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Traditional Christmas collapse at Langford's House of Humbug involved the usual rites of cooking, eating, drinking, reading, and intermittent random distractions ... Doing a fiendish Grauniad Xmas crossword full of horrid anagrams. Fiddling with the season's new computer toy, a Zip drive that holds 100Mb on each floppy-sized disk: suddenly my backup arrangements feel more credible. Watching a Cadfael adaptation on TV, The Potter's Field: the best bit, we agreed, follows after this abbey in Essex [all right, Essex in the book and Cambridge on TV, not that it makes much difference] is sacked and a young monk walks to Shrewsbury for help, a journey which logically enough takes seven days. To make the TV version more exciting, the abbot – who in the book had safely taken refuge in Peterborough – is left groaning and close to death on damp grass out in the open air. When the rescue expedition arrives from Shrewsbury after what must be close on two weeks, he's still lying in the same position and is quickly revived with a healing drink. They bred tough abbots in those days. Near-simultaneous arrival of the Visa statement recording all November's excesses (including US dentistry), the big cheque that Scribner's had promised for early September, and a larger-than-feared insurance payment (to cover most of said US dentistry). Phew. Furtively playing through the whole of Doom II ... now regarded as obsolete and thus dirt cheap, but this does not lessen the Shame. Plugging John Clute's latest batch of skiffy death dates into the web pages and SFE CD-ROM software. Typing up odd bits of Ansible 138 and deploring the lack of hilarity therein. Feeling smug that Hazel really really liked the extraordinary red sticky stuff I'd found for her in a local shop: 'Rooh-Afza, Summer Drink of the East', imported from Karachi, with principal ingredients 'Distillate of Fragrant Screwpine, Distillate of Rose'. Weird resinous pink milkshakes are now highly recommended in these parts. Breaking down and drafting a computer magazine column on the 27th, before the professional withdrawal symptoms could get any worse. Achieving a pointless personal goal by issuing freelance invoice number 100 of 1998, just before the New Year (50-60 is more typical). Unfortunately this is an indicator not so much of great commercial success as of having launched some very cheap software, the SFE CD-ROM viewer. Having my Starlight 2 story – so far fairly well reviewed – picked up by David Hartwell for his Year's Best SF 4, yay yay, with the contracts reaching me on New Year's Eve.
Read in Reading
Just before Xmas, those parcels of books arrived from Portland. I don't know what dark significance lies in the fact that when listing them last issue I utterly forgot several further titles in the shipment ... Algis Budrys, Entertainment, story collection from NESFA Press; Robert L. Fish, The Memoirs of Schlock Holmes, parodies whose intermittently funny gimmick is that the great detective ignores all merely obvious interpretations – e.g., when a financier has evidently chucked himself out of a window after learning of a stock crash from the ticker-tape machine, SH laboriously decodes the tape as abbreviated rhyming slang and deduces a far more imaginative solution; Boller & George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes & Misleading Attributions; Damon Knight, CV; Peter Shaffer, Amadeus – seems silly to buy this in America, but I never came across a cheap copy back here (this cost me $1); Gene Wolfe, Castleview, a hardback to replace my mingy pb edition; Jerry Yulsman, Elleander Morning, highly recommended by someone.
Dave Clark's 'Cargo Cult' catalogue ('Serving the Public for Over a Fiftieth of a Century') also provided a festive titbit. The Haunted Tea-Cosy: A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion for Christmas is Edward Gorey's latest eccentric little picture story, basing its characteristic perversities and non-sequiturs on the Christmas Carol template. The seven-foot insect that impossibly emerges from the miserly recluse's tea-cosy is quick to set the scene: 'I am the Bahhum Bug,' it declared. 'I am here to diffuse the interests of didacticism.' Then things get sillier....
After recommending one good used-book search engine at www.bookfinder.com, I've had further nasty accidents with rival services: www.abebooks.com and www.bibliofind.com. Hazel was enchanted that one of her own wants, Second-Hand Roman Furniture or something like that, was instantly located by Bibliofind in an Australian bookshop. Gosh wow. My own long-standing wants list has theoretically been slashed by two-thirds, but I'm not counting the chickens until surface mail does its stuff. One came early by air, though: Kenneth Morris's Book of the Three Dragons, a much-praised reworking of Mabinogion material that's long been unobtainable ... and now I'm gloating over a 1930 first edition, just like John Clute's. Whoopee!
