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!”



Shameless Commercial II

At a large trade tasting of the wines of Bordeaux held in San Francisco yesterday, a friend– the owner of a great chateau in St. Julien– told me he had downloaded and started to read Fourth World Nation, the second book in the trilogy.

“Oh no,” I replied (despite an initial flush of success and gratitude– maybe it was time for a translation into French!).  “The series is meant to be read in order– so it’s better to start with Fourth World, and then move on to Fourth World Nation.”  Otherwise it would be hard to understand Benn’s abilities, his relationship to Lora, and why they are running away from the Pan-World Electorate.

In going back to Fourth World, my friend would probably be amused by Chapter Eight, in which Dr. Nes Neelin holds a tasting of the Greatest Wines of the Century in the Mellon College dining hall.

Ever since Fourth World Nation came out on Amazon, I’ve been working assiduously on the third novel in the trilogy, in which the setting shifts from Mars back to Earth– in particular, my old stomping grounds of Malaysia and Singapore.  With a minimum of spoiler alerts (I won’t even mention its title), here’s an excerpt:

As a young linguistics student at Cambridge University, Wesley Stuart had appeared in numerous collegiate theatrical productions, including some by his favorite playwrights, Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.  Which one was he channeling now?  Someone in between, perhaps.  Chou Xia-Yu had found his classmate’s talents amusing, and was therefore willing to tolerate his sporadic spoofing of British Peers, or “p-p-pompous p-persons of p-p-privilege,” as Stuart sometimes put it.

How had a charming but harmless thespian, a Bohemian polyglot such as Wes Stuart, ended up as the PWE Superintendent of Singapore?  Chou knew very well the final step, having promoted Wes to that position during his time as Leader.  Before that, Wes had served for eighteen years as a minister in the British Parliament, a local governing council of the Pan-World Electorate.  There was, of course, no longer a distinction drawn between the House of Lords and the House of Commons (nor had there been for almost a hundred years), but the Stuarts had occupied a seat in Lords since the seventeenth century, and on the day Wesley Stuart had staked his claim by strolling ever-so-naturally through the grand entrance to Parliament, no one had thought to object.  Even the vehement stand taken by The London Stage, a cultural review published and edited by Wes, against the long-lost traditions of aristocracy— which still glowed in the hearts of many Britons like a warm coal among the morning ashes— had drawn nary a negative comment from his fellow ministers.  He may have written and acted as a traitor to his class, but that class now existed only in a dense fog of London nostalgia.

As he closed the front door, Stuart affected a different accent.  “Roit this wye, lidees and gents,” he pronounced like a circus barker, with a bow and a broad sweep of his arm.  Lora walked slowly past him into the living room, pausing to gawk at two huge bronze Buddhas flanking the entryway.

“Wes, you haven’t lost your touch,” said Chou.  He flashed a momentary smile, then cleared his throat pointedly.

“Ah.  By that you mean my touch of craziness,” replied Stuart, feigning embarrassment.  “Well, you were ever the serious one, Chou.  Always getting straight down to business, eh?”  He gestured at the furniture crowding his living room, which consisted of a club-style sofa and three leather wingback chairs (“Water buffalo,” he announced proudly) surrounding an ornately-carved Indonesian hardwood kopi table with a tall Chinese vase at its center.  Bookshelves overflowing with publications in several different languages lined the walls.  Everyone settled into a comfortable seat, but Ari plopped herself down on the edge of the low table, shifting it sideways on the marble floor by a millimeter or two.

Stuart lunged forward and steadied the vase, even though they both knew there was no danger of it tipping over— and besides, it was made of an indestructible polymeric material, the product of multispecies recombinant DNA.  “Oi sye, steady on, young pip!  That’s from the Ming Dynasty, innit?”

Not bloody likely, not unless the Ming Emperors had access to genetic engineering, thought Stuart with an inward laugh.  Ari felt a wave of irony and smiled innocently at her host:  she had liked him immediately, sensing his openness, his affection for Chou, and above all, his excellent humor (what Wes himself might have termed his “infinite jest”).


