Why Spice Is a Staple of Science Fiction
From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Dune,’ spice’s galactic appeal is rooted in our global history.
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.”
We see these themes in Poul Anderson’s Technic Civilization Saga, where his character Nicholas van Rijn is the President of the Solar Spice and Liquors Company. He is also a Dutch merchant, a reference to the country’s traders who helped shape our world’s routes. In Star Wars, the highly lucrative illicit drug “spice”—mined through Wookiee slave labor at the mines of Kessel—plays a part in the intergalactic trade economy of Lucas’s universe.
Such as in science fiction, spices drove an economy because many were, as Turner calls it, “botanically singular.” Particularly strong in aroma, spices were also restricted to remote areas of the world. Both cloves and nutmegs were organic to the Moluccas, a handful of tiny volcanic islands in what is now the far east of Indonesia. The rarity of these spices made them extremely valuable, only getting easier to come by and eventually used more for cooking after their dissemination around the world.
At present we use seasoning predominantly for making meals, but science fiction’s de-contextualization of spice is more in line with how we’ve actually used it over time. The European High Middle Ages defined spice as aromatic and exotic high-value goods generally associated with medical potency. That includes balls of perfume known as pomanders that were filled with spices and worn to ward off sickness and the plague. Larry Nivens’ boosterspice from his “Known Space” universe does something similar by assisting characters with maintaining their lifespan and good health. Meanwhile, cultures that relied on traditional humoral medicine saw spices as hot, and their “heating” properties were associated with aphrodisiacs. The Mistress of Spices draws upon this as its protagonist works to please everyone else’s desires through her special spices.
Spices weren’t only used for medicine or love-potions though. The current English language usage of spice is derived from the Latin term “species,” which referred to mostly inedible commodities found in small volumes and at high expense, including silk and ivory. As a “seasoning of kings,” possession of these rare items—edible or not—signaled societal standing. In Europe, spices were an irresistible marker of wealth due to their cost, exoticism, and potency. Some rulers even expected to be buried with spices, as evidenced by the mummy of Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II who was found with pepper inserted up his nose. Science fiction has similarly embodied this incarnation of spice, notably in John Kessel’s The Moon and the Other. In the novel, the wealthy moon colony Persepolis cultivates Persian spices.
“Until modern times, the exotic spices were used for other purposes,” Turner explains. “Not least, spices were far too expensive and exotic, to eat. With the exception of pepper, which the Roman trade democratized, before the late Middle Ages the earliest contexts we find [spices] in are always sacramental or medicinal. Spices were used for incense, for sacrifices, for perfumes, for burials. Only relatively late in the day did they become sufficiently cheap to eat.”
The evolution of spice in science fiction is actually quite similar to its real-world counterpart. With the rise of food science and pre-packaged foods during the first half of the 20th century, spice as a form of food preservation was deemed obsolete. Yaszek says it’s rarely mentioned in science fiction at this time, but when it is, food is unspiced and comes in the form of pills or inhalable essences. The lack of edible spice is similar to its late Latin definition which had a limited association with food.
That shifts in the 1960s and 1970s as consumers pivot from processed to natural foods, and we see a rise in the popularity of psychedelic drugs. Used both medicinally and recreationally, spice is “a technology for changing both the body and the mind,” Yaszek says. Dune’s melange or “the spice” is an addictive stimulant that improves your vitality and can give you future vision, but will kill you if you stop using it. Spice as a drug also appears in Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar book series which sees ginger banned by lizard-like aliens as it induces hypersexuality in the females. As a drug, it warps our desires into something dangerous, an experience real, early spice users could share in.
“The same attributes that made spices irresistible to kings and the wealthy—cost, reputation, exoticism, medicinal potency—made them an equally inevitable target for moralists,” Turner tells Food & Wine. “From Roman times through the Christian Middle Ages, spices were decried as a waste of money, as symbols and prime examples of profligacy at its very worst.”
As the focus on global science fiction has shifted yet again in the last 20 years, so has spice’s purpose. Emphasis is now on its cross-cultural relevance, like the diverse, planetary meals we see cook Neelix whip up in Star Trek: Voyager. Or the often-forgotten history of trade between Africans and the Chinese represented in the team-up between an African prince and a Chinese spice merchant in Milton Davis’s Changa’s Safari.
“Most often now, [science fiction] is using spices to think about those economic and cultural identities,” Yaszek tells Food & Wine. “As we live in a world that's increasingly knit together, through technologies that allow us to shift things around the world very quickly and to experience unfamiliar things, [spice] becomes an opportunity to think about food, tastes, and economies associated with different cultures.”
Thus there’s a stunning yet logical connection between the history and future of spice that’s rooted in the shared experience of real and fictionalized worldbuilding, whether in Ancient Rome or a galaxy far, far away.