch fests. I’ve been to several in California, Colorado, and New York City and the professionals been wonderfully kind to me. I always walk away with at least three or more requests for pages. The bigger the event, the more requests I get.

I have also met a LOT of established agents and CEOs of their companies, thus blowing away the “newest agent” comment. As far as that goes, I have absolutely no problem dealing with a new agent as long as we have good chemistry. I’m in it for the long haul and looking for a partner that will support me and also tell me when I’m wrong

In Conclusion

Ultimately, I was right. None of the science-fiction conventions appear to have the same setup as Thrillerfest, where they spend three days supporting writers and then two days celebrating fans. Although people on this Facebook page said they DO feel supported, the main gist of the advice was to go to mainstream writers’ conferences because “science fiction is different.” I disagree. Sci-fi is great with a huge body of supporters, writers, publishers, and agents. Yes, there are writing panels and workshops at places like Worldcon and the larger regional ones, but it stops there. So why can’t Worldcon have two days for writing and a pitch fest for those of us trying to become established authors? Why not support up and coming writers directly at some of the larger literary-oriented cons? It is the one way where we sci-fi people fall a little short of supporting our own.

Meanwhile I will be at Thrillerfest this week, pitching my feminist YA story about life for women in the Asteroid Belt where the Old West meets The Martian. Please wish me luck!

Happy writing!