Cloud Chamber 145
November 2003

September and early October were mostly filled with gloom and unproductive screen-gazing. Even the agreeable task of proofreading, typesetting and e-mailing the latest Cosmos book seemed all too much, and was put off for week after week until the publisher prodded me. This – Different Kinds of Darkness, shamelessly plugged in Ansible 196 – complements my 2003 parody collection (there's no overlap) with 36 more or less 'straight' sf, horror and even fantasy stories dating from 1975 to 2003. Which cleans me out of retrospective collection material, unless Cosmos can be induced to publish a book of the SFX columns: I delivered the 113th this month.

Our latest rail trip to North Wales strayed into unexpected territory when we found ourselves stuck as the only passengers in a stationary minibus halfway up a mountain road over Corris, emergency lights flashing in the starlit night.... Virgin had played their favourite trick of missing the connection and treating us to a long afternoon in the idyllic setting of Wolverhampton station buffet. When the next Welsh train eventually came, we'd resigned ourselves to being stranded in Machynlleth for most of the evening and arriving exhausted in Harlech on the last train of all. But somebody else in the same plight made a fuss, and dear old Wales & Borders Trains laid on a free minibus from Machynlleth. At first I assumed the aged lady in the front passenger seat was the Mysterious Other Victim, and was seized by nameless foreboding as it emerged – some miles into the hills – that she was the aged driver's wife, who liked to keep him company. Sure enough, frantic cellphone calls followed, and after some very loud and very Welsh arguments the minibus settled into that layby over Corris to await (for seeming hours) a hastily hired taxi containing the three Americans who'd been dithering in the booking hall, visiting the toilet, etc, until the stationmaster decreed there were no more passengers to come and we hijacked their transport.... A gaudy night, indeed. But we got to Harlech in time for a late dinner, nerves still vibrating.

The CC88 tradition of bard-hunting continues: collecting and binning scraps of everlasting nylon fishing lines and nets cast up on Harlech beach. This time we tried to introduce scientific grading of the 'bards', from puny Patience Strongs to mighty Shakespeares. In the wake of much tugging at a bardic mass that proved to be mostly buried in the sand: 'I thought that was just a McGonagall but it's practically a Yeats!' Colour coding assumed sudden importance when I realized that a sturdy length of white cable had to be a Robert Frost, while a fragment in unusually bright red was probably that 1930s lefty collective MacSpaunday, to be kept carefully segregated from a true blue (politics and language both) Larkin. Was that scrap of rich purple cord long enough to be a Swinburne, or was it just an Ernest Dowson? Hazel, who has decided views on poetry, displayed a dirty and unsatisfactory piece of nylon as 'only a Ted Hughes, I'm afraid.' After successfully wrestling with some buried, knotty tangles requiring much strength to bring to light – veritable Donnes – my bard-collecting powers failed me at last with a huge mass of fishing-net that was stuck immovably in the sand. 'Too deep for me,' I pantingly confessed, and Hazel, with the quiet confidence of one who reads Latin poets in the original, diagnosed: 'That's a Horace.'

Maureen urges us all towards more literary discussion and less mere diarizing. While I generally agree, I'm reluctant to scrap the Worldcon notes begun last issue, torn raw and bleeding from the throbbing heart of sf culture. Apologies for this defiance, if defiance it is, of an Editorial Directive.

By the way, I forgot to mention the portent on the night before I left for Torcon: a bat which somehow made its way into my office and was first seen looking crumpled and unrecognizable on the floor. As I came closer it suddenly demonstrated its high-speed curtain-climbing skills, and then induced vertigo by flying around the room at unbelievable speed, round and round and round and round.... I think it left the instant I got the window open, but the quickness of the bat deceives the eye. We searched the house in vain.

Ah, Toronto:

Here followed the bulk of the Torcon 3 diary begun in the previous issue – over 4,000 words in all. I'd like to tinker with this some more before putting the whole thing on view here (and/or persuading some hapless fanzine editor to run it) as a standalone piece. Keep watching the skies!

