On the Sumptuousness and Solace of Speculative Fiction Writing

…and food (metaphorically, tangibly and tastily)

by D.A. Xiaolin Spires

science fiction painting
Image copyright Vincent Di Fate

I’ll be reading a science article, perhaps, one from a reputable academic journal or perhaps from a pop science news venue, and I’d feel this itch like it was coming. “It” being the genesis of a story, percolating through the text of the article, squeezing its way into this world. (Lots of mixed metaphors here, but story creation warrants all sorts of amalgamated imagery!) The inspiration might be a concept from medical science or cutting edge technology—that my mind reinterprets or reimagines and transforms. Sometimes, the idea is not conceptual, but visual—a glorious landscape, a piece of worldbuilding that is then populated by characters. Sometimes, it’s the idea of a character, a spunky individual who has a certain want or flair. Many of my stories eventually do have these characteristics by the time they're polished. It’s just that the igniting element may be any one of these. Through some prewriting and brainstorming, it starts to flesh out: the characters gaining more depth and humanism (or lack thereof?), the environment becoming more tangible and graspable, the backstory coming to life.

I really like to talk about food, the social life that surrounds its production and consumption and the sensory aspects of it. It’s connected to my SFF writing… just wait, I’ll get there. On a general, societal level, humans tend to be very visual, perceiving much through the eyes (on an individual level, this may vary, for example, people who have difficulty with vision may have a diverging experience). It’s a self-fulfilling dominance, as there tends to be more academic research on vision than any other human sense. But, recently, there’s been greater research and focus on food in so many aspects: production and distribution in agriculture, technology and trade, in consumption… nutrition and health, access to food (also related to distribution), ecological concerns and generating bonds. Eating also means tasting, smelling and relishing food, with its myriad of flavors, textures and aromas. There's sight, the visual aspect, but there's also everything else that goes along with it. There is such a diversity of food and food-related practices: ritualistic offerings and libations, celebratory fare, banquets, bar hopping, gastroporn, food reality shows in addition to everyday home cooking. Food is essential to our biological functioning, its input into our bodies imbued with cultural meaning. Given its indispensability, its consideration is a critical aspect in many human ventures. Space travel and the dimensions and weight of food together converges to an inherent limitation on food to bring and provide on these boundary- crossing trips; and thus a puzzle to work out… how do we make food portable, edible… and delicious? Because food is not only necessity, but it is also pleasure—so we can’t overlook how much comfort we take in partaking in food. Food entices and feeds into our appetites and desires. It can be tantalizing, alluring, mouthwatering (or disgusting … or even mesmerizingly disgusting). Okay, that’s a lot about food. So … what does this have to do with my writing? Sometimes my stories are inspired by food… by ideas of “what if?” and “how?” How will we taste food in VR? What if we could step into an alien’s highway rest stop and taste their commuter-oriented fast foods? What will gastronomy look like in fifty, a hundred years? How can we make agriculture thrive and be more friendly towards our planet? What kinds of technological wizardry will be fitted into our kitchens and our homes, and enable even further convenience than the thousands of kitchen gadgets that are already preexisting? How will we commemorate our social lives in the future through banquets and shared eating experiences? How will we live life through the lens of food? How do we take solace in food— just as we take solace in speculative fiction?

No, I don’t always make food first and foremost and food doesn’t appear in every one of my stories (at least I think it doesn’t…), but it sneaks its way into my stories even when I don’t intentionally make a story around food. It piques the senses and adds significant detail to make an otherwise distant world (i.e. distant to our current situation, whether spatial, temporal, cultural or dimensional) feel real. Personally, I just like eating and (often) cooking. It’s also a common way to bond when traveling… talking to a stranger in another country about food brings people together. Oh, the [insert dessert name] here, yes, they are amazing! This [insert savory dish] is just divine with a cup of [insert beverage]! Have you tried the [insert breakfast food] yet? It really gets you up and going in the morning! It generates conversation and buzz, and even the mentioning of food brings people together (not to mention the actual consumption and commensality). Also, gastronomic tourism is huge… and if we had intergalactic gastronomic tourism, I imagine that would be an amazing, appetizing adventure. A true gastronaut, traveling the worlds, sharing in the dishes of other intelligent species. Who knows how our biology would handle it (if it can at all… or does the meal have to be reworked and reinterpreted to fit our biology)?

I take this example of food to show how a specific topic expands and wanders in my head, how the “what if’s” burgeon and shoot off in different directions. (Also, because food is so tasty and wonderful.) Not all these questions go into one story, but sometimes a story tackles several of them. I find it very relieving, in a way, to write, as if the ideas already had a life of their own and I’m just a scribe, anointing our existence with their otherwise invisible, intangible threads of narration. Like they exist in another dimension, only to be plucked by my hands (well my fingers on a keyboard) onto the page. It’s because sometimes after I finish, they seem so “right” in a way, not like they are perfectly curated words, but more like the story felt like it “should be,” like the characters/plot/world/details/etc. were supposed to be there… and honestly, I’m not 100% sure where they came from in my head. I just know that they took purchase in my imagination and I wrote it all down. It may be more deliberate than that, sometimes I do have to do significant brainstorming, but as cliché as it seems, sometimes it does feel like a kind of magic. I would also be remiss in not addressing that the story goes through iterations through the editorial team, that brings the narration together. It’s not just me, but a whole community of people (editors, publishers, critiquers, readers, reviewers, fellow writers) that brings a work to life. Depending on the story, the final iteration may look very different from the first.

Also, speaking of community, I enjoy discussing food on panels and in talks at conventions, when I have a chance to go. Because SFF writing is communal in many ways (even if sometimes the act of drafting a story can be somewhat solitary, depending on your writing habits)… or, perhaps it’s accurate to say that the whole enterprise of SFF literature at least brings people together. In-person and virtual conventions provide a space for people to geek out… and on topics such as food which are so interesting and succulently seductive. Writing groups and writing spaces allow for social interaction, intriguing propositions and premises and fun chats.

There are many approaches to writing. Some of the very helpful approaches I’ve encountered are having a prompt (whether visual, textual or otherwise), a writing/critique group, galvanizing experiences, analyzing writing you particularly like, free-writing. I also found my poetry writing to be connected with my prose. Sometimes the first instances of my prose, the “skeleton” of my stories, look a lot like poetry. Sometimes my poetry looks a lot like a mini-story… or prose broken into verses. I think they (as in poetry and prose) are not mutually exclusive, as many well-known thrilling epics come in the form of poetry. I’m very appreciative of my fellow poetry friends and poetry appreciators, who cheerlead, write wonderful works themselves and/or engage in interesting discussions.

I think sometimes it’s helpful to take particular advice and sometimes it’s helpful to just put general advice out of your head so you can just clear space to write the way you want to write. I think one of the major hurdles of writing is just to carve out time and space to write. It’s not always easy, but it does tend to be rewarding! At least for me it certainly is.

D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in sites such as Hawai’i, NY, various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with her keyboard appendage attached. Her work appears in publications such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Nature, Terraform, Fireside, Star*Line, Liquid Imagination, and anthologies such as Make Shift, Ride the Star Wind, Sharp and Sugar Tooth, Deep Signal, and Battling in All Her Finery. Select stories can be read in German, Spanish, Vietnamese, Estonian, French and Japanese translation.