Cloud Chamber 79
November 1997

We did it! We managed to take a holiday in North Wales in October! This has been a problem for years, owing to Hazel's worsening tendency to car sickness – making the drive from Reading to our Harlech flat a serious bummer. This year, web research disclosed plausible rail connections: I knew of a link from the north coast via the Ffestiniog narrow-gauge railway, but despite published timetables the FR goes its own whimsical way and notoriously doesn't hang around for Railtrack connections. However, the new route works: leave Reading at 07:38 (groan), and – after two changes, Birmingham and Machynlleth – emerge into the welcoming Harlech rain at 14:06.

This makes a huge difference. The flat has in fact been on the market for a few years, simply because of Hazel's reluctance to travel there ... but not any more. Sales pitch follows: we're thinking of letting fan friends take holidays there in exchange for a pro-rata contribution to maintenance and the hideous, eldritch, blasphemous Welsh water rates. Details on request.

Another smidgeon of good news is that the short story I mentioned last issue, suspected of being too silly for Interzone, has indeed been bought by Interzone. Also, an intensely serious story which I've been fiddling with for a while (with input from the 'Blot' workshop crowd, Paul Barnett and John Clute in particular) provoked an Expression of Interest from a US anthology I was really keen to sell to. A few sensible changes were suggested, and then ... you may have seen me gleefully buying inordinate numbers of drinks for Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Award-Winning Anthology Editor) at the World Fantasy Con.

Thog's Poetry Masterclass. David Pringle reports that Lee Montgomerie was visiting her natal country, Zambia, when Princess Diana died. A 'tributary poem' in the Times of Zambia included the moving and ingeniously-rhymed couplet:

We moan that you left us,
Our noses drip mucus.

Which is as nothing to the glories of The Rasa-Nayaka-Nayikam Translated into English and Hindi Verse (1997) by Sampurna Dutta Mishra, who improves no end on the original Sanskrit.

Your wanton vein and bland-look-beck,
The diamond-chain around your neck.
Your breast, resembling jars of gold,
And elephants' head globes, quite bold.
Your smile arresting, gently strewn,
Excites the sea of pleasures soon....

The elephant motif, so redolent of the Song of Solomon, recurs in another couplet: Your wealthy thighs, with lovely slants / Are like the trunks of elephants. SF/fantasy connection ... the book includes letters to the author on prosody from a English authority to whom this copy is inscribed, being Prof. John Burrow of the University of Bristol, husband of Diana Wynne Jones. (That I've been loaned the book is all Chris Bell's fault. Again.)

Remainder Theology.

It is a shameful admission, but Hazel and I eat a lot of remaindered food – stuff verging on its sell-by date which the local Co-Op flogs off cheaply, and vast wads of which are stuffed into our freezers. 'The remainder gods have smiled again,' I announce after a large haul of elderly chicken parts or some such. Sometimes, uncannily, the god of remainders – Hazel has decided he's called Ort, as in orts – actually anticipates our current shopping list, which as a religious experience is a lot more practical than a miraculous image of Elvis in some cut-price gizzard or parson's nose. On Saturday 25 October, Ort got a bit over-excited: we wanted potatoes, but first walked up Wokingham Road to the recycling skips to dump a huge mass of old newspapers. Suddenly a Fortean, or Ortean, phenomenon was manifest in the gutter: a potato. Over the next few hundred yards we picked up seven pounds of potatoes. A passer-by looked at us slightly oddly, and made off at speed when Hazel offered him a potato of his very own while I explained that we were beachcombing. Near the end of this line of gutter potatoes was a plastic carrier-bag which, by the Principle of Induction, must naturally contain a last few potatoes; the actual contents were two big bunches of grapes. We duly marvelled. Later in the day came e-mail from one Dave Anderson concerning the World Fantasy Convention. I'd been toying with wicked ideas of 'ghosting' this event on the Saturday, lurking in the public bar rather than pay an excruciating £50 for a day's admission. But Dave Anderson, moved by the spirit of Ort, had cancelled his WFC trip and was actually offering me a free membership.... Great is Ort! Praise him!

