I always appreciate books that include food. Dickens is famous for it and while modern writing styles are far more pared back than Victorian floridly detailed descriptions, characters talking about food immediately connects readers with the universal experience of eating.
In speculative fiction, food can be a really useful way of helping to set the world. I’m currently reading Dark Eden by Chris Beckett – I’ll be writing a review of it when I’ve finished as it is a really engrossing, interesting story – but one of the main plot engines is the constant and growing scarcity of food. In describing what the humans stranded on the alien planet are eating, readers immediately appreciate how much the small colony is struggling and emphasise the different nature of the flora and fauna they are forced to hunt and consume in order to survive.
It’s no accident that some of the most successful and well established authors in both science fiction and fantasy use food as a way of showing how advanced the culture is – and how prosperous the protagonists are. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is renowned for the inventive and colourful world of Ankh-Morpok (think of Cut me own throat Dibbler and his pies) – but Pratchett’s YA book Dodger, an examination of the life of a Dickensian street urchin, gives us plenty of information on what Dodger eats – and what he’d like to eat given the chance.
The prolific writer L.E. Modesitt is most famous for his Recluse series, but my favourite is his excellent alternative historical fantasy trilogy, Ghosts of Columbia where Dr Johan Eschbach, academic and retired secret agent for Columbia, one of the major nation states that inhabit the continent we know as the USA, finds that ex-agents tend to suddenly get yanked out of retirement when a crisis flares. Eschbach isn’t a particularly flashy protagonist, but his fondness for good food is an endearing characteristic that helped me bond with him and established the fact that he is now at a stage in his life where he appreciates more comfort in his life.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s respected Miles Vorkosigan series also pays significant attention to food. There are numerous meals depicted, ranging from formal banquets, family meals and food scrounged and crammed in the middle of a hectic adventure. Lois uses food to demonstrate how rigidly hierarchical Barrayaran society is. Miles, her driven and very alpha-male protagonist, suffers from a whole range of physical conditions due to an attack on his mother before he was born. Lois also uses food to show us how healthy Miles is feeling – he suffers from a reduced appetite when unwell.
The best speculative fiction authors use food to give us a nifty insight into the way their society operates. By depicting the quality and quantity of food available, readers are able to immediately gauge how equitable, prosperous and sophisticated that society is – and as eating is a universal activity, we are also able to bond with protagonists who love chocolate, even if they are only partly human and kill monsters for a living, like Jessica Grant in Jane Lovering’s Vampire State of Mind.
What are your favourite foodie speculative fiction reads?