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Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap
In many near-future dystopian
science fiction settings, prices on some items, particularly natural things created by natural processes, are quite high, as opposed to mass-produced via synthetic processes. This is particularly the case if the setting is specifically shown to be one of severe environmental degradation
, where agriculture is difficult or natural agricultural products unsafe, or where most natural-born animals are extinct. People just take it for granted that certain things are not to be had for regular folks, or that if they are, they're grown in batches in laboratories, or in the case of animals, they may be machines designed to look like the real thing.
Can be written off as Artistic License - Biology
, if it's not justified by pollution or disease having reduced the remaining real organisms' fertility. Making more of themselves is something that living things tend to be pretty good at, after all. For agricultural products, it may be explained by an economy of scale — once most people switch to the cheaper synthetic product, the real thing becomes even more
expensive because it's made in smaller quantities.
This trope typically occurs when one character encounters an object, usually food or an animal, and questions the owner about it. They may ask "Is this real?" to which the owner of a synthetic item/cloned animal replies "Of course not." Or if the character is meant to be fabulously wealthy, or only the best will do, and the item is natural it could be "Of course."
See also Future Food Is Artificial
, Common Place Rare
, Black Market Produce
. A counterpart is Worthless Yellow Rocks
; both can exist in the same work.
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Anime and Manga
- In Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Togusa asks Batou if his basset hound is a clone, remarking that the real thing (as though a clone is any less real) is expensive. (Batou also feeds his dog real food, but this is not presented as an issue of cost, but one of taste.) Ghost in the Shell is set in a world recovering from war, not (demonstrably) one with a thoroughly devastated environment, however, so the trope borders on cliche here.
- Of course in a world where cybernetics and androids are so plentiful, it could be that some people keep robotic pets that don't have the living and training needs of a real live one.
- In the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series, the robotic Tachikomas regard all-natural motor oil as a real treat, much better than synthetic oil. Batou treating "his" Tachikoma differently from the rest, by regularly treating it to natural oil, is a catalyst for the robots developing individuality and self-awareness. That and the anomolies caused by the oil corroding part of its circuitboard.
- In one episode of The Big O, pet animals are in fact so rare that everyone is quite shocked when Dorothy finds a cat. The owners come and take it back despite how attached Dorothy has gotten because it's really their son. A mad scientist turns people into animals because they're so incredibly rare. Or something. Later, it gets turned into a giant monster. They're that rare, apparently.
- In Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0, this trope is played straight when the kids get shown a giant aquarium where specimens of pre-2nd impact sealife are preserved. Rei muses that they are the same as her and can't live outside this sheltered environment. Also, the fact that synthetic meat is the norm. The sheer dissonance between the kid's bewilderment at their first time seeing sealife, and Kaji and Misato's painful memories of the 2nd impact (Misato did not want to come because she would remember the event; Kaji wanted the kids to know what life was before 2nd impact), makes for a very dramatic moment as the viewer realizes this trope is in full effect. Slice of life AND backstory exposition, AND character drama all rolled into one.
- Also in the series, Misato thinks that buying the EVA pilots a steak dinner would bankrupt her. Realising this they take her to a fast food place instead.
- In Clover, one character owns an organic cat but disguises it as a robot so people won't steal it.
- In Voltaire's Chi-Chian series, there is a story of a blind pleasure-robot. Her eyes were stolen because they were made of the most valuable substance on the planet - pure wood. Yes, wood. It's Chi-Chian. Just go with it.
- The vast majority, if not all, of food in Judge Dredd falls into one of three categories: Animals that we would not normally consider food like rat, as most domestic animals seem to be extinct, extremely mutated plants (this is the source of most meat) that can grow in the toxic environment of cursed earth or made entirely of chemicals.
- An early example of this is in Soylent Green, where one character is excited about having "hundred and fifty bucks a jar of strawberries."
- In Blade Runner, the planet's deteriorating condition has killed off most large animals, causing people to keep synthetic pets.