This reminds me that it's time to clear up the Dried Fish Rumour. At regular intervals through the World Fantasy Con, I was accosted by Leonid Kourits from the Ukraine, who seemed increasingly panicky about the fact that Martin Hoare wasn't present. 'This is world convention! All fans must come to world convention!' Eventually, on Sunday afternoon, Leonid decided that I was worthy to convey gifts to Martin ... including a bag of convention or con-bid stuff, a small bottle of sinister spirits labelled only in Cyrillic, and – dramatic pause for the unwrapping of layer on layer of smelly Ukrainian newspaper – four quite large dried fish. Detailed instructions were given. 'You and Martin must share. With beer, right? You sip beer, you eat of the fish. Open the fish so, and not eat the skin or bones, the meat only. No refrigerator: is dried, see?' A demonstration of driedness followed. It was at this point that Mark and Claire, standing some way away and wondering what this mysterious transaction could be, were rewarded by the sight of me cowering while Leonid earnestly pounded his dealers'-room table with a dried fish. Clearly some terrible initiation must be in progress.... Sometimes Ort does get carried away.

Holiday Reading

... oh dear, this will look like a catalogue of wanton excess. We begin with the outward journey and Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent (draft, probably out for Spring 1998): Discworld again, with Rincewind in the continent of XXXX alias Terror Incognita, and time dislocations juxtaposing the Dreamtime with every imaginable modern-Australian gag – including, at last, a reasonable explanation of the platypus. • Tom Holt, Goatsong (1989), a nice tragicomic historical novel of Athenian Greece. Pet peeve: the jacket sports another naff use of Greek letters that happen to look vaguely like English ones, turning the title into ... er ... Goltsthng.

In Harlech itself, I traditionally do a great deal of lazy rereading from the clutter of 200-odd duplicates, remainders and Oxfam gleanings in the famous flat. Terry Pratchett, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976); Lloyd Biggle Jr, All the Colours of Darkness (1963); Frederik Pohl, Gateway (1977); Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle (1986); John Dickson Carr, The Blind Barber (1935); Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding (1918); John Brunner, The Traveller in Black (1971); Sapper, The Dinner Club (1923); Ngaio Marsh, Clutch of Constables (1968); and random dips into Flann O'Brien's The Best of Myles (1968) and – less well-known – A.A. Milne's fat omnibus of his early Punch pieces, Those Were The Days (1929). This last may be the perfect holiday book, with utterly insubstantial subject-matter saved by a light touch throughout: Milne's bright young things chattering fluent nonsense seem as fannishly familiar as the denizens of today's strange faerie realm of Croydon.

(Thinks: why am I obsessively putting in all these bloody publication dates? Encyclopedias cast long shadows....)

Not read before: Clive Barker, The Thief of Always (1992), which seemed a rather sub-Ray Bradbury exploration of childhood wish-fulfilments carrying a (heavily foreshadowed) nasty price-tag which, in deference to the YA market, never seems quite nasty enough. Here I invite you all to correct me sternly, since I really haven't read enough Barker to pontificate with full confidence ... but do I detect a trace of the 'mid-Atlantic man' syndrome – see grim essay by Tom Wolfe – whereby a Brit determinedly and not quite successfully simulates Americanness? Everybody cooed over Barker, with good reason, when he emerged on the British scene with his own original vein of nightmare and oddity in the Books of Blood; but later there came, or appeared to come, a conscious courting of Americans with books largely set in (a slightly off-key) small-town America. When I reviewed Everville I was surprised by its lumbering, unfocused badness – but I see from my review that I still managed to be impressed by scenes set in a weird otherworld that happened not to be the USA. H'mm. • Robert Louis Stevenson, The Black Arrow (1888) ... a remarkably silly Wars of the Roses farrago with lots of 'I doubt natheless that it misliketh me not, yet haply mought matters be otherso, an't please ye' dialogue. Chuckle-worthy for the sheer density of historical-fiction clichés (maybe a little less familiar then), notably the escape across difficult terrain – with much mutual life-saving – of two adolescent lads, one of whom is unusually slight and finely-featured, and reacts oddly to 'his' companion's tirades about the soppiness of GURLS chiz chiz chiz.... Fans of Josephine Tey Revisionism are cautioned against the characterization of Richard III, which may cause apoplexy. • Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983) ... can't remember who once recommended this to me (Avedon Carol?). It reads OK: acidly funny stuff about unreliable relationships and the awfulness of men, with occasional interspersed recipes. The contrast between successful but more or less detachable comic set-pieces and a somewhat shambolic overall structure made me think: (a) aha, Ephron's a US newspaper columnist who mostly writes short squibs; (b) um, I'm getting good at spotting my own vices in other writers.... • Dornford Yates, The House That Berry Built (1945): my sense that I probably wouldn't much like Yates stemmed partly from an unfunny selection in Frank Muir's Oxford Book of Humorous Prose, partly from Tom Sharpe's savage mockery in Vintage Stuff. But others – notably the critics Richard (Clubland Heroes) Usborne and Cyril Connolly – praised the books, and a Barmouth junk-shop had this one for 40p ... and actually it's quite fun. The dread series character Berry's grumpy magniloquence, which accounts for most of the alleged humorous content, has occasional chuckle-worthy lines; there's also some decent descriptive writing, an unlikely murder mystery strand replete with boggling coincidences and subtle clues like the bad guy's near-collapse when the narrator innocently mentions quicklime, some truly awful dollops of worshipful sentiment about the GURLS chiz chiz chiz, and a backbone of interestingly detailed wish-fulfilment as the merry Berry crew designs and constructs a far from orthodox dream home in France – evidently a fantasy close to the author's heart....

