“We Need To Keep Watch On All The _____.”
We’ve met 1,001 alien species, yet still draw deadly lines within our own.
In my last post, EAT SCIENCE FICTION (link opens in new tab), I discussed the role of food in fiction, especially science fiction. I focused on the social element of eating meals and the way food and smells of food can evoke memories and feelings in us and in our readers when we include food in our fiction.
There’s another important aspect of food in fiction, too. One that’s very important to the writer. Food is a good element to use to evoke and to flesh out characters and settings. Just as describing the warm kitchen-filling smell of a hot and gooey baked macaroni and cheese can evoke cozy feelings of family and friendship in your readers, it can also be the touch that nails down a character’s nurturing trait (who doesn’t feel cared for with a slab of baked macaroni and cheese set before them?) or makes the scene of a family get-together feel real.
Think about the role that food plays in real life settings. If we travel to Maine, we look for a lobster roll. In New Orleans, you have to try the jambalaya, the beignets, seek out an oyster po’boy. A trip to Chicago calls for a deep dish pizza, or at least a Chicago dog. If you traveled abroad, wouldn’t you seek out the local cuisines? Or maybe you’re someone who craves a reminder of home in a strange land, and in the middle of Beijing you’d seek out a handy McDonalds. Foods are part of places for us, and how we relate to them says something about us as people. Consider that last example, an American in Beijing. The McDonalds seeker might be prone to homesickness, might be timid in the face of the different, or might be stuck on notions of cultural superiority, thinking that an American burger must be better than whatever these different people think is good food.
Your story and dialogue (internal and external) sort out those differences in character traits. Food can be a good way to introduce or emphasize them. Same goes with settings. Maybe your story is set in Chicago. You name the city. Maybe the action touches on the Loop, Lake Michigan and Navy Pier, the river running through the middle of the city, the tall buildings, the traffic, the sprawling suburbs, the harsh consonants of the natives, the snowy winters. Great! All of that says Chicago. Fiction is about details, and the details can make the difference between a good story and a great, engaging story. If your Chesapeake Bay native bemoans the difficulty of finding fresh soft shell crab in Chicago, that can be a valuable detail that makes that character live for the reader. And if you’re writing SciFi, maybe your Earthling character misses cheesy, crusty deep dish pizza on a world full of carnivores. Maybe, like in Niven’s Ringworld books, your carnivores complain a bit about having to microwave their meat to make it blood-warm, instead of consuming it still living. Think of the way that the differences between klingons and Federation humans are outlined by a scene where the humans are offered klingon delicacies. We know they’re different—just look at those foreheads and costumes. But the food really drives the differences home, doesn’t it? As another example, I’m also reminded of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, in which noodles eaten with chopsticks become food shorthand for ‘look at all of the Japanese and Chinese influence going on around this place, huh?’ It’s hardly the only detail that says that, but it’s a good one, and it delivers its message well when it appears. Often, it also says ‘these guys are pretty poor, they end up eating cheap noodles a lot.’ Food is a complex thing; it can deliver multiple messages simultaneously.
I’m not saying there has to be food involved in a story to define your characters and settings; good stories have been written in which food makes no appearance at all, and more of them will appear in the future. I’m just saying, food is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox.
The atmosphere’s warming trend slowed suddenly, tapering to a halt in only twenty years. Ocean temperatures shifted their immense inertia to follow suit. The icecaps began to regain weight. The composition of the upper atmosphere changed subtly, and excess carbon precipitated in tiny flecks, staining rains faint gray.
Climate change deniers crowed victoriously. Look how our god provides for us with a repaired environment!
When the aliens arrived demanding slave levies and mountains of resource tribute or else they’d turn off the weather control they’d been exerting from beyond Mars for thirty years — oh, how the deniers wailed and wilted!
I Got Hoaxed While Writing About How Hard It Is For The Future To See The Past Accurately: Theory In Practice
So, just a few days ago I was writing about a prime consideration for the science fiction writer: imagining how the future may see their past (our present) inaccurately. I mentioned the fact that time is a bit like distance in terms of what can be seen; whether we measure in years or meters, the more distance between you and what you’re viewing, the fewer details you see, and the fuzzier the image. I also mentioned that ‘fuzziness’ in terms of viewing the past — and an aspect to consider when writing about how your characters in the future view our present or the deeper past — means that things get lost. Like, I thought, this bizarre-yet-plausible video game and 8-track music tape driving game:
…except, as Twitter friend @webmonkees was kind enough to point out, the game is a hoax. What makes my falling for it even more stinging than it already was, I had actually looked at the reference @webmonkees pointed out: a comedy site. Caught up in rapid research, I read only far enough to get the gist of what the ‘double-ender’ was supposed to be: a device for matching background music to themed games. Well, games tend to have background music. Marketing types love things that fit themes. And so, the package was credible enough that my ‘no way’ sense did not engage, and I did not click ‘about us‘ on the comedy page to discover that it was, in fact, a comedy page, and the ‘double-ender’ is a spoof product that never existed.
Which brings me to my subject today: in my earlier post, I missed something other than the hoax. I missed the role of the hoax in making the past fuzzy to us.
Hoaxes, along with assumptions and plain old errors, also cloud our vision of the past. Writing science fiction, it might be worth considering how a hoax or mistake could affect the future’s vision of us today. In fact, there could be fertile ground for inspiration here, and for social commentary. A future that believes that the 8-track ‘double-ender’ was real probably doesn’t offer much in the way of stories, but what about a future that believes, due to a clever montage photoshopped headlines, that aliens destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11? Or in the various ‘reptile humanoids hiding among us‘ theories, or that the moon landing being faked is fact rather than conspiracy fiction, or…
…the possibilities are endless. I wonder how many hoaxes, lies, and mistakes are already presented as fact in the history books we have today? And I’m not even counting arguments, soluble and insoluble, among historians over the ‘correct’ version of controversial events.