- One interesting and sometimes overlooked facet of the Voigt-Kampf test (which is used to reveal replicants) is that most of the scenarios described in it concern animal cruelty. (For example, turning a turtle upside down.) As the V-K test measures emotional responses, the implication is that cruelty to animals is considered especially atrocious.
- In Mamoru Oshii's Avalon, the wealthy (compared to the abject poverty of her fellow players) Ash feeds her dog quality food, as contrasted to the gruel that her peers survive on.
- The Matrix has elements of this, and all the food that isn't gruel is virtual.
- An Expanded Universe comic has it that in the early days of Zion, a group of its citizens got together to raid a supply of genetically engineered grain, cultivate it (using UV emmitted by the Machines' power lines), and make flour and bread from it. The bread became a delicacy in spite of its low quality. After the Machines destroyed the crops and killed all the farmers, Zion had enough stored grain left to continue making bread to be consumed at a once-a-year ceremony, which lasted at least as far as the time of Morpheus.
- Which is why, in Reloaded, some Zionites give Neo bread as a sign of admiration. It's the equivalent of giving him gold, frankincense and myrrh.
- In the distant galaxy of Kin-Dza-Dza, one of the transplanted Earthlings discovers that the wooden matchsticks he's carrying in his pocket are actually the most valuable things in the system, as every last scrap of naturally-occurring organic or mineral material had long since been converted into one kind of fuel or another. Water is bought by the drop, and food is made of plastic.
- In Waterworld, potted plants and the soil to grow them in are considered valuable trade goods, as are non-sea-derived materials such as paper.
- In Demolition Man, society is entirely vegetarian. When they visit the 'scrap' society, he eagerly eats a hamburger. It's not beef... but at least it's not human. It's actually rat. He doesn't care and keeps on eating. He even says it's the best burger he's had in years. (Then again, it's the only burger he's had in years, having spent the last 30 of them in cryogenic stasis)
- German sci-fi movie Sturzflieger. At the end, the protagonists grow rich when they discover a store room full of chicks (not as in The Chick).
- Inverted in Zombieland, where the drive of one of the main characters is to find a stash of Twinkies. After all, plants still grow after a zombie apocalypse, but with the Hostess kitchen shut down, snack cakes become an endangered species.
- In The Adventures of Pluto Nash, the events of the film take place on the Moon. Certain items are hard to come by on the Moon and aren't cheap to have delivered from Earth, the most commonly-mentioned being wood (not the stuff used in cheap Real Life furniture, but actual wood). At one point, a mobster is mentioned by someone to have had a briefcase made of genuine alligator skin. Naturally, this immediately outed him as an Earther.
- Kaylee eating a strawberry in the Firefly pilot. It was orgasmic.
- Later Jayne buys a bushel of apples and everybody reacts to this as an amazing treat and question his motives.
- On many of the planets, fresh fruit is usually available, but isn't the most practical to carry on a spaceship. Simon mentions that the food on a spaceship is considerably worse than planetside.
- And the goods in the pilot episode seemed to be gold bars at first, but they were eventually revealed to be food wrapped in gold-colored foil.
- This may be less of an SF trope nod and more of a reference to historical piracy and smuggling. In the golden age of sail, for instance, molasses was probably the most common booty cargo.
- Another easy to miss example is the apple-peeling machine on Badger's desk in the pilot. On first glance it's just a weird instrument, but in the light of this trope and Badger's character, it becomes apparent that it's one of his ways to demonstrate his higher status.
- In an inorganic variant, a bandit chieftain in the story The Creature from the Pit from the original series of Doctor Who was once seen to wax rhapsodic about the amazing treasures his group has stolen: precious items of iron, zinc, and even nickel! Needless to say, this scene takes place on a metal-poor planet, where only members of the elite who got them by robbing and betraying an inoffensive alien ambassador can boast such prizes.
- Not to mention his Famous Last Words after being stabbed: "Tempered steel...is that really...tempered steel?"
