On the narrow sliver of land that is Islamorada in the Florida Keys, south of Key Largo proper and a little ways down the road from the giant lobster known as Big Betsy, one finds the History of Diving Museum. Beckoned into the parking lot by a deep sea diver surrounded by cannons and the loot of unknown wrecks salvaged from the briny deep, one then gets to take a stroll through the incredible history of humanity’s desire to conquer — or at least poke around in a spell — the vast oceans and seas that comprise the majority of our planet’s surface and yet remain as out of reach to most as the far reaches of space.
This month on The Cultural Gutter, I’m tackling Ann Leckie’s Hugo Award winning space opera Ancillary Justice. That’s What She Said examines the awesome sleight-of-hand Leckie pulls by writing a pretty straight-forward, old-fashioned space opera with one tweak: deciding to use “she” as the default pronoun for all characters instead of “he.” The result is a story that confuses, then defuses, gender without being aggressive about it, proving along the way that good space adventures are good space adventures…even when you think some of the characters are women!
Spanish single malt whiskey? Mysterious brandy? A cognac only one farmer from France has ever heard of? High quality, low profile, and generally a lot of fun to drink, how did a chemical engineer from France become an importer of such unusual spirits in the United States? On Alcohol Professor, That Secret Brand looks at PM Spirits, the company dedicated to bringing you those and other obscure, niche — “geeky” as founder Nicolas Palazzi calls them — spirits.
As a kid (and teen…and adult…), I dreamed of one day being a member of the Explorers Club. I mean, it only seemed natural they would want me. I’d done a pretty good job of exploring the hundred acres of undeveloped woods and caves comprising my grandfather’s property back in the day. Even still, with knowledge of the internal strife and mismanagement that has caused the glory to fade a bit, I still harbor images of reading accounts of the expedition of the Beagle whilst seated in an overstuffed leather chair surrounded by the artifacts of past adventures, occasionally interrupted by a mustachioed, pipe-smoking blowhard known only as “The Colonel” who will not shut up about the Yanomami. This summer, I got about as close as I’ll probably ever get to membership in the storied Club when I got to take a tour of their headquarters at 46 E 70th St. And while there was no The Colonel, and while crested blazers have given way to polo shirts, there was still a wonderfully cluttered array of random artifacts from past expeditions, many of them just sitting there — some of them still in common use — despite their historical provenance.
One of my early film memories, and still one of my favorite films, is The African Queen starring Bogart and Kate Hepburn. It was an early model for what I assumed my life would be, fueled as I was at the time by golden age adventure films and Illustrated Classics versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Naturally, I would become a grizzled adventurer and lead the kind of life where I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey at the end of a jungle bar in a joint of French Colonial design and where I was known simply as “The American.” While my life hasn’t been without its adventures, both grizzled and clean-shaven, they’ve rarely attained quite the rarefied airs of dragging a boat through a leech-infested swamp, though I did once find myself caught in the middle of a massive frog migration in Paynes Prairie, Florida. In the summer of 2015, however, I came a little bit closer to my childhood (and later) dreams of living an African Queen adventure, thanks to the fact that the actual African Queen ended up, through a circuitous series of events, docked in Key Largo (a fittingly Bogart location) where it is available for tours of the canals and coastline.
The history of just about any spirit seems to follow a distinct pattern. A date for its creation is established, then half a dozen or more previous examples of the spirit follow in quick succession, making the original date more or less meaningless. This is because no one “invents” gin. Or whiskey. Or any of these things. The process of inventing gin is a long process of one type of spirit slowly evolving into another related spirit as tastes and supply changes and as distilling technology changes. Spirits aren’t invented. They evolve. So when something states that gin was invented in the middle of the 17th century by a Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius, what they’re really saying is that’s the year the history of gin become much easier to research than it had been in the past. Because even a cursory search will turn up gin, or at least its root form — genever — as far back as the 1500s, and you can bet that by the time something was written about, it had already been around for a good long while. Most of what we know about gin today involves England, but just about all history places the rise of gin in that nebulous region Americans know as, “Holland or The Netherlands or Belgium or something about the Flemish — where the hell is Flemland?”
I hate the Spanish horror movie The Blood-Spattered Bride, but I still managed to involve myself in nearly two hours of talking about it on an episode of The Trashy Trio Podcast. OK, maybe 40 minutes was about The Blood-Spattered Bride. The rest is about Jack Parsons and Disney’s Haunted Mansion and Sasha Mitchell and my inability to run a mile. And then eventually we get around to this sordid, grubby little adaptation of Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” only featuring a misogynistic rapist wife abuser as the hero. Be prepared — it’s a rare occasion on which I’m working blue. Like Redd Foxx blue. Trigger warning for me not being very good as a podcaster.
Over on The Cultural Gutter, I’m celebrating Eiji Tsuburaya, Ishiro Honda, and aliens who want to steal our women! Beneath the Mysterian Dome is a look at The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space, two of the biggest special effects blow-outs the the Honda-Tsuburaya team created. Prepare yourself for tiny space battle son an epic scale an the wholesale decimation of Earth’s most famous landmarks.
It was during the great mid-century cocktail revival that young Ian Fleming came into his own as the gadabout and Bond vivant we know him as. And it’s likely that, as a man heavily influenced not just by British adventure writers like John Buchan, but also American detective novel writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, creator of the Philip Marlowe series and one of Fleming’s literary icons (Fleming even interviewed him for the BBC in 1958; the interview is the only known recording of Chandler’s voice, which the BBC radio producers described as “”slurred with whisky”), their drinking habits and those of their characters would have rubbed off on Commander Fleming. In the 2013 novel The Ian Fleming Files: Operation Parsifal by Damian Stevenson, a based-on-real-events novel about Fleming himself having wartime adventures that would inspire the adventures of James Bond, Fleming meets with his aging mentor Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox, who takes Fleming to The Eight Belles Pub.
The famous Savoy Hotel is first mentioned in the James Bond canon in Fleming’s 1956 novel Diamonds are Forever, when M reveals to 007 that one of his targets, a diamond importer by the name of Rufus B. Saye, lives at the Savoy. Bond himself, of course, never needs to stay at the Savoy; he lives in London, after all, and no hotel maid service, no matter how distinguished could compete with the services of Bond’s own attendant, May, his “Scottish treasure.” For Ian Fleming himself, however, and for many of Great Britain’s intelligence workers, The Savoy was one of the most important spots in all of London during World War II. Not just because of it’s historic and highly regarded bar; but also because it had its own power supply, which meant that even during power outages caused by German bombing, the Savoy could continue to operate.