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📚 Review: The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz

Lessons in persistence from food porn science fiction

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

3 min read.
a chef wearing a neon hat

A few months ago, I was guest speaking for a workshop with Nick Milo and he asked everyone to put together their "Spark list" – a list of things we like to do, films we're fascinated by, key concepts we come back to, that sort of thing.

He specifically told us not to name our ten favorite books, or even the ten books that resonated with us, but I'm a contrary sort, and I of course spent a whole week thinking of nothing else, which is part of the reason for the 10 year retrospective on 10th grade English and other recent Review editions.

I'm really more of a reader than an audiovisual learner — on average I read more full-length novels than watch television episodes, for instance, and sensemaking through fiction is a very important part of how I process the world. So I wanted to take a moment and share my thoughts on another book that clarified something for me.

Thar be spoilers ahead. You've been warned.

The Sol Majestic is, at its heart, a novel that loves food. It is about a guy who grows up in an impoverished but prestigious family of philosophers desperate to regain their lost glory. He's taught that his family's heritage — and the development of his philosophical thesis — is more important than silly things like food, and wrestles with his inability to set aside mundane things like, well, his deep-seated desire and appreciation of food.

I'm not myself a foodie — my general emotion at most fancy restaurants is "but where is the food?" with a side of "yes, I can taste the delicate notes of saffron, but why should I care?" — but I have friends who are, and more importantly, I can appreciate the passions and joys of other people. Kenna, the teenage protagonist, isn't sophisticated in the way that many foodies are, but he has passion aplenty, and that is indeed the whole point of why he's chosen as the winner of an exclusive dinner at the galaxy's most artistic restaurant: the Sol Majestic, owned and operated by an extreme arteeest of a celebrity chef and his long-suffering bookkeeper.

The preparations for the full experience of the meal nearly beggar the restaurant — as grand dreams often do to their dreamers — yet Kenna is utterly entranced by his experiences hanging out in the kitchens during the weeks leading up to the event.

It's not Kenna whose emotional journey moved me the most, though; it's the young slave sous chef he falls in love with. Benzo needs to master making a perfect chicken broth in order to escape his fate as an indentured servant owned by an abusive sadist, but more importantly, for his own sense of self-respect. He has spent what feels like an eternity as the "kitchen fuckup," who tries and fails and tries and fails to make a proper broth. As everything comes crumbling down — his mentor injured, the restaurant facing ruin in a matter of days — the kitchen staff are asked to enter the "Escargone," a closet-sized time distortion machine that allows someone to spend a year practicing a skill, while only a few days pass outside.

It's the sort of place that can drive someone mad, and rest of the staff all refuse. But Benzo is grimly determined to take this one last opportunity to master the broth that has defeated him time and time again. At essentially the last minute, Kenna decides to go in, too, to try and keep his spirits up.

But it's not until Benzo breaks down and lets himself focus on being in love and makes cooking mistakes that he learns how mistakes are necessary to learning. He's tried for so long to follow directions and make the perfect soup that he never really let himself let loose and experiment, and it's through the process of experimenting — of failing, utterly and completely making absolutely disgusting slop instead of merely imperfect uninspired broth that is slightly off the mark of excellence — that he discovers greatness.

This is not, of course, the first time I've ever encountered this sentiment. My own classroom is filled with motivational posters with similar messages: one literally says "every mistake is progress." So why read ~300 pages of occasionally overwrought science fiction that can basically be summed up in 4-5 words?

Because for many people, until they've experienced and internalized a lesson, it lacks meaning... but humans are pretty good at learning from stories, too. And the lesson that loosening up enough to make mistakes is important and good, actually is one that bears repeating, because it's so emotionally difficult to let ourselves go when all we want to do is succeed while wasting as little time and effort as possible.

Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).

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