Beers and Hugos: what to pair with your novel finalists

What to drink as you sit in your favourite reading spot with a good book is a vexing question of no import whatsoever. Wine has its advocates but I think drinking beer or slowly sipping spirits is a better a match for novels.

But what to match with this year’s Hugo Finalists for Best Novel? I have put some thought into this difficult question at 1 am this morning when I was woken by the cat howling at an empty space in the garden (why was it being so defiantly empty, he asked me as I sent him back to bed).

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine: I want a beer that suits a traveller to an ancient empire. Given some of the Aztec trappings of Teixcalaanli, a Mexican beer might suit but unfortunately I’m really not familiar with Mexican beers although I have enjoyed Negra Modelo ( ) While it’s not the right empire, I also did enjoy the ubiquitous Cusqueña beers in Peru. Brewed in Cuzco, I particulalry enjoyed the Cusqueña Negra (

Negra Modelo

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire. I need a pair of near-identical twins who run the risk of controlling the universe. I won’t pick a specific beer but rather two styles: New England IPA and Pacific/West Coast IPA. American but also a bit Anglophile and too smart for their own good. A half-pint glass of each. (

A couple of IPAs

However, while browsing through my many beer photos I did find an IPA with a label perfectly suited for Dodger (if I remember correctly the character herself doesn’t drink) Golden Spiral Fibonacci Hopped IPA ( ) The copy on the label could have been written by Roger…

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow. This is a tricky one. Is there a distinctively turn-of-the-century American beer? Or should I be thinking of a beer from a parallel universe? The dark corridors of Locke House makes me think of maybe a barley wine. Alternatively, a saison bottled with a cork and a little wire cage ( ) has the air of something that has travelled a long way under mysterious circumstances.

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. Yes, I will confess that I have not yet completed my Hugo novel reading. However the blurb alone points to an obvious answer: a planet “divided between a permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other”. That clearly calls for a nitrogen fuelled can of draught Guinness. Midnight black and a creamy white with a narrative of paradoxical bubbles swirling between.

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir. Tricky, tricky. I need a beer that is a bit morbid, wild, cheeky and doesn’t give a shit. I can’t imagine Gideon would be picky about what she drinks and a cheap, strong mass-produced lager would probably fit the character. However, I’m trying to match the book and not just a character in it. This beer from New Zealand is more demonic than necromantic but I think it works

The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley. Do we need a high-strength beer here to match the mind-twisting plot or something with more flavour and less alcohol so we can concentrate and try to work out what is going on? I’ve drunk Chocolate Fish Milk Stout before which is a suitably disorientating car-crash of nouns but I don’t think that is the right tone for this novel. I want something that is sharp but very much not what it seems to be — a drink that makes you want to know what is going on and why? Perhaps something with a hint of a terrible experiment gone wrong… Aha! The title of that post alone matches the novel. For this one I’ll go for a shot of Jameson Irish Whisky that has been aged in stout beer barrels.

Lastly, we won’t know who the runners up are until August but they deserve a quick drink as well and something to toast the valiant volunteers making the Hugo Awards happen. Here’s a favourite from 2017

Be responsible and don’t try all of these in one go! Also, don’t try all these drinks in one go!

Train to Busan and the Comfort of Disaster

As part of the ongoing Blog Challenge Project, Shaun Duke wrote a rewatch review of Danny Boyle’s hyper-tense zombie movie 28 Days Later. Entitled “28 Days Later and the Delicious Comfort of Disaster” it very neatly encapsulates the counter-intuitive trend for people to be drawn to zombie and disease films during a pandemic.

‘As I mentioned, re-watching this film in the middle of a pandemic has added some interesting dimensions of comfort and terror. These simultaneously (and contradictorily) operate through two components:
1. The setting is a “worst case scenario,” which is always worse than wherever we happen to be in the now.
2. The story is deeply “human.”’

I’m a big fan of 28 Days Later, partly because it knowingly plays on one of my favourite novels The Day of the Triffids but also because it is so tense and scary. Focused on a quartet of survivors in an abandoned Britain, the zombies are “rage’ infected living people. The implication is that the actual pandemic will end once the infected all starve to death but somehow that only makes the film both more bleak and horrific.

Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 contribution to the zombie movie genre similarly focuses on a core quartet of people attempting to survive during a zombie outbreak. However, unlike 28 Day’s Later paired back depiction the film fully indulges in zombies as an inhuman mass of violent bodies. The violence is more frequent and the confrontation between the protagonists and the undead is almost constant once it gets underway.

