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Food Pills

Entry updated 2 January 2023. Tagged: Theme.

A minor Cliché recurring not only in science fiction itself but also in public perceptions of sf and Futures Studies. The eminent French chemist Marcelin Berthelot (1827-1907) laid the groundwork in his essay "Foods in the Year 2000" (1894 McClure's), boldly predicting that Agriculture would be entirely superseded by synthetic food manufacture. The notion of sustaining life through concentrated food likewise precedes both the space programme and Genre SF: early examples are the austerely anonymous "pastes and cakes" consumed in H G Wells's A Story of the Days to Come (June-October 1899 Pall Mall Magazine; 1976), and actual meal pills – "a small pellet which contained highly nutritious food" – in Arthur Bird's Looking Forward: A Dream of the United States of the Americas in 1999 (1899). Sometimes such miniature meals were a symbol of asceticism: G K Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) opens with a broad Satire of Futurology, including the mock prediction that in a better future world, we will transcend vegetarianism to live solely on salt; a contrarian pamphlet soon emerges, titled "Why should Salt suffer?". Conversely, Franz Werfel suggests the Decadence of his future society in Star of the Unborn (1946) with meals comprising minute sips of exotic essences, echoing the "flavour organ" in À Rebours ["Against Nature"] (1884) by J K Huysmans (1848-1907). Stephen Leacock responded humorously to a US scientist's claimed invention of compressed food with "The New Food" (in Literary Lapses, coll 1910), imagining the explosive effect of consuming a single pill equivalent to thirteen Christmas dinners; this is echoed in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), where a tiny strip of chewing-gum designed to give the experience of a three-course meal has unfortunate side-effects.

William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land (1912) features what may be the first sf use of food tablets for the purely practical purpose of travelling light; these are implausibly supplemented by what appears to be dehydrated water, seemingly a super-hygroscopic powder which sucks moisture from the air to fill a cup. In Ella M Scrymsour's The Perfect World: A Romance of Strange People and Strange Places (fixup 1922), a one-inch solid cube expands to a quart of water when heated. Vague awareness that gases are lighter than liquids underlies the scientific absurdity of the Chemically Combined Water Flask in Alfred Taylor Schofield's Travels in the Interior (1887) as by Luke Courteney: this lightweight, portable device contains pressurized oxygen and hydrogen whose combination produces "the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of water". This may have inspired Doc Savage's flask in Lester Dent's Resurrection Day: A Doc Savage Adventure (1969) as by Kenneth Robeson, containing "not water, but the chemical parts of water, minus the unneeded ingredients". Brian Aldiss's An Age (1967; vt Cryptozoic! 1968) also features – possibly with tongue in cheek – "concentrated water".

Synthetic "food tablets" are the diet of the 3221 CE future in Harry Stephen Keeler's "John Jones's Dollar" (August 1915 Black Cat). Concentrated food, if not dehydrated water, was recognized as a mass-saving necessity of Spaceship cuisine in much early sf: as flavoured pastes in John W Campbell's Invaders from the Infinite (Spring 1932 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1961) and as tablets in Adrift in the Stratosphere (1937) by Professor A M Low. There is an early Cinema appearance in Just Imagine (1930). Ray Bradbury's Mars colonization tale "The Wilderness" (6 April 1951 Today; rev November 1952 F&SF) contrasts old-time US pioneers' provision-laden covered wagons with a modern woman colonist's "matchbox of food pills". The incredibly filling beverage in E E Smith's First Lensman (1950), with "a satiety value immensely higher even than old, rare, roast beef!", is a special case – a Hypnosis-induced illusion designed to convince the subject that his experience cannot be illusory.

More influentially for the general public, food pills appear in the film Conquest of Space (1955). Compton Mackenzie's sardonic Utopia The Lunatic Republic (1959) shows dwellers in the Moon living on food pills called vitalots, indicating that this trope is by now a natural inclusion in sf Satire. Even within Genre SF circles, it became the stuff of Humour: Virgil Finlay's cover painting for the May 1960 If shows a glum spaceman facing a meal of food pills while, in the background, pin-up photos of steak and roast chicken have superseded those of mere girls. Conversely, such pills are consumed with surprising enjoyment in television's The Jetsons (1962-1963), whose cartoon view of the future is widely remembered. [DRL]

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