Blame my friend Kate-the-Author for this, she’s been talking a lot lately about worldbuilding over on her blog and I started thinking about food, farming, and fiction. Because despite the fact that food is extremely necessary to every single human ever, and that often it’s a way of expressing so many things: culture, belonging, love, social class, etc etc, so few fiction novels actually deal even tangentially with how the people get food and how they cook their food and what that food means, culturally. Like George R. R. Martin’s novels, which bug the hell out of me. Winter can last for TEN YEARS or more in those books, so how exactly are people eating? “Well they store food” — not enough different kinds of food for everyone to eat a livable diet for a decade or more they don’t, not with medieval preservation technology and agriculture. By year five the whole damn population would be toothless from scurvy, showing neurological signs from beriberi, and floppy from rickets. And the livestock would all be dead. For instance, one bad spring in 1315 led to a two-year crisis in England that involved cannibalism and infanticide, sometimes one would assume in tandem. Medieval agricultural techniques can only produce so much, and trying to store it and keep it edible for ten years straight would be an unachievable nightmare.
Another series that bothered me was The Hunger Games. Chickens are referenced briefly as food for rich people in District 12, which, what? Chickens, which reproduce en masse, are not attainable for the Seam population, but goats are? Given that District 12 was Appalachia, a good chunk of the population would have had chickens when The Shit Went Down, and no way would a government that didn’t bother to eradicate goats go around seizing all the chickens. Everyone should have backyard chickens providing valuable protein in the form of eggs and the occasional carcass for eating. Chickens not only reproduce en masse, but they thrive on bugs and grass and human food waste. They’re like tiny feathery pigs, just waiting to convert things you can’t eat into things you can. Meanwhile, a dairy goat requires huge amounts of high-protein plant food to produce. Prim’s goat couldn’t make enough milk to feed the family and make cheese and sell on just the weeds in their backyard, but Collins claims it does. I wish, seriously. Collins also expects us to believe that somehow there is no trade in seeds and no one in the Seam has a backyard garden providing food. She wants us to believe that canny Katniss never brought seeds back from her forays into the woods to provide food closer to home. Why would Katniss and Gale go to the great trouble of stringing nets up around a strawberry patch in the woods, when they could bring berries home and plant patches? Also, have you ever tasted most wild strawberries? They’re terrible as well as tiny.
When writing about Katniss and Gale’s foraging expeditions Collins also apparently worked from the vaguest “what wild foods can I find on the east coast” checklist ever. She tosses off eating pokeweed as if the plant isn’t toxic to extremely toxic depending on which part of it you eat at which point in the year and how you prepare it. She writes of Katniss gathering dandelions that have flowered as if they don’t range from sort of bitter to inedibly bitter after flowering. Most of the descriptions are filled with vague language like “plants” and “greens” which points to a fundamental lack of knowledge beyond some internet-discovered list of what people forage on the east coast. Meanwhile there’s the Foxfire books, one of which features detailed descriptions of wild foods and all of which feature detailed descriptions of foodways in Appalachia.
When I stop and think about it, most science fiction and fantasy books simply elide the subject of where food comes from, which is unsurprising. Not everyone wants to get into the nitty gritty of a world’s agriculture, and that’s ok. But if you’re going to write a book that has a completely non-standard climate but a bog-standard western European medieval world like Martin, well, readers are going to start asking questions like “how are they eating?”. And if you’re going to mention it, like Collins, it would behoove you to maybe think through the physiology of the animals and the food culture of the region before your cataclysm and make your current food system and food culture match up. And I know I keep beating up on The Hunger Games, but the woods are not a grocery store and the food you find there (like strawberries) just isn’t going to match up with or be as desireable as the food you find in shops. To make a believable world people and their livestock must be able to survive and thrive enough for breeding. It’s not enough to do a couple google searches as a writer and slap what you find down on the page if it’s going to be a major plot point. You have to actually know enough of what you’re talking about to sound convincing and if you’re going to act like chickens have mysteriously become more rare than dairy goats or livestock can live through a ten year winter on sunshine then have a plausible explanation.