Cloud Chamber: Room 101
December 1999

It is traditional that at some stage during winter, I should have an absolutely foul cold. Now mostly past, but energy remains low, and so therefore does the usual CC page count. Yvonne Rousseau cheered me by sending her review of an Anne Rice epic (the very one which made Hazel the Egyptologist splutter a lot), and has given me permission to share it with you all. The Plain People of Acnestis: 'You lazy sod, Langford!'

In other news, a fit of millennial publishing enthusiasm led to many days of putting together that Peter Roberts TAFF report, and I'm rather pleased with the result. Lots of other people helped, including Claire of this parish, who retyped Peter's longest chapter, Steve, who drew a heap of cartoons at short notice, and Maureen, who loaned me the fanzine with Pete Lyon's 'lost' illustrations. Meanwhile, noting with horror that the ANSIBLE.COM and ANSIBLE.ORG domains had both been registered by vile interlopers, I finally got around to bagging ANSIBLE.CO.UK as my very own. Talk about vanity publishing.

Ansible 149 Typo! The 1993 in the Charles Hornig mini-obituary should, rather obviously, be 1933.

Commonplace Book. Tim Cahill on scuba diving: 'You get to go round wearing tight rubber suits, and nobody thinks you're weird: this is our little secret.' (A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg) • W.B. Yeats denouncing someone who dared to correct his error of saying that the Reformation led to the Renaissance: 'The sort of man who could bring down the Archangel Gabriel in full flight by the brickbat of a fact!' • From the obituary of Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis: 'When Prince Johannes celebrated his sixtieth birthday in 1986, Princess Gloria arranged for the cake to be adorned with sixty chocolate candles sculpted in the form of the male member. The Prince, though, was embarrassed that this tribute to his virility should be paraded before his tenantry, whose children eagerly fell upon the illuminating trophies ...' (Sunday Telegraph, 1990)

Reading Matters

Kingsley Amis, Russian Hide and Seek ... it occurred to me that this was the sole Amis novel I'd never read. It's the one about a Russian-ruled future Britain, and the occupying authorities' well-meaning attempts to restore the initially suppressed British culture, Shakespeare and all – doomed attempts, Amis argues, because once it's gone it's gone. (Mind you, he thought much the same about Welsh-language culture, this being a subtext of The Old Devils; his dislike of silly Taxi/Tacsi signs seemingly blinded him to an active Welsh publishing trade selling, then and now, books that the natives actually buy.) All very gloomy, and not all that involving in spite of a coup subplot and some atypically lumpish sexual comedy, since the Russian lead character is such an uninterestingly self-centred prat. Caused me no pain, but most definitely minor Amis. • Patrick O'Brian, Blue at the Mizzen ... further nautical thrills, hugely enjoyed, no special comment. Except to note that all those reports that the Aubrey/Maturin sequence would stop at 20 books were definitely premature: there's no end in sight. Tantalizing new plot strands appear, and O'Brian is said to be well into the writing of book 21. • And a great deal of soothing rereading – Iain Banks, heaps and heaps of Robertson Davies, The Compleet Molesworth, ect ect. Let's draw a veil over the HugeSouthAmericanRiver blockbuster fantasy assignments this month. Except to say that, cor, that Janny Wurts doesn't half bang on. Me: 'The writing's quite inoffensive really, but it goes on for 600 pages and only gets to a minor climax after all that.' John Clute: 'THAT IS THE OFFENCE!'

Guest Review by Yvonne Rousseau

Anne Rice, The Mummy: Or Ramses the Damned (1989), as reviewed in Science Fiction vol 12 no 3 ed Van Ikin, 199?.

Anne Rice's The Mummy is an unsettling book, not because it describes the ancient Egyptian Ramses the Great stepping out of his 'gilded box' into the world of the twentieth century, but because readers are supplied with such contradictory clues as they attempt to solve the conundrum: 'When in the world in the twentieth century are we?' The year is not disclosed until page 262 – when the British heroine Julie Stratford speaks of an opera with an Egyptian story 'written by an Italian fifty years ago and especially for the British Opera House in Cairo.' The appropriate reference books thereupon assure us that the novel is set in 1921 (which is fifty years later than the appearance of Verdi's Aida in 1871).

