Cloud Chamber 107
July 2000

Some people, I'm told, actually went voluntarily outdoors at the height of the June heatwave. Truly there are aliens among us. I retreated from my simmering office to cooler rooms, to work on the battered laptop kept for just these occasions: except, oh argh, the thing was disintegrating both physically (screen hinge failure) and electronically, with blackness lapping at the edges of the display. It is more of a strain that one might imagine to see the article in progress through tunnel vision, trying to remember what letters appear at the beginnings of lines and regularly losing the cursor in the dark zone at far left. Again, the time to buy shiny new computer toys approaches!

Nature Notes. Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole ... well, no, just a quick footnote to last issue's mention of the flying stag beetle tapping alarmingly at our windows. The real show came at twilight a few days later as, in precisely the patch of sky visible from our dinner table, at least six equally enormous beetles disported themselves in the airspace around next door's syringa, puttering to and fro like helicopters with leggy, alien silhouettes. Mating flights? Later Chris Bell assured me that these beasties are rare and protected, so we should jolly well feel privileged. Less inspiringly, wasps have built their nest in the bedroom window frame, with alarmingly high traffic at all hours: luckily there's no opening into the house, but Hazel swears she can hear the little buggers munching on our very own wood.

Plagiarism Horror! I'm not supposed to say in Ansible that my on-line review of Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space was stolen by the Birmingham Evening Mail on 13 May. After supplying a dangling opening clause ('Better known for science fact than fiction, Reynolds's first novel is ...'), the Mail hack pasted in my review, cut out half the sentences to make it fit, and bylined the whole mess DL. Amazon are Taking Measures.

Curiouser and Curiouser. Among my projects for the general illumination of the human race is getting Gordon Van Gelder to run F&SF 'Curiosities' features on offbeat books of my choice. He started it by inviting me to do Ernest Bramah's 'The Strange Case of Cyril Bycourt' (9/99), having found it mentioned in The Silence of the Langford; I've since continued with Maurice Richardson's The Exploits of Engelbrecht (7/00), Lord Dunsany's The Last Revolution (forthcoming) and, stretching the template somewhat, C. Howard Hinton's 1904 The Fourth Dimension – a pop-maths grimoire with the potential to drive readers mad via its scheme for visualizing tesseracts through autohypnotically memorized sequences of multicoloured cubes. Have just discovered that the F&SF website contains all the 'Curiosities' to date, with the printed editions' small cuts now happily restored: see ...

Read in Reading

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857), read in a spirit of experiment. I nearly bogged down in the longish essays introducing each major character with notes on their history, social position, and moral status, but the actual story of clerical power-struggles and dirty politics is highly readable. In one memorable scene, we're persuaded to sympathize with the coarsely ambitious chaplain (A Bad Guy) as he's cruelly put through emotional hoops by a crippled and sofa-bound woman whom modern authors might describe as a cockteaser. More sophistication here than Dickens, a greater writer, tended to allow himself. • Alasdair Gray (ed.), The Book of Prefaces, subverting what might have been a routine 'Oxford Book Of' into a wondrously Grayish artifact of eccentric typographical design, illustrations and cover decorations. There are even pages of ink drawings of everyone associated with the project, from Gray himself and publisher Liz Calder to the lowliest typist. Our man hypnotized Bloomsbury into printing this in two colours, black text plus red for the very idiosyncratic marginal commentaries: if a commentator wasn't idiosyncratic enough to suit editorial taste, Gray rewrote the contribution. It's a splendid book to own and handle, a kind of history of our language from Caedmon (675) and Bede (731) onwards, cut short after 1920 when copyright problems started getting in the way. Having been working at this tome on and off since 1987, Gray gives the impression that it was finally snatched away from him by the impatient publishers in 1999, as he piteously begged for the chance to do some of the illustrations all over again. It is surely worth the steep £35 cover price. At the end: 'I consider this anthology a memorial to the kind of education British governments now think useless, especially for British working class children. But it has been my education, so I am bound to believe it one of the best in the world.' • Bill Bryson, Down Under, his Australian travelogue: stronger on research material than the comic anecdotes that made his name, but entertaining enough, and properly appreciative of Adelaide. • Terry Pratchett, The Truth, 25th Discworld novel in proof. Well up to standard. • Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction (1981) ... acquired through after Yvonne Rousseau transcribed and sent me its meaty explanation of that girls'-comic phenomenon The Silent Three. (Thanks also to Mike for his condensed version.) Now I know all, and the book is good fun in other areas too – lively, erudite, and unafraid to blow raspberries at inferior work like Agatha Christie's 'unspeakable last novels'.

HugeSouthAmericanRiver ... lots as usual. The rather bland X-Men movie novelization by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith was notable for barely mentioning the most prominent trademark feature of the Marvel comics background, the fact that almost everyone wears bizarre, fetishistic costumes. For example, from the viewpoint of a non-super character meeting him for the first time, arch-villain Magneto seems merely 'a powerful-looking, stately man' rather than, say, 'a weirdo in leotards and a silly helmet' (and his helmet needs to be planted early since one plot point concerns its telepathy-blocking power – lined with tinfoil, no doubt). I idly wondered whether the authors felt embarrassed about all that, or had to work from a bare script without seeing the final studio designs for skintight silliness. Next on the pile is Steve Baxter's Space, which appears to overcome the difficulty of continuing Time – where the whole uiniverse was blown up – by the cunning ploy, 'Meanwhile, in a closely similar parallel cosmos ...' I suppose it's too much to hope for that book three will be called Nathaniel.