Meanwhile I've been bashing out reviews for Amazon.co.uk and SFX again. Brian Froud, Good Faeries/Bad Faeries ... nifty artwork, shame about the more New Age Crap parts of the text. 'It is my hope and intent that the pictures within this book may be of active use in engaging Faery's potent transformational powers. I have experienced the healing touch of faeries in my own life and seen what gifts the faeries bestow to those who approach them with open hearts.' Not much use to those of us who tend to approach such stuff with heaving stomachs. Alison Sinclair, Cavalcade ... intelligent and unpretentious look at that classic sf situation, humans coming to terms with an alien environment: over 100,000 people have accepted an invitation to come aboard a vast visiting ship, to find themselves dumped amid subtle biotechnologies that they had damn well better learn to use. No woozy Strieberism here. Alexander Besher, Chi ... more in the comic-mystic-cyberpunk vein of Rim and Mir: enjoyable ride, heaps of daft ideas, not all that much of a conclusion. Rather a shaggy-dog ending, in fact. Ricardo Pinto, The Chosen ... another heavily promoted fantasy debut, set in a solidly realized, vaguely oriental and deeply unpleasant empire. Journeying from the outskirts to the centre, the innocent protagonist finds this culture's horrible rituals and observances tightening around him, neatly symbolized by increasingly elaborate clothing: masks, fantastically exotic robes, high shoes to raise the nobility above the impure ground. To approach the god-emperor at the heart of power, one must be tottering on what are virtually stilts while stifling inside an Iron Maiden of woven metal wire built up on literal scaffolding around the hapless wearer.... Be warned: it's a trilogy, and book 1 ends with a whopping cliffhanger. Jorge Luis Borges, 'Blue Tigers' ... supposedly not previously published in Britain, this turned up in the Independent on Sunday on 27 Dec: I thought I knew all his 'games with time and infinity' pieces, but not this one, which features small stones that disobey the laws of arithmetic (>> WRONGNESS). Perhaps its omission from so many collections was because of a general similarity to other JLB tales of impossible and/or obsession-inducing objects: the Aleph, the Zahir, Odin's disc, the Book of Sand.... This is a promotional tie-in with the new Collected Fictions tr. Andrew Hurley, out 5 Jan from Penguin Press.
Maureen ... I confess to giving up on Anne McCaffrey some while ago – I think Killashandra was the snapping-point for me, with its idiot-plot excesses. But, like you, I keep trying to play fair and recall that I hugely enjoyed some of her early novels like Dragonflight. Perhaps irrelevantly, that's one of the few books that bring back strong memories of the physical surroundings when I first read it, on a cross-channel ferry in 1970, whose gentle lurching perhaps resonated with the idea of flying on dragon-back. Then there was The Left Hand of Darkness, gobbled up during a winter journey in an unheated country bus that far from subtly emphasized the rigours of Gethenian snow and ice. And The Day of the Triffids, in the old deep-orange Penguin jacket that merged in a kind of mnemonic synaesthesia with the mulligatawny soup provided by my favourite aunt as accompaniment to the book.... Hunting for Spiral Castle in Welsh myth: note that in the first of Lloyd Alexander's loosely Mabinogion-based Prydain stories, The Book of Three, the sorceress Achren's stronghold is Spiral Castle. I don't remember a Caer Troellog (not awesome erudition but hasty dictionary research there) in the Mabinogion, though!
Claire and Tanya ... am resisting the temptation to go back and erase or expand my own brief notes on Cavalcade overleaf, now I've read your Much Better reflections on the book.
Claire and Mark ... I've been enjoying the Walt Willis Fanorama reprint collection too. For the rest of you: Ansible 137 in the same mailing includes (under 'Small Press') details of how to order copies from Robert Lichtman at $10. I'll be glad to oblige with sterling/dollar conversion for Acnestoids.