Where 28 Days Later explicitly ties the infection to human violence and social instability, Train to Busan presents the immediate spread of a zombie outbreak as a social metaphor. Overworked fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is taking his daughter from Seoul to see her mother in Busan (from whom he is divorced due to the relationship collapsing because of his work commitments). On board the same train is Seong-kyeong (Jung Yu-mi) and her pugilistic working-class husband Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok). Unbeknownst to all of them, Seoul is the epicentre of a horrific zombie outbreak (the cause of which is never explained).

The course of the outbreak is initially watched as news reports on the train TVs and via people’s phones. Initially presented as civil unrest, the scale and nature of the infection rapidly becomes clear but only as the train itself becomes infected. What follows is both a tense action film and a social examination. At one end is Sang-hwa, a down to earth man who is mainly trying to keep his pregnant wife safe but throughout helps others. In contrast, Yon-suk is the COO of the train company and coincidentally a passenger: throughout his cynical and selfish actions compound the danger of the zombies even as he claims to act for the greater good. Between them, morally is Seok-woo who initially attempts to convince his daughter that survival at the expense of others is the only thing that matters (this after she gives up her seat for an elderly passenger).

‘Message fiction’ is an oft derided term but Train to Busan makes no apologies for it’s core theme: in a crisis we should help one another not just for moral reasons but because it is the essence of survival. The film doesn’t play favourites though, the shitty COO survives for longer than many of the ‘nice’ characters. Other’s let grief overwhelm them and others die holding back hordes of rabid zombies so that others can escape. Yet in the end it is hope and humanity that survives.

Losing and finding humanity runs through the film both as the accident of being bitten by a zombie but also by the toll of surviving the corporate ladder. Seok-woo is chided by his daughter for his selfishness and more neatly summed up by Sang-hwa who just calls names him “asshole”* Yet, it is cooperation that keeps them alive — most notably when Seok-woo, Sang-hwa and a young baseball player have to fight their way through infected carriages.

Neatly balancing big set-pieces (and horrific zombie hordes) with a very person focused survival story, this is one of my favourite zombie films. Unique and familiar it is well worth a watch.

*[Except in Korean obviously. I’m going off the subtitles]

Worlds Enough and Tim

[Scene: The drawing room of Felapton Towers – Reality ℥℔Ωℨ 2017, during the unfortunate Weasel Flu Pandemic of that year during the presidency of ¡Jeb! Bush and the Prime Ministership of the Right Honourable Cilla Black]

[Camestros (sleeping)] zzzzz
[Timothy the Talking Cat] Wake up! Wake up! Time for the daily Zoom meeting!
[Camestros] Whaaa…huh…oh, it’s you. Oh, good grief are we doing the online meeting thing again?
[Timothy] PMs orders! All workplaces are REMOTE workplaces and that includes my publishing house.
[Camestros] Yes but you are literally sitting on my lap.
[Timothy] It’s the only place I can reach the laptop that is next to you on the lounge.
(Timothy click “Join Meeting” and after a short but somehow annoyingly long time a Zoom meeting starts. Camestros does the same with his phone. As the meeting starts an ungodly howl omits from both devices.)
[Camestros] Aggh! Turn off the mic! Turn off the audio!
[Timothy] I did that already.
[Camestros] So what was that howling?
[Timothy] You were sitting on my tail.
[Camestros] (grumbles under his breath) So, “boss”, what’s this meeting about?
[Timothy] Well I think we need a holiday.
[Camestros] Yeah but [moves hands to indicate the whole current state of the world] an appalling pandemic that has but the whole world in lockdown. Even the pubs are closed. Even the creepy dry-cleaners is closed and that was even open to begin with.
[Timothy] Ah ha! But I have found the solution…we can escape from all this ON A CRUISE SHIP!
[Camestros] Hmm, well, let me count the ways that is an appalling idea. 1. cruise ships are, even on a good year without a global plague of biblical proportions, floating Petri dishes of disease. 2. I can’t swim. 3. You can’t swim and you hate boats. 3. If we get on a cruise liner I will sing the theme tune to The Love Boat and you will attempt to claw out my vocal claws as a result. 4. Do you KNOW how many people just fall off cruise ships every year and NOBODY notices? It is like A LOT! Good grief, sometimes the crew just throw away the luggage in apparently abandoned rooms and don’t tell anybody. 5. You get cross with me whenever I try to explain the connection between Jordan Peterson and the film of the Poseiden Adventure at the best of times. A cruise is just one long giant social event and you know how I’ll get and that will be the ONLY topic of conversation I’ll be able to think of. 6. I’m pretty confident all the cruise line companies have gone bust. 7. …
[Timothy] …shut that pie hole for a moment, please! This isn’t a regular cruise! It’s not a cruise on the sea! It is a cruise ship of THE IMAGINATION!
[Camestros] Gasp! Tell me more…

