“The only well-known foodstuff to come out of the Hope Hegemony is a salty but otherwise tasteless algal nutrient sludge grown in massive, floating offshore farms.

“That citizens of the Hegemony at home universally praise the efficiency and nutritive value of this sludge – while former citizens of the Hegemony abroad tend to rapidly double their mass from eating literally every other available foodstuff to excess – is a one-act summation, dissection, and condemnation of Hegemonic cultural values.

“And a warning that you, if you are unlucky enough to have business there, should always be the one to buy lunch.”

– Vhúfkarr Rúägh, Around the Worlds in Dodeciad Dinners



2016_A(Alternate words: none.)

Among the complexities of dining in the modern age are those introduced by the many different worlds upon which we now dwell, all with different histories, geologies, and ecologies, independently evolved. As children of a single world, this has required a degree of adaptation, whether biotechnological or simply in custom, to the varying conditions of Sylithandríël’s other daughters.

What these adaptations are vary from world to world across the Empire, and I shall list only a few examples here. On our many eutalentic worlds, to list a commonly found example, many residents make use of the Rieltelir biomod to breathe in the open, which requires the body to take in additional calcium and potassium salts to assist in disposing of excess carbon dioxide. Such salts are thus presented as seasonings on every dinner table; for the most part harmless to visitors, if unnecessary to consume and prone to cause minor digestive upsets.

Clajdíä, on the other hand, is a colonized garden world whose native life is, miraculously enough, both edible and often delicious – save for the high levels of selenium found therein, which would prove toxic over time. Thus, a particular tisane is commonly drunk there to accompany the midday meal, from a plant engineered to contain complexes capable of chelating selenium, which is essential for both residents and visitors alike.

A similar provision, accompanied by a radiation detector, is made on Paltraeth, known for its burden of heavy metals, along with an electronic stunner, and krevtakris blade (an approximate translation would be “soft-belly”; it is usually given to young children whose digestive systems are not fully developed) when dishes customarily served live are part of the presentation. If these are not provided, either you have been truly accepted by the clan, or else you are being assassinated, a situation which is beyond the scope of this book.

And, most familiar of all, on most worlds it is customary to serve one of a number of common antihistaminic drinks along with water, when any local food is being served in the presence of offworld guests, as a convenience to prevent any adverse reactions which one’s guests might have to such food.

With such constraints, what does custom mandate?

While these adaptations differ enough from world to world that there are few general customs, one that has developed is that such necessary adaptations are served in a turquoise vessel (be it bowl, teapot, goblet, or of other form), turquoise as a blend of blue and green being the symbolic color of life.

With the exception of the antihistaminic drink, and its defined position in the place setting, however, whether the visitor may, must, or should not participate in their consumption is not something readily understood from their presentation. The thoughtful host may mention this at the beginning of the meal, in small groups with homogeneous guests, or may include this information in discreet place cards for those who require it in a larger or more diverse setting. Otherwise, a quiet word with the host or the host’s footbot will not be out of place.

– Madame Allatrian’s Garden of Exquisitely Correct Etiquette


Trope-a-Day: Mirror Chemistry

Mirror Chemistry: Played straight but in a much more complicated fashion.  After all, on Earth, life – for the most part – uses levoproteins and dextrosugars.  So there’s (trivially) four possible combinations right there, leaving aside more complex or dual arrangements, and that’s not even taking into account biochemistries that aren’t built around the same structural and energy molecules ours is, and/or that use the same compounds for completely different purposes…

Let’s just say that it’s really very important to pay attention to food labeling and the biochemical-compatibility plat attached to your restaurant menu.  Bartenders have fairly advanced degrees.  And if you throw a lot of polyspecific dinner parties, hire a specialist caterer.

Food & Humor

It’s question-answering time here at the Eldraeverse! A reader writes:

Two questions-

1) Is there a food item for the Eldrae that has assumed the same memetic status as bacon for humans?

2) What do the Eldrae find funny?  What human comedians, if they were to go on tour in Eldrae territory, would do well and which ones would starve?

Thank you!

1. Well, if there is, I don’t know about it yet, and since nothing’s immediately leapt out of my imagination and made me say, “aha, this must be it”, I think I’m going to have to preserve my future authorial maneuvering room on that one, sorry.

On the other hand, there’s at least some reason to suspect there might not be.

Top of that list is mass. We’re one planet of seven billions, and I might be inclined to quibble a little with “for humans”, inasmuch as the bacon meme has spread mostly among the cultural intersection of the Anglosphere and the Internet-connected world, which while a lot of the planet isn’t quite all of it.

