Food wasn’t high on the list of
difficulties to tackle for a series of books about people from the sea,
with at least half the action taking place deep underwater. If I divided
up my world-building time for the Seaborn books more than half of it
would go to undersea combat and the kinds of powers, “bleeds”, magic,
breathing, as well as sorting out their limitations, how they are passed
to children, and other details. Most of the other half was in cultural
development, cities, history, interaction with the surface, social
structure, why a people who are apparently successful have such a low
population—in the millions.
But food proved to be more difficult than combat. Even if there’s magic involved in making things work in a fight, it can be applied to the weapon once. Everyone in battle-space doesn’t need to perform something crazy three times a day in order to sustain their strength and stop their tummies rumbling. Right off the bat I imagined—given their technology and powers—you could reduce friction and drag in the water for edged weapons and bolts from crossbows, and spearguns, so that battles didn’t look like thousands of free-falling astronauts spinning and fumbling in slow motion, taking mad swings at each other. And everyone looking stupid rather than dangerous or fierce.
Food wasn’t as easy to figure out. On the surface, Kassandra—the main character—can go to Starbucks or stop in for sushi and sashimi at Shizuko’s in Hampton. She was raised on the surface, but when she gets underwater and sees what the seaborn have out for what appears to be an edible arrangement, she’s disgusted by it. No potato chips, no bagels, no coffee. Just these little lumps or wrapped packages of something she has no need to try.
Raw fish, sliced and presented neatly, was an obvious choice because it didn’t require cooking and you could eat it with fingers—it worked underwater. But it was too obvious, too simple, and they can’t live on raw fish alone. In a typical surface kitchen you turn on the stove, you heat water, you make some pasta. In another pot you’re making a sauce. You serve it onto plates and you eat with forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks, sporks, fingers. Easy. In the deep ocean where the seaborn live I was looking at extreme temperatures, complete darkness, with most of the abyss cold, and water around hydrothermal vents reaching 800 F/426 C and NOT boiling because of the immense pressure. I had plumbing in seaborn cities to pipe this water and heat anywhere I wanted, but how do you cook with it? Food wrapped in ceramic containers, leaves? Where do those come from? Firing and glazing clay sounds difficult underwater. The seaborn have light—can make it—and so they can grow seaweeds, hundred-foot tall macrocystis—the large kelp forests you always see in video off the coast of California. Leaves were in, and they’re entirely plausible because that’s a common enough method for cooking on the surface, with food wrapped and steamed inside cabbage leaves, grape leaves, and others. Fish was clearly a center course—cooked or not, with many options for vegetable-like dishes.
I didn’t take eating much further than this in the three books because food didn’t play enough of a role in the plot, but it surprised me how much trouble it caused—more than breathing underwater, pressure, darkness, and combat, all of which could be handled with sufficient technology—or magic. Looking back, I wish I had given eating—especially the social aspect of gathering around food and drink—more thought. My logic went something like dolphins don’t know thirst and they don’t drink anything their entire lives, so why would the seaborn? I went with a limited approach to developing their eating conventions and left it at that—with some jabs by Kassandra and others about how unappealing their food was.
Overall it was the complexity around something as simple as what do you eat underwater that got me. The ocean’s a complex environment made up of many layered environments, and many are radically different meters apart. And stories set there have to deal with the environment. Even with something as complex as underwater acoustics, with negative thermoclines and capacity for changing over long distances I just had to do my research and let it play. Sound travels almost five times faster underwater than it does through the air, but apparently there’s no fast food in the deep. At least I didn’t find any.