More Cruise Ship hi-Jinks below

The Being Not Human Awards

Robots, aliens, talking (or at least sapient) animals, AIs, demons, gods, vampires, entities, orcs, goblins, trolls, elves, dwarfs, giant spiders and guests, welcome! Please take your seats, there is plenty of room in this elegant if ageing theatre that we call Camestros Felapton’s Experience of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Genre. Get comfortable, introduce yourself to your neighbour and sit back.

I’d like to discuss with you all what it is to be you. Now I must apologise in advance. There are many you in the audience, people I love dearly, who may take offence at what I am going to say next. Yes, yes, I am looking at you Mr Spock and yes, you C3PO and there’s no point waving that screwdriver at me Doctor, nor hiding behind Gimli’s axe Legolas. I love you all but I’m sorry, this really is not about you. Yes each of you is distinctly not human in deep and notable ways as explained in great detail in the backstory section of your Wikipedia pages. However, for our purposes tonight while you may be the big stars, this is not your turn in the spotlight. We love you but we love you because you have to admit that your are not exactly not-human.

Yes, Mr Spock (and yes you too Data, no need to add a third voice C3PO) that was a double negative. Each of you are positioned as aliens as a way for people to understand the variation in human experience. On the whole that has been a positive I think. Each of you have been embraced by humans who can see aspects of themselves and their own sense of difference from other humans. I do not begrudge your roles to that end even if the idea of taking the actual variation in human experience and calling some of it alien, as if being stoical or logic or struggling with your own understanding of emotion or just being quirky and eccentric (yes, your fez is nice Doctor) makes you equivalent to being a different species. It’s a bit off when you think about it like that even if the repeated moral of your story is that being a person isn’t about what species (or machine) you are.

In short, dear favourites, none of you sitting in those front seats are ABOUT being not-human. Quite the opposite. Your alienness is simply a metaphor for our own prejudices and social norms excluding variety. And for that you get the love, the accolades and the fans. However, I must put you aside for today’s ceremonies.

Sorry, [shield’s eyes and looks up to the lighting desk] can we raise the house lights please? Particularly that very shadowy section over there? Yes, the section that appears to be generating its own anti-light and which is emitting eldritch noises? Thanks! Oh! Not to bright! Some of our guest are a little…sensitive…to photons.

Secondly I must offer my apologies to another section of the theatre. Actually could we all give a big round of applause to a guy who has been doing absolutely solid work in this industry for literally decades. You know who you are. I’m pointing right at you. Stand up and take a bow big guy. He’s my good friend and golf buddy, he’s the monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind, the one, the only (I hope) dread Cthulhu! [applause]

Cthulhu is here tonight to represent a major part of our big SF & F non-human family. We couldn’t do it without you guys. You are the monsters, the dread hordes, the onrushing threat that seeks to overwhelm the kingdom, the dark secret trapped in the unholy tomb. You guys just don’t get the credit you deserve, particularly with the conditions you have to work under. The damp, the dark, the often unquenchable fires of damnation, often without hazard pay. Bravo, bravo.

But I said you were owed an apology and you are. So often you are the fears and prejudices of your authors. Often you are the product of the internal or overt racism of your makers. Sometimes your creators (no, no Supreme Dalek, I don’t mean Davros, I mean Terry Nation, please stop screeching “Davros”) so often intend for you not to be explorations of what it might mean to be something other than human but rather to cast humanity’s own evil in an external form.

Hands (or whatever) up everybody in that section that was intended to be a metaphor for fascism? OK, OK. Lots of hands and plungers up in the air I see. Now hands up everybody who was intended to be a metaphor for communism? Yup, lots of appendages going up. Now hands up those of you who were a metaphor for both and sometimes a metaphor for uncontrolled capitalism! Ha, yes, yes Cybermen it really is amazing how many things you can be a metaphor for!