Homeward journey: The Last Continent again, to check my notes, and Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997), a high-class 1660s historical thriller which I bought on spec after good reviews. This follows the difficult (to write) but enjoyable pattern of successive narrations which undermine one another. A murder in an Oxford college – with lashings of gruesome contemporary forensic medicine, yum yum – proves to be a nexus-point for several different stories, with each teller concerned to twist, obscure or reinterpret the truth in his own monomaniac way. One has supernatural delusions, taking his tale to the borders of fantasy; another, entangled in espionage, is obsessed with fitting everything into a grand design of political or physical assault on Charles II and his court; even the naivest-seeming narrator does oddly seem to have left important things out of his account. In the end, everything comes fairly clear as the debris of a blundering dance between the conspiracy and cock-up theories of history; impressive stuff. Me to Paul: 'I've been reading this book that you'd like, by Iain Pears....' Paul: 'Oh, I was going to recommend that to you.'

The More Things Change ... 'Harlan titled part of his speech "A Farewell to the Troops", and told why he was leaving fandom. His main reason are that fans, trying to be funny, are usually cruel and cause him lots of anguish. He then proceeded to cut up a teen age fan present who had written slightingly of him in a fanzine. Harlan, as usual, failed to see the connection.' (Locus 60, 1970.)

Letter Column. Geoff Wilkinson contributes an 'obscure Langford fact.... Books banned in pre-apartheid [I think he means pre-post-apartheid] South Africa included Noddy (homosexual subtexts) and Black Beauty (how can anything black be beautiful?). Books available included War in 2080 by D. Langford. Book about black horse not good, book about nuclear overkill doubleplusgood....'

Footnote, 6/98: Gary Wilkinson says he will refrain from suing me into penury if I grovel a bit for unaccountably typing his forename as Geoff....

Culture Corner

Another e-mail from little brother. 'Here is a list of actual English subtitles used in films made in Hong Kong ...'

• I am damn unsatisfied to be killed in this way.
• Fatty, you with your thick face hurt my instep.
• Gun wounds again?
• Same old rules: no eyes, no groin.
• A normal person wouldn't steal pituitaries.
• Damn, I'll burn you into a BBQ chicken.
• Take my advice, or I'll spank you without pants.
• Who gave you the nerve to get killed here?
• Quiet or I'll blow your throat up.
• You always use violence. I should've ordered glutinous rice chicken.
• I'll fire aimlessly if you don't come out!
• You daring lousy guy.
• Beat him out of recognizable shape!
• I have been scared shitless too much lately.
• I got knife scars more than the number of your leg's hair!
• Beware! Your bones are going to be disconnected.
• The bullets inside are very hot. Why do I feel so cold?
• How can you use my intestines as a gift?
• This will be of fine service for you, you bag of scum. I am sure you will not mind that I remove your manhoods and leave them out on the dessert flour for your aunts to eat.
• Yah-hah, evil spider woman! I have captured you by the short rabbits and can now deliver you violently to your gynecologist for a thorough examination.
• Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.