Paul K ... I also boggled at the notion that Chris Evans's Conspiracy Theories should be regarded by Vince Docherty as an official, committee-sponsored report. My copy seems to be in hiding just now, but it wasn't all 'wonderful polemic' – one of the contributors was Steve Jones, who saw no conflict of interest in doing publicity for both the Worldcon and the Hubbardoids, and poured scorn on those who thought wall-to-wall L.Ron at Our Event was in any way objectionable.
Mark ... Poul Anderson's output varies a lot: it's tempting to write him off on the basis of weak novels like War of the Wing-Men (which was heavily edited to fit that 'little' Ace format; I haven't seen the uncut 1978 reissue as The Man Who Counts), but the popular series which opens with this book includes substantially better stories. The stand-alone Tau Zero (1970) contains enough nice cosmological bogglement to make me glad PA didn't 'quit while he was ahead in 1965' ... but on the whole I remember (some of) his short stories and fix-ups as being stronger than the novels, as perhaps reflected in the fact that his 7 Hugos are all for shorter work. Speaking of Hornblower, I rather enjoyed the two long TV adaptations from Mr Midshipman Hornblower shown recently. As in the Fry & Laurie version of Jeeves & Wooster, the individual stories have been vigorously stirred together rather than stretched into stand-alone episodes. Some of the plot-tinkering is dodgy, alas: the first story of all, 'The Even Chance', saw the bullied young HH gambling on an unusual duel at point-blank range with only one of the shuffled pistols loaded (thus giving himself a 50% chance against a persecutor who's a much better shot). The TV version splits this duel into two conventional ones. I could just about believe Duel 1, where a loyal shipmate clouts HH over the head beforehand, stands in for him, and perishes heroically. In Duel 2, HH is saved by a lucky misfire and himself nobly fires into the air – whereupon the bad guy tries to stab him in the back, only to be instantly despatched by good old Captain Pellew, who has been lurking some distance away with a musket on the off-chance of foul play. Oh dear.
Bruce ... thanks for the account of Ian Gunn's funeral. I too have sent the odd short item to crifanac (they like it to be all-lower-case), but confess that I've gone off them a bit owing to the fanzine's continuing, relentlessly negative calls for TAFF to be wound up and replaced by special one-off funds for unspecified worthies who are to be selected without any of that horrid voting. Such funds have happily co-existed with TAFF for many years (Tucker, Shaw, Farber, etc), and continuing the tradition doesn't seem to demand that as a logical consequence one must piss all over TAFF itself. Especially while Maureen's 1998 trip – particularly successful by all accounts – was actually in progress. Mutter, mumble.
KVB ... two trivia points. Gene Wolfe's Castleview – which I found one of the most maddeningly elusive of his books; must read it again – has here transmuted to Castlereagh. And it was Whistler rather than Swinburne who sent Theodore Watts-Dunton the note saying Theodore! What's Dunton? Presumably Swinburne crept in because the anecdote comes from Max Beerbohm's 'No. 2 The Pines', with its loving description of the household in which W-D looked after the declining Swinburne. I spend a lot of time scratching my head over why I've typed one name when it should be another: it's curiously satisfying when I actually manage to work out the connection....
Catie ... thanks for the reminder of E. Nesbit's Mouldiwarp titles. I'll see how I get on with used-book web searches (at least one of the books seems to be in print in the USA) before I grovel to borrow your own copies!
Ian ... apart from cringing, swearing a bit and instantly selling the ruddy book to Andy Richards, I am of course unmoved by the appearance of a Langford 'puff' in The Neutronium Doorstop. If one is going to review books at all, one knows jolly well that whatever may or may not be quoted by the publishers, any 'on the other hand' reservations about things like the writing will be quietly lost. So it goes. John Clute's brief SFE write-up of Michael Kring ends: 'the conclusion to the series was never published, due to difficulties experienced by MKK's publisher, Leisure Books.' Does this imply that another unpublished Thog's Masterpiece exists out there somewhere?
Dop ... sorry to hear about your Mum. The recent Eye cartoon I most liked has a Mexican desperado carefully placing a large leaf on each rail of the track on which a steaming train approaches. To his comrade: 'It's a trick I learned in England.' Am quite fond of One Way Pendulum, A Resounding Tinkle, The Hole etc etc: it was just the novel that disappointed.
Everyone ... Happy New Year! Joe Mayhew's cartoon below comes to you via the good offices of Geri Sullivan.
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