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Archive for March 23rd, 2012

Michelin Stars And Science Fiction

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Sad-faced iconoclast and retired restaurant critic Jonathan Meades reckons Michelin stars are over-rated:

Whatever claims it may make to the contrary, these awards are based on Michelin’s idea of probity, which has less to do with an establishment’s standard of cooking than with its cutlery, glassware and the dimensions of the vats of starch in which its napkins have been steeped. The guide’s ill-paid inspectors, callow graduates of hotel schools, are at an even greater loss when faced with casual, informal restaurants which audaciously allow customers to pour their own wine and which serve excellent cooking without “fine dining’s” presentational fuss, where a dozen spotty sous-chefs have touched the multipartite components as they sought to create a Mondrian on the plate.

He thinks the only people interested in Michelin stars are chefs, journalists and devotees of fine dining, “a branch of restauration characterised by smarmily sycophantic service, grotesquely over-elaborate cooking, fussiness, pretension, absurdly high prices and moron chefs who appear to think they are philosophers.” I guess I fall into that last category. Well, it is balls; I take an interest in Michelin-starred restaurants because they tend to serve bloody good food. As I’ve mentioned in passing, the best meal I’ve ever had was at Pied A Terre which had two stars at the time. The reason it was the best meal I’ve ever had was not because I’m a pretentious twat (that is unrelated) but because Shane Osborn’s cooking was simply breathtaking. None of Meades’s criticisms even register. The only place I’ve been to that has even approached his fine dining stereotype was Le Manoir – where the bogs are nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – but then Raymond Blanc is deliberately working in a classic French tradition. Elsewhere, modernity prevails.

The week before Christmas I went up to Morecambe for a short break with my wife to open our stockings and spend a bit of time together before the onslaught of family festivities. Whilst up there I had the second best meal I’ve ever had at the one star L’Enclume. Tucked away in the little village of Cartmel (birthplace of sticky toffee pudding), it is about as far from the London restaurant scene as you can get; we had to drive down windy roads round Morecambe Bay for an hour to reach it. There are two menus, nine or thirteen courses, and once safely ensconced with a kir royale we opted for the latter. It was appropriate for the season since the tasting menu is like a culinary stocking: lots of little delicious surprises to be unwrapped one at a time. One of the early courses that has lodged in my mind was a sort of deconstructed fish and chips, a cod ‘yolk’ with salt and vinegar rice. The concept is exciting, it looks exciting and it tastes exciting. For me, this balance of skill, innovation and flavour is what Michelin-starred cooking is all about. Even better and the stand out of a very good meal was deceptively simple sounding dish of Jerusalem artichokes, Ragstone cream, tarragon and malt. The presentation is very a clever, a sort of terrarium in a bowl with the vegetable and herb rising plant-like from the malt soil which conceals the cheese that binds it all together, and the beauty to eye is matched on the tongue. Hats off to Simon Rogan.

Nuno Mendes gained a Michelin star last year for attempting something similar in the much more conviently located Bethnal Green. Viajante specialises in innovative cooking but on our visit in February innovative pushed over into challenging. As it happened, Jay Rayner had visited the week before and his review a similar experience:

Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.

It was not a bad meal but it over-promised and under-delivered and that isn’t something you want to say when the bill for two was a shade over £400. None of the courses stayed with me in the same way Rogan’s did. Sometimes by palatte was utterly confused, sometimes textures were actively unpleasant and, as we discovered previously at Corner Room (Mendes’s casual restaurant at the back of the building), sous vide is not a magic spell that you can simply cast over a carrot. A wonderful, simple dish of roasted snow crown, parsley and English cultivated mushrooms at L’Enclume knocked this faffery into a cocked hat. So the Michelin guide isn’t infallible. To hammer this home, a couple of days latter we had a far better and much more fun meal at Morito. This is exactly the sort of informal restaurant that Meades talks about stealing a march on the dinosaurs of fine dining. But it isn’t all or nothing and I’m very glad both exist.