- In The SunMakers, Gatherer Hade is shown to be one of the richest members of the evil company that controls a dystopian society on Pluto by his having a desk made of real mahogany. The member of the oppressed underclass who admires it has only seen a picture of a tree, and even the Gatherer himself mispronounces it "ma-ho-ga-ny". Later, he offers the Doctor a raspberry leaf as a rare treat.
- The environment is fine in Babylon 5, but space travel is still expensive and the eponymous space station is too far from Earth to ship much food out. They've got a positively huge hydroponic farm, but it only grows "essential foods"... and Takashima's (later Ivanova's) illicit coffee plants. Even for the command staff, a shipment of real eggs is seen as an amazing luxury. At least they're not on a warship; one of the first things Captain Sheridan says when he arrives is, "Do you have real showers here?". Babylon 5 also grows oranges and nectarines. Steak is rare, though the medical staff can apparently fudge the paperwork to import one for "research". A meat product known as "spoo" is readily available, but it costs 15 credits an ounce.
- The price and difficulty of importing foods is highlighted in one second-season episode when Garibaldi tries to obtain certain Italian ingredients for a birthday treat.
- A deleted scene in Battlestar Galactica mentions that the meat locker is the most heavily guarded area on a spaceship because the last remaining steaks, burger, fritters, etc, in the universe are there. Later in the series we see the fleet is reduced to eating algae-derived food, and fruit and cigars are valuable black market commodities.
- Stargate SG-1 has an odd example. A Big Eater Goa'uld is unfamiliar with and can easily be bribed by foods he's never heard of... like chicken and turkey. We don't know much about the ecology of most planets in the galaxy, but apparently the Transplanted Humans that make up 90 percent of all aliens didn't take any fowl with them.
- In the second episode of Black Mirror all physical items are a sign of opulence. The every day man can only purchase digital goods for his virtual avatar and the food is all grown in a lab. When the main character manages to become a famous TV star he splashes out and buys a real wooden penguin.
- In Paranoia real food, as with everything, is distributed according to security clearance. Infrareds get nothing, Reds get real food as a reward, and so on up; it isn't until Blue that a clone gets nothing but real food.
- In Shadowrun, the in-character "shadowtalk" interspersed through the sourcebooks occasionally contains remarks like "I've never once had a real steak". Everyone but the ultra-rich evidently lives on cultured fungal protein and krill. Synthetic leather and tobacco products are also standard, as is "soycaf" instead of coffee.
- Inadvertently gets a laugh in the Tir Tairngire sourcebook, also from Shadowrun, when it's mentioned that the elves have somehow re-created extinct species for their wilderness areas. It's funny in that both of the named species, grizzly bears and gray wolves, are not only still alive and well today without any magical or cloning assistance, but they would have had to go extinct, all over the world and also in captivity, in less than a decade after the supplement was published, in order to meet the timeline suggested for their "extinction".
- Also, depending on wording, it's unlikely that the species Canis lupus ever went extinct in captivity, unless the setting is also completely devoid of dogs, since technically domestic dogs are a subspecies of gray wolves. (To be fair, the reclassification of Canis domesticus was fairly recent, and after thousands of generations of human-controlled breeding, dogs no longer look or act much like their wild cousins. Still, they are interfertile and are currently considered the same species.)
- Taken to the point that a Running Gag was to mention things like Imitation Cheese Substitute.
- Fourth Edition cuts back considerably on this. Sure, your average shadowrunner is still subsisting mostly on soy, but you can still find most of what you'd see in RL 2011 in the shops of Shadowrun 2070 for not much more than the equivalent price. It's just that most shadowrunners are in a state of Perpetual Poverty.
- In past editions of Dungeons & Dragons which include the Elemental Plane of Air in their cosmology, dirt is considered a valuable commodity on that plane, as it's made up of gas-filled space. Anyone who wants to build a floating castle must either import some dirt to build it on, or (more cheaply) use magic to solidifly a cloud for a foundation.