Footnote: Paul Barnett was disappointed to hear that Jon was merely forwarding stuff that had been doing the rounds of the net. 'I hadn't realized Jon's HK offerings had come from that source: I'd envisaged him and the other Mekons lolling around smoking dope in some Midwest motel and watching the occasional HK video through the altered-consciousness haze in order to gain time to muster up the strength to tackle the night's next groupie. That's what it's like in the rock world. All licentiousness. I know: my Mum told me.'

Read in Reading

You guessed it: all the remaining Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels. Yvonne Rousseau has yet to read volume 18, but writes to say: 'I report that at the end of the 17th, The Commodore (where my copy was unexpectedly and magnificently provided by Ursula Le Guin herself, who explained: "I'm not sending you the one that Mr O'Brian signed"), I was still saying: "More! I want to know more!"' Me too. A mild surprise in this Napoleonic-war series was reading one poetic naval officer's quatrain, allegedly a translation (of what?) ...

When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.

Which I happened to recognize as a posthumously published fragment by A.E. Housman, not born until 1859. H'mm! • R. Austin Freeman ... for no apparent reason I had a binge of reading old Dr Thorndyke detective novels – The Stoneware Monkey, Mr Polton Explains, A Silent Witness, The Eye of Osiris – and decided them to be rather inferior to the shorter Thorndyke stories, because as a rule they consist of one short-story gimmick expanded with episodes of derring-do (one unfortunate witness is first lured into a cellar which gets flooded with CO2, and later dropped head-first into the Thames) and appallingly scripted Luv. But the olde-worlde forensic science is entertaining. One cheering discovery on the Welsh trip was a tatty 1854 edition of Taylor's Medical Jurisprudence (priced at £1), which all too evidently is where many Golden Age detective writers did their homework ... as a few of them did acknowledge. • Robert Sheckley, The Man in the Water (1961): atypically uncomic action-yarn of the duel between a would-be murderer and his victim, in and out of a becalmed boat in the Sargasso. It tries hard to be powerful and delivers some good narrative punches, but the situation is so stripped-down as to preclude much real complication or surprise: you feel the various flashbacks are not so much to provide background as to compensate for lack of foreground. • Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle (1996) ... alluded to so often by so many people that it seemed to have become compulsory. Many of the cartoons really are funny, and the framework of a cod manual on management helps them a lot: when they appear unadorned (and often, irritatingly, are the same ones) in Adams's collection It's Obvious You Won't Survive By Your Wits Alone (1995), the effect seems visibly weaker. • Pratchett again, Jingo (1997) – just to spot what changed since my January report on the draft. Many improvements. Good one. • Diana Wynne Jones, Deep Secret (1997) ... her long threatened novel largely set at an sf convention, whose hotel has suspicious elements of the Adelphi – also, I gather, of last year's Fantasycon venue – and whose universe-shaking climax takes place in the con hall during the GoH speech. Manic stuff, which several times seems about to topple in the direction of Diana having too much indulgent fun (I think the more appalling fans described are composites, but am nervously unsure) but somehow stays on course and kicks into high-fantasy gear for a magical journey that starts from a hotel room and takes its directions from variant nursery rhymes that blend into the lyke-wake chant. The most recognizably DWJ-esque plot device here is the quite remarkable number of people who turn out to be somebody else, with the least likely candidate (as in A Tale of Time City) emerging as a rather alarmingly charismatic Returned Saviour. Meanwhile, I swoon, for after all these years of effort I finally got my name on a DWJ back-cover quote! • Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods (1997) ... fun and paranoia on the US Appalachian Trail, already reviewed everywhere with some signs of a grumpy backlash against Bryson for wickedly being too popular. He still seems funny to me.... Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary (1991): oh the guilt. I missed this when it came out, found a copy years later, mislaid it in the piling system, etc etc. It's a lovely read and skilfully teasing, but if I'd been on that much criticized Clarke Award panel I think I too would have gone with the majority decision that it's not sf. The most science-fictional hints (that Sarah's dress repairs itself, that when cut out of it she 'metamorphoses') are carefully confined to reports of offstage doings by the most significantly deranged characters. • Lucky Dip ... various books like the Flann O'Brien and A.A. Milne above, that get randomly dipped into at odd moments. Jan Morris, The Oxford Book of Oxford, hunting out droll quotes from the antiquarian and gossip Anthony Wood who appears as the fourth and last narrator in Fingerpost. George Orwell, many items from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, that huge ragbag that long ago established him in my mental landscape as an old friend whom I somehow never happened to meet. Ah, I'm beginning to shake off the curse of including dates (1997).

