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Tea of the Future: How Science Fiction Sees It

By far the best-known quote about tea comes from science fiction. It is, of course, from Jean Luc Picard, the sophisticated French captain of Starship Enterprise: “Tea. Lapsang Souchong. Hot.” Well, that’s what it was intended to be. Of course, it got changed to “Earl Grey. Hot.”

Patrick Stewart, the elegant Brit who plays Picard, wanted a special tea but the producer of Star Trek New Generation changed it because today’s Earthlings would not have heard of Lapsang but even non-tea drinkers recognize Earl Grey. The Replicator obviously couldn’t care what the tea is, but did need the instruction “Hot.” The first time, it had to ask, as if anyone drank tea cold. It also served up a cup of potted flower, indicating an alien virus in the Enterprise’s systems.

A replicator is also central to the best of all quotes about future tea, most of which sound like practice runs for Valentine’s Day cards: mush, gnomic Chinese proverbs, pompous piffle, and poetaster twaddle: “A cup of tea is a cup of peace”, “Water is the mother of tea, the teapot its father, and fire its teacher”, “The Truth lies in a bowl of tea” or “If a man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.” None of these seem apposite to a wake up bag of English Breakfast to fuel the day’s coming commuting battles.

Try this decidedly non-reverential one, instead. It’s from what used to be viewed as a fantasy of sublime unreality and convoluted humor: Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s now even more relevant as a sensible and serious guide to politics in 2017. The two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox and Slatribartfast are among the characters who seem remarkably like surrogates, press aides and commentators on cable TV. Fake news and science fiction seem a natural pairing.

All that the Hitchhiker hero Arthur wants after the destruction of his planet (by an alien construction crew, mistakenly as part of a hyperspace bypass project) is a real cup of tea. His journey is a little complicated and distinctly weird. Tea represents normality for Arthur. It makes him feel good. Here he is instructing the Nutro-Matric to make him one:

“He told it about India, he told it about China, he told it about Ceylon. He told it about broad leaves drying in the sun. He told it about summer afternoons on the lawn. He told it about putting the milk in before the tea so it wouldn’t get scalded…

“So that’s it, is it” said the Nutro-Matic when he had finished.

“Yes, said Arthur. “That is what I want.”

“You want the taste of dried leaves boiled in water?”

“Er, yes. With milk.”

“Squirted out of a cow?”

“Well in a manner of speaking, I suppose.”

“I’m going to need some help with this one.”

That somehow places tea in context: a Holy Grail of galactic search and dried leaves plus squirting cows. And automation, of course.  

The Replicator/Nutro-Matric is critical for tea in space, where there are no water, seasons and soil available for growing it. It has to be “made.” Intriguingly, a key event in making that possible was announced very recently, in May 2017. This is the decoding of the tea genome, which a replicator would need as its blueprint. It took five years to work out the genetic coding, which is highly unusual. It comprises just over three billion base pairs, four times the length of the coffee genome. The main surprise is that it is a cut-and-paste job, with hundreds of thousands of redundant and replicated strings scattered along the chain.

These “retrotransposons” (a neat term to disarm any tea zealot going on about green tea apigenins and luteolins) seem to reflect the adaptive evolution of the tea plant to terrain, climate and cultivation that have spread its growth across the world. It was started in India (most probably), exploited in China, carried to Korea and Japan and smuggled into India, transplanted to Ceylon, nurtured in Russia, smuggled into Iran, and now beginning to thrive in Hawaii.

So, maybe the genome will become Radchaii tea, a core element in the superb Imperial Radch series of novels by Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice, Sword and Mercy) or the Tarine tea in Star Wars films, novels and TV programs, that was served on many planetary systems including Christophsis and Lothal, or in Bas-Hon’s teahouse on Voss in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Alderaan’s population were heavy tea drinkers, but the planet was the first demo destruction by the Death Star and left as a lifeless debris of asteroids.

On planets, tea could grow on bushes and in soil. Purists, including Captain Picard, would expect this to be a variant of the highly adaptive camellia sinsensis plant from which all true teas are made – true in the sense that they share a common chemical base including caffeine, polyphenols, flavonoids, catechins and other molecular combinations.

On earth, many herbal “teas” are made from roobios, the South African honeybush. Sci fi teas similarly grow on many unknown plants. Pre Vizla, the Clone Wars leader of the Mandalorian Death Watch, drank – will drink – tea made from florets off the cassius tree, which he regarded as good for his health. It’s almost certain that tea growers of the future will exploit genetic modification of the genome, but the origins of mudleaf tea, Calamarian C-tea, chav, doxxen and karlini have been lost in the far distant future. (That sentence sorta makes sense.)

The key to a true tea culture will always be water and stable agriculture. In most post-apocalypse dystopias, there is neither of these. If you close your eyes and bring to mind vistas from your favorite sci-fi movies, they will largely be deserts and rocks.

The typical Drink of the Future in such neighborhoods seems to be highly narcotic, mind-bending and very powerful. Tea is not served in the typical bars, such as the haunt in Star Wars where Han Solo deep sixes the bounty hunter. There isn’t a single teahouse in Mad Max. Tea is commonplace only in lands of greenery and streams.

tea of the future_inset

In Hunger Games, Katniss and her family relied on pine tea needle and glorious memories of mint tea. Yoda thrived on his tart local tea and, as in ancient history, makes it a ceremony —  high tea in Dagobah, a planet of marshes and swamps: “Come sit with me, Obi-Wan. Drink yarba tea and we shall talk.”

It seems ironic that tea in the future seems to have retreated to its past. It began as a luxury of the aristocracy and a perquisite of the autocrat. Chinese Emperors had monopoly rights on tribute teas. Tea was central to the arts of the Tang dynasty royal courts. The Japanese samurai were tea connoisseurs and the tea ceremony their formal pre-slaughter routine.