This limiting effect is only multiplied when they’re 250-odd star systems plus a scattering of ecumenical colonies, outposts, and exclaves, and those in the core, at least, are rather more heavily populated than ours. Throw in cultural groupings caused by light-lag, differences in diet across different worlds, and that common culture is both (a) polyspecific, including species that can’t eat the same food period, and (b) more diverse at baseline, due to the lack of the peer-norming instinct humans have, and while memes certainly do catch fire and grow explosively *there* – aided by high-speed Internet-equivalent connections being universal – they have to be ridiculously virulent in order to capture a statistically huge chunk of that population.

I’m sure more local versions of it come and go all the time, though.

2. Argh. Well, that’s not a tricky question for me with respect to *there* , but it is with respect to *here* – namely, I’m not adequately familiar with real-world comedians to even begin to come up with a list.

So here are some general comments on what Imperial-culture humor is like, and then hopefully you can take it from there –

Things that work:

  • By and large, the majority of their sense of humor is dry. Very dry. Possibly dehydrated.
  • Irony never fails. Snark is practically impossible to resist.
  • Likewise, wit and intellectual humor always go down well, and the more levels it works on, the better 1.
  • So does surrealism and absurdity. So, to break my rule and name a name, Monty Python would probably play well.
  • Situational comedy can work, as long as the humor derives from the situation and/or the interaction between the characters, and isn’t specifically targeted at one or all of them.
  • Black and gallows humor are also generally accepted: in the sorts of situations that lead to them, laughter is, they deem, one of the civilized responses to entropy.

Note: Even if it sounds it to some degree, none of this is necessarily what we would call “high-brow”. On a number of the criteria above, something like, oh, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum would probably work.

Things that don’t work:

  • Humor that depends on laughing at someone’s pain, misfortune, humiliation, or embarrassment. That’s just perverse. The modal human clearly has something wrong with its empathy-sympathy wiring.
  • Note: So, to give an example of how this works in practice, you can have something like a traditional romantic comedy because while there is pain and embarrassment, etc., along the way, there’s also a happy ending and you’re notionally looking back with the protagonists narrating the story and laughing with them at the tangled path and difficulties that they overcame to get to said ending. If there wasn’t that payoff at the end, none of it would be funny. (So, there go most of the sitcoms that go for the cheap laughs…)
  • Also, as a related category, all the humor that depends on the protagonist screwing up repeatedly or just plain being a screw-up. Incompetence isn’t funny. Incompetence (in space, and the spacer-culture attitude on this is pervasive) gets people killed in winnows.
  • Humor targeted at (in the sense of “laughing at”) individuals or groups. Individuals, for all the reasons above, inasmuch as it’s usually intended to humiliate or embarrass. (And this is a culture which, natively, has essentially no concept of a “friendly insult”.)
  • And groups because humor that makes fun of the out-group (or, hell, even the in-group) directly or by treating their characteristics as a source of humor depends on the peer-norming instinct that leads humans and other species that have it to see deviations from the majority-norm as somehow wrong. Eldrae don’t have that and they encourage other people not to have that either.
  • Exception: You can do this when the target is one of the short list of Universally Acknowledged Acceptable Targets: “Ah, Yes, The People” achieved its high box-office despite/because of being a black-toned satire of galactic politicians because politicians and the politically-minded have earned it. In this case, the viciousness of the targeting and the laughing-at-them nature of the beast is entirely intentional because being righteously despised by all decent folks is the mélith the political and politically-minded have earned by being a bunch of scum-sucking slaver-cultist swine in the first place. You’re allowed to take the piss out of the Iltines or the Galians, too, because everyone can righteously hate Space Fascists and brutal theocrats, too, but this is very much not the sort of thing one can aim at mere honorable opponents 2; it’s basically insulting them by refusing to take them seriously. To fall under this exception, you have to be dishonorable, disgusting, and completely outside the pale where civilized society is concerned; people can be wrong without being Bad People, and only Bad People qualify, so it’s a really short list.
  • Self-deprecation is mostly considered annoying 3.
  • Shock comedy is an utter fail. In approximate order:
  • Scatology (and other “gross-out humor”) fails because poop, really? If you’re building recycling systems to cope with your excreta and still find them funny, something’s gone wrong with your cultural evolution somewhere.
  • I’d say that of sexual humor, but that’s not entirely true. They do have a perfectly good “light-hearted erotica” genre. On the other hand, Eldraeic follows the Culture’s Marain in having a single word per kind of genitalia that suffices for all uses 4, so you can’t derive humor from the million euphemisms we insist on using, and the words have basically no shock value. If you go into the food court and yell “penis!”, the strongest reaction you’ll get is along the lines of “What? Where?” The problem with much sexual humor as we define it is that it depends on your society having a giant bug up its ass about sex in the first place, so, yeah, falls rather flat.
  • Basically, the trouble with transgressive humor 5 in a libertist society is that you’ve got some real problems finding taboos to transgress, and when you do, you’re find that you’ve either successfully adopted the posture of the poop-flinging monkey 6 or else that of the dude who loves rape and Holocaust jokes, and not only should that shit not be funny, but per reasons mentioned above, basically never is.

