Cloud Chamber 100
November 1999

Numerology, as noted in Ansible 148, suggests that one should make a special effort for an issue numbered 100. Too much other work on hand, alas, so it's just the usual ramblings.

A tiny tale of almost-terror early one morning a couple of days after Novacon: stumbling downstairs for the life-restoring third cup of tea, I noticed a large wasp on the floor, one of those sluggish queens that crawl indoors to hibernate. By stages I realized that it was a large dead wasp, a large squashed dead wasp, and therefore while blearily fetching some previous dose of tea I must have stepped on it, barefoot. Cringe, cringe.

• In October I had a brief though acute attack of software after Howard Fisher of LocoScript loftily informed everyone on the comp.sys.amstrad.8bit newsgroup that there was no demand for a program to convert Amstrad PCW LocoScript files into some modern format, since their own LocoLink was so cheap at a mere £40, or £70 with the hardware to move the documents from the old PCWs. Rival software duly written as a Windows application (also includes a home-made reader for PCW 3 1/2 disks in PC drives) and now awaiting final polish for release at, let's say, £20. Take that, LocoScript!

• Novacon was OK, thank goodness. I slipped off at noon on Saturday to sign books with Josh Kirby at Andromeda, and thought he seemed gloomy about this much-mentioned-by-me art book A Cosmic Cornucopia (published by Paper Tiger, whom I carefully informed about the Andromeda signing beforehand and whose electronic newsletter The Paper Snarl duly contained an event listing for Novacon but – you've already guessed – no mention of the signing). Eventually Josh admitted the grim truth: despite a contract specifying advance payment in the usual instalments, and despite the fact that my agent extracted my full whack not too long after delivery of the text in April, he hadn't yet had a penny. Indeed he was out of pocket, since PT were blithely ignoring his expense claim for replacing four transparencies of paintings which were to be included in the book but which they lost. When I got home I sent some doom-laden e-mails about this, and am hoping that heads will roll....

• An oddity found in the Charing Cross Road: First Whisper of 'The Wind in the Willows' (1944) by Kenneth Grahame. This contains the storytelling letters to his son in which the great book's characters first took shape, plus a hitherto unpublished story about a different set of talking animals – including a mole. His widow Elspeth's occasionally glutinous introduction takes up nearly half the slim (89pp) volume, and without any apparent sense of irony tells the tale of the original mole that inspired it all. If you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them now. Apparently Grahame went out into the garden one night and found a robin and a mole having a tug-o'-war with a huge worm as the rope. The robin left in haste, but Grahame grabbed the mole and decided that his small son, then asleep, would like to see it next morning. So he placed the mole in a stout hamper in the kitchen, added some worm-laden chunks of turf in case it fancied a snack, weighted down the lid, and went to bed. During the night, evidently, the resourceful animal used its powerful digging arms to lever up the lid, and got out on to the kitchen floor. Where, bright and early next morning, the Grahames' aged and near-sighted housekeeper mistook it for a rat and beat it to death with her broom. Aaaahhhh.

(I must somehow work this story into an SFX column.)

