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Hydro Horizon: Science Fiction’s Decades-Long Fascination With Hydroponic Growing

Sci-fi has long been fascinated with futuristic gardening techniques like hydroponics. Sci-fi has long been fascinated with futuristic gardening techniques like hydroponics.


The term science fiction usually conjures images of sterile white spacesuits, shimmering silver ray guns and twinkling control panel lights, or perhaps the weird, jagged, rocky terrains of unexplored planets. Fair enough, but science fiction can also transport us to lush, verdant worlds coated in all manner of thriving, exotic flora just aching to be cultivated. Of course that’s the kind of thing we get into here at Rosebud, so in the spirit of all things groovy, green and hydro, we offer this brief look at the intrepid growing lifestyle as depicted in the last several decades of sci-fi books and movies.

Wherever human beings go, whether to the far-flung corners of the universe or through the infinite wormholes of time and extra dimensions, those people are eventually going to need to grow something. Wherever or whenever we go, we take the tools, crude or high-tech, to surround ourselves with the lush, green and fragrant reminders of all the rich natural bounty of planet Earth.

While we’re all still stuck down here waiting for real-world space exploration to evolve beyond robot rover field trips to Mars, science fiction writers have been busily imagining the big old cosmos. Back in the genre’s paperback heyday of the 1940s through the early ‘60s, most of the big-brained, underpaid and ink-stained authors were busy churning out tales about rocket ships, time travel and bug-eyed alien invaders, but there were some interesting side trips into speculative fiction that weren’t afraid to get their fingers down in the dirt.

One of the best was Robert Heinlein’s 1953 gem Farmer in the Sky, about a young go-getter learning how to adapt and thrive as a homesteader in a new colony on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. You wouldn’t think chapters on the dangers of converting lava rocks into arable soil would make for a page-turner, but the drama and science are both pretty credible, and this was before Heinlein’s weird crypto-fascist phase.

Sadly, this mostly forgotten nugget will likely never be adapted for the big screen and will therefore have no chance to match the heights of 1997’s cult-classic Heinlein adaptation Starship Troopers, starring a gonzo, bug-squashing Denise Richards (complete with razor-sharp cheekbones) and an ESP-powered, Nazi-esque-outfitted Doogie Howser (aka Neil Patrick Harris).

While Atomic Age paranoid parables dominated sci-fi for years, by the funky, freaky ‘70s, more ecologically turned-on causes started creeping into the genre, leading to some cool glimpses of what outer space agriculture could really look like. As the crunchy Earth Day consciousness of the ‘70s took hold, environmental disasters started replacing mutant commie allegories as the leading cause of destruction for our greedy, foolhardy society.

In 1972’s Silent Running, Bruce Dern is even more wigged-out than usual as a spacefaring botanist charged with tending to a ravaged Earth’s last remaining plant life on board a floating greenhouse ship called the Valley Forge. When an order comes to scrap the trees and return home, Dern flips out, kills his human crewmates and reprograms three worker droids to keep him company while they float through the solar system. This weird, poetic and politically charged little pic made a lasting impression on scores of disco-era fanboys, notably Joel Hodgson, who would later “borrow” the idea of a lonely astronaut stranded with his robot pals to form the basis of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

A year after Silent Running, Charlton Heston took the green sermonizing to crazy extremes in Soylent Green, which depicted a dying, chaotic, global-warming-damaged dystopia where a drastically overcrowded New York City teems with unwashed and unruly masses who must be reined in by Heston’s super-macho cop Robert Thorn.

When not busting rioters over the skull, Thorn gradually uncovers a conspiracy involving politicians and the all-powerful Soylent Corporation, supplier of the little green rations most of the population constantly snacks on. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal the flick’s iconic revelation, “Soylent Green is people!” Cannibalism is a little extreme, don’t you think? Couldn’t these future folks cobble together some seeds and grow lights and chill the hell out?

Three years later, the youth-obsessed hedonists of Logan’s Run got it right, building factory-farm greenhouses inside their space age suburban mall, a nifty detail we might have paid more attention to if we weren’t busy ogling the creamy sideboob of ‘70s hottie Jenny Agutter.

Sometimes it’s not the farm, but the flora that stands out in futuristic visions. Weird fruit is easy visual shorthand to indicate an alien environment. When they bothered, most old-school sci-fi stories struggled to take a realistic guess at what we might be eating (besides each other) centuries from now.