Most Likely to Secede

In the late 1970’s, my college friends in Connecticut sometimes teased me about coming from California:  a huge earthquake, they said, would one day split the state from the rest of the country, depositing it into the Pacific Ocean; better buy some oceanfront property in Nevada!  Perhaps they were thinking metaphorically of the degree to which California remained separate, in terms of its liberal politics, mindset, laid-back lifestyle, tolerance, diversity,  weather, inventiveness etc.  People here love to point out that, if ranked alongside all the nations of the world, California’s economy would be No. 6.  We have economic engines such as the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, famous Wine Country, Central Valley agriculture, biotech and space industries, superb universities, electric cars, Google, Facebook, Twitter, touristic natural beauty, great Mexican food and, well OK, Hollywood too.  Talk of seceding from the Union has always been a distant background noise, and not always originating from our own state:  didn’t someone in the Utah state legislature, about two years ago, propose that California ought to be cut off?

Our Chaos President’s negative attitude toward California seems to be– surprise!– making things worse.  He has moved to vastly expand offshore drilling along the California coastline, threatening coastal ecology and economies, as well as public health.  His tax “reform” will increase the federal tax burden for Californians, prompting the state Senate to come up with a creative counter-proposal.  He has undertaken punitive measures against sanctuary cities which are being challenged in the courts.  His FCC has overturned net neutrality rules, and the fight to restore a free and open Internet has moved from Washington DC to Sacramento.  He has withdrawn from the Paris Accord on climate change, so that Governor Jerry Brown now attends the international climate meetings and commits California to surpassing the terms to which the US previously agreed.  While Trump wants to prop up coal and oil, California is fast building up solar and other renewable energy.  Trump’s first move as president was to cancel the Trans-Pacific Pact, leaving the US on the sidelines while China expands its influence in Asia and Europe; California has prudently continued to negotiate its own, separate trade deals on the world stage.  Now North and South Korea have begun talks, encouraged by China and Russia– again leaving the US to worry from the sidelines, largely because of Trump’s bellicose schoolyard tweets about Kim Jong-Un.

Since California is within range and directly threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, shouldn’t Jerry Brown be attending those talks?  But California doesn’t possess a nuclear arsenal– or do we?  What about the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the threat to withdraw support for Palestinian refugees unless they toe the line?  Should Jerry clear some time on his schedule?  It was a dramatic moment when all but a handful of nations in the UN voted to condemn the Jerusalem decision:  isolating the US from former friends and allies in the Middle East, Asia and Europe must be the guiding principle of this Administration.  By so diminishing the international stature of the United States, Trump has increased the leadership role of California.

Should California secede from the Union, aside from the dubious legality of such a move?  The actions of the Trump Administration make it look as though the Union is seceding from California (as it is from the rest of the world)!  But despite that, I would argue against secession.  Spoiler alert:  Even in science fiction, forming a separate nation is fraught with unforeseen consequences.  In Fourth World Nation, the second book in the Fourth World Series, the Martian colonies declare their independence from Earth.  Here’s an excerpt:

When the applause finally stopped, Ran began by addressing Khalmed Salman.  “Superintendent Salman, you represent the Pan-World Electorate in this historic transition.  Do you have anything to say?”

Salman’s tone was stoic but contained something chilling, like a sharp blade buried just beneath the sand.  “Yes, perhaps historic to you, but not to the PWE.  By taking control of the colonies,” he said, his dark gaze sweeping the room, “you imagine that you have defeated us, but quite the opposite is true.  We will withdraw all of our personnel and resources to Earth, and in our absence, the consequences of your actions will become painfully clear:  the  law and order you have taken for granted will disappear; your Resistance movement will break up into factions pitted against one another; the material supplies necessary to maintain function in the cities will run out.  All remaining PWE ships will transport troops as well as any civilians who wish to depart for Earth.  Within four weeks, however, you can expect that a new fleet of fully-manned warships will arrive to retake the colonies.”

