A Pirate in the Kitchen

The news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in France came as a shock this morning.  And yet, somehow, it wasn’t beyond belief– he lived so intensely, so close to the edge, that it seemed almost a matter of time before some event in his life, even a minor one, would tip the scales.  Honestly, I’m glad not to be like that, but his intensity and edginess did serve as an inspiration to me in what I chose to write.

In the late 1990s, I was a mid-career physician with my eye on writing science fiction in retirement.  The books I was reading then were by authors such as Georges Perec, John Irving, William Gass, Jim Harrison and Jonathan Safran Foer.  One day, because of my love of cooking, I picked up Kitchen Confidential out of curiosity, and was immediately struck by Bourdain’s lurid stories of drug abuse, dropping out of college, alcohol addiction, brutal relationships, and the corrupt realities of the restaurant business (all the more vivid now, in the broad wake of Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, Charlie Hallowell and the #MeToo movement).  I learned about the mob’s ties to NYC fish delivery; cringed at the image of a huge pirate-like sous-chef who calmly lifted searing-hot pans out of the broiler with his bare hands; and I learned the horrible truth about what goes into those Sunday brunch buffets.  Kitchen Confidential, much more than the cookbook I was hoping for, changed everything– for me in my world view, patronage of Sunday brunches, and ultimately my fiction writing; and for Bourdain, when its success launched him into the public eye.  CNN signed him to the popular television series Parts Unknown, now cut short in its 12th season.

When interviewed by the Associated Press about Parts Unknown, he said:  “If you think about who the audience is and what their expectations might be, I think that’s the road to badness and mediocrity.  You go out there and show the best story you can as best you can.  If it’s interesting to you, hopefully it’s interesting to others.  If you don’t make television like that, it’s pandering.”

That is exactly the argument that ran through my mind almost a decade later, when writing Fourth World, the first novel in my science fiction trilogy.  Reading it over, I noted the density of medical technology (for example, genetic engineering with multi-species recombinant DNA) and discussions of related ethical questions (debated in 2018, but settled by law in 2196).  In that book, I even invented a space engine– necessitating a new, fictitious subatomic particle– in order to allow Benn and Lora to fly from Mars to Earth in only four weeks!  Was I going too far, risking the alienation of my readers?  To me, that would be better than waving a hand and simply issuing the order, “Warp nine– engage!”  Wasn’t it preferable to stay true to my own vision of the novels– to be a pirate in my own kitchen?

But who was the audience?  Who were my readers, and what might their expectations be?  If I edited the novel to suit some hypothetical, “average” reader, Anthony Bourdain would call it pandering and a road to mediocrity.  And indeed it would be.  With the conviction that this was my one, best shot at writing, I decided that if the content was interesting to me, then hopefully it would be interesting to others as well.

A few weeks ago, I spoke to two sixth-grade classes about the Fourth World series and writing (see my blog post Kids These Days!).  I advised the potential writers among them to read as much as they could, in order to absorb some of the vocabulary and craft of writing.  Also, they should write about what they know– in my case, medicine, science, colonialism, geopolitics, food and wine.  What I omitted was the importance of being true to themselves, to write what came from within, and not for the sake of external acceptance and positive reviews.

(I know, I know:  marketing!  For all those professional writers in the blogosphere who are now groaning at my remarks, I apologize and readily acknowledge that it’s easier to ignore ratings when you’ve already had a career in medicine).

Should I, or shouldn’t I, have taken an axe to potentially challenging material?  You be the judge.  Here’s the passage from Fourth World with which I wrestled long and hard, before deciding to leave it in, completely intact:

After hanging around the engine room aimlessly for a couple of days, Benn finally asked a sympathetic engineer for a tour.

“All right, Benn, I’ll give you a simplified version.  To start with, let’s consider these subatomic particles as such, although we analyze them as waves.  Flowsorb takes a variety of hyped-up particles, by-products harvested from the fusion reactor (efficient, right?) and fires these particles from the central initiator, where they first enter the cyclic counter-current mechanism. Meanwhile, at the terminal emitter, each compatible, or what we call candidate, particle degrades to a capacitron:  you remember that’s a cousin of the anti-proton, capable of absorbing energy like a sponge, storing that energy until a specific threshold is exceeded, then discharging it. Following me so far?”

Benn nodded uncertainly.

“See, the Flowsorb mechanism exploits the power of the Almighty Exponential,” said the engineer, bowing his head only half in jest.  “Changes in particle direction are forced by plasma nano-platforms, which are folded by powerful magnetic fields. These folds are embedded in thousands of larger platforms which fold into larger convolutions, and they, in turn, fold upon themselves– and so it goes, over and over.

“The repeated folding forces streams of energized particles to pass streams of capacitrons traveling in the opposite direction, millions of times over, each time transferring a portion of energy back toward the center.  Finally, a new cycle begins– but with their energy multiplied in each cycle, these exponentially-accelerated particles asymptotically approach the speed of light. You see?”

