Monday, March 22, 2010

An Open Letter To All Science-Fiction Authors Everywhere

Dear All Science Fiction Authors Everywhere,

I realize that it's a classic science-fiction trope that is rich with thematic possibilities, but it's not sustainable, long-term, to use human beings as food. You see, meat is not actually a very efficient use of agricultural resources; you use more grain in fattening an animal to the point where it can be eaten than you get from that animal. In other words, a typical cow...or to be more germane, a typical person...consumes more than 200 pounds of food in the course of their growth to a 200 pound person. Even if you assume that our hypothetical dystopian cannibal overlords are like Native Americans, and make use of every single part of the human being, they're still wasting resources. It'd be cheaper and more efficient just to feed them the grain in the first place. (And if you don't have grain available for some reason, like, say, the Earth is enshrouded in a perpetual cloud cover, the laws of thermodynamics say you're pretty much screwed.)

The main reason you hear about isolated groups of people turning to cannibalism is that those people are already full-grown adults, looking to eke out as much time as they can from their existing food supplies; the food costs of fattening a human being up has already been paid, and doesn't need to factor into their calculations. But as a permanent survival plan? Sorry. It just doesn't work. (This is why, when I had to come up with a "mysterious processed foodstuff" for Feng Shui, I used seaweed and rats as my ingredients. Just as icky, far more common.) So please, let's not see this trope again, save in outright comedies (Futurama's use of Soylent Green as an Iron Chef ingredient was hilarious, for example.)

Thank you in advance for your co-operation.

Sincerely,

John Seavey

12 comments:

E. Wilson said...

I agree with all of the completely logical points you make, but I still have a reservation. I mean, nothing strikes a note of primordial terror in a reader like realizing they're nothing more than a foodstuff.

Michael Hoskin said...

Perhaps it isn't sustainable, but what about aliens like those in "To Serve Man" who are gourmets? There's something to be said for serving humans as a rare treat.

LurkerWithout said...

I picked up Harry Harrison's "Make Room, Make Room", the book "Soylent Green" was based on. No cannibalism in it, SG was basically seaweed used to make crackers to try and keep the overpopulated New Yorkers fed. The book is a near future police procedural mostly...

David Gallaher said...

Agreed. I think TO SERVE MAN gets a pass.

Martin said...

And let's also not have humans as little power generators ala the Matrix, an even less efficient usage

John Seavey said...

Oh, agreed. Aliens eating human beings is totally allowable...assuming that the author doesn't claim that they have to in order to avoid starvation. Because man, if raising human beings as cattle is wasteful, traveling millions of miles in your gigantic FTL spaceships to raise human beings as cattle? Check, please!

E. Wilson said...

Ah, but what if you take the "Tommyknockers" approach, where the aliens are just dumbasses?

Jason said...

Agreed. Humans as a gourmet ingredient? Acceptable. Cannibalism as survival method in an extreme environment, by a limited group? Reasonable. Raising people to eat to stave off starvation? Untenable. Even a pure carnivore race could find more efficient sources of meat than people.

Also, I'm so bloody tired of the alien race that flies around despoiling the planets in it's wake, or the alien race that's parasitic... how do such races reach spaceflight before destroying the resources that would make it possible? Seriously, we're already pushing the limits here, and we haven't made serious steps toward the next planet over, much less the next star.

faustusnotes said...

there's also the possibility that they're eating the losing side, which is one of the main forms of cannibalism on earth (not survival in extreme circumstances), along with eating your own relatives. That's what was happening in the matrix - it was a survival settlement in which the humans got to not be exterminated, so it was a form of subjugation rather than capitulation.

I think the most horrific and elegant of these scenarios is the one in Torchwood: Children of Men. That is truly the quintessence of evil right there, and thoroughly believable! (Despite the slightly naff special effects and overacting).

Jeremy said...

While I agree in principle, there will always be room for exceptions which do not break thermodynamic laws. The humans-as-a-delicacy concept is a classic staple, if you'll pardon the pun. And I'm going to skip talking about vampires or vampire-like creatures who have coexisted within their human host populations for hundreds of years, in literature alone.

But what about a strictly carnivorous alien race which has some reason to maintain a secret presence here on Earth, but only finds us homo saps edible? For example, in a slight retelling of the recent remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, perhaps the aliens are still a protective force preserving the viability of the relatively few worlds capable of supporting life. Instead of wiping out all human life before we can destroy the planet, they just insert themselves into our highest political and military offices where they can meddle in global affairs enough to preserve the planet against nuclear holocaust. In fact, it could be that the aliens only socially engineer conventional military conflicts to provide a constant, hidden source of human sacrifices for consumption. If their dietary needs are sufficiently small that they will not exhaust the human race, the disappearances could easily be covered-up and classified at the highest possible levels, which remains, as always, a specialty of governments, human and alien alike.

And if the aliens were initially brought to this world by the presence of two atomic explosions, well, the story could be a compelling warning against the evils of pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear arms. In the classic business parlance, that's a deliciously win-win scenario.

John Seavey said...

But that wouldn't be cannibalism, would it? I'm talking specifically about the "feeding humans to other humans because conventional food supplies have been exhausted" meme, not just the idea of anyone eating people. (Without that, at least 75% of Doctor Who would be out the window...)

Anonymous said...

John,

Next time, please take a look at your human history about cannibalism.

Throughout history, every culture which has routinely practiced any form of cannibalism has done it as a religious ritual.

A few bites as a form of religious connection with the departed, really not that different from what many of us do at our respective churches on Sunday.

No known human culture has ever practiced cannibalism as a food source. Ever.

Even the ones who have practiced literal cannibalism as a form of religious communion would have been horrified by anyone who wanted to eat someone as a food source (it would have been a blasphemous form of cannibalism, if I may be forgiven for the risk inherent to applying our words to another culture).