Reread (comfort reading because it was too bloody hot): Alexei Panshin, Star Well, The Thurb Revolution and Masque World, lightweight sf social comedy with real intelligence and wit. J.P. Martin, all six Uncle books – with half an eye to future 'Curiosities', if Diane Duane or Peter Morwood haven't beaten me to this one. Luckily I read the first when young enough not to be tempted into Being Superior To All This For Fear Of Seeming Childish, and the rest when old enough by some decades not to worry about that any more.

Mailing 88, May 2000 (continued)

Claire ... the late elements in the Periodic Table tend to be named for notable physicists or chemists, like Mendelevium for the Russian chemist Mendeleev or Mendeleyev who published the basic structure of the Table in 1869. Erbium, terbium, ytterbium and yttrium all come from the same place-name: a quarry near the otherwise obscure Swedish village Ytterby happened to be rich in rare-earth elements. (This information has appeared in a spate of rec.arts.sf.fandom postings since I typed it. H'mm!) The supposed element didymium, called after the Greek for 'twin' owing to its close similarity to other rare earths, later proved to be literal twins and was separated into neodymium,'new twin' and, owing to a strong green spectral line, praseodymium or 'green twin'. Neptunium isn't used for nukes because (a) it exists in nature only in trace amounts resulting from neutron absorption by uranium; (b) the easiest isotope to make, neptunium-239, decays by beta emission to plutonium-239 with a half-life of just 2.35 days. • Lizbeth ... am sure your title Skimble-Scamble set a good many of us compulsively muttering 'Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble? ...' • Penny the Crap Tap-Dancer ... didn't some sage announce his or her willingness to try anything in life except incest or tap-dancing? Oh, that was folk-dancing. Never mind. • Quite a few of Swinburne's less public poems eliminate any need for a filthy mind, e.g. a lot of depressingly rather than rousingly hearty hymns to flagellation. But his most interestingly scandalous-sounding work, the play La Soeur de la Reine (written in French), must be a hoot. From Edmund Wilson's summary: 'Queen Victoria appears as a debauched and cruel tyrant who vents her passions in long French tirades. She makes a tumultuous scene of jealousy with Lord John Russell, who has been one of her lovers, and when he threatens to expose her scandalous life, she threatens to have him beheaded, as she has just done with the headmaster of Eton, who has been telling his students about Messalina.' At one stage Victoria also confesses how, after being rendered weak-kneed by a sultry recitation of The Excursion, she was unable to resist the advances of the philanderer Wordsworth. If Swinburne were writing today, he would be Kim Newman. • Chris H ... Brian Stableford, reviewing Enemies of the System in Foundation, was less kind and tactful than you and provoked an irate Aldiss response: 'this stroppy little man ...'

Mailing 89, June 2000

Mark ... there are interesting and significant differences between the much-reprinted US The Stars My Destination and UK Tiger! Tiger!, with the latter being the preferable text in a few places; I published a rather superficial piece about this in Quantum in 1993. However, the 1996 US edition was 'restored' by devotees Alex and Phyllis Eisenstein, who tried to put together the best of both versions plus Jack Gaughan's text decorations for the synaesthesia sequence. Though still not 100% perfect, this is now the definitive text and was used for the Millenium SF Masterworks edition, except that – consternation! uproar! Malcolm Edwards in sackcloth and ashes! – the Eisensteins' editorial credit was omitted in the first printing. • Maureen ... the 1999 Microcon tried to lure people in with free admission, which perhaps caused fans to worry that they might get what they paid for. But I was guest of honour so wouldn't dream of commenting. • Nobody told me, either, about the secret pre-Clarke pub meeting. I merely applied my mighty intellect and, having reached South Kensington on foot with time to spare, peeped into the nearest pub. There, to my amazement ... • Chris H ... Peace is sparing with direct clues to the real state of affairs, which is suggested by things like the sense of chill, the shifty nature of the narrator Weer's 'house of memory', and the unfinished stories within the story. But note the first line: 'The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge's daughter, fell last night. I was asleep and heard nothing ...' (Why did Weer hear nothing, when 'there must have been a terrible crashing?') Later in the book, in a quiet aside, we learn where Eleanor Bold plants her trees, not in gardens but on graves. Also, Weer has a very strange conversation with his doctor near the end of part 4. • Steve J ... it was vaguely disappointing to discover that the more-than-Oriental-splendour of Mah Jong – bamboos, winds, dragons, etc – merely conceals an elaboration on the Rummy genre of card games. All the same, the glamour is such that I'd get a set if it were affordable and other players were on hand. Somewhere I have a freeware 'Mah Jong' solitaire game for Windows, made enjoyably exotic by featuring all the proper tile ideograms even though the play is rather simple. • Me ... a new theory that occurred to me in the wake of Piers Anthony's The Dastard and its 129 gruesome contributor credits is that Anthony actually bears a terrible grudge against his puling Xanth correspondents, and lies awake gloating about how e.g. young Thomas L. Bruns's passage to adulthood will be marked by overwhelming embarrassment at having been immortalized in print for his suggestion of a Demon (D. for short) called D. Test: 'de-test', ho uncontrollably ho, they are going to hurt themselves, it is not good for them to larf so much. • The picture above comes from School Friend, 1950, as reproduced in The Lady Investigates. • Oh my god, it's 10 July and that book just landed on the doormat! Of course I e-mailed the reviews editor at HugeSouthAmericanRiver right away to let him know: 'A new fantasy has just arrived, by someone called J.K. Rowling; is he any good, do you think?'