My name is Matt, and I’m a coffee addict. And I’m not alone. Coffee is the second-most traded commodity on earth after oil. It’s a part of our popular culture, our courtship rituals (“wanna get a cup of coffee?”), our media, our economy, and–for many like myself–an important part of our emotional well-being. It’s only natural that coffee would play a part in our speculative fiction. After all, it’s touches like that which can connect us in a more personal, meaningful way to the strange and unfamiliar futures or altered presents that SF provides. So, I’ve made a short list of a few examples of coffee in SF that made an impact on me.
The Coffiest: Better than Meth!
(From Frederich Pohl and CM Kornbluth The Space Merchants, 1952)
On a massively overpopulated earth, corporations have taken up the roles of governments, and advertising is like Mad Men on steroids. One product in the book, Coffiest, is coffee with a little bit extra in the habit-forming department:
“…here’s what makes this campaign great in my estimation – each sample of Coffiest contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks the customer is hooked for life. It would cost him at least five thousand dollars for a cure, so it’s simpler for him to go right on drinking Coffiest – three cups with every meal and a pot beside his bed at night, just as it says on the jar.”
It proved to be a very profitable beverage in the novel. As if coffee needed more to make it addictive. What is scary is that this might be going on right now with energy beverages and special, enhanced coffees with additives like guarana and excessive amounts of vitamin B. There is a brand of coffee that began as “Meth Coffee” and changed its name to “The Coffiest.” It’s a blend of different coffees with a bit of yerba mate mixed in. Tempting to try a cup but…it scares me, and maybe that’s a good thing
Happicuppa Coffee: The Unfair Trade Brand
(Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, 2003)
Don’t let the name fool you. Happicuppa coffee is the source of a great deal of woe in Atwood’s near-future novel. Coffee beans turn bright red when they are ripe, but not all of the beans on a single plant will ripen at the same time. Selectively picking beans by hand–getting the ripe ones and leaving the unripe ones for later–is time consuming and labor intensive (i.e. not cost effective). Machines can strip pick coffee plants, taking all of their beans (green and ripe red) at the same time. From there they can be sorted, and the green (unripe) beans are often mixed with red or used all on their own to produce cheaper coffee (the kind that tastes like it could strip paint). In Atwood’s world of Oryx and Crake, the proprietary Happicuppa coffee plant was genetically engineered so that all of its beans ripen at the same time! This means stripping the plants bare via machine harvesting produces more and better coffee. Of course, this also put a lot of coffee pickers, mostly in impoverished areas, out of work. This sparked worldwide riots and protests. If anything, this will make you committed to buying Fair Trade coffee.
Leviathan Wakes: Military Industrial Coffee Maker
(James. S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, 2011)
While getting out of a tight spot with some bad characters intent on doing them harm, James Holden and the remaining crew of the Canterbury commandeer a Corvette Class Light Frigate built by the Mars Navy. It started for them as a high-octane escape pod, but it soon becomes their personal frigate as they cross the solar system to try and stop some bad dudes from doing some bad things. One feature that Holden goes gaga over is the coffee maker in the top-notch galley:
It also had a full-size coffeepot that could brew forty cups of coffee in less than five minutes whether the ship was in zero g or under a five-g burn. Holden said a silent prayer of thanks for bloated military budgets and pressed the brew button. He had to restrain himself from stroking the stainless steel cover while it made gentle percolating noises.
It’s a tender moment centered around a small but important creature comfort. I imagine that when you are weeks out on an enclosed ship, away from fresh provisions and leave, a cup of coffee in a cup or a “squeezebulb” (squeezable sippy cup so your beverage doesn’t float away) can be the difference between despair and making it through the day. Some serious technology went into making this coffee maker in Leviathan Wakes. I mean, brewing on earth is and has always been a gravity-powered process, so a coffee maker that can brew in zero-g? Later, Holden is genuinely saddened when the coffee maker is murdered during a ship-to-ship dogfight. R.I.P. military coffee maker.