The groovy original boob tube version of Star Trek took the cheapest way out, by introducing the supercomputer “replicators,” which were magical automat-styled devices that could synthesize edible recreations of any imaginable menu item in a matter of seconds.

Apparently this tech was for Starfleet only, as Kirk and the gang spent a lot of time delivering supplies to galactic colonists and far-flung interstellar farmers. One of those outposts was Deep Space Station K-7, where a population of adorable, rapid-breeding little fuzzball pests called tribbles got into a store of the important sounding made up grain quadrotriticale, which of course was never mentioned again after that episode.

A far more awesome expression of growing technology in the Trek universe was the Genesis Device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, an amazing super-tech capable of fully terraforming a barren planet in a matter of moments thanks to state-of-the art 1980s computer graphics.

It’s one thing to hydro up some cabbage, but it’s another thing altogether to grow a hot, sticky jungle on an empty slab of craggy rock. Sadly, bare-chested madman Khan wanted to use Genesis as a terror weapon, which forced Kirk to park some photon torpedoes directly up his rich-Corinthian-leathered ass.

The most famous farm boy in the modern sci-fi canon is, of course, Luke Skywalker, but the bummer is that his crop was moisture, which made Luke and his family literally dirt farmers. But as any grower who has tried to recycle water vapor in their grow room knows, H2O is a valuable crop. Not that any of this explains that blue milk that Aunt Beru was always pouring.

Another legendary saga that involved evil intergalactic empires, psychic pretty-boy saviors and a mysterious desert planet is Frank Herbert’s Dune series of novels. In this case, the weird crop on which the fate of an entire galaxy hinges is an amazing, near-mystical spice that slows aging, grants heightened mental powers and can only be harvested from the dung of deadly, whale-sized sandworms. Seriously, cultivating oversized worm turds? There’s got to be an easier way to compost.

As the ‘80s dragged on, sci-fi tended to get bigger, louder and sillier, with an emphasis on killer cyborgs, alien lizard babies, time-traveling teens and talking sports cars. It wasn’t until nearly the turn of the century that global warming fears started creeping back into the genre, and with them, glimpses of cool agro-tech to stave off or recover from disaster. Not that it helped the Pauly Shore/Stephen Baldwin bombBio-Dome.

In 2007, Danny Boyle’s gorgeous misfire Sunshine, about a multicultural space mission to jumpstart the sun, sported the coolest on-board greenhouse since Silent Running. The artificial jungle was an elegant solution to the very real problem of producing oxygen for long-term space travel.

While it maybe the greenest of all recent sci-fi, Avatar was less about cultivation than conservation, with the Navi, the noble, naked Smurf-kitty people of Saturn’s moon Pandora, being morally superior to the roving fleet of warmongering, capitalist space honkies who came to strip-mine their natural resources. These spiritual space pussies were so connected to the indigenous plant life that they could tune in to psychedelic visions that made the whole jungle glow like a Zeppelin blacklight poster. That’s one way to talk to your plants.

A less preachy (and far lower budget) farming fable came in Mike Judge’s nearly discarded Idiocracy. Set in a future when fast-breeding mouth-breathers have caused the global IQ to flatline, the populace, lead by former wrestler-slash-porn-star President Camacho, can’t figure out why their crops are dying, despite feeding it the Gatorade-like drink Brawndo (tagline: “It’s what plants crave”). Think that’s far-fetched? Consider the many growers today who, knowingly or not, spray the cancer-causing chemical paclobutrazol to their crop.

As long as people imagine the future, some form of gardening is bound to come up, though sometimes more prominently than others. This fall season’s surprise hit for NBC is Revolution, a show about a sudden, unexplained global blackout that sends our technology-addicted modern world into chaos. After the dust settles, some of the most well-adjusted survivors are small-time farmers who channel their ancestral agrarian roots and turn their suburban cul-de-sacs into leafy hotbeds of lovely produce.

Meanwhile, the leads in Revolution are busy running around chasing a necklace that will magically turn the machine back on so everyone can play Angry Birds again. Apparently crossbow battles make the Nielsen boxes blow up, but we’d be cool if the cast just kicked back and worked on perfecting their heirloom tomatoes. Maybe the future would be a better place.

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The original Star Trek series explored futuristic farming techniques in the occasional episode.
Last modified on Monday, 04 March 2013 17:16

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