1. Dear gods, the puns.

2. If they had elections, using “attack ads” in this style to mock one’s opponent would be a swift ticket to lose the election by way of depriving oneself of decent chaphood. Of course, if they didn’t like your opponent either, you might lose the election to None Of The Above, but there ain’t no way they’d let you win.

3. Pride is a virtue, humility is not.

4. See endnote in the back of which book I don’t remember. Consider Phlebas, maybe?

5. “Transgressive” art forms generally also fail epically. Violating the rules to achieve an interesting effect is interesting. Violating the rules just to shock – here’s a nickel, kid, you’ve learned to create ugliness. Now get your cacophilic ass out of my gallery. Don’t come back.

6. It also tends to be a staple of those who want to use it for, um, political ends, and as a society that prizes coválír – rationalism – that sort of thing gets you a straight out “shut up, moron, the adults in the room are talking”.

Trope-a-Day: Future Food is Artificial

Future Food is Artificial: Played straight in one area, but averted in two more, depending on which end of the food range you are sitting at.  Averted first because there still is plenty of natural food at the high to middle end of the range.  Sure, it’s expensive, because after the changes mentioned below and under Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap, the surviving – due to economics, not environmental issues – natural-food producers are practicing exotic types of organic farming to beat the vats on quality, and so are producing the equivalent of top-grade Kobe beef right across the food spectrum, but it’s not out-of-reach-of-the-average-person expensive.

At the middle to low end of the range, where the most commonly eaten food, the express food, the served-in-your-local-eatery food is found – well it’s somewhat artificial.  Which is to say that the vegetable products are grown hydroponically in vertical farms (for groundlings) or skyfarms (for spacers), and the fauxflesh and fauxfish came out of a carniculture vat – but is still indistinguishable for most purposes from an actual steak, say.  Same tissue, carefully stimulated to reproduce its natural environment – with the exception of being guaranteed free of bacteria, parasites, etc., etc.  But, of course, this is not what most people mean by ‘artificial food’.

Where it is played straight is at the low, low end of the market, where you can buy algiprote (made from Spirulina-like algae, comes in pressed bars), mycoprotein (made from modified fungus, comes in cubes, like tofu) and/or nutriyeast (made from yeast, and comes in… well, glop, like Marmite).  Nutritionally complete, unbelievably cheap to buy – even the manufacturing equipment is unbelievably cheap to buy – and will support life indefinitely on even the tiniest resource budget.

Which is not to say all yeast and fungus based products are like this; some are expensive luxury foods, but those take time, care, specialist nutrients and attention to detail to achieve high levels of quality and deliciousness.  These were engineered for robustness in the face of inattention and low-grade equipment, nutritional completeness if you’ve nothing else to eat, and minimal resource cost, and they taste like it, too.  Even processed and flavored, it does not take long at all living on algiprote, mycoprotein and nutriyeast before you’re craving something else.  Anything else.

Trope-a-Day: Food Pills

Food Pills: Well, actual food pills don’t exist, because of all those inconvenient mass-and-volume constraints, the more so with high-energy metabolisms that need to support all that symbiotic nanotech, and suchlike.

In terms of other things listed under this trope, though, there’s everything from traditional waybread (not a light and sweet bread; more like a heavy, syrupy, boozy fruitcake with extra fruit – again, to support fast metabolisms with lots of sugars) to everyone’s non-tasty delight, the utterly bland yet nutritious algiprote/mycoprotein/nutriyeast ration bars.

I’ll also throw in a quick mention of the ubiquitous tins of species-specific nutritional supplement pills, because even when you’re visiting the occasional planets where you can eat the local food, the chances are you’re just begging for some interesting nutritional deficiencies in places if you don’t watch this sort of thing carefully.

Trope-a-Day: Fantastic Fruits and Vegetables

Fantastic Fruits and Vegetables: Well, yes.  Did I mention the multiple planets? And the genetic engineering?

An important caveat, of course, is that you can’t actually eat most of them, different biochemistries being the annoying thing they are, although trace element supplements, extensive food treatment before/during cooking, and upgraded intestinal flora, etc., have enabled at least some cross-species cuisine.

Good luck ever digesting that cold-ammonia-ocean living luekha worm, though, mister warm-blooded oxygen-breather. Never mind the silicon-based life’s foods or those critters which consider the solar corona a comfortable dwelling place.