World Fantasy Convention 1997

It was convention life, Jim, but not as we know it. Despite all that prating about total professionalism, much of WFC did seem fairly shambolic. I wincingly remember some poor sod trying to show slides in the Royal Lounge, a triangular room with uncurtainable glass walls on two sides. Desperately he shoved the projector further and further forward until the images were like glowing postcards.... Another thing I noticed, in the programme book, was that walk-in memberships had silently risen from £100 to £120. Didn't see any prior announcement of this; could the information have been restricted to progress reports sent only to people who already had memberships? M. John Harrison thinks I was too kind about the prices, while further hotel horror stories have poured in....

(a) My wardrobe door was broken in such a way that it wouldn't open. This didn't bother me much, as I was travelling light (i.e., t-shirts), so I didn't make a complaint. But I did expect that the maid who was in the room daily would report it to the repairs staff. Well, if she did, nothing happened. (b) I was sitting on the loo one morning when the maid rattled on the door and then immediately opened it. Luckily I was able to shout a 'not now!' in time, I think, to protect her modesty. (c) There was one business meeting that I conducted away from the main throng, because it involved other people's confidentialities. (Obviously no one would deliberately snoop, but it can be hard not to hear the conversation at the next table.) So I ordered a bottle of wine from room service. Half an hour later it arrived, but the waiter had forgotten to bring his corkscrew with it. Ten minutes later he rang me to say that someone must have half-inched his corkscrew, and he was going to have to 'go downstairs' and get another. Ten minutes later he reappeared and got the bloody bottle open. Luckily my colleague was very late. (d) A couple of sales people from ****** turned up to give lunch to ****** and myself. The assumption was that a hotel this expensive must have somewhere posh to eat. We were guided to the Pizzeria (it didn't look right, but the maitre d' assured us it was the place), where we ordered. Ten minutes later we were informed that, at lunchtime, only pizzas and sandwiches were on offer. The excellent ****** lost patience about then, so we got what we'd ordered ... ****** got his stuff pretty quickly, ****** and ****** had to wait a further ten minutes, and I had to wait ten minutes longer than that. [...] After the meal, ****** went to pay (none of this business of bringing the bill to the table); he was told they had no record of what we'd eaten – could he tell them? Of course, he hadn't got a clue who'd ordered what, so there was further hassle. Some posh meal, huh? (e) Various rich people who'd booked suites with jacuzzis described the erotic pleasure of leaping into a jacuzzi and discovering the water was at best lukewarm. (f) Anyone who wanted to buy a Sunday newspaper was directed by the hotel staff to a relatively nearby shop – the hotel didn't run to such a service. Neither did the shop: it's closed all day Sundays. There was a dismal crocodile of folk going to this shop, swearing a lot, and coming back to the hotel. I know a couple of people explained the problem to the hotel staff, but that didn't stop 'em sending further patrons ... At least, on my own frustrated way back, I was able to save a few people the walk. (g) What looked like double beds were in fact two singles pushed together, and made up as such (with only one pillow each). I had visions of couples suddenly getting lucky with each other, belting to one or other's room, and then spending ten minutes unpicking the bloody bedclothes, giving up on those and leaping together into the lukewarm jacuzzi ... (h) As far as I could perceive, everybody, on checking out, discovered their bill had been fucked up. (i) One American arranged an early-morning call on the last day. Sure enough, it didn't happen. So he missed his plane home.

