We no longer enslave animals for food purposes.
– Will Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Lonely Among Us”
What do science fiction and going vegetarian or vegan have in common? Science fiction scholar Darko Suvin has coined the term novum (latin for ‘new thing’) in order to describe the (scientific) innovations and novelties distinguishing science fiction from fantasy fiction. To put it briefly, novum is an element by which the work is shown to exist in a different world than that of the reader or the spectator. It must be validated by cognitive logic, which means that the audience must be able to extrapolate it of today’s science – if the novum in question is the warp drive, for example. However, a novum can be something completely different that a scientific innovation: it can also be an idea, like elimination of gender in Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Even if these ideas were strange, in science fiction they are grounded in the world we know and therefore they are capable of estranging us from our everyday conceptions. The reader of Le Guin’s novel might think something along the lines of “Yes, I’m familiar with the idea of gender, but… ‘The king was pregnant?’ What the…?”
Since I was raised in a quite “ordinary” Finnish family, I feel that going vegetarian introduced a novum of one kind into this world. When I was a child, I ate animals almost every day: my favourite dishes included spaghetti bolognese (my father used to make the best sauce ever), chicken breast in sweet curry sauce (one of my mother’s bravuras) and fried Baltic herring fillets. Of course, we sometimes ate vegetarian dishes such as vegetable soups or cauliflower gratin, but giving up eating meat completely would have been a really strange idea – definitely like something out of a science fiction novel. So why did I ever choose going vegetarian?
If we were to one day encounter a form of life more powerful and intelligent than our own, and it regarded us as we regard fish, what would be our argument against being eaten?
– Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
What if, indeed? “What if” is one of the most common starting points for a science fiction work, and this is also why science fiction was once dubbed as a “literature of ideas”. This means that science fiction is not only concerned with science or fascinating new gadgets, but also with consequences. In science fiction, it is possible to explore and examine endless variety of ideas, and during the years science fiction has certainly taught me to weigh the consequences of my actions and choices in a much more intellectual way. Finally, it was not that hard to present the question myself: “What if I went vegetarian?”
[T]here’s nothing like constructing a world, or recognising a constructed world, for teaching you to see your own world as a construct.
– Gwyneth Jones, Deconstructing the Starships
All in all, constructing a coherent model of the world we live in is one of our primary “survival strategies”. We tend to see the world as a neat and simple network of entities, events and causes, because it makes our life a lot easier. Unfortunately it also lets us forget that our model of the world is not natural or inevitable. Eating animals on a daily basis, or at all, is not necessary. Good fiction such as challenging science fiction novels reminds us that things do not necessarily have to be the way are. It is possible to invent something new, to ask new questions, and to make a change.