In its last March issue, Popular Mechanics named the top 10 most prophetic sci-fi movies made in terms of how good the science was.
Given it was a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke, who'd died the previous week at age 90, it wasn't surprising to find on the list 2001: A Space Odyssey. Great movie, but even with the tribute factor, it only earned the Number 10 slot due to its many misses in terms of reality-science.
But surprise, surprise: not only was Soylent Green on the list, it topped the legendary Space Odyssey by two slots. And here I thought Soylent Green was only an underground cult phenomenon, especially here on the coast due to the persistent urban myth that it was filmed at Simon Fraser University's campus on top of Burnaby Mountain (it wasn't).
In terms of scientific prescience, the magazine gave Soylent Green top marks for portraying a futuristic New York City of 2022 as a climate-change disaster zone. Besides the burden of a population of 40 million people and endless food shortages, the city also suffers from the endless heat of endless summer. To top things off, with the price of oil going through the roof, only the rich can afford air conditioning. Pretty prophetic for a 1973 flick.
Where the movie failed, though, according to Popular Mechanics, was its portrayal of (spoiler alert) the evil corporation, Soylent - named derived from soy/lentils - gathering up humans dead and alive and rendering them into edible high-energy biscuits for the hungry throngs. In one riveting scene, a front-end loader scoops up a mass of writhing people into its bucket.
The Soylent green biscuits were supposedly made from green plankton, but we really know what that secret ingredient is, don't we? Popular Mechanics found this aspect of the movie scientifically dubious. We'll see...
The idea of eating ourselves to save ourselves from ourselves isn't new. Jonathan Swift called for same in his essay of 1729, A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public.
Better known simply as A Modest Proposal, it urged all the poor, beggarly mothers "followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms" to make those children "sound useful members of the Commonwealth" by offering them up to eat. Okay, so this was political satire extraordinaire, but it still posited the idea of cannibalism as a solution to social ills, complete with a tasty description.
"I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled..." wrote Swift. My, my.
The unfortunate members of Sir John Franklin's disastrous Arctic expedition; the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes and whose adventures were documented in two films and the book Alive; the Donner party stranded in the Sierra Nevada while crossing into California in the 1840s - countless cases exist of people eating other people to survive. Even tales of cannibalism came out of the famine in North Korea in the late '90s.
Then there are the non-survival cases of people eating people to thrive socially and culturally, as well as physically. Many accounts of cannibalism brought back from the heyday of imperialism and colonialism were nothing but fear and attempts to elevate "white" "civilized" folks above "the other". Other cases were true.
In earlier times, says my Encyclopedia Britannica, the practice was common in just about every corner of the world - in Europe; China; India: West and Central Africa: in parts of Sumatra; Polynesia; Australia and New Zealand; in Melanesia, especially Fiji, and right here at home in North America. Even the Bible has an account of cannibalism.
In some cultures, human flesh was regarded as a form of food, ergo the Melanesian pidgin term "long pig." Victorious Maori often cut up the dead after a battle and feasted on them; the Batak in Sumatra were reported to have sold human flesh in markets before Dutch colonialists had full control. This would have been a case of a five-pound arm here, a ten-pound thigh there, rather than crispy green Soylent biscuits.
In parts of Africa, ritual murders and cannibalism were traditionally tied to sorcery, while headhunters and others would eat bits of the bodies or heads of their enemies to absorb their vitality or other desirable qualities and reduce their power for revenge.
Other than the occasional gnashing of teeth on my husband's arm when we play-fight, my own experiences with eating human meat are pretty remote.
I've poked around the cliff-hugging pueblos in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park, home to some of the Anasazi people who ate other people when drought and famine struck and food supplies - like those in 2022 New York - were disastrously low.
In the 1980s I took a boat loaded with durian - you can imagine how that smelled - up the mighty Mahakam River of Borneo to see... well, just to see. It was the heart of Dayak country and my Indonesian guide, grinning provocatively, made a point of dramatizing the head-hunting aspect of Dayak culture (some bands were also cannibals).
Of course, by the time of my visit they had TV in their longhouses, although I did spy a few skulls weathered to silver-grey and nailed high above the inside of one smoke-darkened doorway. But they've apparently learned that it's preferable not to eat outsiders, but rather host them for dinner and put them up for the night for a small stipend.
That night, we sat down to dinner consisting of a small pot of rice with - ta-da, because of my presence - one 4-oz tin of sardines in tomato sauce split amongst the six of us. If this was a feast in the chief's house, it was easy to picture how alluring a tender upper arm might be.
Soylent Green makes for great entertainment on a long winter's night. The retro sets and costumes along with Edward G. Robinson's sweet portrayal of Sol Roth, are a bonus. Sol actually remembers eating real food, such as beef and fresh tomatoes, and to help his cop-partner, played by Charlton Heston, track down the bad guys he uses - gasp! - real books. The film wrapped only two weeks before Robinson died.
You can rent Soylent Green from Videomatica on West 4th Avenue in Vancouver. Or, if you like owning things, you can buy it on-line at Amazon.com.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who is open to all possibilities.