Entry updated 1 May 2023. Tagged: Theme.
It is not a subject that naturally lends itself to dramatic storytelling, but agriculture is nonetheless the activity that has long been the primary source of food for humans, and it will likely remain essential, in one form or another, in the future. Thus, some sf writers who look beyond heroic adventures to more broadly consider the future fate of humanity have addressed this mundane but vital profession. Sf stories about agriculture can be roughly categorized as follows: depictions of traditional farms in the past, present, and future; envisioned future improvements in terrestrial agriculture, often regarded as necessary responses to predicted Overpopulation; agriculture practiced by human colonists on other planets (see Colonization of Other Worlds) or in Space Stations and Space Habitats; and proposed replacements for agriculture as a means of providing people with food.
John Tempest's Vision of the Hunter (1989) is a work of Prehistoric SF about the invention of agriculture, though most accounts of prehistoric humans focus on the more glamorous subjects of discovering fire or devising the first tools. The oppressed lives of slaves working in the fields on nineteenth-century American plantations (see Slavery) is referenced in Octavia E Butler's Kindred (1979). The Time Travelling hero of Clifford D Simak's Time and Again (October-December 1950 Galaxy as "Time Quarry"; 1951; vt First He Died 1953), an author who often celebrates rural settings, enjoys a refreshing ten-year respite on a twentieth-century Wisconsin farm, and in his "Neighbor" (June 1954 Astounding), an Alien settles on a farm and unobtrusively benefits his neighbors. Similarly disguised aliens with psychic powers (see Psionics) live on farms in a remote canyon in Zenna Henderson's People stories. A homage to Simak, Jack McDevitt's Ancient Shores (1996), involves a farmer who finds a buried alien Spaceship on his property, though he is promptly marginalized as other, more sophisticated characters take over the investigation. Another amazing discovery on a farm, described in Isaac Asimov's "Pâté de Foie Gras" (September 1956 Astounding), is a goose that as in the fairy tale lays golden eggs, but this time it is scientifically explained.
Milan C Edson's Solaris Farm: A Story of the Twentieth Century (1900) describes a Utopia based on a dedication to agriculture, while another utopia, Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia (1942), concludes with the hero and his wife settling on a farm in the fictional realm of Islandia. Four of sf's most noteworthy Heroes grew up on farms: the Superhero Superman and Star Wars's Luke Skywalker, both raised on the farms of their adoptive parents; Star Trek's Captain James T Kirk, who spent his childhood on an Iowa farm; and Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), who was raised on his family's vineyard in France; he revisits it in the episode "Family" (1994). It is striking that these heroes emerged from farms, perceived as wholesome environments that promote a virtuous lifestyle, though all of them chose to spend their adult lives in more urban settings, suggesting that rural life is something that most ambitious youths will seek to escape from – fine for children growing up but not for ambitious adults. Residents of a farm find out about an alien Invasion in the film Signs (2002). A return to past agricultural practices occurs in the future of the film Interstellar (2014), wherein many inhabitants of Earth are driven to maintaining small family farms to produce necessary food as several sorts of crops fail, threatening widespread famine.
Various sorts of agricultural innovations have appeared in sf. Jane Webb Loudon's The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827 3vols; rev 1828) describes steam-powered ploughs that have revolutionized future agriculture, while electricity is employed to grow crops in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's Sultana's Dream (1905 The Indian Ladies' Magazine; 1908). Agricola's How England Was Saved: History of the Years 1910-1925 (1908) foresees the emergence of corporate agribusinesses to replace family farms. In Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 4+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; exp as fixup 1925; rev 1950), Earth's future population is sustained by "Accelerated Plant Growing Farms", enormous greenhouses that produce five harvests each year.
In Asimov's The Caves of Steel (October-December 1953 Galaxy; 1954), people live in crowded domed Cities so that most of Earth's land can be devoted to agriculture carried out by Robots. A rogue robot designed to control pests that menace crops appears in the film Runaway (1985), and a robot farmer is encountered in Philip K Dick's "The Turning Wheel" (1954 Science Fiction Stories). Machines automatically raise crops in Otfrid von Hanstein's Die Farm des Verschollenen: Phantatischer Roman (1924; trans Fletcher Pratt as "The Hidden Colony" January-March 1935 Wonder Stories), while an AI governs agriculture in Rob Ziegler's Seed (2011). Following Ecological disaster in Bob Shaw's Shadow of Heaven (1969; cut 1970; rev vt The Shadow of Heaven 1991), Earth is barely sustained by robot-tended farming on huge high-altitude floating discs (see Antigravity) such as International Land Extension US-23 (popularly "Heaven") where most of the action takes place. Massive farms raise grain to feed an overpopulated Earth in Keith Roberts's "The Grain Kings" (1972 New Worlds Quarterly 3).
Works like Arthur C Clarke's The Deep Range (April 1954 Argosy UK; exp 1957), Mary Elwyn Patchett's Farm Beneath the Sea (1969), and Carl L Biemiller's The Hydronauts (1970) and its sequels envision forms of underwater farming as a mainstay of future food production, while two popular foods of the future, the "processed algae" of Robert Sheckley's "The People Trap" (June 1968 F&SF) and the "plankton chowder" of James Blish's and Norman L Knight's A Torrent of Faces (1967), presumably come from aquatic farms. Piers Anthony's "In the Barn" (in Again, Dangerous Visions anth 1972 ed Harlan Ellison) is about the discovery of a farm in a Parallel World where women (see Women in SF) have been bred to have enormous breasts to replace cows as a source of milk.