Or at least retake Congress in the mid-term elections.  On that optimistic note, I wish all my readers a happy 2018!



Let’s Take A Closer Look

One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses.  CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.

My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram.  At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays?  Radar?  Microwaves?  Cosmic rays?  Who knew?  We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes.  The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.

With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed.  “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner).  The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist:  this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.

Well, the dream machine is one step closer.  This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have to obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine).  It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small!  By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.

(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying).  Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:

Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe.  Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation.  The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch.  So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes.  After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.

Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit.  Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One.  In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her:  no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night.  It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying.  Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was:  A blood clot?  Eustachian tube dysfunction?  Seizure activity?  The Probot said no, no and no.  Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.



What I Tasted On My Summer Vacation

Just kidding:  retired doctors don’t take vacations!  But we did just return from a week in Madrid and San Sebastian, followed by a week visiting chateaus in Bordeaux.  Although there were lots of great-tasting solids (jamon iberico de bellota, foie gras, Charolais beef, raw-milk Epoisses, mmm), this posting is going to be about Bordeaux wines.  If you have no interest at all in wine, my apologies; this would be a good place to exit- thanks!

Tasting barrel samples of 2016 red Bordeaux was fabulous; the vintage really does live up to all the hype.  If you have a wine collection, I would recommend buying some 2016s: even at $25 or less, some wines are already very appealing (Chateau Potensac from the Medoc, for example) and have the potential to develop well for five to fifteen years.  At the other end of the spectrum, wines such as Ch. Mouton-Rothschild or Ch. Margaux lie in the stratosphere, with regard to quality and price, and can age for decades.  Ch. Leoville-Las-Cases, for me, was their equal in quality for half the price.  If you have a special event to commemorate yearly, such as a wedding in 2016, you’re in luck!

One good thing about this vintage is that the wines reflected their respective communes:  that is, a wine from St. Julien had the typical taste and style of that commune, and not, say, Pomerol or St. Emilion.  In my opinion, this typicity doesn’t happen every year.  To generalize:  a typical red from St. Estephe tends to be heavy-ish, somewhat monolithic, linear and powerful.  A Pauillac tends to be more nuanced, although still sturdy, with graphite notes (think pencil shavings) and tobacco, like a cigar box.  Pauillac’s immediate neighbor to the south, St. Julien, makes wines quite similar, but more supple and round, and I find India ink notes, as well as overt fruitiness, in St. Juliens more than in Pauillacs- both in the nose and flavor.  Wines from Margaux tend to be more delicate/elegant, with a famous floral (violets) aroma.  Graves often have a mineral, smoky character.  St. Emilions and Pomerols are often fleshy, plump and rich from a high percentage of Merlot; whether they are grown on limestone (St. Emilion) or clay/gravel (Pomerol) affects the flavor.  From years of comparing these, it becomes possible to identify the commune, or even the producer, in a blind tasting, which is a pretty good bar trick.  But I’ve only listed general tendencies; there can be huge differences in style between two chateaus located in the same commune.

By the way, these taste characteristics are not the same as the spurious and fanciful descriptions often provided by wine writers, who might argue with one another as follows:  “I taste mangoes!”  “Mangoes?  You’re crazy; it’s pineapple.”  “That’s right, pineapple!  And coconut!”  “Yeah, just like the pina colada I had before dinner!”

In science fiction, it can get even more obscure.  Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World, in which Benn Marr attends a wine tasting at Mellon College:

And so it went, for four other wines.  Dr. Neelin described esthetic and geologic elements: earthy forest or mushroom; the smell of rain falling on hot stones; delicate floral scents; the tang of iron, like a bloody nose; roasted coffee beans, licorice, chocolate, berries of various colors; the mineral effect of a steep, rocky slope; a summer plagued by hailstorms; or a long hot spell before harvest.  And, though it seemed far-fetched, even as Dr. Neelin described the historical context of each wine- the influence of an ancient monastic order, or the personality of an eccentric winemaker- Benn detected traces of each element.  He imagined some sort of ambient energy field interacting with the water content, imprinting all of this data into the structure- the hexagonal, square and triangular formations- of each wine.  It was like the electronic translation of sound or sight into a recording (not so different from the volumes of data previously recorded in ancient tapes, plastic phonograph records, or metal discs; and now the micro-crystalline core of his datadisc) which could be heard or seen again, and replayed endlessly, if only one had the diamond-tipped needle, the laser, the ability to translate the data in reverse.