Dune Messiah: A Fremen’s Bare Necessities
(Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, 1969)
Herbert’s Dune and Dune Messiah can be described as the rise and fall of a hero. In Dune, Paul Atreides comes to the desert world of Arakis with his family as they become the new stewards of the all-important spice mines there. Through conspiracy and betrayal his family is all-but destroyed, and he takes revenge after he becomes the leader of the desert-dwelling natives of Arakis, the Fremen. Paul takes up the mantle of their prophesied messiah, but after they take control of Arakis and everyone has had some time to breathe there is some discontent brewing (pun intended) as many of Paul’s most die-hard soldiers ponder over their changed lives and wonder if they are any closer to their goal of a better world. A few begin to openly talk about whether or not they were better off when they lived a simpler and more meager lifestyles. Farok was one of Paul’s special corps of warriors, the Fedaykin, and in this excerpt from a scene in Dune Messiah he ponders whether or not things were better when he had so very little:
I owned a crysknife, water rings to ten liters, my own lance which had been my father’s, a coffee service, a bottle made of red glass older than any memory of my sietch. I had my own share of our spice, but no money. I was rich and did not know it…I was a Fremen Naib, a rider of worms, master of the leviathan and of the sand.
It’s a small moment, but I found it very touching. Farok ponders whether or not he was more fulfilled while he was fighting the good fight as a poor leader of a poor people as opposed to the more confused nature of things after Paul’s ascension. Among the basics Farok laments over is his coffee set. Interesting that this amenity is among the basics that he puts in his short list of his meager riches. Of course, Herbert took a good deal of inspiration from Arabic culture, and from what I understand coffee is not just a treat for one’s self but an important part of welcoming and honoring guests. Coffee, then, becomes a way to bring people together and honor friends and companions.
Daybreakers: “Should I leave room for blood in that?”
(From Michael and Peter Spierig’s Daybreakers, 2009)
In the film Daybreakers the year is 2019 and, thanks to a highly contagious plague, 95% of the human race has become vampires. This is an interesting shift from the usual vampire story, because usually they are about lone vampires or groups of them hiding in the shadows of civilization. Now everyone has to deal with the new non-negotiable night life, and some of the lifestyle adaptations presented in the film are very interesting. One of them is that blood is mixed in to coffee sold at coffee shops or offered while hosting guests.
Of course, this population shift towards vampirism also means that the population of non-vampire humans, i.e. food, has dwindled precipitously. Authors like Bacigalupi, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Atwood (in Oryx and Crake) have dramatized the untenable consumption of resources that modern society demands. In this film, that same trope is presented in the blood shortages and the heightened efforts to capture the remaining normal humans and create a consumable synthetic replacement for human blood.
Blood has been integrated into the mainstream economy in this world, and as a measure of resource control someone in this society who may have seen the Matrix a few too many times decided to institute a public blood bank that consists of refrigerated, comatose humans kept alive for their blood. These people are referred to as “stock,” and people own groups of humans and can keep them in the system for the public (and I guess for some kind of interest payment).
As mentioned earlier, blood has also been mixed into people’s everyday coffee consumption, so the already-embedded market of coffee brands, kiosks, and shops doesn’t skip a beat (you do the work this time, insert joke about vampire hearts not beating here). Of course, worldwide blood shortages means less blood in one’s morning cup of coffee, which does not make for a happy populace (see the clip below, but not while you’re eating).
There is something strangely congruent about going to a vampire coffee bar to get your blood fix. It’s the commodification of blood for the masses, and it’s synthesized with a pre-existing American addiction to caffeine. It’s all economics, new needs incorporated into existing markets. Marx would have a field day with this. Hmm, what about a vampire Marx? No, no, if anything he’d be a vampire hunter. A hunter of bourgeois vampires.
On the subject of blood and coffee…
My search for images for this bit on Daybreakers led me to an interesting program going on right NOW. I’m referring to the “Give a Pint, Get a Pound” program run by the Red Cross and Dunkin’ Donuts. During January (National Blood Donor Awareness Month) if you donate blood with the American Red Cross you will get a pound of Dunkin Donuts coffee! Details can be found by clicking here.
Finally, for an entertaining comic on coffee and how it works, check out this comic from The Oatmeal. It. Makes. Me. Happy.
After all this writing about coffee I think it’s time I hunt down a cup for myself. I’ve been downing the stuff pretty regularly as I’m trying to wrap up my dissertation. Hypertension here I come!