The engineer, now multiplying his own energy level, waved his hands in the air.  “Particle velocities literally explode by orders of magnitude! Then we eject these particles into space, and the rest relies on Newton’s Third Law:  you know, action and equal-slash-opposite reaction. Major thrust is what I’m talking about!  And that enables us to reach Earth in only four weeks, a journey that used to take more than seven months!”



Opioid of the People

Karl Marx called religion the opium of the people, its drug-like influence blinding them to the realities of the world, and therefore advocated atheism.  Also fearing an opiate effect on his audience, Bertolt Brecht used entfremdungseffekt, or alienation, in his theatrical productions in order to avoid sweeping the audience into a make-believe world.  It might be argued whether religion or theater was closer to an addictive drug historically, but in recent times, the opioid of the people turns out to be much more literally so.  It is the drug OxyContin, manufactured by Purdue Pharma.

Starting in medical school (I graduated in 1981), it was drummed into students that opioids are addictive, dangerous, life-changing, not to be prescribed lightly, a last resort only.  We grew up disciplined, ready to tackle the tough decisions, morally rigid and a bit self-righteous.  We were automatically skeptical whenever patients demanded stronger pain meds, and in steadily escalating quantities.  Of course we knew real pain existed, and we were sympathetic– but at the same time, there were sure to be malingerers, addicts, and those who would resell prescribed narcotics for a huge profit.  The fear of treating pain insufficiently was often eclipsed by the fear of being taken advantage of, as health care providers.  As we gained experience, some became better judges of character, but no one ever knew for sure; I remember a couple of seemingly reliable patients forging my signature for Demerol injections in the Urgent Care Clinic.

Then came a blizzard of editorials in medical journals and the lay press– sometime in the ’90s, as I recall– excoriating doctors for their callous under-treatment of chronic pain and pressing for a liberalized approach to the prescription of opioids.  It felt like a public shaming of our profession for its paranoia and lack of compassion, and was taken by many as welcome permission to loosen up our self-imposed standards.  But despite a universal sense of relief, a rational approach to opioids remained elusive.  It made sense that terminal cancer patients should never be denied a narcotic for their excruciating pain, but elsewhere on the spectrum of pain, the same uncertainties prevailed.

Now with the opioid crisis making daily headlines, the pendulum has swung all the way back.  The public is outraged about the ubiquity of opiates and resulting societal problems; over-prescribing doctors and the pharmaceutical companies share the blame. And it seems that Purdue Pharma had knowledge of the dangers and abuse of their product long before admitting it to drug regulators.  Huge profits and corporate greed attached to OxyContin, not surprisingly, outweighed public health concerns.

In my Fourth World novels, the drugs in question are psychopeptides, the proteins made by translating recombined multispecies DNA– including DNA discovered in Martian fossils.  The giant pharmaceutical company Eunigen discovered those fossils and secretly manufactures these products.  Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World:

“Thor Ibsen, my name is Dr. Walther Beame.”  He was speaking more rapidly now. “I am about to give you a higher dosage of a drug very similar to Deep Coma.  Is that all right with you? I should tell you that there may be a substantial risk of serious side-effects at this high a dosage, including rash, headache, fever, abdominal pain, death, incontinence, loss of taste, and loosening of the nails.  All right then?” Beame smiled thinly at Trip and nodded encouragingly as he spoke.

“Yes.  Q.”

“Note that informed consent was obtained,” Beame murmured to 0749, who duly marked a box on his datadisc.  Without further ado (except for an audible gasp from 0749), Beame then applied the Dermamist injector and emptied the entire contents of the white vial into the subject’s carotid artery.

It took only a few seconds for the effects to begin.  Trip’s eyes slammed shut, his jaw clenched, his lips pulled tightly back in a grimace reaching almost ear-to-ear and revealing gold-capped molars on either side.  Nice, thought 0749: designed to match his gold chin cup and nostril ring. Trip’s tremulous hands grabbed onto the seat, knuckles white; his back arched against the plastic restraints pinning down both shoulders; his feet kicked violently against securely tightened leg straps.


That wasn’t quite a seizure, thought 0749, but it was close.  He searched his datadisc. Seizures were not listed among the side-effects.

“Dr. Beame, just what are we observing here?  I mean, what are we expecting to happen to the subject?  Do you think the higher dose of drug will result in a more prolonged extra-corporeal experience?  And will the withdrawal therefore be more painful than the previous?” 0749 tried to suppress the rising anger so familiar by this point in his short career at the Repro Division.  He really should get around to filling out a transfer application, and soon.

Beame continued to stare at Trip’s contorted face, as he considered the question.  0749 was struck by the resemblance between Beame’s face and that of the subject: the tightness of its expression, the mouth drawn back, the look of one greedily searching for something in the obscure distance.    Finally, the director explained matter-of-factly to his conscience-plagued lab technician, “Don’t worry yourself, 0749; he will not experience any painful withdrawal this time. Extrapolating from results so far in our titration protocol, you can rest assured that this time the subject will successfully expire.”