GREGORY FEELEY writes fiction and about fiction. His first novel, The Oxygen Barons, was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, and he has published essays in The Atlantic Monthly, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. His short fiction has twice been nominated for the Nebula Award and has appeared five times in year’s best anthologies. His most recent novel is Kentauros (2010).
On the tenth anniversary of its original publication, Arabian Wine is once again available from Temporary Culture in cooperation with Weightless Books. Arabian Wine is a short novel about the arrival of coffee and steam power in a Venice that has not quite entered the modern scientific era. John Crowley called it a “fine, funny trans-historical adventure, so well-furnished and well-wrought it seems more true than the more boring truth.” Temporary Culture publisher Henry Wessells asked Gregory Feeley a few questions about the book.
Several of your fictions unfold at the edges of modernity, when scientific developments start to shape the world we know. What are the origins of Arabian Wine?
Like many of my stories — The Oxygen Barons , “A Different Drumstick” , “Fancy Bread” , and my current novel in progress — Arabian Wine began with its title. A good title can demand that a story be written for it. I encountered the phrase in a pictorial history of coffee (a genuine coffee table book, left out in an upscale coffee shop for customers to browse) and immediately knew it was the title of a story I had to write. And obviously the story had to take place in the era when coffee was just beginning to appear in Europe. By the time I put the volume down I also knew that there would be a mishap involving some clanky mechanism releasing a jet of steam and the protagonists accidentally inventing espresso. I went home and began researching, and the novel developed from there.
I’m not sure why I am attracted to historical eras in which an important scientific theory or model of the cosmos begins to deform under the pressure of history, but after I published “The Weighing of Ayre”  and began writing “Animae Celestes”  (which is part of a still-incomplete longer work, Headwinds of the Heart), I noticed as much. Eventually I realized that this is why I like the work of James Blish, whose stories consistently involve belief systems, social organizations, or physical structures coming under pressure and imploding. And such stories necessarily combine both the abstract and the material, which is another attraction.
Why Venice in 1609?
Venice was a liminal zone — neither land nor sea, not particularly Christian though certainly not Muslim, and as Levantine as it was European — and it was the one realm in Christendom where commerce trumped faith. The Venetians would trade with anyone — Turks, Arabs, Byzantines — and their relentless push to make money (they were not interested in expanding their borders or the glory of God or the Church) helped drive the development of modern capitalism. As a system that combines both the abstract and material — and one that has immediate relevance to our own lives — global capitalism is hard to beat.
Traditionally, the introduction of coffee to the west is ascribed to the retreat of the Turks after the siege of Vienna. This is a myth, of course. History is much more porous, as are the boundaries between the Islamic and Christian worlds. How extensive were the commercial relations between Venice and the Ottomans in the decades after the battle of Lepanto (1579)?
It is surprising how little the wars between Christendom and the Ottomans impeded Venice’s trade with the Islamic world. The nations of Europe, to say nothing of the Pope, deeply mistrusted Venice for this, but they also bought what Venice had to sell.
The eastern Mediterranean circa 1609
Leonhart Rauwolf and Prosper Alpini visited the Islamic world in the late 1570s and early 1580s and soon published accounts of the flora. Alpini was a physician and his writings on the plants of Egypt emphasize medicinal properties. How quickly did knowledge of coffee spread in scientific circles?
As near as I could work out, coffee became known in Europe after Alpini and other travelers began to publish accounts of what they had seen during their time in the land of “the Turk” — the travel books they published became a popular genre. It’s hard to know how quickly word of “chaube” or “caofa” (as they called it) spread in “scientific circles,” since these circles did not yet have a journal in which to publish their discoveries. (The first, the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, I wrote about in “The Weighing of Ayre.”) My guess is that coffee was sold as a costly medicine before it became inexpensive enough for people to drink recreationally, but it was enough for my story to know that by 1609 this had not yet happened.
And how about accounts of drinking coffee?
I don’t recall a description of coffee that included a first-hand account of the experience of drinking it. Quite possibly Alpini and the rest never actually tasted it — or if they did, they recoiled at its bitterness, as one does the first time. Rauwolf called it “a very good drink,” but he seemed have been reporting its salutary qualities (he declared it “very good in illness, especially of the stomach”).
David Liss’ The Coffee Trader, which came out while my novel was searching for a publisher, also contains a “You’ve got to taste this” moment, a description of the exhilaration of feeling caffeine’s first effects. I have to assume that Liss, like me, was using his imagination here; I don’t know of any actual early account.
There are brief passages where I see you allude to earlier counterfactual science fiction, such as De Camp’s introduction of bookkeeping to the late Roman empire in Lest Darkness Fall, but Arabian Wine has a different thrust and flavor. Was the Serene Republic a proto-police state?
Blish once said that he was writing a novel set during in Venice during the Borgia pontificate, which I discovered when I was reading his letters in the Bodleian Library many years ago. He wrote that “if I am going to write about the crucial ideas in the history of science, I ought not to rule out the malign ones; in this case, what I’ll be talking about is the invention of the security system for technical information, which our charming Venetian friends were inaugurating during the same period that they invented the ghetto.” I did a good deal of research while writing Arabian Wine, and I decided that Blish was right.
My novel was finished in the summer of 2001, before the convulsions of 9-11 (to say nothing of the subsequent developments that Edward Snowden helped disclose), but the relevance of Venice’s policies, with its covert surveillance, anonymous denunciation, and apparatus of secret arrests, trials, and executions, to our own government’s was clear even then.
Do you wish to mention other work, long or short, that is complete or forthcoming?
For the past ten years I have been working on a long novel, set a century earlier, that also ranges over the European and Islamic worlds. It deals with end of the period when Renaissance magic — “white magic,” specifically the Neoplatonism of Marsilio Ficino and Avicenna — was taken seriously by theologians and scholars. Another story — my most ambitious yet — about an epistemology crumbling under the pressures of science and history.
Greg, how do you take your coffee?
With milk. I wish I knew when people started doing that, but the historical record seems to be silent.