Thursday, 27 March 2008

Recipe: Marmite Tofu

Currently I can only buy small quantities of silken tofu on the island where I live, so I've been learning to make my own extra firm tofu. For my third batch, I tried an idea I'd been mulling over, and made Marmite tofu. Obviously this is only for the rare enlightened individual who loves both tofu and Marmite, all others should stick to less adventurous fare...

Although you can make your own soy milk, I usually start with a generic store brand that contains as few additional ingredients as possible (some use apple juice or other sweeteners, which is a no-no for good tofu). The only other thing you need is a coagulant, epsom salt works if you don't have any nigari (available online). Anyway, here are the steps I used:

  1. Start heating one container (one liter) of soy milk in a pan.

  2. While the soy milk is coming to temperature, put 2-3 tablespoons of warm soy milk in a ramekin or small bowl and dissolve 1 tablespoon marmite per liter of soy milk.

  3. Stir the dissolved marmite into the rest of the soy milk.

  4. When the mixture reaches about 180 degrees Fahrenheit or about 75 degrees Celsius, take it off the heat.

  5. Introduce the coagulant (nigari or epsom salt) and let the soy milk sit covered for 10-15 minutes

  6. While the soy milk is cooling, prepare the strainer that will remove the excess water from the curds. I use a small tofu press, but you can also line a sieve or steamer insert with cheese cloth.

  7. Pour the curdled soy milk slowly into the strainer or tofu press.

  8. When all the curds have been added, fold the cheesecloth over the top of the curds.

  9. If you're using a tofu press, you should have a lid that goes over the top of the wrapped curds. If you're using a sieve or steamer insert, you'll have to improvise something using a plate or pan or anything that's slightly smaller than the strainer.

  10. If you want anything beyond soft tofu, you'll need to apply weight to the lid, a pot full of water should be adequate.

  11. Let the water press out of the tofu in proportion to how firm you like it. For extra firm tofu, leave 15-20 pounds on top of the curds for an hour. For softer tofu, use smaller weight and/or decrease the time.

  12. When the tofu is at the desired firmness, you can use it immediately or store in water for up to seven days before using.

My recipe is based on my own experience, the instructions for my tofu press, and on a few other recipes I've read online:

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Review: "Behold the Man" by Michael Moorcock

Although Michael Moorcock is so prolific that I can't claim to have read even a tenth of his work, the works I've read have been those dealing with time travel ("The Dancers at the End of Time" series) and alternate realities (The "Oswald Bastable" series). "Behold the Man" is a time travel story, to be sure, but it transcends that conceit to become a fractured reflection on the nature of belief and on the history of Christianity.

Karl Glogauer is a complex and deeply troubled former psychology student with a strong interest in both Jung and Christianity. Glogauer has been degraded by the world and yet is still a brilliant and independent thinker. He is full of self-loathing, so much so that his self shifts almost completely (and at times uncontrollably) to please those around him. He is obsessed with Christianity intellectually, emotionally, and even sexually.

At a point of crisis in his personal life, he is given the opportunity to go back in time. He wants to witness the crucifixion, to see just how much of the New Testament is history and how much is myth (in other words, how much of the New Testament is scripture, truth that comes from God and how much is doctrine, the imperfect interpretation imposed by man). Instead of simply observing and having his questions answered, Glogauer finds that history is not as recorded in the Bible. Ultimately, he decides to correct the discrepancies, to build up the myth of Christ by taking on the role himself.

On the surface, the plot reminded me of the excellent (but very different) "Past Watch" by Orson Scott Card, in which time travelers correct the brutality that followed Columbus' discovery of the new world. "Past Watch" was an intellectual work, a reimagining of society. However well rendered, the characters of history were ultimately pawns to be repositioned to change the outcome of the game.

"Behold the Man" is about belief instead. Robbed of comfort of the supposed historical truth of the Bible, Glogauer sets out to ensure that future Christians will not have to face a similar dilemma. Far from being a selfless martyr, he does this in part because his own obsessions require him to do so. Sacrificing himself for the world becomes on some level a selfish act, one of the many astonishing contradictions in his character.

This is a brilliant and outstandingly complex book, but perhaps not for everyone. Numerous and compound blasphemies and heresies fill the work. The last paragraphs are reminiscent of the Jefferson Bible (which removed all references to Christ's miracles), and are a final narrative rebuttal of the story of the Gospels.