Reading Matters

J.G. Ballard, A User's Guide to the Millennium ... a nice collection of sometimes ephemeral nonfiction bits and pieces, going back to oldies like the 1966 'The Coming of the Unconscious', which exhorted New Worlds readers to take a look at the Surrealists. I assume from the wording of the dedication to David Pringle that he did the actual work of assembling this! • Anthony Price, The Memory Trap (1989) ... thanks to Ian for the reminder of this last Audley title, instantly sought through; it arrived here four days later. Good tense spy stuff, with the hidden agenda being the cover-up of Soviet emergency preparations that have become all too embarrassing in the light of glasnost. The devious Dr Audley, while not exactly consigned to the Reichenbach Falls, attempts a Grand Gesture which goes so comically wrong as to suggest that with the Cold War over it's time for him to retire and leave British counterintelligence in younger hands. Rather a sour note on which to end the last book, though perhaps it wasn't meant to be the last. Also: The Hour of the Donkey, military action-adventure set in 1940 France, with a pair of not entirely ept officers caught in the gears of simpler than usual double-dealing between the German Blitzkrieg invasion and Dunkirk; all quite tense and nifty reading for the train home from Novacon. There are a few tenuous links to the Audley books. • Damon Knight, CV ... odd and curiously sparse sf novel set in a colossal seagoing habitat afflicted by an alien mind parasite that skips from body to body, causing a period of coma and a perhaps beneficial mental shakeup. Trying to deal with this is a kind of blindfold chess-game, while the captain of the CV (Sea Venture) fights off outside attempts to 'save' a load of on-board VIPs and maybe let out the contagion. Suspense was somewhat lessened by the knowledge that this opens a trilogy.... The alien symbionts spread worldwide in The Observers, and start doing things like bump off hosts who plan others' deaths (this includes ordering minions to kill), all somewhat reminiscent of the situation in Knight's earlier 'Rule Golden'. Volume 3, A Reasonable World, argues that the result will be a low-key utopia with a moneyless society, adding barely relevant skiffy digressions about matter transmitters and an L5 tourist trap. Published in 1991, this must be just about the last sf novel to depict a still coherent and menacing Soviet Union as late as 2005. • Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume, Perpetual Motion: The History of an Obsession (1977) ... many thanks to Tony for this one. The author is good on old-fashioned clockwork and Newtonian engines (all his other books seem to be about mechanical musical gadgetry), and lovingly reproduces woodcuts of those legendary perpetually overbalancing wheels, watermills that pump back a sufficient flow to keep themselves going in drought, and other historical non-starters. Oh, the embarrassment when the amazing Free Energy Machine proves to contain hidden batteries, concealed clockwork, invisible compressed-air jets or, best of all, the endless belt which a debunker traced to another room where an aged man was found patiently turning a crank. All good clean fun, despite a few lapses when tackling actual science (e.g. dodgy remarks about probability, and apparent ignorance that the 'Maxwell's demon' thought experiment in second-order perpetual motion was effectively refuted by arguments from information theory). I especially liked the eternal clock which really did work, using the rise and fall of a barometer containing 150lb of mercury to wind up the mechanism so effectively that precautions against over-winding were vital ... reminding one that many designers of duff perpetual motion machines, fearful that the uncontrollable acceleration would make the thing fly apart with great loss of life, rather needlessly included powerful braking systems. • Brian Stableford, The Werewolves of London ... I missed this when it came out, and at last found it on Brian Ameringen's table at Wincon V. There's plenty of tasty folklore about London's supposed werewolf colony, as expounded in a longish passage from Sabine Baring-Gould's 1865 The Book of Were-Wolves which, hem hem, doesn't appear in my own copy of the latter. More important to the story are various fallen angels who are immensely powerful but constricted by lack of imagination, by the too simple god- and devil-games of a long-ago 'Golden Age'. In The Empire of Fear, Brian showed the rational scientific viewpoint defeating vampire superstitions via its discovery of the non-supernatural explanation for vampirism, a disease theory with useful predictive power. Werewolves rather audaciously takes this further by arguing that a rational, analytical comprehension of the universe is superior even in the presence of potent supernatural entities and causation-defying 'Acts of Creation'. Better (says Brian) Olaf Stapledon's chill immensities, which can ultimately be understood, than the kind of Charles Williams numinosity to which the good guys can only bow down and submit. • John McPhee, The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, remembered for no particular reason as a rec.arts.sf.fandom recommendation (probably from Patrick Nielsen Hayden) and ordered on impulse. The fairly improbable story of the experimental Aereon cargo airship whose shape is described in the title and whose development climaxed in unexpectedly successful 1971 test flights. After which, nothing, blackout, no investment, oblivion; maybe it was a dud idea, maybe not. Quirkily and effectively told. • Brian Stableford, Journey to the Centre. Various factions explore layers on layers of Big Dumb Object planetary interior with mysterious origins, enigmatic inhabitants, etc. Not a lot actually happens, millions of revelations being saved for later in the trilogy. Tra la.

