Bottoms Up!

[Written, fairly obviously, in August 2003.]

I'm off to the 2003 World SF Convention in Toronto, where there's bound to be much jollity. Either Kansas City or Los Angeles will celebrate winning the right to hold the 2006 Worldcon, while the losers rejoice at escaping three years of hard work. Various awards including the Hugos will be announced, and I may be drinking to another victory – or to getting off the hook at last, after winning Hugos every year since (gulp) 1989. Trebles all round, chaps ...

Toasts are unlikely to be drunk in anything as hopelessly well known as Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters or that deadly Discworld tipple called scumble. The fan insider may prefer to sip a Spayed Gerbil, created at a 1976 US convention from a formula hastily improvised by Joe Haldeman: one-third Campari, two-thirds gin, on ice. Joe didn't actually get thrown out until he told the barman that he'd been making bogus Spayed Gerbils, and that for the real thing you needed a blender and a hamster.

Further back, the 1955 British national convention became legendary for Blog, which then had nothing to do with transcribing minutely boring details of one's life on the web, but was a drink with its own ready-made singing commercials: "Blog's the stuff for work, Blog's the stuff for play, / Blog's the stuff, when you feel rough, to chase the blues away ..." Described as pale grey with black specks in suspension, Blog was based on eggflip and brandy, flavoured with Tia Maria, Beecham's Powder, aspirin, Benedictine, Alka-Seltzer, blackcurrant juice, a touch of mustard ...

Decades later the Cambridge University SF Society had a fashion for even more visually alarming drinks. One was green beer (the magic of food colouring) with peanuts in it, intended to make passing tourists queasy. Another, a heady mix of Coke and tomato juice, was actually known as the Bloody Tourist.

What else? "Vurguuz" was reputedly invented by a fan who had dentistry connections, and deadened the burn of high-proof grain alcohol with a smidgeon of local anaesthetic. Its impact on unwary drinkers reminded SF readers of Harry Harrison's lovable rogue the Stainless Steel Rat, who in times of stress downs tumblers of "Syrian Panther Sweat, a potent beverage with such hideous aftereffects that its sale is forbidden on most civilised worlds."

That brings me to Cooking Out of This World (1973), a cookbook of SF author's recipes edited by Anne McCaffrey – who, alas, did not reveal how to peel and roast dragons. Scorning mere solids, Larry Niven contributed boozy treats like "Busted Kneecap", invented at a Worldcon party as his consolation for losing a Hugo to Harlan Ellison. The only available ingredients were bourbon and dry ice.

Mixing these gave a terrifying, bubbling, smoking glass of what – as the water froze out – became "concentrated, carbonated bourbon at about 20° below. One has to sip this drink carefully, and it will still numb one's mouth. But it got me very drunk indeed, and did me no permanent harm." Let me know how you get on. Niven also described a really dry though pyrotechnic Martini, involving absolute alcohol and metallic sodium, annotated as NOT RECOMMENDED FOR HUMAN BEINGS. Kzinti probably love it.

In fiction, the same author came up with a cruel gimmick for making people drunker than they expect. Simply build a tiny matter transmitter into a beerglass, and hope your victims don't notice that it keeps surreptitiously refilling. The idea goes back to the Norse myth in which mighty god Thor is challenged to quaff the whole of a giant's drinking-horn, but can't because (as he fails to notice even after three goes) it's secretly connected to the sea. Imagine what this implies about Thor's taste buds.

Almost as mighty a drinker – sometimes – is Kim Kinnison, two-fisted hero of Doc Smith's "Lensman" saga. His favourite trick for penetrating criminal circles is to act the part of some lowlife scum who swills copious raw spirits, and takes massive quantities of dope, for weeks on end. After these heroic excesses of drinking on duty, it's distinctly anticlimactic that Kinnison shrugs off the hangover with one twitch of his manly thews. Not even a small token bout of DTs or a single, transient pink elephant sighting.

One notable SF story that turns on mixing drinks is Anthony Boucher's "Q.U.R." (1942), in which "Quinby's Usuform Robots" rather prophetically promote the idea of robots shaped for efficient functioning, not as imitations of people. The key challenge is to build one that can mix a Three Planets cocktail as well as the whirling tentacles of a top Martian bartender. One part Earth rum, one part Venusian margil, and just a dash of Martian vuzd. The proportions are critical, and that "dash" is almost impossible to measure, until someone thinks of high-speed photography ...

Whole SF novels with an alcoholic theme are rare, but Tim Powers's The Drawing of the Dark has rightly been called the first real ale fantasy novel, where "Herzwesten" beer is a vital plot device for nourishing the Fisher King. Although the title sounds like a typical, waffling fantasy metaphor, it's meant quite literally – as in pulling a pint. Cheers!

Next issue, David Langford may well discuss SF about aspirin and sodium bicarbonate.