Cloud Chamber 106
June 2000

Tap. 'There it is again!' said Hazel. 'Bloody hell, even I heard that,' I admitted. We cowered in nameless fear. Out there in the summer night something was moving from window to window and making a sudden sharp ... Tap. Nothing could actually be seen. Eventually I went out, fruitlessly searched the garden for a bit, and then found the occult manifestation clinging to a window-frame: a fat three-inch-long stag beetle which (bloody hell!) suddenly flew so fast that it almost seemed to teleport as it banged again at the window and bounced off into the night. Our back garden continues to attract strange visitors, though the repeatedly manifesting bright orange football is less eerie.

Medical News. The doctor has started to take an alarming interest in my allegedly slightly high blood pressure. I waited in vain for, 'Just a shot in the dark, Mr Langford, but do you ever deal with the accounts department at'

Thog the Inadmissible. Our barbarian critic tries not to cite fan fiction from his dignified pulpit in Ansible, but rather liked this scene from a 'gay X-Men story' discovered and forwarded by Nonie Rider: 'Remy was tight-strung, electric current racing through him. Logan shifted and settled back on his thighs; the sides of Remy's shirt pulled back to expose pale flesh to a blue gaze scorching through the blindfold burning into Remy's retinas transmitting along his nerves like a wild singing in the wind, wailing a seductive bludgeon that he couldn't refuse.'

Read in Reading (and elsewhere)

Piers Anthony, The Dastard (2000), speed-skimmed to check whether I'm still doing Anthony an injustice by writing off all later Xanth books as shamefully, unreadably awful. This one is worse than even I had expected. Avoid, avoid. But it should go down a treat with the 129 (by my count) readers who are individually credited in the Author's Note for their contributions, often multiple, of limp puns, unfunny character names and unfunnier magical talents. Much more of this reader participation and Anthony will be out of the loop altogether. • Jeff VanderMeer, The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek (1999) ... a dottily surreal textual labyrinth, hugely enjoyed; am most grateful to Brian Stableford and Steve J for the recommendations. I wonder if the eccentric fungal motif is a distant homage to that undeservedly neglected fantasy Musrum (1968) by Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw? • Ann Halam, The Fear Man (1995), another Gwyneth Jones juvenile which adds nasty and effective magical twists to the 'estranged father stalking terrified woman and kids' theme. • Peter Tinniswood, The Brigadier Down Under (1983), cricket-based nonsense which should provide useful local colour to fill the gaps in my memory if I ever get around to writing up the Aussiecon trip. 'We have been in Adelaide for three long, weary, dreary, arduous days. / As yet we have shown no signs of scurvy, rickets, or trench fever. / [...] I am not a prejudiced man, but I say with all sincerity and objectivity that Australia is the open wound of all that is vile and loathsome in the civilized world.' ... On second thoughts, maybe I'd better rely on my own notes and memory. • John Barnes, Orbital Resonance (1991), quite a good handling of a bright adolescent viewpoint in a 'superkids in space habitat' setting (seemingly utopian, but booby-trapped) that invites comparison with Heinlein but manages to avoid the old boy's fearful political simplicities. • Eric Frank Russell, Wasp (1957) ... one of the Gollancz yellowjacket reissues. Wasp is an old favourite here, a minor classic in the unassuming subgenre of lightweight, wisecracking sf thrillers (I see Terry Pratchett likes it too), but has in the past wrong-footed me by coming in two versions, differently edited, differently split into chapters. I was used to the longer British edition (1958), but Gollancz chose to reissue the 1957 American cut. This is tighter and tauter in some places, and adds exactly one nice line that isn't in the 1958 version ... but the latter seems to be more what Russell wanted, and has several memorable phrases that I was sad not to see in the reprint. 'The wasp buzzed alone, unaided, but was loyal to the swarm.' 'There are no traitors in a phantom army.' I remembered these and other lines across decades. Not in the yellowjacket, alas. Here's an example of Russell's high spirits – a deliberately mixed metaphor – being either toned down by the US editor or slipped in later for the British edition. 1958: 'The wasp had magnified himself to such elephantine proportions that they weren't going to waste time looking down rabbit-holes for him.' 1957: 'The wasp had magnified himself to such proportions that they weren't going to waste time looking in holes for him.' Which do you prefer?

