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.


Solo: A Star Wars Story, Good but Too Much Glitz

(Spoiler Alert!)

I’ve stated before that I’m not a big Star Wars fan, at least not with regards to the newer movies. However, I checked out Solo: A Star Wars Story this weekend and was pleasantly surprised. The movie focuses on loss of innocence and young love before the rebellion begins. Teenage Han, an orphaned Artful Dodger type character, escapes from a slavery existence on his home planet by joining the imperial “air force” to become a pilot. Given that he has trouble with orders, he soon flunks out and deserts, landing in the company of a gang of smugglers. The group, led by Beckett (played by Woody Harrelson) is in debt to an even bigger Mafia-type since the galaxy at that time is carved up into territories. No wonder it was so easy for the Emperor to rise up and take over!

The new band of thieves embarks on an attempt to steal valuable spaceship fuel from a moving train only to get attacked by a second criminal group during the heist. During that time, Beckett loses most of his old partners and lands in deep trouble with his nefarious boss. Han, in an attempt to avoid being killed, offers to get them to steal the raw, and highly unstable, fuel from the mining source, then quickly fly it over to an illegal refinery. The fuel would be worth enough to get Beckett and Han out of trouble. Yet they need a ship provided by Lando Calrissian. The rest of the movie involves their trying to pull off this plan, juggling unexpected twists and double-crossing crime lords.

Positive Notes

Alden Ehrenreich does a great job as young Han, displaying an unbreakable sense of enthusiasm and optimism even when in the presence of dangerous crime lords. He has only a distant familiarity to the gruff, disillusioned older Solo, but then time and experience with felonious Mafia types will kill most people’s zest for living.

On one hand, the audience gets a view of Solo’s entire life, now pretty much from kid to death if you’ve followed all the movies. In this film, we learn how he met Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, and what the importance of the Kessel Run was. All in all, it was a fun romp that could have been any loveable huckster’s story. This one just happened to have a lot of aliens and space ships in it.

In relation to that, the action kept up a strong pace as the plot switched from planet to planet and crisis to crisis. The movie did a good job balancing the tender moments between Solo and his love interest with lots of bravado, ship fights, and dangling from steel cables. However, I didn’t feel that deeply involved with the characters. The story was too crowded with action scenes to allow for it.

My favorite character in the movie was actually a new robot who dies near the end. L3-37, a sassy female voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is out to free enslaved droids and does so with spectacular panache. It is one of the only robots in this universe that we see thinking for themselves rather than blithely marching or flying into trouble to save the humans.

Bad Points

On the other hand, the movie had some flaws as well. Lando Calrissian was so oily and egotistical that he was nauseating. This was not Donald Glover’s fault but more due to bad writing. The Calrissian played by Billy Dee Williams was also slick and cool but not so overdone. Williams’ Lando had an air of talent both as a mature administrator and strong pilot  possibly because he knew what he could accomplish. Glover’s rendition showed the character as all vanity and little substance.

The movie was also simply overdone. Wikipedia lists it as one of the most expensive movies ever made at ninth place (along with six others), which is kind of my point. We saw more aliens, robots, CGI effects than were really needed to get the story across. These features added to the sense of otherworldliness but also sometimes got in the way. For instance, Han’s first crime boss on Correllia was Lady Proxima, voiced by Linda Hunt. First of all, I have trouble believing that a photophobic giant centipede, who is locked in her own puddle of water, can be the crime boss of anything. She can’t leave the building. Therefore, it would be too easy to destroy her. Beyond that, the cost of creating this giant bejeweled centipede probably wasn’t worth the very short screen time she had.

Other aliens were like that too. We got small rare glimpses of other species here and there in bars and parties but is it really worth the extravagant price tag of $250 million dollars? I ask this because expensive movies lead to high priced movie tickets. Good movies don’t have to be expensive. They simply need one difficult thing: a great story that is well rendered. The flashy ships, creepy aliens, and talking robots are only window dressing that can get in the way.

Worth the Price?

So would I recommend Solo: A Star Wars Story? For the younger Star Wars fans, I would say yes. It adds nice background and content to the overall universe. However, I believe the moneymaking ability of this franchise is beginning to fall. Fans aren’t packing into the theaters as eagerly and the stories have pretty much run their course. Maybe it’s time for the Star Wars worlds to find a collective peace, with or without Jedis, and simply fly off into the double suns of Tatooine for their happy ever after.