And zombies. I’m so sorry. I get that you can’t really parse what I’m saying and I know there were some pedants (yes, I do mean you Mr Spock) who said that you are by definition human and hence shouldn’t have been invited at all. However, you above all represent the urge for creators to invent beings who can be slaughtered without remorse. [weird rattling sound] Yes, excellent point Triffids, your narratives often shift to other humans being the REAL threat.

That was a timely comment as I’d like to direct everybody’s attention to the sentient plant creature section of the audience. A big hand for them all please! Yes, yes, YOU ARE GROOT! Ha, I think the Ents are just discussing something witty to say in response…they’ll have a quip to say in a couple of hours. Ha, sorry Audrey no time for a musical number tonight! You are all wonderful but please don’t let those sun lamps get on the vampires in the next row.

And by a handy coincidence that takes me to the first award of the night. It is the award for the first non human fictional creatures that made me think about what it might be like for some being to be intelligent but not in anyway like the way it is for a human to be intelligent. And the award goes to…THE TRIFFIDS FROM DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS BY JOHN WYNDHAM! [the crowd goes wild, music from the Howard Keel movie version plays,a little group of triffids clump three-leg-stumpily up the ramp to the stage.]

These guys, wow. Such, such good work. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction owes them so much. Just look at the cheers they are getting from the zombies! These heroes of our industry have no central nervous system. They don’t have brains, we really don’t even know what kind of sense they have except hearing. Yet they can organise and plan and turn the tables on humanity. Is it some kind of collective intelligence? An emergent property from their system of communication? Nobody knows! It is the blithe obliviousness to the idea of triffids having mental states that means the triffids aren’t just another natural hazard after humanity finds itself struck by disaster. Of all the waiting rivals to the hegemony of people, it is the triffids who seize the opportunity. From us all and on behalf of the academy, please except this trophy and this prize of a large bag of potting mix.

OK calm down everybody. We’ve still a couple more awards to go. So let’s get right into it. The second prize tonight goes to the first depiction I encountered as a child of an alien ‘monster’ that really wasn’t what it seemed and which had to try and make sense of humans very quickly to stop them murdering it, thus revealing that the humans were actually the aggressive alien species after even if they din’t realise it . I can see a lot of excited candidates shifting in their seats. It’s a big category and I’ll be frank, the Silurians were a strong contender for this but the judges (yes, you Mr Spock) disputed that sapient dinosaur count as aliens. However, in the end for shear alienness I had to give this award to everybody’s favourite classic silicon-based lifeform. She’s the lava creature from Janus VI. You know her, you love her, you may have mind-melded with her (yes, you Mr Spock) it is THE HORTA FROM STAR TREK THE ORIGINAL SERIES EPISODE DEVIL IN THE DARK! [Crowd goes wild again as a kind of blobby thing squishes up to the podium.]

Congratulations! Thank you Horta representative for taking time out of your busy 50 thousand year life-cyle to be with us tonight. Please accept this trophy and this pallet of premium quality house bricks. The Horta everybody! Ha, yes Silurians, it is always the greedy mine operators who set off incidents like this. THINK BEFORE YOU DIG, PEOPLE!

Well we are nearly at the end of the night and it is time for the big award. Laestrygones and Gegenees, our final recipient is in the category of my favourite inscrutable intelligence that is manifestly a thinking thing but which surpasses the understanding of the people who encounter it thus challenging us to reconsider what it is to think and what it might a non-human intelligence be like. A tough category and one that we struggle to define boundaries for. There was a strong argument for the whatever-the-thing-is-in-Area-X in Jeff Vandemeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. A judge’s ruling (yes, you Mr Spock) disqualified the giant wandering space computer conglomerate from Star Trek: The Movie on the grounds that it was actually just the Voyager probe. That same judge really wanted to include the big space thing from Star Trek: The Voyage Home, but honestly there’s nothing inscrutable with just really liking whales — I mean that’s a pretty simple motivation when you think about it. In the end there was only once choice I could pick.

Please give a big Being Not Human Awards round of applause for…THE PLANET SOLARIS FROM STANISLAW LEM’S SOLARIS! Due to orbital mechanics and limited space in the theatre, Solaris can’t be with us tonight but to show their appreciation they have tapped into our subconscious and used their power over neutrinos to re-create a lost loved one in a manner that will be psychological traumatic for each and every one of us but will make us reconsider the nature of not only ourselves but how we might connect with minds utterly different from our own when we so often fail to even be honest with ourselves. Solaris everybody! Not just a planet but also a really bad therapist.