As humans colonize other planets, it is naturally assumed that they will engage in farming there, to feed both themselves and Earth's growing population, as is the case in Asimov's David Starr, Space Ranger (1952 as by Paul French; vt Space Ranger 1973), where reports of Poisoned food grown on Mars are so alarming to people on Earth depending on its products that the novel's protagonist goes undercover as a Martian farm worker to investigate the situation. A Scientist is able to grow a plant in lunar soil in Clarke's "Venture to the Moon" (23-29 May 1956 Evening Standard), though he is killed by its expelled seed. Robert A Heinlein mentions Underground farms in the Moon's Luna City in several stories, and his Farmer in the Sky (1950) is about human colonists struggling to raise crops on Jupiter's moon Ganymede. The survival of the astronaut stranded on Mars in the film The Martian (2015), based on Andy Weir's 2014 novel, depends on his ability to grow potatoes in Martian soil. The stop-motion animated series Astro Farm (1992-1996) takes place on an Asteroid exclusively devoted to farming.
In a later era of interstellar travel, Heinlein's Lazarus Long establishes a farm on a colonized planet with his short-lived wife in Time Enough for Love (1973), while Amish farmers on an alien world figure in Allen Kim Lang's "Blind Man's Lantern" (December 1962 Analog). In Pat Murphy's "His Vegetable Wife" (Summer 1986 Interzone), a man on an alien world grows a humanlike female plant whom he abuses before she kills him. Twenty worlds devoted to agriculture feed the enormous population of Trantor, the entirely urbanized capital of the Galactic Empire, in Asimov's Foundation (May 1942-October 1944 Astounding; fixup 1951; cut vt The 1,000 Year Plan 1955 dos) (see Foundation). A rare acknowledgment of the importance of future agriculture comes in the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" (1967), in which the crew of the Enterprise is summoned to a Space Station to guard some valuable "quadrotriticale" grain ready to be transported (much to the adventurous Captain Kirk's displeasure); this is partially consumed by the tiny ravenous creatures called tribbles, whose deaths reveal a Poison plot.
Space stations regularly include facilities for growing plants for food, as described in an early work, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's Vne zemli (1916 Priroda i Lyudi; exp 1920; trans Kenneth Syers as Beyond the Planet Earth 1960), in which scientists in a space station construct a greenhouse to sustain themselves while living indefinitely in space. Larger space habitats may feature a re-creation of life in nineteenth-century rural America, with family farms filling their interior surfaces, as in Elizabeth Moon's "Welcome to Wheel Days" (New Destinies, Volume VII 1989). In the film Silent Running (1971), Earth's only surviving plants are maintained in a space habitat which the protagonist strives to protect from its planned destruction.
One predicted replacement for agriculture is the "replicator" in the Star Trek universe that can produce any desired food from basic materials – a device which was anticipated in George O Smith's Matter Duplication story "Pandora's Millions" (Astounding June 1945). Future synthetic foods are discussed in several stories, including Robert Barr's "Within an Ace of the End of the World" (McClure's Magazine April 1900), Mark Powell Hyde's The Strange Inventor: A Curious Adventure Story (1927), and James Payn's "The Fatal Curiosity; or, A Hundred Years Hence" (Belgravia Christmas Annual 1877). Henry Slesar's "Ersatz" (Dangerous Visions 1967) specifies that its "chemical beef" is made of "wood bark." A mass of artificially generated chicken meat, dubbed "Chicken Little," is consumed by future people in Frederik Pohl's and C M Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953). One should also mention Food Pills as scientifically created replacements for food, and Asimov's The Caves of Steel names "zymoveal" as one substitute for conventional meat. Recycled human corpses sustain Earth's massive population in the film Soylent Green (1971); humans are bred as food sources in Agustina Bazterrica's Cadáver exquisito (2017; trans Sarah Moses as Tender Is the Flesh 2020), and artificially generated human flesh becomes a popular meal in Clarke's "Dial F for Frankenstein" (January 1965 Playboy) and – for Aliens – in Larry Niven's "Assimilating Our Culture, That's What They're Doing!" (November/December 1978 Destinies).
Overall, given its leisurely pace and diminished presence in contemporary human society, it is unsurprising that agriculture has not played a central role in sf. One notes, for example, that depictions of Post-Holocaust worlds following a nuclear war (see World War Three) typically involve people returning to the eventful lifestyles of hunger-gatherers and warriors rather than settling down to the more practical but less exciting life of farmers. But if feared famines due to overpopulation or Climate Change ever materialize, more attention in sf may be paid to the future of agriculture. [GW]
- Robin Kerrod. "Future Food" in The World of Tomorrow (New York: Mayflower Books, 1980), 16-23 [nonfiction: pp 16-23: hb/]
- Gary Westfahl. "Farms" in Volume 1: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005) edited by Gary Westfahl [encyclopedia: pp283-285: first of three volumes: foreword by Neil Gaiman: hb/from the Forrest J Ackerman collection]
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