Books & Booze


Beer of note: Lussinatta (depicted above), a dark smoked rye saison, 6.5% ABV, by a small brewery called Unorthodox Brewing from Trnava in the Slovak Republic. I’m always on the lookout for a good smoked beer, because the famous Schlenkerla Rauchbier from Bamberg, Germany, is excellent, and it would be nice to try more – but if other German breweries make the stuff I’ve not heard of it, and the attempts I’ve come across in Eastern Europe were generally not worth writing home about (except to warn against).

This stuff is pretty good, though – it has a good solid taste, similar to the Schlenkerla, with a slight woody note, and also the slightly sweet taste of strong Belgian beers. It’s not quite as strong as Schlenkerla taste-wise, but then Schlenkerla is a pretty intense substance. Smell-wise it’s far weaker than Schlenkerla, which fairly reeks of bacon (or like certain types of eastern European sausages – a Slav of my acquaintance tried Schlenkerla and declared “klobasa beer!” in delight), though the smoked smell is apparent on careful sniffing.

(Since writing this, I’ve tasted another Slovak smoked beer that wasn’t bad – “Libresso”, brewery unknown – the brewer’s a friend of my brother-in-law – but not as good as this one. They did do a pretty excellent double IPA though.)

Books of note: I’ve recently read two of A. E. van Vogt’s books. van Vogt was one of the “golden age” sci-fi authors, though not one of the really hard sci-fi types – more of the pulp fiction, action plus strange ideas type. The first of these, “Empire of the Atom”, is a well-written story about a post-apocalyptic society slowly rebuilding and going through various wars etc. The story moves forward at a fast clip but suffers from two and a half problems. The first is that the point of view jumps around a bit, so it’s hard to build up too much sympathy for any one character. This isn’t the worst thing in the world and a good story can overcome this (cf. A Song of Ice and Fire, or at least the early books).

A second, related problem is that it doesn’t feel like it hangs together. A good sci-fi story should have the feeling of cohesive worldbuilding, and part of this is that anything not part of our normal frame of reference should either be introduced early on, or foreshadowed enough that when it appears, it fits neatly into a slot prepared for it. ESR has discussed this in detective-story-like terms – if sci-fi is done well enough, you can see the implications of new technology etc. coming, and guess some of the Big Reveals in advance by the shape of the hole prepared for them to slot into. I’ve always been awful at guessing the solutions to detective stories so I don’t think that way; from my perspective, it’s just satisfying when a new development fits neatly in place like a key in a lock, even if you could not have guessed the exact shape of the key.

Anyway, in Empire of the Atom the events in the last few chapters did not feel of a piece with what had gone before – particularly the superweapon, which had been (very) vaguely hinted at earlier but whose introduction still seemed arbitrary, as did the limits on its use and the challenges the protagonist had to go through to use it. van Vogt liked to keep throwing new developments at the reader and the protagonist(s), which most of the time makes for a lively plot but in this case jarred a bit.

The half-a-problem is that the superweapon and the last big twist are actually mentioned on the cover, which somehow makes it even worse that they don’t really fit. And whose idea was it to put a blurb on the inside describing a scene that doesn’t even appear in the book? (I rate this as “half a problem” as more sensible editions of the book may exist.)

The Undercover Aliens – also known as The House That Stood Still (thanks to ESR for pointing that out) – is a lot more tightly plotted, with a fast-moving story about a guy stumbling across a mysterious house and a group of very-long-lived individuals associated with it. The secrets of the setting slot neatly into place when revealed (mostly); the protagonist is a Man of Action who is reasonably likeable but is mostly there to investigate things and get knocked unconscious every third chapter to provide a cliffhanger. (This gets old fast, especially when he doesn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, or even develop a perfectly reasonable paranoid hostility to everyone he meets.)

The central Big Reveal – the reason that the house has special properties – is not something that could be deduced in advance, making it “defective” by ESR’s standards; but it does move from “initial mystery” to “everything revealed at the end” quite smoothly. It’s a reasonably good example of the technique discussed here on how to build an interesting setting with plot hooks and mysteries in a fantasy context – with the caveat that the agent behind the house never properly becomes part of the story. Interactions with that agent are skipped over at the end, with the result that the ending feels abrupt and slightly unsatisfying.

Apparently there was a sequel to Empire of the Atom, which I’ll have to read at some point, and I’ve started van Vogt’s War Against the Rull.

(This post initially went up with a few edits and the picture missing; apologies.)


Italia (I)

I recently spent a week with the Significant Other in the land of scooters, Rome and pasta. This has slightly cured in me that regrettable condition whereby all Italian sounds like someone ordering pizza with lots of toppings on.

Several sketches were made during this time. Let us open with the more apparently mundane subjects: for is it not the true task of art to find beauty even in such things?


An Italian ceiling fan.


A view of an Italian drainpipe through an Italian hotel window.

Sketches of more conventional artistic subjects will appear in the next post.