And that’s it for this decade’s Being Not Human Award ceremony. Thank you all for attending. Time to go back to sleep on R’lyeh Cthulhu! Ha yes Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Camestros Bortsworth wgah’nagl fhtagn to you too! See you next Thursday at the golf club! Good night one and all! Yes, yes, you ARE Groot! Drive those Ents home Groot, they may have been drinking and we don’t want them trashing Isengard again! See you Cybermen! Be nice to your Borg cousins!

Good night everybody!

The Arts and the Blog Challenge Project

A few days the admirable Shaun Duke put out a call on twitter for fellow bloggers to join a kind of writing challenge. He later explained it in more detail in this post on his own blog:

“What is the Blog Challenge Project? In short, the project aims to create a community of bloggers and booktubers who will encourage one another to create content, support one another in their blogging ventures, and provide a giant list of prompts and ideas for posts that folks can complete on their own time or challenge one another to explore. The idea is to provide some positivity and community in a time of immense stress. You can click the link to read the full info page and see our current list of prompts!”

Aside from being a great way to find other interesting posts to read, it looked to me like a good way to create inter-blog conversations. People don’t need to write about things at the same time but having common prompts will help more natural conversations and back-and-forth of ideas happen. I was very happy to join.

But where to start! Well I could just do what I normally do and wait for inspiration to hit me with its four claws, confused expression and unsatisfied hunger for kibble and then, after I’d written whatever post came out of that experience, add the topic I wrote post-hoc to the list. That didn’t feel entirely in the spirit of the thing. So I decide to cheat in the opposite way and pick the first prompt somebody else had already written on! Brilliant, I said to myself, although Timothy was disappointed that I hadn’t done a photo essay comparing shapes of commercial pet-food kibble with famous starships (another time).

Luckily, Shaun Duke had also got the ball rolling with a big picture post entitled The Arts are the Glue that Holds Civilization Together.

“And in doing all of this and seeing all of what is happening around me, I’ve started to answer a crucial question out loud to myself: why do the arts matter yesterday, today, and tomorrow? And I think I’ve got a decent answer to that. I’d argue that the arts are the glue that holds civilization together on both the personal, national, and global scale. It’s the thing that allow us to express ourselves, to find joy and relief, to be human and explore what that even means. The arts are everything.”

Now as people know, in the great sorting hat of the disciplines I was shuffled off into House STEM and I can’t say that the hat got that wrong exactly but I haven’t been particularly faithful to my appointed box either.

Shaun’s thesis that the arts form a kind of social glue strikes me as absolutely right. The dark side of that is the way those who seek to take power away from us do so via propaganda and narratives. That’s not deny that other forms of intellectual disciplines aren’t also used for evil because they are from economics to physics but that the political power, even in a tyranny revolves around persuasion and the subversion of the ‘social glue’ that Shaun describes.

A lot of talk about the value of the arts points towards the virtue of creativity. That’s not wrong but it’s not the aspect I find compelling mainly because I think people miss the extent to which creativity is embedded in every discipline. The difference with the arts is that creativity is more overtly celebrated. Albert Einstein, for example, was manifestly a very creative thinker but it is the correctness of his theories that earns them their praise rather than their novel elegance.

Rather, what I value from the arts in terms of a unique contribution is their capacity to interrogate creativity creatively. The arts in general provide a way of exchanging ideas that provide the ‘social glue’ that Shaun describes but the discipline of the arts gives us tools for us to examine how those ideas operate and mesh together and also how they differ from one another.

Without tools to interrogate the creative, the spiritual and the aesthetic aspects of our culture we lose sight of their power. Losing sight of that power is how we end up with things like Fox News on the one hand or L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics on the other. Conversely not understanding how disciplines that our current culture regards as somehow “non-arts” hides from us connections and delights and ways of enjoying the world around us.

I’ve discussed before Japanese Temple Geometry ( a perfect instance of what we’ve stereotyped as unartistic playing that demonstrable social glue (in this case community worship) and engaging with notions of the spiritual and the aesthetic.

Our capacity to interrogate, define and converse about the arts is essential. It is essential for us as an open society in which ideas flow and people can grow.

Now excuse me, I have to draw a theorem.