For HugeSouthAmericanRiver • Various, including ... Stephen Baxter et al, The Web 2028, six novellas as in The Web 2027 but with digital alien visitors rather than the former human villainess as linking theme. Ken MacLeod's riot of conspiracy theories is a hoot: I specially liked the virtual Dealey Plaza where you can count no fewer than 27 variously located gunmen taking aim at JFK. Meanwhile, if I'd ever wanted to write a parody of Steve Baxter it might well have contained a gung-ho argument to the effect that without NASA bureaucracy and safety regs to impede the Dream of Space, a primitive Viking community could quite easily lash up a manned orbital rocket if only told about gunpowder. Well, Steve has now pre-empted that one. • John de Lancie and Peter David, I, Q ... one might call this a postmodern ST:TNG spinoff, whose self-referential conceit is that the actual text which one is reading – a mildly exciting though arbitrary and logic-free romp about that tiresomely omnipotent Q character and Picard and Data confronting the utterly inescapable destruction of the entire multiverse – is the key to salvation. In the frame story, you see, the Supreme Creator of All Things is also perusing this very book and is so moved by it that in the end she decides not to ring down the curtain on creation after all. Supreme Creators, I came to feel, should be made of sterner stuff. • Jon Courtenay Grimwood, redRobe ... well, it's energetic, innit? Also determinedly over the top: here they don't gag someone who's to be kept quiet, but sew her lips shut; don't only rough up someone who's to impersonate a distressed refugee, but pull his eyes out; don't merely shoot someone but fire high-tech flechettes that slice half his face off, with the helpful gloss that 'pulped eye ran down his cheek like egg yolk'. One infers, er, Determined Homage involving The Star Fraction (smartarse talking AI gun), The Cassini Division (smart-matter clothing), Count Zero (AIs take on the aspects of obscure gods) and perhaps Gun, With Occasional Music (wired-up lead character has doomy music soundtrack playing in his head).

Not Yet Read • Patrick O'Brian, Blue at the Mizzen ... Tanya gloated at Novacon about having had this for a week, so I nipped out to the adjacent W.H. Smith for a (heavily discounted) copy which I'm virtuously keeping until Time Permits.

Mailing 81, October 1999

Ian: One of my discoveries while researching Josh Kirby's paintings for a variety of Hitchcock anthologies (all showing Hitch himself in various grisly predicaments) was that even the books credited solely to Hitchcock were all or nearly all ghost-edited. Peter Haining did a fair few; one proved to have been co-edited by Robert Arthur and Thomas M.Disch. • Penny: Whenever I find myself grumbling about the unspeakable privations of the freelance life, it's bracing to hear something about what people like you (and Hazel) have to put up with from management. Much sympathy regarding the dreadful Mr Hat! One bizarre job inflicted on Hazel recently: prepare a set of statistics which would be utterly straightforward if done on a PC spreadsheet, but without using the PC she works at all day. The reasons for this requirement are so Byzantine that my memory refuses to retain them. • I do want to read Cryptonomicon when time permits. Just before Novacon I had a brainwave and asked if they'd like a review, thus giving me an excuse to buy and read the thing. Yes please, they said. Woe, woe: no copies in the convention dealers' room or at Andromeda. Then Monday brought e-mail saying they'd forgotten they already had a review from the US .com site, so could I drop that one? On the same day I saw pb copies in Reading, but was feeling poor again after the convention. So it goes. • To answer your Magic Pudding questions: the merry crew of Puddin'-Owners comprises Sam Sawnoff the penguin, Bill Barnacle the sailor, and Bunyip Bluegum the dressy koala; the pudding (called Albert) is repeatedly eaten but magically regenerates, and does indeed run away on little legs; there is much hearty singing; however, as a concession to a youthful audience, the drinks of choice are tea and coffee rather than beer – although corrupt courtroom officials may consume port. • Bruce: Aussiecon photo-pages much appreciated. Wonder which Thog quotation I was reading with such a dramatically outspread arm? The Harveys e-mailed colour photos of me looking pink and over-excited after the Hugos; one appears at In a message to Paul Barnett I self-deprecatingly described this conjunction of Hugos, Hugo Winery wine and roseate Langford as rebarbative. The prompt reply was: 'That's not a rebarbative photo on the website: nauseating's more like it.' A fan in need is a fan indeed. • Chris A: which on-line bookshop is taking forever to deliver? I had a bad time with, who took months and months (and several prods) to admit that the item was out of print, while still listing it as available. But I got The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed from and they were surprisingly quick. • Chris H: I came across another Kemelman novel, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, and sort-of-liked it in the same way as the others; the detective aspect was stronger than usual. • Andy B: as I recall it, the ISIRTA gag about repeating the word 'teapot' until it became hilarious eventually and intentionally backfired as the desperate cast manned the emergency life-jokes: 'Teapot! Teapot!' Obviously Primed Audience: 'Ha Bloody Ha!' • Me: R.A. Salvatore's 'demon dactyl' (with multiple instances of 'The dactyl was awake!') led me to attempt a double-dactyl, completed with a little help from kindly Elizabeth Willey:

Higgledy piggledy
Robert A. Salvatore
Warned us repeatedly:
Worse than demonic's
The sight of a risible
Scribe on the make.

... Sorry about that.