The Sci-Fi Prehistory of “Victimless” Meat
The idea of “disembodied” meat, whether grown from trees or in the lab, has been around for at least a century – if not way longer. The medieval notion of the “vegetable lamb of Tartary”, a live sheep that sprouts from a plant, could be thought of as the great-granddaddy of “victimless” meat. However, the idea of truly in vitro meat had to wait for the invention of cell culture. No doubt French surgeon Alexis Carrell pondered taking a nibble of an immortal drumstick when he created an “immortal” chicken heart cell line in 1912.
Perhaps the earliest explicit mentions of cultured meat comes from British statesman Frederick Edwin Smith. In 1930, Smith predicted that “it will no longer be necessary to go to the extravagant length of rearing a bullock in order to eat its steak. From one ‘parent’ steak of choice tenderness it will be possible to grow as large and as juicy a steak as can be desired.” Winston Churchill famously echoed this sentiment only two years later. According to Technovelty, in vitro meat made its first appearance in fiction in 1952. Since then, sci-fi authors have described inspiring, bizarre and uncanny speculative meat futures. Click through for some of the most evocative…
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“Scum-skimming wasn’t hard to learn. You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest. You put on your coveralls and took the cargo net up to your tier. In blazing noon from sunrise to sunset you walked your acres of shallow tanks crusted with algae. If you walked slowly, every thirty seconds or so you spotted a patch at maturity, bursting with yummy carbohydrates. You skimmed the patch with your skimmer and slung it down the well, where it would be baled, or processed into glucose to feed Chicken Little, who would be sliced and packed to feed people from Baffinland to Little America.”
––From The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl (1952)
I went on telling him about our hydroponic farms, and the carniculture plant where any kind of animal tissue we wanted was grown–Terran pork and beef and poultry, Freyan zhoumy meat, Zarathustran veldtbeest…. He knew, already, that none of the native life-forms, animal or vegetable, were edible by Terrans.
“You can get all the paté de foie gras you want here,” I said. “We have a chunk of goose liver about fifty feet in diameter growing in one of our vats.”
–– From Four-Day Planet, by H. Beam Piper (1961)
“Jesus,” Molly said, her own plate empty, “gimme that. You know what this costs?” She took his plate. ‘They gotta raise a whole animal for years and then they kill it. This isn’t vat stuff.” She forked a mouthful up and chewed.
–– From Neuromancer, by William Gibson (1984)
What they were looking at was a large bulblike object that seemed to be covered with stippled whitish-yellow skin. Out of it came twenty thick fleshy tubes, and at the end of each tube another bulb was growing.
“What the hell is it?” said Jimmy.
“Those are chickens,” said Crake. “Chicken parts. Just the breasts, on this one. They’ve got ones that specialize in drumsticks too, twelve to a growth unit.
“But there aren’t any heads…”
“That’s the head in the middle,” said the woman. “There’s a mouth opening at the top, they dump nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don’t need those.”
–– From Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (2003)