No wonder we have felt confused. In order to explain some of the novel's anomalies, we are forced to adopt the ingenious hypothesis that all of the book's British characters are Americans – although their setting has been called, for the purposes of the novel, London in 1921, and some of them have been named with British titles. This explains why, when considering the deficiencies in his twenty-five-year-old son Alex's character, the 'Earl of Rutherford' does not theorize (as any British parent would have done) about the part the Great War might have played in producing these. The War, indeed, is never once mentioned in the novel, although the twenty-one-year-old heroine Julie Stratford, who is still marching for the vote (presumably for its extension to women under thirty, since it was granted to older women in 1918), is a 'serious' and 'determined' type who would certainly have thrown herself into war-related work of some kind, as other young British women had done. Only if The Mummy's British characters are secretly inhabitants of the United States (where it might have been possible to ignore the War and its after-effects) are their thoughts and attitudes at all feasible in 1921.

The same hypothesis also explains another puzzling anomaly: Julie prides herself on being fashionable, so why is she described as wearing essentially Edwardian clothes, at a time when the mode in Paris and London was for the straight silhouette? Her 'tight lace blouse' and her evening wear's display of bare shoulders and 'half-naked breasts' between which a 'tiny shadow' is visible are sadly outmoded in the 'jazz-age' era of loose, easy fitting garments and bust-flattening underwear. But in the United States – even as late as 1925 – women were still wearing full-skirted, tight-waisted creations, with abundant trimmings, that (allowing for poetic exaggeration) possibly fit The Mummy's descriptions of the latest 'Western' fashion.

Reviewing The Mummy in The New York Review of Science Fiction 11, July 1989, Greg Cox either failed to notice the hint on page 262 or else mistrusted Julie's arithmetic: he describes the setting as 'England (circa 1914)'. But the novel is anomalous for this era, too: on the one hand, the popularity it ascribes to the cinema did not begin until 1915; on the other hand, it is still years too late for Julie to think the young-looking Ramses correctly dressed for the street in a frock coat (worn, in 1914, only by elderly gentlemen and some professional classes). Moreover, any year after 1858 (when the Antiquities Organization in Cairo was founded) is too late for a British excavator like The Mummy's Lawrence Stratford to enter a tomb without an Egyptian inspector present, or to transport the contents of a previously unviolated tomb back to Britain. Even in a tomb already violated, the Egyptian Museum had first choice of the contents; in an unviolated tomb, everything remained the property of the Egyptian government – although no actual instance arose until 1922, with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. (The cover of The Mummy is an illustration of Tutankhamun's famous gold mask.)

In short, The Mummy is ahistorical – and its women's fashions are perhaps simply explained by the author's having the vague impression that in Britain 'rich and aristocratic' means the same as 'Edwardian' (regardless of the date). Nevertheless, the novel also contains an intentional juxtaposition of people from different times: the result of an ancient elixir. Drinking it has not only made Ramses II immortal (and enabled him to know Cleopatra) but has improved him in every way. His body has henceforth 'constantly restored itself'; moreover the elixir changed his eyes instantly from Egyptian 'black' to 'the colour of sapphires' – thus enacting the aspiration prescribed in Hilaire Belloc's poem 'The Three Races': 'Behold, my child, the Nordic Man / And be as like him as you can.' Unfortunately, the immortal Ramses has seemingly adopted the slowness of brain that Belloc also ascribed to Nordic types and, at 3000 years of age, is disconcertingly adolescent – greeting modern inventions with whispers of 'Oooh, Julie!'

Readers must wade through almost 300 pages of comparative blandness (with only the occasional murder) before a decomposing corpse is resurrected – after which Rice's style becomes somewhat more animated and there are thick and fast intimations of excited genitalia (female 'moist, hot hair' against which 'his sex jutted') and more murders. But not until the final pages is a promising beginning for a novel established – three unpredictable immortals let loose on the world – whereupon we read: 'The End: The adventures of Ramses the Damned shall continue.'

In June 1991, Harper's published an article by Tom Engelhardt – 'Reading May Be Harmful to Your Kids' – which describes the appeal of 'the paperback series' for middle and early-adolescent readers in terms strikingly applicable to The Mummy. Engelhardt diagnoses 'a single formulaic literature of anxiety and reassurance, the reassurance sometimes lying only in the fact that another book just like the first is still to be purchased, and another, and ...' He points out that in such novels 'the social context is missing', and that character 'tends to be reduced to the emblematic trait', although there is 'diversity of a sort – a suburban version of an all-ethnic sub crew from some late-night movie in which blue-eyed, light-haired whiteness is, nonetheless, especially valued.' If Rice's other novels are popular, perhaps they resemble The Mummy in closely following these adolescent-series guidelines – although perhaps in the other novels the hero's blue eyes and light hair need not be ascribed (with such unfortunate ethnic implications) to an improving elixir – while adding the 'adult' touch of a little erotica. Meanwhile, The Mummy's bland style completely neutralizes its 'horror' elements, and it conveys such gratifyingly intense reassurance that the next in the series will be exactly the same that I feel absolutely no need either to purchase or to read it.

