Image: Soylent Green
Most of the future food that gets doled out in our dystopias tend to be pretty similar: tasteless tablets, green gunk, milky-grey mushes. Part of the reason that the new wave of Silicon Valley food products have inspired such backlash—and, conversely, such interest—is that they invoke those dull, flavor-deprived confections of imagined eras. Dry in vitro burgers, synthetic chicken products, and mono-flavored food substitutes all take aesthetic and attitudinal cues from culinary sci-fi.
None so more than Soylent. Rob Rhinehart consciously named his macronutritious food replacement cocktail after what might be the most famous—and grimmest—future foods in pop culture. Soylent, then, hails from one of the most notorious cinematic dystopias.
We've been hearing plenty about Soylent the product lately—the mixture of maltodextrin, rice protein, oat powder, and other fundamental ingredients Rhinehart whips up in Oakland has already secured more than $1,000,000 worth of pre-orders—but a lot less about the product's inspiration. So it's worth taking a closer look at the classic post- (or pre?) apocalyptic film, to understand a movie that terrorized a generation with ill omens about the future of eating, but is now sufficiently dated to serve as semi-ironic fodder for Silicon Valley start-ups.
Soylent Green, a 1973 Charleton Heston sci-fi vehicle with a narrative arc not dissimilar to Planet of the Apes, is remembered less as a movie than as a sloganized cultural artifact. The film, which turned 40 years old this year, forecast an overcrowded, foodless world in 2022, wherein the 40 million residents of New York City survive on Soylent Green, a new, and presumably unpleasant, wafer-like food product made by the Soylent Corporation.
I recently re-watched the movie, which mostly persists in pop culture today as a spectral wisp, reduced to its famous final twist. After old Heston follows a truck carrying dead bodies from a mass euthanasia center, he discovers where that new food product is actually originating, and says so in melodramatic desperation right before the credits roll.
"Soylent Green is people" is the "I see dead people" of the 70s.
Now, it's worth doing a quick etymology here. 'Soylent' wasn't originally conceived as people-food. In Harry Harrison's book Make Room! Make Room!, on which Soylent Green was based, there was merely mention of "soylent steaks," which were highly sought-after meal products. In fact, the famous twist isn't anywhere to be found in the book, which I read, too.
The book is more acutely focused on overpopulation as an issue, and the inequality it breeds between the handful of rich that remain and the millions of unwashed masses. In fact, Paul Ehlrich, the author of the hugely influential 1968 anti-growth tome, The Population Bomb, wrote the forward. The novel depicts main characters turning to pro-population control demonstrations, and revels more in the bleakness of day-to-day existence in a world of strained resources.
Still, the essence of the book lives on in the film, and the ultimate message is comparable—overpopulation is driving humanity to the brink, with food becoming one of the greatest casualties. In both the book and film, the characters enjoy a meal of 'real' food they pilfered from the rich; they savor the taste of fruit, they revel in the near-orgasmic joy of eating beef. This is what we're going to lose, the film says—most of us, anyway.
Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but Silicon Valley is currently working on making marketable products much like the ones depicted in that infamous dystopia. Companies like Soylent have begun to make the case for voluntarily giving up the food that we currently enjoy in lieu of something more like those drab soylent steaks (of the non-human variety). Traditional food is too time and energy intensive, Soylent's crew argues, and they have a point.
In fact, the impetus behind Silicon Valley's recent drive towards future food isn't dissimilar from the plights outlined in the Soylent fictions—with straining resources, a booming population, and more hungry mouths than ever, we can't afford to eat as we are. And so we get Google-financed lab burgers, Bill Gates-backed faux chicken, and culturally savvy startups like Soylent, all claiming to help lower the energy and resource burden of producing food. If these ventures become profitable, they will do so in part by conjuring images of a world that Soylent Green depicted.
And they won't be wrong in doing so—because it turns out that the film was actually pretty prescient in its prognostications. Sure it missed the mark on the numbers—there are most certainly not 40 million people living in New York City, even if it feels like there are sometimes (*laugh track*). There are around 19 million in the greater metropolitan area, however. And around the world, high food prices are fueling the kind of social unrest depicted in the film—people waiting in ration lines break out in riots, and are brutally contained by authorities—it's just not happening here in the states much yet.
Furthermore, Soylent Green contains one of the earliest earnest depictions of global warming I've seen in a film—it's the early 70s, and the city is baking from excess "greenhouse gases." Climate change didn't become a widely-discussed problem until the nineties, and it's right there in Heston's mouth decades back. Not only that, but it's indicated that it's part of the resource scarcity problem, which, of course, it actually is today.
It's also worth mentioning that are nascent research efforts to grow food from algae—which has long suspected to be a super-efficient way to produce calories—and in the film, the pre-human incarnation of Soylent Green was indeed made from the stuff. Now, Soylent Green isn't a great film—it's full of plot-holes, bad dialogue, and mostly unrepentant future-sexism. But it's certainly singular enough to remain a force 40 years on.
Typically, when we're discussing old sci-fi, one of the least useful exercises is poring over whether or not the film or book or TV serial 'got it right'—yet Soylent Green is an exceptional case. It not only predicted a few of our deepest and most persistent problem, but it's now serving as a cultural touchstone for major efforts to overhaul the way we eat. If we are what we eat, they Soylent Green might actually be on the brink of becoming people.