Elsewhere Patrick Wolohan proposes a Michelin star system for SF. The driver for this is his disatisfaction with demarcation within numerical ratings and the fact that “with such a wide range of subgenres and styles in the genre, I found it increasingly impossible to compare books on a numeric basis.” The Michelin-style ratings he intends to use instead are:

No stars: bad or nothing special. (“No longer do I need to worry about slotting a mediocre high fantasy above or below a fun, if flawed steampunk adventure.”)

One star: a great example of its subgenre and one that is highly recommended for those who enjoy that specific subgenre or are looking to break into the subgenre.

Two star: a standout novel that demonstrates a unique approach or exceptional execution, likely to be one of the year’s best and definitely worth reading, regardless of subgenre or preference. Strengths outweigh the weakness by a large margin.

Three stars: an instant classic in my mind, a soul crushing work of such brilliance that it annihilates any hope of every writing a novel as good, and an absolute must read. Virtually flawless.

Now, I have never given a review a grade or a score. When others have attempted to apply a numerical rating to my reviews, I’ve found the whole thing a bit baffling. So perhaps I’m not the best person to comment on such a system but, whilst I think the concept is sound, I do wonder about the application. The criteria Wolohan is using are already watered down from the actual Michelin descriptions and it is hard not to see him succumbing to grade inflation in the same way he complains happens with other systems. For example, there are currently only 106 three-star restaurants in the whole world of which only ten in US (there are 4 in the UK). It is a tiny, tiny proportion and that is through active searching rather than lone happenstance. Wolohan does set out his likely limits – “I could see myself giving out 10-15 starred reviews a year (if the books are good enough), 5 or fewer two star reviews, and no more than 2 (probably 0) three star reviews.” – but, although these seem like modest numbers, I still think they are too high. Even leaving aside our radically different ideas about what consitutes good literature, the vast majority of books will fall under the no star category. I’d have thought having a ratings system without being able to actually use would be too strong a temptation.

I’ll be interested in the experiment though, because he is surely right that there is much too much over-inflated angels-on-a-pinhead rating of books within the SF community. I still think that words matter more than number (and I wish people took a bit more care over their words) but focussing on the truly exceptional, whether literature or food, is a positive thing and encourages both producers and consumers to want the best. And wanting the best is never pretentious.

Written by Martin

23 March 2012 at 17:05

Posted in food, sf

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Spirit

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Usually I have little time for subtitles; if it is that important, stick it on the cover. In this instance, the subtitle, The Princess of Bois Dormant, signals the fact that the novel is a homage to Alexandre Dumas’s The Count Of Monte Cristo. It is not a story I know well – I have seen the 2002 film adaptation but it was at Christmas so I couldn’t tell you whether it was James Caviezel or Guy Pearce who was the wronged party – but the understanding that this will be a story about betrayal and revenge is inescapable. Perhaps the familiarity of the story explains why the back cover synopsis is so unusually detailed, as I will show by quoting from it at unusual length:

After the massacre, Bibi was given a choice: become the General’s concubine, or Lady Nef’s servant. She chose to be a servant and they took here away, from the mediaeval isolation of Cymru to the labyrinthine Great House in Kirgiz; and then to teeming Baykonur, the Enclosed City, Gateway to the Stars.

Bibi had no desire to leave Earth. She certainly had no wish to try the Buonarotti Transit, non-duration ‘starflight’ that could leave you criminally insane, or turned inside out; or both. But circumstances forced Nef and the General to take her with them to Sigurt’s World: on a diplomatic mission that was to end in mayhem and inexplicable betrayal. In the terrible prison of Fenmu, Nef and Bibi found each other again. The great lady, before she died, bequeathed to Bibi her exalted level of Access to the Systems – and the 4-Space co-ordinates of a secret treasure.

There is another paragraph after that but those 150 words manage to cover the first four acts of the novel and take us up to page 255 of 472. What is remarkable about this synopsis is not its casual disregard for its notoriously spoiler-sensitive readership (see current Gollancz publicity director on spoilers) but the fact it barely scratches the surface of this extraordinary novel. Spirit contains more in a single book than most modern science fiction trilogies manage and is easily one of the half dozen best SF novels published this century. I took no notes whilst reading it and as such I cannot really do justice to the novel so what follows is not a review but some thoughts.