Yvonne Rousseau

Mailing 82, November 1999

Chris A ... a minor Harry Potter perplexity noted by Yvonne is the school's unhelpful treatment of new pupils who like Harry come from Muggle families and so have no idea, on their first journey to Hogwarts, how to attain Platform 9 3/4. Why is this info not provided? ... Rereading How to Be Topp, I wondered again whether 'Hogwarts' intentionally alludes to the title of the Skool Latin Pla by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus. 'Quid est pabulum?' • Andy S ... funnily enough, John Clute instantly spotted B.S. Johnson in a proof copy of Men at Arms and suggested that Terry's famously inept architect, landscape gardener and organ builder should be renamed, since it seemed an obvious sneer at the deceased author of The Unfortunates (27 unbound segments of novel in a box, to be arranged as you will). Either it was too late or Terry didn't agree. • Ian ... such synchronicity of you and me (re)reading Anthony Price. I recently saw John M. Ford's The Scholars of Night (1988) described as 'his Anthony Price novel', and there's an unread copy here – must give it a try. • My own cheery review of Time appears in the new Foundation. While writing it I e-mailed Steve with a query along the lines of, 'For God's sake, you don't take the Brandon Carter argument seriously, do you?' and he assured me that he didn't: 'I might say I don't buy the Carter stuff myself because it seems to rely on a deterministic future; the dodgy stats are all based on that premise ... or maybe I was always destined to hold such a view.' Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? • Paul K ... fascinated by your description of the curious half-world of ghost stories and M.R. James acolytes at that strangely constituted event. Robertson Davies offers a peculiar view of the field in 'Masks of Satan', his lecture series dealing with Evil in fiction: 'Ghost stories, as a genre, are somewhat neglected by literary critics, partly because so many of them are bad, but partly also, I think, because they tempt critics into quagmires and morasses into which critics fear to tread. The ghost story is above all things a story of feeling, and critics, for reasons we need not examine, are not particularly happy with feeling on this level. Tragedy – ah, with tragedy they are perfectly content, because you can discuss tragedy without becoming personally involved. But the ghost story is not tragedy; its light is moonlight, and there is an old, belief that too much moonlight may make you mad. Critics, who prize their reason above all else, are understandably shy of it.' A touch of special pleading there, methinks. • Meanwhile, amid moonlit haze I see a phantasmal Lucasfilm exec blue-pencilling your greatly improved Phantom Menace poster strapline ['Fear begets hate. Hate begets suffering. Suffering begets ... The Phantom Menace.'], intoning in a chill graveyard voice the eerie words, 'Ninety per cent of the American public don't know the word "begets" and the rest think it's dirty. Try again.' • Tanya ... I heard the ghost of a whisper of a rumour that newish fantasy author K.J. Parker might secretly be Tom Holt. Nothing too solid to base this on, but the author description fits (e.g. having worked in the law), and a mole tells me that precisely as Parker is described as doing, Tom has a hobby of making replica mediaeval-type weapons. I wonder if there are any stylistic clues, pro or con? • Andy B ... Must admit I laughed quite a bit at the depiction of your metafictional persona as a selfless pillar (or Uluru) of modesty and humility. Or as Thog once caught Robert Charles Wilson writing, 'It was an Everest of understatement.' • KVB ... Dylan Thomas was evidently a bit of a caution when being interviewed. A terrifically long and solemn example appeared ages ago in the literary review Adam, the sole moment of cheer coming when after unwisely asking what the great poet thought of Welsh nationalism, the interviewer had to resort to oratio obliqua: 'Mr Thomas answered the question in three words, of which the second and third were "Welsh nationalism".'

Me ... Happily, after I pointed out Paper Tiger's neglectful treatment of Josh Kirby, they sent him part 1 of his advance for A Cosmic Cornucopia, being the payment due on signature. You'd have thought that since the book had by then been out for more than two weeks, they might have thrown in the on-approval and on-publication money too. The PT bossman sent an apologetic note saying, 'I owe the work team and you seem to have suffered for it.' What, he doesn't pay his own staff either? Finally deduced that this had been dictated and then proofread to PT standards: 'I overworked the team and ...'