Monday, April 5, 2010

Science Fiction and Sandwiches

Ah, the simplicity and ubiquity of the humble sandwich.

From lonely Arthur Dent, great sandwich maker and carver of Perfectly Normal Beasts on Lumella, to the famished Bilbo Baggins, longing not for bits of meat toasted on sticks but for a loaf and butter, the human longing for a sandwich knows no earthly nor metaphorical bounds.

Thus it is fitting that the intrepid voyagers in Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s “When Worlds Collide” should share sandwiches, wrapped in waxed paper, as they voyage from the destroyed earth to their new home on Bronson Beta in this classic 1930s Science Fiction novel.

I capitalize science fiction because this was the era of true sci fi, unaided by technology and fueled only by the promise of technology to come and the human imagination. Thus, the vision of sandwiches unaffected by gravity:

Their habit of relying upon the attractive force of the Earth resulted in an increasing number of mishaps, some of them amusing and some of them painful. After what seemed like eons of time someone asked Tony for more food. Tony himself could not remember whether he was going to serve the fifth meal or the sixth, but he sprang to his feet with earnest willingness – promptly shot clear to the ceiling, against which he bumped his head. He fell back to the floor with a jar and rose laughing. The ceiling was also padded, so that he had not hurt himself.

The sandwiches were wrapped in wax paper, and when some one on the edge of the crowd asked that his sandwich be tossed, Tony flipped it toward him, only to see it pass high over the mans’ head and entirely out of reach, and strike against the opposite wall. The man himself stretched to catch the wrapped sandwich, and sat down again rubbing his arm, saying that he had almost throng his shoulder out of joint.
What a joyful cacophony of images: Ordinary human being experiencing weightlessness for the first time, and sharing that weightlessness not with paste glopped onto a tray and scraped out with a spoon, but with sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. Maybe the authors appreciated the familiarity, the portability of the sandwich, recognizing that here is sustenance that can be manufactured in bulk using simple ingredients, ingredients that can be cooked beforehand and thus not require fancy, open-flamed preparation on a great space ship. Or maybe they just like sandwiches. Either way, bravo, gentlemen.

The rest of the book, too, is most excellent, with the ubiquitous love story only getting in the way marginally. Politically-correct folk will notice the treatment of the main character’s valet, referred to in innocent passing as a “Jap” and identified as “inscrutable.” He does not, however, supply the sandwiches, but the coffee, so perhaps that can be forgiven.

I think the Fourth Earl of Sandwich would be pleased that his namesake food item is a mainstay in science fiction.

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