March 11th, 2009

Fishy Circumstances

Clockwork Heart

A book which is almost wholly satisfying is a rare thing in my reading experience, but, still, the next day, I'm still feeling that way about Dru Pagliasotti's Clockwork Heart (2008). It's an adventure/romance set in a technologically-complex fantasy world, as easy to categorize as science fiction as it is fantasy. Its essence and trappings are steampunk, its structure Shakespearean, its writing style wholly accessible. It is not a book weighed down by the richness of its world-building, but enhanced by it.

The plot, in brief: Taya is an icarus, a human categorized into the job she loves as metal-winged courier by the analytical engine, programmed by punch cards, used to run the city. One day, she's in the right time and place to rescue two high-ranked exalteds from certain death when there's an cable car (or 'wireferry') accident. The exalteds, in thanks, give her social access to their caste, one she would otherwise never have a chance to so casually interact with, for all the icarii stand, as a rule, outside the heavy-handed caste system within which the city/nation runs. There are mysteries involving terrorists, there is action and politics, and there are a difficult set of brothers whom she comes to know as a consequence of it all.

One of the book's strengths is how tactile it is, how physically aware of space and strength and motion. The mechanics of flight inform and shape the aerial interactions, the feel of wind, and the weight of bodies. The city, Ondinium, had a strong sense of shape and detail without ever making me wish I could follow along on a map. The complexities of programming are not overdone, and are reducible, in part, to physicalities because they are visible in punch card form. In part thanks to ozarque's past posts on the general dominance in language of sight and sound over touch, I was delighted in many ways by the way Pagliasotti so effectively integrates touch into her world's interactions.

A few times, parts of the overall shape of the plot was blindingly clear, predictable, but at such a macro scale that it did not spoil the details and complications of how the plot worked out in practice. This was a rare book in which I did not find the occasional use of Latin distracting. I did find the Yeovil Mountains a little distractingly named - but they are rarely mentioned.

This book is the best thing to come to me out of my SFR project yet. It feels like it could easily become a comfort read - that level of accessibility - but at the same time, it is not, in its details, at all a simple book.

Medieval Feast

I've been day-dreaming all day about eating cutlery - silver-plated knives and spoons, elegantly molded, with ginger ganache thinly filling the crisp, sturdy dark chocolate underneath that edible plating. After a while, it would start to melt on my hands, but it would still be good, rich, spicy, smooth.

You'd never know from my day-dream (unless you too watched the program) that it derives from Heston's Medieval Feast, shown last night on Channel 4. Heston - of Heston Blumenthal - The Fat Duck - Occasional world's best restaurant - molecular gastronomy - temporary food poisoning crisis - is hosting a series of these, and this was the first - perhaps the only one - I caught. The show and I got off to a bad start: did you know that life expectancy in the "medieval ages" was 25? I didn't either. Fortunately, I couldn't blame the voiceover on Heston, only the twee verbal attitude towards the showpiece concepts of medieval no-expenses-spared feast cookery (which was fortunately far more visionary in practice than in set-piece intros).

Indeed, they were all intelligent adaptation of medieval recipes, true to the spirit, if not all the details, of the recipes. Of course he took full advantage of the toys of his high-tech kitchen. He began with meat fruit: ground, cooked, seasoned meat, formed into perfect fruit-a-likes, each in a different flavor, with elegant verisimilitude. The main was a confection of lampreys, for which one must go to Latvia these days in order to catch fresh. Its spine was deep-fried into a crunchy spaghetti-like jumble (as per a modern specialist chef); its blood was extracted and used as thickening in a red white sauce (as per the original recipe); a fluff of lamprey-flavored foam accompanied it (as per modern foam cooking). The blood sauce proved the most off-putting element of the meal to the tasters. Four-and-twenty highly-trained pigeons were put into a huge and largely inedible pie to fly off to their cage, hung from the ceiling, followed by mini individual pigeon pies.

But dessert - dessert is where my mind has been all day, a bait-and-switch of the practicalities of the table, with cutlery, napkin, walnuts, and candles all swapped for edible ones made from chocolate or marzipan. The knives looked awfully good.

Even with all the voiceover-fill about the All-Plague-All-Death-All-The-Time "medieval ages" and performative guest eaters, I seem to have managed to forgive the program its limitations, for here I am, the next day, advertising its merits in spoons and ganache.