- In the Mystara D&D supplement "The Shadow Elves", the subterranean elf city's grandest and most-admired public avenue is lined by a dozen or so small trees, grown from precious cuttings brought down from the legendary surface and provided for with fertilizer and artificial lights. Elven tourists come hundreds of miles through twisted tunnels and caverns just to see them.
- Eclipse Phase takes place after a hurried evacuation of Earth and colonization of the rest of the solar system. Naturally grown food, especially meat, is expensive due to the shortage of inhabitable space, but culture vats and nanofabricators can produce substitutes that only snobs can tell the difference from. Now organic bodies, those are expensive because they take three years to grow and there's a lot of demand from the billions of Virtual Ghosts in storage, while most Synthmorphs can be printed out in a matter of hours.
- In the Video Game tie-in to the Blade Runner movie, the player character Ray has an artificial dog named Maggie you can play with Genre Savvy players probably realize it'll lead to a heart-rending Player Punch later, and the crime Ray was initially investigating involves the slaughter of several real animals including a rare tiger. Then it gets complicated: the shop owner was selling fakes but fudging records and tests so they were considered 'true' (and more expensive) animals
- It's noted in the game and novel that animal life is held in higher regard then humans — considering Crystal's reaction is nearly identical to walking in on a murder of a child.
- There is also a point in the game where McCoy mentions that cheese is a black market item, who's illegal distribution evidently comes with jail time.
- In Xenosaga, we view one of Ziggy's memories in which he gives his son a robotic dog as a pet, as he was regretfully unable to obtain a real one.
- BioShock. The city of Rapture, being entirely underwater, does not contain enough farmland for growing nonessential crops or raising cattle, so real beef and tobacco aren't available except through Fontaine's smuggling operation. Somehow, Rapture's scientists have managed to synthesize both from what they do have on hand, which seems to be mainly sea life, and it's implied that customers generally don't mind.
- Since the sun will turn anyone without proper protection into stone in Digital Devil Saga 2, this makes any plants you find quite valuable.
- In Rise Of The Dragon, set in the distant future, Blade Hunter must calm down his angry girlfriend by giving her flowers. To do this, he spends $200 plus tax to buy "Organically Grown Roses."
- Shadowrun Returns: In Dragonfall Altug sells real Turkish coffee for 50 nuyen a pop at his café, as opposed to soykaf at 5 nuyen. He explains that it is a special blend which even in a time when "real" coffee was everywhere would be considered a rare delicacy.
- Freefall takes place on a planet being Terraformed, so organics are worth considerably more than gold or diamonds.
- Sam once remarks that if interstellar travel weren't so expensive he could become very rich trading trash between Jean and his primitive homeworld.
- Real Life plays this completely straight with synthetic gemstones, which are completely identical to the natural stone chemically and have the same optics. One can buy several pounds of artificially created sapphires, emeralds, or rubies for the price of a single carat of the natural stuff, even though the natural one will actually be cloudier and less brilliant than the synthetics. Averted with diamonds, which have to be formed under such titanic pressure and heat that manufacturing them is highly expensive, thus synthetic diamonds cost about as much as natural ones.
- Free range or organic foods tend to be more expensive and luxurious then the industrial kind.
- Wild-caught fish and shellfish and tend to be far more expensive than farmed. Same applies for hunted game, which is more expensive than farmed.
- Russian sturgeon caviar. Some centuries ago, it was just a byproduct of fishing. Now it is VERY expensive to the point of being illegal and restricted, because sturgeon is close to extinction.
- There is an old Polish recipe for sauerkraut and caviar. That's right, people used caviar to season sauerkraut!
- Not quite on the same level as caviar, but the demand that the employer not feed them salmon more than two times a week was fairly standard for hired hands seeking employment in XVIII century Russia.
- When your great grandma was young fried sturgeon and catfish were listed as a cheap Friday dinner for seasonal labourers. Now good luck finding any of them in other place than the most expensive fish shops.
