As Food Science Fiction, Interstellar Fails

The night after I saw Interstellar I had a dream about it. It was about the food in Christopher Nolan’s outer space epic. Specifically the corn. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

It doesn’t spoil much to tell you that Earth’s main issue in the film is that the only food that grows on the planet is corn. That’s it. I find this distracting for several reasons.

One is there are a lot of things humans can turn into food. Can we really be expected to believe that the “blight” that has reduced our only food source to corn not only affects the entire plant kingdom but other kingdoms of life like fungi? Why isn’t it affecting humans, as biologically we are more closely related to corn than corn is to mushrooms? Did they use up all their scientific consulting budget on physicists and couldn’t afford biologists? Why couldn’t they grow some kind of miserable Quorn-like substance out of fungi?

Speaking of miserable, being not only interested in biology, but also cooking, I couldn’t stop thinking of what kind of food we could make with only corn. In the film we see people eating a gruel or grits of some kind (which would be super sad without any butter). And corn on the cob. We also see people drinking what looks like beer, which some people objected to, but actually you can make beer with corn. If you’ve had Peruvian chicha, that’s basically corn beer. Corn is also an ingredient in most mass market beers like Miller.

You can also make depressing versions of cornbread with just cornmeal and water, similar to the skillet cakes made by pioneers and soldiers in the past.

If you had to subsist on only corn, you’d definitely want to nixtamalize it, which is a process of treating it with an alkaline solution to make the niacin digestible for humans. Societies that were dependent on corn that didn’t know about this process often have suffered from pellagra. And the people in Interstellar at least don’t seem to suffer from that.

Most of the corn we currently grow ends up being eaten by livestock. And we don’t see any of those in Interstellar. We might assume that’s because you can feed more people with just corn than you can if you feed the corn to livestock, but they also make reference to a shrinking population. Maybe all the livestock died in the catastrophe they refer to, but they seem to possess the technology needed to reproduce mammals from just preserved embryos.

Do they make other corn products that might not be as efficient per capita as plain gruel? Like corn oil?

While I definitely enjoyed the movie, I found the food issues to be poorly fleshed out for something the plot hinges on. You could chalk it up to me being obsessed with food, but I’ve managed to watch hundreds of Star Trek episodes without thinking very much about Klingon cuisine. Good science fiction should not be this perplexing. You should be able to believe that the science is at least possible, even if it’s not. It’s not hard to write scientific-sounding bullshit about food– the aisles of diet books in the store are proof of that. At its science fiction can explore possibilities in future science and inspire real scientists. As an engrossing story about space, love and family, Interstellar is great, but its depictions of food and agriculture (and probably physics to a lesser extent) make it hard to consider it excellent science fiction.