Visions of future (non-)meat in fiction

Hi all! In the era of huge excitement, innovation and increased availability of plant-based meats -and anticipation of cultured meats becoming prevalent- I’ve been wondering about futures of meat eating and non-meat eating in fiction.

I read a lot of science fiction as a child, and so have all these possible futures in my head: futures in which eating ‘real’ meat becomes shocking/horrifying to everyone and all meat eaten is artificial (e.g. Isaac Asimov); futures in which animals grown for meat are genetically modified to be monstrous and helpless (e.g. Margaret Atwood); futures in which most meat is vat grown [as are replacement organs for humans] and meat from once-living animals is a luxury (e.g. William Gibson); futures in which most protein eaten is derived from algae or insects (e.g. Becky Chambers). These imagined images of the future definitely inform how I respond to new technologies or discussions about changing diet.

What fictions of meat-eating or non-meat-eating futures do you carry with you? Were they hopeful or dystopian? Dominated by big corporations, or governments, or more democratised? Did they centre animal suffering, economic inequality, malthusian fears of overcrowding? And do you think they affect your feelings about real meat, plant-based meat or (possibly, one day) cultured meat?


To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers - who you mentioned - was striking in that it depicted a world where eating meat or harming animals unnecessarily was not part of the default world view. The protagonists were willing to put up with a considerable amount of discomfort to avoid harming alien ecosystems, if I recall correctly.

It was a huge contrast from earlier adventurer stories where it was just accepted that explorers would kill animals, both in self defence and to eat. Example: I just opened The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne at a random page and the protagonists were celebrating killing an animal - though to be fair they were stranded on an island with no alternative proteins available!

Another (positive) depiction of animal-free food is the replicators in Star Trek.

There’s also the cow who wants to be eaten in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - vegetables, in contrast, are “very clear on the point of not wanting to be eaten”!

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Yes, Douglas Adams’ cow is a great example! A really interesting way of pushing our moral intuitions about the acceptability of techno-fixes to suffering and power (and of course of parodying some rhetoric around meat eating).

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Hi Tamsin,

Thanks for starting this interesting conversation. I also believe fiction about alternative worlds, societies and futures can be very powerful in shaping our thinking about the challenges and controversies in the here and now.

It reminded me of this ‘documentary of the future’ , Carnage, which documents the turbulent history leading to a completely vegan world: Carnage: Swallowing the Past [Trailer] - YouTube

Besides speculative fiction and scifi including ideas about (non-) meat specifically ,what other books/films/series do you know of that present alternative food systems?

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hi Heleen! thanks for recommendation for Carnage - i hadn’t seen it before, but it’s a very clever (and entertaining) piece.

I’ve been thinking about your question about non-scifi/spec-fic representations of alternative food systems, but I don’t think I’ve come up with anything very insightful. It occurred to me that reading novels (and other kinds of literature) written sufficiently long ago is another way that we all get impressions of quite different food systems. Thinking here about the centrality of food in Dickens, or Austen. But the main things we see revealed in those are different diets, different attitudes to the availability of foods, compared with our own experience - and often food only comes into focus in celebrations or otherwise at moments when it plays an unusual or symbolic role, rather than in the everyday. The larger systems of production, distribution, preparation are less visible because they’re very normal to the authors.

Thinking of Helen’s example of replicators in Star Trek, here’s a good clip -