Alt-Cuisine: Yum!

Molecular gastronomy- already outdated in a food culture with an ever-shortening attention span- was known for deconstructing dishes and presenting them anew as foams; solids as liquids; cubes as spheres; cold as hot and vice-versa.  But all that required complicated cooking techniques and expensive equipment. When we can now genetically-engineer an industrial tomato to taste like an heirloom, how long will it be before we can grow plants and animals as foams, spheres, liquids, or simultaneously hot and cold?

Let’s hope the growing (pun intended) interest in local, seasonal, organic and sustainable agriculture can hold our attention awhile and resist the allure of technology.  Let’s keep food slow, and keep it real!

Here’s an excerpt from a dystopian restaurant scene in Fourth World:

“Welcome to H,” said the menu, pronouncing the letter “ahhhsh” in a langorous, caressing way.  “Tonight’s special is the ‘Tout Not Sashimi’, a crudo mousse translated from the recombined genes of three extinct species:  Pacific tuna, Monterey cypress, and arctic walrus.  We are also featuring the rare Atlantic codling, where Chef Hubert cooks a recently living fish.  Farmed off the low-mercury coastline of the Greenland District, our codling is spin-poached in a bold, yet contemplative, bath of piscine neurotransmitters and herbal amino acids, garnished with just a soupcon of white Eurovin foam.”

“Eurovin foam?” Cira was aghast.  “But Eurovin’s not even made from grapes!  It’s a fermentation product of recombinant seaweed.”

“So?  Seaweed goes with fish.”  The menu had dropped its accent, and now sounded like someone from New Jersey.  “You want wine made from grapes?  Try the Quarantine Zone!”

“Menu, read only.”

“Certainly.” Click.

Burly Wines Win

I was at a wine tasting last night:  red California blends of Rhone varietals, served blind.  These varietals, including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, etc. have pretty distinctive traits, both in aroma and flavor:  white or black pepper, berries, truffle, earth and so on; each grape has its own signature (see Fourth World, chapter 8).  In addition, reds from the Rhone Valley in France tend to express local conditions, or terroir- a Northern Rhone is often distinguishable from a Southern Rhone, by its grape composition, but also by its terroir.  So last night I was looking forward to teasing apart these characteristics in the California versions.  Several of the wines were elegant and well-balanced, with a suggestion of Rhone varietals in smell and taste, but in my opinion, they were the exception.  More often the wines were dense, muscular, burly and thick:  modeled after modern-day Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but in style only- not in the nuanced traits I was hoping to find.  Judging by the group rankings, people were looking for something else:  their top-ranked wines had jammy, overripe fruit (one even tasted faintly of raisins), and none had varietal characteristics.  I suspect one of them had been left with higher residual sugar, in order to increase its mass appeal.  At my table of 7 tasters, the elegant wines mentioned above ranked at the very top, but amongst the larger group of more than 50 attendees, they did not make the cut.  This is one reason group rankings have so little meaning (unless you’re selling the wine).

Of course taste preferences are subjective, and of course California wines don’t need to imitate the French.  But it seems to me that elegance, balance and varietal taste are desirable in all wines- and often missing in generic “big reds,” which are shaped for greatest marketing appeal rather than being true to any grape varietal or distinctive terroir.  I’ll coin a term- “enological Darwinism”- to describe this phenomenon:  the market determines the evolution of winemaking choices and philosophy, and survival of the biggest seems to be where we’re headed.  Luckily, the role of a good wine is not just to blow away other wines in a mixed martial arts tournament, but rather to enhance a meal or other social gathering, and occasionally to provoke thought.