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!”