Now it's all over, I can't resist quoting Geri Sullivan's confirmation of the Keep Out The Plebs pricing policy: 'I remember how the Minneapolis committee chafed under the World Fantasy demand that they charge at least $75 for membership, and preferably $100. Minneapolis wanted to charge $50; they allocated all of the additional revenue to the consuite budget.' Or Chris Bell on WFC hotel room prices: 'It was stated at the Fantasycon last year (when poor Tom [Holt] was left out in the cold as GoH by the Steve Jones Circus and the Kim Newman Procession) that they didn't want me to try to talk the hotel down to sensible room rates "because we don't want anyone who can't afford seventy quid a night". Humph.' Or the WFC web site's explanation of what they actually spend all those hypothetical wads of money on – which, to your probable astonishment, is a Frequently Asked Question.

How is money received each year spent on the convention?
ANSWER: Besides the obvious ways that members can see (first-class programme book, Guests of Honour from faraway places, etc.), money is spent on less obvious items. These include:
• Travel expenses for some pros who might otherwise not be able to attend.
• Hotel rooms for World Fantasy Awards judges who can attend.
• Receptions (and sometimes Convention Hospitality Suites) at catered hotel rates (WFC's have catered: Artist Reception, morning Dealers hospitality, welcoming event ... 1996 also had a catered readings room).

Well, the lavish WFC hospitality suite appeared to consist of 'tea, coffee and computers sponsored by Microsoft' – a deal which presumably explains why, to John Clute's considerable disgust, the SF Weekly web magazine people were supposedly barred from conducting on-line interviews in the WFC hotel and reduced to having a party in their Soho premises. World Fantasy Award judge Paul Barnett was firmly told that he'd have to pay for his room and might get a refund some day. And when Chris Priest – a pro with cashflow problems who as the 1996 WFA novel winner had been asked to present the same award this year – dared to ask for a fee and/or travel expenses, WFC co-chair Steve Jones flew into a rage and (after heated exchanges in which it emerged that WFC had no intention of providing even a day membership for a mere honoured award presenter) 'sacked' Chris from the WFA ceremony. Such was Steve's continuing wrath that during the event he ranted about having Chris (who dropped in on Saturday to meet friends) chucked out of public areas of the hotel.... Fortunately, when this request was passed to the secular arm, the appointed executor of justice was Chris Bell, who merely laughed.

Still later, Tom Holt got to hear of the CP Exclusion Act, and in a fine fit of righteous wrath drafted the following instalment of his column for the British Fantasy Society newsletter:

'In the light of the way Christopher Priest was treated at the Society's recent convention in London, I regret that I do not feel able to continue to contribute to Prism. So long, and thanks for all the fish.'

I trust this won't in fact appear, since I have carefully explained to Tom that WFC wasn't in fact run by the BFS. Even if it did include such BFS Fantasycon staples as wall-to-wall Steve Jones and the prolonged event which Graham Joyce, with great understatement, calls the fucking awful raffle.

Mailing 58

Kev ... why isn't there 'a decent Ellison collection available in this country?' A good question, to which I can think of three partial answers. (1) Publishers traditionally dislike short story collections, unless they're already promoting the author at novel length (cf. recent collections by Greg Egan, Paul McAulay, Steve Baxter), a length which Ellison doesn't do. (2) I have a dim memory that Ellison tends to hold out for a commitment to publish all his books, or all those he wants back in print, as White Wolf were supposed to be doing in the US. (3) He also insists on not being marketed as a genre author ('magic realist' was his preferred description at one stage), probably putting off UK publishers who see sf/fantasy as his obvious niche.