Mailing 88, May 2000

Paul K ... are we ever going to see the answers to your Great 20th Century SF Quiz? I was asked to tackle The Light of Other Days for The New York Review of SF, and despite finding the prospect initially numbing I eventually wrote a longer piece than planned. See below. • Tony and (welcome!) Austin ... glad to hear a nice word for Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space, which struck me as a jolly good sf read despite some oddities of pacing and revelation that didn't seem troublesome enough to call flaws. Jo Walton's extreme dislike of the book seemed to unduly dominate the plokta.con 'A Good Read' panel. • Andy B ... it was good to see Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature at last, even if it's doomed to appear forever in Clute lists with the withering annotation 'undated but 2000'. I don't think anyone except Josh Kirby would have noticed the printers' slip which mirror-reversed the cover painting: all sympathy to the Editorial Trio for having to deal with Josh's anguished response to this pet hate of his (see A Cosmic Cornucopia, passim). • Bruce ... seven mailings' comments at one stroke! I swoon, I faint, I expire. Martin Rowson's cartoon version of Tristram Shandy is a brilliantly painless condensation of the book's spirit (not always the letter) for those who don't get on with Sterne's prose. Diana Wynne Jones's Stopping For a Spell is a US omnibus of three stories for 'younger readers' (younger, that is, than the usual YA audience to whom she's marketed), previously published as chapbooks: The Four Grannies, Chair Person and Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? • I like to hope that 1984 was a self-unfulfilling prophecy, a dystopia of such strength that at least in free countries it's a potent stick with which to attack restrictions on liberty. The effect may be merely to delay rather than prevent the worst; perpetual camera surveillance is on the increase in public places, and the consoling thought that there aren't enough of Them to watch us all the time, already eroded by video/digital recording, may vanish altogether when pattern-recognition software gets good at identifying faces. Comment to Mike A: since Martin Gardner is indeed an sf fan, it's tempting to assume he pinched 'grue' from Dean Grennell's 1953 fanzine. But Gardner was quoting scientific philosopher Nelson Goodman, who introduced 'grue' as a word between 'green' and 'blue' in a 1958 Science paper. Maybe Goodman was a fan too, but independent invention seems likely: 'gruesome' has been around long enough. • David C ... 'Every Sunday my uncle used to put his head through a potato' reminded me irresistibly of the great and barmy Ivor Cutler. • Chris H and Andy B ... general 'Argh!' at the BSFA award presentation hassles. That (as noted by Claire) 2Kon committee members also feature in the UK in 2005 bid team is not the least macabre aspect. • Me ... D.M.Sherwood explained Posy Simmonds's 'Silent Three of St Botolph's' cartoon title. This originally parodied a girls'-comic series about boarding school, with adventures of three now nearly middle-aged pals from St Botolph's school. Then PS got 'bored with adventures' and shifted to social comedy under the same title. Well well. • Everyone Else: thanks as always!

Special 'Silent Three' Web Supplement!

The splendidly erudite Yvonne Rousseau provided deep background on Posy Simmonds's cartoon title, as queried in CC105 and partly elucidated by D.M. Sherwood above. Take it away, Yvonne –

In Cloud Chamber 106: I too – like D. M. Sherwood – had meant to say a word about 'Posy Simmonds's "Silent Three of St Botolphs's" cartoon title.' The origin of this title is also discussed in Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction (Victor Gollancz, London, 1981), in the chapter entitled: 'From Sylvia Silence to the Silent Three: Sleuths and Secret Societies in the Schoolgirl Papers':

'It was in the 1950 School Friend that the secret society finally eclipsed the girl sleuth as an effective symbol of intrigue and adventure. The Silent Three, the most celebrated and addictive of these underground groups, was the first to appear in picture strip, but in essence it was a refurbished version of clandestine organizations that had been featured since the early 1930s in story form in the Amalgamated Press papers. It occupied the front and back cover pages of the first issue of the School Friend (20 May 1950) and continued to crop up regularly until the late 1960s; it is parodied today in Posy Simmonds's strip cartoon in the Guardian, her "Silent Three" having their roots in this earnest trio of schoolgirls. In the austerity of the postwar years, the School Friend's readers were captivated by the romance of mysterious meetings by flickering candlelight, and the thrill of dressing up in long hooded robes – particularly while clothes rationing continued! Stories of the Silent Three were based on the impeccable formula of solving a mystery and righting an injustice. It is easy to see the affinities of this 1950 secret society with J. B. Bobin's Silent Six, which he originated for the 1932 Schoolgirls' Weekly and revived in another long-running serial for that paper two years later.