- Before XIX century lobsters, oysters and basically all kind of seafood used to be cheap meal for inhabitants of the coasts. Development of the railway allowed to import them fresh to inland cities where they acquired status of high-class gourment food.
- They say that Louis XIV used to have a cavalry regiment meant exclusively for bringing him fresh fish.
- In Jack London's stories set in the Yukon, salmon is mentioned repeatedly as mainly fit to be sled dog food, while actual settlers and Gold Rush pioneers pay exorbitant prices in hard-dug gold for any non-locally manufactured food such as eggs.
- In the U.S. lobster used to be a poor man's food (see The Other Wiki) until it was possible to ship it to urban centres, where it became a delicacy. Cod and red-fleshed bluefin tuna are going the same way nowadays due to overfishing.
- Back in the 19th century there was a rule in most prisons not to feed lobster to the prisoners more than a few times a week, since it was considered cruel towards them.
- Although, being the 19th century, this probably refers to the furry old lobster rather than the one we know now.
- Cod is already a delicacy in Brazil, where it is highly sought after for traditional portuguese dishes. Decades ago, it was the cheapest meat available.
- Speaking of tuna, sushi and sashimi were the Japanese equivalent of fast food sliced fast (the most basic form, "nigiri-zushi", is raw fish over cooked vinegared rice, but the raw fish used such as tuna is recognized for very low parasite content, and with wasabi used for additional antimicrobial properties). Nowadays, sushi is considered fancy food, and auctions are held for who gets to eat bluefin tuna sashimi first, even reaching $1.7 million!
- Similarly, oysters were once the food of the poor in Britain (though still considered a treat). Noah Claypole the "charity-boy" in Oliver Twist eats a large quantity.
- In the first year or two after a new species or strain of livestock comes into demand, they can be temporarily hard to come by, as their owners prefer breeding their stock for future profits over selling them now. For example, when llamas first began to see use as sheep-guards and environmentally-friendly pack animals in the United States, only gelded males were available for these purposes: breeding animals cost far too much. Ditto for exotic pets.
- Thomas Edison once declared that, "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles", and he saw that future coming thanks in part to his arch-rival. Whilst the latter half of this boast hasn't entirely come true (generic candles are fairly cheap), it is indeed much cheaper to run a light-bulb that produces the same amount of light as an equivalent candle for the same amount of time as that candle can burn for, even if you factor in the cost of the globe itself (as it can probably continue alongside hundreds of successive candles before burning out).
- Unless you're using batteries. Especially the non-rechargeable ones.
- As the standard of living in the Developed world has risen since the middle of the 20th century the cost of labor intensive products have risen dramatically to support this standard, while technology improvement has made the cost of products that can be mass produced fall dramatically. The result is that products once made by skilled craftsmen are now virtually unobtainable, while anything produced by machines are often so cheap to be completely disposable.
- For babies in the developed world, breast milk. It means the mother is either rich enough not to work outside the home or has a good job that gives her maternity leave.
- And on the other side of the trope: Vitamin enriched puffed soy cakes? USD4.50 for a 6"x14" cylinder. Available flavors include cheese, bacon, chocolate, and probably half a dozen others (including something that probably shouldn't have used green food colouring [?])
- An inversion is the price of meat. Until relatively recently, meat, especially red meat, was something most people would only have rarely if their farm animals died (it was more worthwhile to keep the animals alive for milk, eggs, wool to be produced consistently). Only the wealthy could afford to eat meat regularly, until mass farming became common lowering the price of meat, although the price may go up again as demand increases.
- In Anne of Green Gables chicken were served as a special meal for important guests and "eating chicken with salad everyday" was a part of imagined upper-class life listed among diamond jewellery and silk dresses.
- Herbert Hoover used "A chicken in every pot" ("and a car in every garage") as an advertising slogan in the 1928 U.S. Presidential campaign. Rather ironic, considering how the Hoover administration turned out. The original sentiment goes all the way back to Henry IV of France, who wrote "I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot on Sunday"