Paul: 'unpleasant contacts with authors as a result of reviews' surely opens up rich pastures of discussion. I've had a couple of truly nasty letters as a result of Ansible mentions which still seem innocuous. One was from our good friend Garry Kilworth, who later apologized and confessed that he'd been having a rotten day for other reasons and had erupted without any real cause. The other was from Keith Roberts, who took huge offence at an accurate summary of his current health problems (taken from his own bloody circular, sent to hordes of people) and accused me of trying to bury him before his time. I sent a sort of all-purpose apology for any inadvertently offensive choice of words, and some time later got a Christmas card from KR, so presumably we are buddies now ... at a safe distance. As for in-the-flesh contacts, I think Harry Harrison hoped for a punch-up or at least some hard words when he guffawingly introduced me to Stephen R. Donaldson, but exciting developments were stifled by the arrangement of bodies around a pub table: not only couldn't I hear SRD, he couldn't hear me. (That particular hatchet got buried at a WFC party, by the way.) Still less alarmingly, Peter Morwood tends to recite by heart – in, of course, tones of intense disgust – some strictures from my review of The Dragon Lord, and I always applaud him politely; and then there's Philip G. Williamson, for whom no social occasion is complete until he's had another satisfying whine about my failure to love Heart of Shadows. 'I may well don the outer garments of generic fantasy,' he memorably told me, 'but my underwear is full of surprises, and I feel you simply didn't bother to look.'

Dop ... you tempt me to try Dungeon Keeper, samples of which now seem endemic on magazine-cover CD-ROMs. Future Publishing owe me money too: it seems that the editorial lot, though amiable enough, are either so overrun with paperwork (tactful version) or so bleeding inefficient (realistic version) that they very often fail to pass my invoices to Accounts. Poot. [Stop Press! As of 4 November, Future are splendid and laudable people again. I wonder how long this will last.]

Andy ... thanks for the George Hay bit for Ansible 124. I specially wanted to give George a good send-off, not only for personal reasons but because – unlike, say, Judith Merril – he worked behind the scenes in largely unsung (if sometimes maddening) ways, and Locus etc surely won't give him his due. Of course we expect great things from the memorial issue of Foundation (hint), and I've written a memoir of George as my column for Odyssey 2 ... hope this actually appears!

Tanya ... you've put your finger on something (probably, in your house, a jird) with that notion about the universality of crime fiction. This parallels my own feeling that much hard sf is akin to detection, except it wasn't the Andy Butler that dunnit, but – as I wrote somewhere else – a recessive gene, a gravitational quadrupole moment or something nasty from the mathematical woodshed (cf. Lem's The Chain of Chance). Any interesting and unusual story background is likely to contain surprises for non-expert readers, and why not weave these into the plot? For example, John Dickson Carr's historical detection Fire, Burn has a specially barbed point for a modern reader because the plot turns on a silent means of killing, well documented as available in 1829 London, which twentieth-century chauvinists are likely not to think of – since it 'surely' hadn't yet been invented by those primitive, cave-dwelling folk.

Steve ... Unlike certain APAs, Acnestis doesn't carry Top Secret, For Your Eyes Only warnings. Those that do still aren't 'confidential' in any final sense: fanzine piles get dumped, donated to TAFF or Memory Hole, etc, and anyone – even Ken Lake – might see our ravings one day. No, I don't think (as some fan purists do) that any mention whatever of someone in Cloud Chamber means they should get a copy: this one might well go to Diana Wynne Jones, to let her know that I liked Deep Secret, but not to Iain Pears, as I'm sure he doesn't give a toss about some obscure sf person's opinion of Fingerpost. In John Clute's case, he himself urges a 'Protocol of Excessive Candour' and is passionately interested in feedback. I imagine he'd relish Paul's 'I hate Clute ... I admire Clute' mini-essay (August), while your own grumpy complaint about the use and prominence of INSTAURATION FANTASY might at least provoke some rethinking in the next FE edition if you cared to show it to him. Your choice, of course. John doesn't actually bite....

In Brief ... Cherith: yes, Lindsey Davis is one of the hideous addictions that I – and Hazel – can see awaiting a little way down the timeline. • Simon ... no H in Walter Jon Williams, the pedant grated through clenched nostrils. • Mark: enjoyed the Paris trip account, but am now shuffling with mild embarrassment and taking unusual interest in my fingernails after noting the contrast between your merciful restraint about the details of every item of holiday reading, and my, er um, see above.... • Andrew: all right, I'll fall into your little trap – what is the special, almost orgasmic satisfaction of Hamlet in a Minster Classic edition? I poked around here and found several Hamlets, four in omnibuses (two CD-ROM) and one Folio Society stand-alone, but don't feel impelled to gloat. • Chris T ... welcome again to that black, clutching, gibbous horror which men call Acnestis. I forget what women call it.