'The Six were juniors who had banded together under the leadership of Shirley Carew "to fight for fair play and the suppression of sneaking at Highcroft School". They are always on the scent of some mystery or other, or of some act of "cruel persecution of a scholarship girl" to put down. They are in fact quite at a loss if there is no immediate problem for them to unravel: "Wednesday again, girls! What are we going to do with ourselves this afternoon? There isn't anybody for the Six to ladle out a little justice to, is there?" In the illustrations to these early stories the Silent Six appear to be not so much hooded and robed as totally enveloped in their picturesque garb. Rather surprisingly, however, each member of the society manages to conceal her robe under her gymslip when necessary by winding "the long length of black material around her slender waist". (Bulging bellies beneath the box pleats would, one imagines, have militated against the anonymity that was essential for schoolgirl secret society members.)'

Back to the Silent Three! This series was created by a group of three – Horace Boyten (writing as "Enid Boyten': true!) and Stewart Pride devised the storylines, while Evelyn Flinders did the drawings. Indeed, Craig and Cadogan supply a Flinders illustration, captioned: 'But danger was threatening the Silent Three! No sooner had Peggy and Joan put on their robes than there came a clatter of footsteps on the stone stairs. As Cynthia and Mildred rushed down, would they be discovered?' – Now read on:

'In "The Silent Three at St Kit's", Betty Roland is another of those unfortunate characters who have been unjustly expelled, and she decides to hide at the school and form a secret society to prove her innocence. The other two members of the society are her erstwhile study mates, Joan Derwent and Peggy West. They all look very attractive, with their chic curly hair, and their red-and-white striped blazers: they also wear their green robes, hoods and black masks with a touch of elegance. During the course of the first story the society is outlawed as a result of Cynthia Drew's scheming. This tyrannical Head Prefect is mixed up in the illegal salvaging of bullion from the wreck of a ship sunk during the war. The Headmistress bans the secret society, but at last Betty, Joan and Peggy triumph, and at the school assembly the Head calls for "Three Cheers for the Silent Three". As they put their robes away Peggy says, "Perhaps one day we may need them again, who knows?" They do, of course – frequently – at St Kit's and at other schools. Wherever they operate, they find an abundance of crypts, caves and ivy-covered towers; and positive labyrinths of underground passages. They manage as well to keep a remarkably plentiful supply of candles. Like the members of all those earlier secret societies in the Girl's Crystal, they are not only adept at sorting out the problems of the underdog and bringing rogues to justice, but at getting their robes quickly out of sight; the Silent Three stuff their disguises under their blazers, without even a minimal lump to make their involvement in secret society activities obvious to anyone. One story informs readers that they always carry their robes about their persons, on the offchance that the secret society may suddenly need to spring into action. The sheer competence of the Silent Three is of course breathtaking. When threatened with discovery, for instance, they blow out their candles in concerted movement, as their leader raps out, "Escape plan 'B' in operation! Make for the secret door!" – and like lightning they hop out of the crypt and vertically ascend "through the walls" to the roof of the old clock tower and safety. It is easy to see that the Silent Three, though rooted in the earlier Amalgamated Press juvenile detective and mystery stories, also owed something to the supermen and women of films and television. Long serials featuring this trio continued to appear in the School Friend and its successors until the late 1960s, and most of their picture stories were reissued in the monthly "libraries" associated with the weekly papers.'

This is very likely more than you wish to know about the original Silent Three and their 'world of happy hunches and hooded helpers' – but (and here Yvonne looks suitably embarrassed) in my more extreme youth I used to Turn First to the Silent Three's adventures, in the perpetual disappointed hope that (this time) their adventure would become as mysteriously glamorous as their costumes (and as their ivy-clad clocktower – the roof of which seemed to have the same qualities as 'home' in a game of hide-and-seek). (I also spent time pondering on the mysteriously compressible substance of their robes.)
– Yvonne Rousseau, 21 June 2000

The Light of Other Days

[Preview of book review now added elsewhere on this site.]