This book will probably only appeal to the type of reader who can see the brilliance (and perhaps even humor) of a story like Three Versions of Judas by Jorge Luis Borges, in which a theologian convinces himself through tortured logic that Christ was in fact Judas. I would love to hear from anyone else who has also read the book, as there is much to discuss.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Review: "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolf

I bought a half dozen or so books in the SF Masterworks series the other day, and am about half way through the set now that I have a little time off. I just finished "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" by Gene Wolf.

The book is composed of three long stories involving the same pair of planets, which were colonized by Earth men, but which may or may not still be inhabited by their aboriginal people, who can change shape, and who may in fact be perfectly emulating and entirely replacing Earth men.

The third story in particular is an amazing narrative, cutting back and forth in time, seamlessly moving between diaries, third person narration, and transcripts of dialogues. The narrator of the third story sits in prison, and (shades of Kafka), his captors refuse to even tell him what he is accused of, because telling him would be a kind of admission that he might not already know what he had done, that he might actually be innocent. The dialogue is wonderfully executed, the interrogations remind me of the verbal thrust and parry of "Eternal Curse on the Reader of these Pages".

I suspect I'll need to reread the work at least once to start making sense of some of the subtleties. It's a brilliant and challenging work, and is highly recommended.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Review: "Non-stop" by Brian Aldiss

"Non-stop" is a classic of science fiction, and stands the test of time amazingly well. Like "Learning the World" by Ken MacLeod, "Non-stop" deals with a massive ship (and self-sustaining ecosystem) traveling between stars over the course of generations. Unlike "Learning the World", the society of the ship that is the focus of "Non-stop" has broken down in a fundamental way, devolving in some ways, evolving in others.

One thing that makes this book remarkable is how wonderfully constructed the narrative is. The origins of society and of the inhabitants themselves are revealed in a way that keeps the reader engrossed. The plot twists, and there are many, all emerge naturally, and hold up to close scrutiny when rereading the book. None of the twists or revelations seem cheap or contrived, which is refreshing if you've seen one too many Hollywood blockbusters or episodic TV series (I love "Heroes" and all, but seriously, the strain of having to come up with the next plot twist that fits the prior narrative must be just exhausting).

Another thing that amazed me when leafing back through the book was just how short each seminal section of the book turned out to be. The major revelations seldom take more than a few paragraphs. It's as thought the economy of a brilliant short story author (Borges, for example) were turned towards creating a novel as a series of linear vignettes. I'd imagine the work would have worked well serialized, and I'm sure it also will fit the attention span of the traveling reader as well.

At any rate, the book is a quick read (and reread), and is highly recommended. I look forward to picking up Aldiss's history of Science Fiction as well as further of his fiction works in the future.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Review: "Babel-17" by Samuel R. Delany

Although "Babel-17" is set in a future with starships, reanimated consciousnesses, extreme body modifications, advanced weapons, and interstellar conflict with alien cultures, it is not so much a story about any of these things as it is a story about language and understanding.

Rydra Wong, the main character, is a genius at understanding spoken languages. She can also read attitudes and at times entire trains of thought from body language. She is enlisted to decipher a new language (Babel-17), and her journey to understand the language and the mindset it implies takes her far in both space and understanding.

It's a short book, and has a nice focus to it. Delany gives a lot of detail about the characters and their communication to give the book a nice depth, but goes light enough on the details about the technology and environments that the reader's imagination can fill in the details. With very few exceptions, the low level of tecnnical detail helps avoid dating the book, which stands the test of time quite well.

Very enjoyable and a quick read, highly recommended.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Review: "The Burning City" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I just finished the epic "Burning City" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I don't tend to read much fantasy, but it was a pleasant enough diversion. What strikes me after reading "Oath of Fealty", "Lucifer's Hammer" and "Burning City" is just how much of Niven and Pournelle's work is centered around California and Particularly Los Angeles. I wish I'd read more of their work when I lived there.