It stood for the best of its times: poetry, peace, hospitality, music, and painting. The greatest of all Chinese poets, the 11th century Li Quingzhao, wrote in her memoir of poetry contests with her cherished husband: “Whenever I got it right, I would raise the teacup, laughing so hard that the tea would spill in my lap… I would have been glad to grow old in such a world.”

Over time, tea was more and more democratized, first through the Quaker businesses whose ethics placed a very high premium on doing good while making money. Mary Tuke, the “Queen of confectionery” in early 18th century England and the first major retailer, established a reputation for quality missing in the mass adulteration of tea. John Horniman transformed tea by introducing machines to fill and seal tea packets; his explicit goal was to bring good tea to the poor. He built the world’s largest tea business; Frederich Nietzche spoke of this being his favorite tea. Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree were other Quaker businesses that democratized chocolate. The Tetley brothers and Thomas Lipton continued the path from luxury to consumer good.

But back in the future, it’s back to being a luxury and very much confined to nobility. Part of this was nostalgia for old traditions, and back to the ethos of Li Quingzhao, the Japanese tea ceremony and tea as a social grace. In Ann Reckie’s books and in the Foreigners series that her work is partly a homage to, by C.J. Cherryh, it’s a core building block of society.

Leckie states that “If there was anything a Radchaii considered essential for civilized life, it was tea.” It bound together the colonies that the ruthless Radchaii tyrannized. In Cherryh’s eighteen book Foreigners sequence, it is the organizing mechanism for bureaucracy, negotiations among the competing clans and for managing alien first contacts and cultural conflicts. It’s the glue that binds a universe.

By far the most dazzling use of tea in this sci fi perspective of the future as Empire is the Finnish writer Emmi Intarata’s Memory of Water. Her future Scandinavian Union is occupied by the Chinese state of New Qjan. Water is scarce to the degree that wars are fought over it, after the melting of the Arctic ice packs and climate collapse. Access is entirely limited to the military command. Tea masters alone know the location of hidden water resources.

The heroine, Noria, is training to be a tea master, a privileged and inherited position. She discovers the secret spring that once fed her now poverty-ridden village. That knowledge is power and she must decide how to use it. It’s a complicated plot around one of the eternal themes of science fiction: survival and rebellion in societies where advanced alien rulers reduce the native population to serfs and ciphers. It’s also wonderfully lyrical, using the traditions and nostalgia of tea to reinforce and contrast the brutality and bleakness of the society.

There is plenty of trivia about tea elsewhere across sci fi. In George Orwell’s 1984, “real” tea and coffee are the privilege of the Inner Party; one of the most tender scenes is built around Julia’s buying a small packet on the black market: it’s real tea – not blackberry leaves…” The Daleks in Dr. Who may have originated as office tea server robots. The most interesting visual elements in Star Trek are Picard’s very varied choice of tea ware, ranging from basic black mug to Ikea 2045 functional tea set, the white Cube teapot, an early 20th century design well suited to ships, a version of the even older British Brown Betty and the superb porcelain ultramodern design that you can buy down here for $300, with no transporter needed.

In Battlestar Galactica, Laura Roslin hides the recurrence of her cancer which is spotted by Lee Adama sensing something unusual in how she drinks her tea, which is revealed at Baltar’s trial as containing a hallucinogen, not chamomile. The biggest tea blunder, ironically, is in the longest-running and most British of sci fi television series Dr. Who, where Dr #10 asininely enthuses “Tea! That’s all I needed? A good cup of tea! Super-heated infusion of free radicals and tannin, just the thing for healing the synapses.”

Free radicals are the problem, of course, not the answer. They are the unstable cells that the antioxidant polythenols in tea are believed to attack. This line matches the famous claim by Han Solo of making the Kessel Run trip in 12 parsecs. A parsec is a unit of length, not speed: 3.28 light years, 31 trillion kilometers or 19 trillion miles.

But science fiction is not really about science or forecasting. It’s stories that at their best make you think about today in a new light, create realities from even the wildest premises and take you out of this world.

With that in mind, this talk of tea concludes with the strong recommendation of Leckie’s space opera Radch trilogy because it’s great space opera and wonderfully weird in its handling of what is gender – and when – and what is “I” in a ship’s mother brain linked to ancillary personalities and corpse soldiers. Leckie also is very knowledgeable about tea and uses it to build a totally convincing backdrop.

Cherryh is an under-read genius of superb anthropological slant and Foreigners is a summer’s worth of terrific reads. Intarata is more complex, slow and understated; her work is very substantive.

Add to these the emerging Chinese and Korean novelists for whom tea is incidental but pervasive: Ciu Lixin, whose trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past stands out as one of the best and most way out narratives since Cordwainer Smith’s great, great Rediscovery of Man Instrumentality stories. When Lixin writes about tea he fuses so many elements of mood and memory: of a woman preparing a tea ceremony he speaks of her “caressing time.” “Time turned malleable and meandered slowly, like the fog that drifted through the bamboo groves…”

Top all this off with Yoon Ha Lee’s novel Ninefox Gambit and short story collection Conservation of Shadows. Tea, ritual, war and shadow worlds fuse in his universe where mathematical systems establish the parameters of shifting realities. It’s poetic and laconic.

Of course, you need the right teas to go with the reading. White teas seem most suited – subtlety of taste and aroma for works of such texture, enigma and imaginative breadth of words.

And you can always say “I’ll drink what he’s drinking when you rewatch Star Trek and enjoy some Lapsang Souchong: pine-smoked, rich black tea redolent with body and aroma.

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

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