Random Reading

HSAR: Stephen Baxter, Coalescent (2003): so this is why Mr Baxter has been going on about hive minds of late. In part it's a carefully researched historical novel about a tough woman surviving (barely) the final collapse of Roman imperial influence in Britain, and founding a community meant to preserve her bloodline and household gods through this and future turbulence. The 21st-century strand slowly reveals how the rules she instinctively formulated for this enclave have led to the emergent phenomenon of a human hive mind. Certain associated physiological changes are a bit much to swallow as the result of just sixteen centuries, a mere evolutionary eyeblink (there is much urgent handwaving in this area). Other stuff doesn't quite seem part of the same novel: early foreshadowings of galactic events which suggest a link to the Xeelee series, and a late flash-forward into far future sf with similar implications, both rather tending to detract from the subtler creepiness of the present-day narrative but maybe necessary to the intended trilogy. Relevant John Wyndham story: 'Consider Her Ways'. • Michael Gerber, Barry Trotter and the Unnecessary Sequel (2003): oh dear. Not in fact as dire as Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody, since the device of giving Barry and Ermine (Harry and Hermione, geddit?) a son who must in turn go to the Hogwash wizarding school does allow better targeted pot-shots at what Rowling actually wrote – from Sorting to Quidditch – rather than continually escaping into metafictional inanity like the earlier book.

Richard Hoggart, Auden: An Introductory Essay (1951), interesting and illuminating, with a robust attitude to the value of criticism: 'The reader should go to Auden's poems, not once but several times, before and after reading this book. After being thus used, it should be discarded; the end is to read poetry, not books about poetry.' I don't think I could quite bring myself to write the equivalent in a critical book of my own.... • Jane Smiley, Moo (1995): A campus novel set in the US Midwest didn't sound terribly inspiring, but I remembered this one getting rave reviews and indeed enjoyed its gentle satire of academics, students and all-powerful administrators – a neat comedy of humours that bites harder as the chill wind of budget-cutting blows through the vast expanse of Moo U. Not earth-shattering, but a jolly good read. • Margery Allingham, The Mind Readers (1965): a distinct oddity, a crime novel centred on an sf device which isn't merely used as a convenient McGuffin – like secret death-ray plans which must be pursued at all costs – but explored with some speculative insight. As indicated by the title, the gadget is a working telepathic amplifier, samples of which are already in use by certain gifted children. This news not only convulses a substantially less advanced British ESP research programme (where did the kids get these things?), but leads to worryingly logical consequences. One schoolboy, for example, has almost lost the ability to learn or reason after long periods of using the device as a telepathic search engine to tap other minds for information. • Tricia Sullivan, Someone To Watch Over Me (1997): provoked mixed feelings. This story of the grim, visceral implications of possible future mind control/transfer technology is well written, but somehow I couldn't muster any empathy for the characters, and kept feeling I wanted a shower as respite from successive doses of in-your-face sordidry. A not untypical moment: 'Squatting in the bathtub slick with sweat she watched the blood, skin oil, semen and tears mingle and slither toward the drain.'

Mailing 128, September 2003

Jae. Yours was my favourite display in the Torcon art show. Gary. Congratulations on (as I read it) a whole year of being almost married! Cherith. Re blasphemous oaths, Terry Pratchett has remarked on the problems of atheists who bang their thumb with a hammer and must take care to shout, 'Oh, primitive and outmoded concept on a crutch!' Steve J. I became curious about The Singing Ringing Tree a while ago: Google unearthed articles on it, a site with photos and a synopsis, and a purchasable DVD. KVB. A tiny civilization whose atomic clouds rise no higher than real mushrooms also features in Philip E. High's These Savage Futurians – but I fear that High, unlike Stanislaw Lem, wasn't joking. Alan. Steve Baxter of Warhammer fame is indeed 'our' Stephen Baxter; he wrote up the history of this whole spinoff franchise for a recent Vector. 'My "Star Boat" appeared in the first anthology, called Ignorant Armies, along with stories by William King, Charles Stross (as Charles Davidson), Nicola Griffith, Brian Stableford (as Brian Craig), Kim Newman (as Jack Yeovil), and Paul McAuley (as Sean Flynn, pen-named for Errol Flynn's dead son!).' [6 Nov 03]