Bibi is short for Gwibiwr – Welsh for wanderer or voyager – and Spirit is the story of her rise and fall and rise again. Orphaned at ten by an assault on her home by General Yu, she becomes a servant in his household for his wife, Lady Nef. If this initially seems like slavery, it soon becomes clear it is more akin to adoption. The first act sees Bibi grows to adulthood in this house, the irregularly sized chapters advancing us forward in time and the gaps between them unknown. This is a standard literary technique but also fits with a recurring theme of the novel that time is fluid. So too is gender and Jones presents a fascinating future society hundreds of years in the future following the alien invasion catalogued in her earlier Aleutian trilogy consisting of White Queen (1991), North Wind (1994) and Phoenix Café (1997). As with The Count Of Monte Cristo, I am working from a position of ignorance with respect to these novels – I read North Wind when I was 14 but can remember nothing of it – and, whilst knowledge of them is not necessary to fall in love with Spirit, I can’t help thinking greater understanding of the Aleutians and the Gender Wars and the rest of the future history would have enriched the experience. It is against this backdrop and on the brink of adulthood that Bibi stumbles upon a conspiracy that sees the whole household being banished from Earth.

The second act (Jones terms it an “intermission” but although it is substantially shorter than the preceding part, it has similar heft), sees Bibi make the Buonarotti transit from Earth to the space station Speranza, the capital of the loose federation of alien species. If time was fluid before, it becomes glorious unreal during transit. I was reminded of M John Harrison’s deliberate decision with Light to create a universe where not only was faster than light travel possible, all faster than light travel was possible:

Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything.

There is something fearless about this position and that is a word that encapsulates Jones’s novel. After spending some time on Speranza and adapting to a whole new social order, Bibi and the household are sent on a diplomatic mission to Sigurt’s World and the novel transitions to a wonderfully Banksian planetary romance. Basically, if you love Iain Banks but have been disappointed by his output for the last decade or so, Spirit is the book for you. The mission goes wrong in a bit of alien politicking that is again a novel in itself; in the immediate aftermath of the debacle, the General betrays Lady Nef to save himself and casual condemns Bibi on the grounds that she is the only person who would now this. Unaware of their shared fate, the pair are imprisoned and forgotten in caves on the planet’s moon and, in the face of decades of isolation and despair, Bibi’s soul disintegrates. It is a huge tonal shift and a remorselessly bleak section but Bibi emerges from it, taking the reader with her on each painful step to recovering. When through her efforts she is re-united with Lady Nef, the path is clear for her escape but it remains a hard row to hoe.

So, with indecent haste, that sums up the first half of the novel. The second half is the revenge, although it isn’t really a revenge at all. Lots of reviewers seem to have struggled with the second half of the novel for this reason. These issues are probably best articulated by Paul Kincaid in his review for Strange Horizons:

But here the faithfulness of the copy to its original begins to waver. For a start, the way that Dumas accelerated both the action and the tension throughout this portion of his novel is largely absent from Spirit, and the occasional adventures inserted into the story seem largely artificial additions, not really part of the overall plot… But it is a novel whose strength wanes the longer it goes on. If she had stayed closer to the colour and drama of the original, it might have ended up being even better.

It is certainly radically different from the preceding section but then those sections are each pretty different themselves and the deviation from Dumas is, I feel, a strength of the novel. True, tension is decreased but in its place is something warmer, deeper, more effecting. This is well captured by Duncan Lawrie’s review for The Zone:

Spirit bristles with energy and anger, gradually smoothing into equanimity. A key message of the book is presented in the first few pages: “Believe me, this is the greatest secret I know. Rule your own mind, and you may rule the world. Far more important, you will be happy, no matter what comes. And happiness is all that matters in the end.” (p. 7)

Ultimately, that is what makes Spirit not just a great novel but a book I took to my heart (even if these random scribbles don’t really convey that).

Written by Martin

23 March 2012 at 12:57

Posted in books, sf

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