"Burning City" offers a nice take on the fantasy genre. There's magic, to be sure, but interpersonal dynamics, class struggle, and the love of storytelling are just as much a part of the world they describe. Its also a nice take on the epic story. "Burning City" does not take its hero's greatness for granted. We see the hero come from his early childhood through to middle age, and grow to new kinds of greatness all along the way. Although we clearly see the main character grow into adulthood, the book does not follow the formula of so many "rite of passage" novels, taking the hero through a great test that leads them to adulthood only to summarize the remainder of their life in a single chapter (ala Harry Potter, "His Dark Materials", "Middle Passage", shall I go on?).

The tone of the story and the careful avoidance of more graphic content remind me somewhat of Michael Chabon's excellent "Summerland". Where "Summerland" is a sprawling (but somewhat shallower) pastiche of legends from North America, "Burning City" is a narrower cross section of just a few recognizable elements explored in more depth. Both novels are about learning to make one's way in the world, and just as in life, each character has his own solution. On balance, I like the darker tone of "Summerland" and the outstanding ending a tad better.

This isn't to say that "Burning City" is a bad book, in fact quite the opposite. The authors are obviously skilled enough to succeed in venturing outside of their primary genre. I don't know that I'll read any more fantasy for a while, but it was a nice change of pace and I plan to read their remaining collaborative works when I get a chance.

Here's a challenge for anyone who likes Fantasy more than Science Fiction: try this book, then cross over and try "The Mote in God's Eye" to see how you like it...

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Review: "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" by Kate WIlhelm

I'm continuing to work my way through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, which is just chock full of great stuff. I found a reasonably complete list of the scheduled and published works, it looks like I've read almost exactly half of the works on the list thus far. Many of the books on the list have been favorites for years, some I'm finding through this series. The latest that I've finished is "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang" by Kate Wilhelm.

The novel is about cloning, but more importantly, it's a well-crafted exploration of the tensions between the individual and society, and what it means to be an individual at all.

The story begins in a community made up of close-knit but extended family living in rural Virginia. Even the closest knit family would and does seem chaotic when compared to the clone society that arises through the course of the story, in which a clone is born part of a community and never quite comes to realize their own individuality or even see themselves as anything other than a part of a seamless whole. The clones exist only in relation to the rest of their pack. Rarely, individual personalities do arise, and it is by comparison with these individuals that the ultimate flaws in a perfectly communal society are highlighted. There is no value in being different, and so there is no innovation, no improvisation, no creativity.

The territory has been explored somewhat with the two clone species in "Forever War" and "Forever Free", the clones in "Appleseed", and many other works, but never in quite so loving a way. It's a great book with the same type of crossover appeal that "Gattaca" had when dealing with similar themes a few years ago, and is strongly recommended.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Review: "Lucifer's Hammer" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

After enjoying "Oath of Fealty" recently, I went ahead and worked my way through "Lucifer's Hammer". The book is an epic and apocalyptic work that manages to establish a whole raft of key characters going about their normal lives, and then follow them as they make their way through the remains of modern society.

I've read quite a few postapocalyptic works, "Farnham's Freehold" by Robert Heinlein is a recent example. "Cat's Cradle" and "Galapagos" are excellent examples from the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

["The Stand" is also a close cousin of "Lucifer's Hammer", and apparently came out at roughly the same time, something I hadn't realized when writing the original post.]

Where "Farnham's Freehold" deals with the end of our society in a more abstract way (looking back through the distance of centuries), "Lucifer's Hammer" is a more intimate apocalypse, in which we are made well aware of just how much humanity is in the process of losing, and how much farther they can fall.

Where "Galapagos" and "Cat's Cradle" are farcical and (especially with "Cat's Cradle") philosophical, "Hammer" is a more serious exploration of how modern values could immediately become a lot less modern and a lot more pragmatic and/or savage in the wake of a global disaster.

I was trying to convince my friend Antranig to pick up the graphic novel "Watchmen" the other day, that's a good example of a work in which one phase of the world ends and another begins. "Hammer" is another work in which our society ends, and another society comes into being, similar to what we have now, but with newfound focus and a lot of the trivia of our materialistic society stripped away.

If the book lacks anything, it's perhaps the sadness and nostalgia in works like Ballard's "The Drowned World" or the films "On the Beach" or "The Quiet Earth". The survivor's of Hammerfall (as they call it) are pragmatic, resigned to the new reality, determined to hold on to whatever meager life they can preserve for themselves.

It's a great work, very thought provoking, well worth a read, particularly if you enjoy apocalyptic novels.