Alien Cuisine

November tends to go like this for me:

Nov. 1: Let’s do this crazy thing!
Nov. 3: Why did I decide to do this to myself?
Nov. 10: In the zone, WOOOOO!
Nov. 10 (later): Oh god. I just spotted something that’s going to be a royal pain in the ass for fix.
Nov. 11: It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…this is why editing takes two years.
Nov. 12-28: Sleep is optional, right?
Nov. 29: DONE, SUCKERS!
Dec. 1: Oh god. Two years isn’t going to be enough to edit this time. What have I done to myself?

And right on schedule, my punchlist of things to fix is getting crazy. Quick reminder for you other sci-fi forces: gravity is acceleration. That has consequences for how you imagine the technology of a spaceship that has to accelerate to FTL speeds. #needmesomeintertialdampeners #doh

The more complicated thing that I haven’t decided on whether or not to change, however, is food. My “space hobbit” world is intended to evoke a vague sense of Middle Earth while being completely independent. My characters are undeniably humanoid, but they aren’t human. If Earth existed in the wider universe, it would be a planet they could travel to and inhabit with minimal discomfort, but they would not be able to interbreed with humans. Given that my main character is a hobbit, she spends a fair amount of time eating. I don’t linger on the food descriptions, because that would bore me witless, but I do drop names of dishes or foods in passing.

And here’s the thing: I started out using normal Earth foods without thinking about it. She eats donuts and coffee and potatoes and curry and sandwiches and berries and oatmeal and so on. But as I got thinking about it, people seem to love the alienness of food in sci-fi sometimes. If my character is eating food labeled with a familiar name, does it ruin the feel of the story for you?

I talked through this with John, and he thinks I’ve got to go with alien foods and spend time describing them. I think that’s even more problematic because it doesn’t make sense for my narrator and it kills the ability of the reader to connect with her through the shared experience of familiar foods. We hashed out a couple of possible ways to handle this:

1. Pull a Neal Stephenson and just hang a lantern on it.

In Anathema, Stephenson wrote a note saying that he was using human names to approximate the alien foods. A potato isn’t a potato: it’s the biological and/or cultural equivalent of a potato for those aliens.

Pros

  • I don’t have to change all the food stuff I’ve written so far.
  • Readers can connect to the character through food, grasping the emotional sense of the moment more effectively.

Cons

  • The explanatory note is a little poncy, especially for this particular book.
  • Some potential fans might still be grumpy at me for not giving them alien foods.

2. Go full-alien on this book.

I could make every single food completely alien, describing things that matter and just making it clear that it’s food where it doesn’t.

Pros

  • The sci-fi purists would be happy.
  • Fans would have goofy things to turn into recipes and cosplay fun.

Cons

  • That is an editing nightmare and I don’t want to do it.
  • This would demand a huge amount of time describing food from a narrator who actively makes fun of her people’s obsession with describing food.
  • I would have to keep track of every forking food I dream up for world-building purposes.

3. And then there’s the hybrid solution.

What I think I’m leaning towards is using generic human words for types of preparation (soup, sandwich, porridge, curry, bread, etc.) but come up with alien foods for the constituent parts in some places. So a porridge isn’t oatmeal, it’s a red-grain porridge. I can be specific when it’s useful to the scene and vague when the food is serving a more functional part in the scene.

Pros

  • Sci-fi purists would be pacified. (John’s belief, as a purist.)
  • Fans would have goofy foods to play with.
  • I can balance the alienness with a need to connect foods to reader experiences.
  • It doesn’t threaten my approach to the narrator’s perspective on food.

Cons

  • Still an editing nightmare, maybe more so than option #2.
  • Still a world-building hassle, but less so than option #2.

I think where I’ve landed is that I just have to suck it up and go with option #3, but what do you think? Is it ever okay and not annoying for an author to use human food terminology in a story written from an alien perspective?