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The spice must flow.
Dune

Space Is an Ocean for all science fiction and it shows with two dimensional space and Space Whales. So what do we need to complete the trope?

Spices. Space spices.

For some reason, all kinds of futures have a high demand for something called "spice", though it tends to be only tenuously related to flavorings on Earth. Space spice (try saying that ten times fast) is often a valuable Mineral MacGuffin, sometimes being the point of contention for all the known nations and smugglers. Sometimes controlling it is directly followed by controlling fates. In other futures, spice is just a valuable trade commodity. It is nearly always consumable but, depending on the canon, can do other things, such as fuel starships and act as drugs.

This trope probably derives from the East Asian spice trade in the early modern era. These spices were enormously valuable in their day. For example, the cargo of cloves carried by the one ship of Magellan's that made it back reimbursed his backers for the entire cost of the expedition. The idea of a rare, extremely valuable product that cannot be synthesized artificially (along with reasonably Casual Interstellar Travel), serves as a justification for otherwise economically dubious interstellar trade, which is a necessary background for many standard Space Opera tropes such as independent traders, merchant princes, smugglers, pirates, trade convoys and so on.

Also see Alien Catnip.

Examples of Spice of Life include:


Comicbooks


Film

  • In Star Wars, Han Solo is in debt to Jabba the Hutt due to destroying a shipment of spice he was supposed to be transporting for him to keep it from being seized by The Empire. His spice was apparently some kind of drug.
  • In Poul Anderson's Technic History, Nick van Rijn heads the Solar Spice and Liquors Company. Of course, Old Nick has his pudgy (but very strong) fingers in a lot of other profitable endeavors, as well.
  • Ordinary ginger turns out to be an addictive drug and aphrodisiac to the reptilian Race in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series. The setting isn't Space Opera, but trade ends up developing fast.


Literature

  • Dune, the Trope Maker. Melange is produced only by the sandworms of Arrakis, making the planet the most strategically important planet in the galaxy. The spice gives various psychic organizations their abilities, and, as the page quote indicates, is necessary for the setting's manual FTL travel. Since it also extends life somewhat, nearly the entire ruling class is addicted to it. And withdrawal is fatal. Painfully. Critics generally see the spice as a metaphor for oil, making the Fremen Space Arabs.
  • Star Wars Expanded Universe. Several versions of spice exist, and many, but by no means all, are mined.
    • The most expensive and worst comes from the "spice mines of Kessel" mentioned by Threepio and later seen in the Jedi Academy Trilogy, where it turns out Giant Spiders spin it out in their webs. This stuff, Glitterstim, grants one short-lived telepathic powers if it's pure. Downsides? "Spice mania" as in berserk rage and potentially blindness. Han dumped a cargo of this into space, circled back later to pick it up. Not there.
    • In the X Wing Series, the Rogues have to talk a glitbiter -- someone who regularly takes glitterstim and shows it - via hologram, and the glitbiter apparently forgets that he's using a hologram. Glitterstim telepathy doesn't work on someone who's aware of the glitbiter's ability and hostile, so because this guy couldn't read Rogue Leader, he got defensive.


Live Action TV

  • The 1984 Doctor Who serial "The Caves of Androzani" featured a textbook example ("spectrox", a life-prolonging substance), with the added twist that the unrefined stuff was extremely toxic.
  • In Firefly, regular spices are prized as much as they were in olden times due to the bland flavor of packaged protein that most space crews eat. Shepherd Book notes, "A man can live on packaged food from here 'til Judgment Day if he's got enough rosemary."


Video Games

  • Most 4X space games will have spice as a very expensive resource to buy and sell.
  • In Spore, most of the stuff you trade for sporebucks in the space stage is Spice, in various colors and ranks of rarity. The homage to Dune is obvious, down to the spice blows, although the Sporepedia states that most of the spices are used for food.
    • Additionally, the different colors of Spice from different worlds change the speech of the colonist's you put there, and although none of the creatures actually say anything identifiable, the tone and the accent is different. For example: Blue Spice, which is described as a sleep aid, results in colonist with a sort of smooth and relaxed tone. The sour Yellow Spice colonists sound somewhat high strung, and as for Pink Spice... Well, let's just say they sound ..."happy".
      • Only generally. Occasionally colonies, including the homeworld (99.9% of the time, red spice) will have different accents.
  • Starport, a obscure game in the vein of Star Control. Spice is seen as a resource that can produce valuable warp fuel for the player and earn some money. Obvious as a Shout-Out to Dune, desert planets produce this product.
  • The Space Captain Smith novel, God-Emperor of Didcot is by and large one long parody of Dune, with Tea taking the place of Melange. Yes, the brown stuff in a cup with milk and two sugars. Apparently it's what gives the British Space Empire the edge over everyone else.
    • Builds Moral Fibre, old boy. Very important.
  • Non-science fiction example: Spice in Sly Cooper is the equivalent of cocaine. Eating it causes the eater to enter an Unstoppable Rage. Arpeggio plans to use the rage caused by spice to fuel his transformation into something akin to Clockwerk.
  • In the Backstory of Sword of the Stars, spices are stated to be one of the main trade goods humans sell to the Hivers, along with smoked cheeses and other very fragrant foodstuffs. The Hivers have vastly different sensory organs and biochemical makeup than humans, and to them, strongly tasting and smelling food is something of a narcotic.
  • Quafe can be said to be Eve Online drug, despite it being a soda.
  • In Kingdom of Loathing, Spices are some of the most values mundane items. They are rather hard to come by unless you are farming for them, and they are a necessary ingredient for most high-quality foods. The only way to reliably get them is if you are a Pasatamancer with one of the two spirits that can give them.
  • Packaged spices are a Terran trade good in the X-Universe, under the name "Flavor Packs". The text describes actual spices like cinnamon and paprika.
    • On the Commonwealth side, we have Stott Spices and Massom Powder.
      • Between the 3 major spice selling powers however, Terran Spices are the most valuable of the flavorings. And the Split and Boron are at war with one to compete as the other dominant spice selling group.


Western Animation

  • Parodied in The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, as Future!Mandy uses her "cinnamon mines" to support her tyrannical regime.
    • The whole episode is a parody of Dune and it's sequels, with Mandy as an immortal giant-worm God Empress who has had thousands of Billy clones (one at a time) created over the years to serve as her constant companion and Unwitting Pawn in her Evil Plan.
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