Why Spice Is a Staple of Science Fiction

One of science fiction’s most famous food tropes, spice often exists as something outside its everyday culinary use. Whether a deadly, interstellar travel enhancer in Frank Herbert’s Dune, a magical form of seduction in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, a drug in George Lucas’s Star Wars or currency in EA Games sci-fi simulation Spore, across mediums the term has become synonymous with things it ostensibly isn’t. As a result, it’s altered the way we understand food within imagined, futuristic settings. But why are science fiction writers making something so commonplace such a notable element of their universes? The answer lies in the extensive global history of spice.  

For many writers, creating new worlds in genre requires first mining through the social and scientific things they’re familiar with and then making them unfamiliar, either by changing their composition or context. Speaking to Food & Wine, Georgia Tech University professor and former president of the Science Fiction Research Association Lisa Yaszek noted that because spice is both a regionally distinctive and internationally mundane aspect of life, it’s a fitting launching board for establishing that familiar/unfamiliar dichotomy in a world of altered technology.

“We tend to associate spices in our world with specific kinds of people and cultures, so its inclusion certainly makes sense with [how] we think about food as part of the world, yet something that can be radically transformed by all kinds of technology,” Yaszek says. “And spices are like technology, right? For preserving food, for covering bad smells on food, for making weird food palatable.” 

Science fiction is more than just establishing new worlds though. It’s just as frequently about venturing into them. From Prometheus to Firefly, the genre’s propensity for literal and metaphorical expansionism is a storytelling approach that matches humans’ historical relationship to spice. The same desire for exchange that we see in fictionalized space helped fuel a trade network unmatched in its “enduring and profound impact on global history,” according to Spice: The History of Temptation author Jack Turner.

“It is well known that spices played a central role in triggering the age of exploration,” Turner said in an email to Food & Wine. “Columbus, da Gama, Magellan and company all set out in search of spices. Equally, well before the age of discovery, spices were the key component of long-distance trade between Europe and Asia and medieval economic historians [have] long looked at their importance to trading cities such as Venice… [and] stimulating economic growth. They were the first globalized substances [helping] bring our modern, interconnected world into being.”

The full story appeared at FoodandWine.com on Dec. 28, 2017.