Cloud Chamber 102
January 2000

Oh, the apathy: we had a monstrously lazy holiday period, with the traditional eating, drinking and reading punctuated by a few walks to the river, some desultory clearing out of old junk drawers, and (in my case) the hypnotic chore of scanning and cleaning up the text of two of my out-of-print novels. One's writing appears in a weird new light, at the same time distanced and uncomfortably close, when it passes through the machinery like this. Although I have a reasonable supply of spare copies, there is also a deep sense of guilt in cutting up a book so its pages will lie flat in the scanner....

The Horrors of TAFF. Another retro supplement from the spare-room paper mountain: D. West's cartoon TAFF campaign against eventual winner Rob Hansen, as featured in Ansible 39, Aug 1984. Thought some of you might be amused.

Commonplace Book. Inscription by Max Beerbohm in a copy of his Seven Men sent for autograph (to his irritation) by a Reverend who was a complete stranger: 'For dear old C. Williamson – my companion in many a madcap escapade, and my accomplice in more than one rather shady transaction, in the sad bad glad mad days before he took Holy Orders. MAX.'

Reading Matters

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926) ... low-key and gently ironic story of a woman whose only available slot in life is Unemployed Middle-Aged Spinster Aunt. (Sample highlight of desperate fun at the seaside: 'She had once formed an indistinct project of observing limpets.' ) So she cuts modestly loose, escaping from London to a country village, and then finding a certain contentment – both in being different and being accepted in another, freer global community – by becoming a witch. Somebody wants her after all, if only the Devil, with whom she has some tranquil conversations. Very strange. • Gwyneth Jones, The Influence of Ironwood (1978). Her second novel, before she became Ann Halam for the children's books. Interesting and not conventionally nice young characters: 'difficult' kids and weary social workers on a regimented holiday in Ireland, with a hint of creepy Influence that isn't what it seems. • Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters ... another that I mislaid on my own shelves by filing in the proper spot and then forgetting for years. A scattershot mix of fiction and nonfiction whose connecting themes begin with Noah's Ark and radiate out through linked specifics and generalities (obsession, survival, rationalizations, animals, journeys over water, dividing the sheep from the goats, Ararat, love, responsibility, woodworm) to a stage of diffuseness where I suspect Barnes could have justified pasting in more or less any fragment he had to hand. Maybe that's part of the point; as Charles Fort wrote, 'One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.' Most of the pieces read well. I was particularly taken by the impassioned pleadings in a French mediaeval ecclesiastical court dealing with a plea for anathema and excommunication to be visited on the bestioles (woodworm again) who have so wickedly infested the church, but who out of natural justice must be provided with their own advocate. • 'Medlar Lucan & Durian Gray', The Decadent Cookbook (Dedalus), a combined recipe book and anthology of culinary excess, revelling in blood, decay and alarming ingredients, from Apicius's Caligulan banquets (squid stuffed with brains, roast testicles, boiled ostrich, stewed thrushes) onward through history. As Hazel remarked, not many books' Acknowledgements give fervent thanks to Charles Baudelaire, Edward Gibbon, Joris-Karl Huysmans and – short but dramatic pause – Brian Stableford. • Robertson Davies, The Merry Heart, posthumous collection of essays, speeches and autobiographical bits. • Graham Lineham & Arthur Mathews, Father Ted: The Complete Scripts ... I have a weak spot for books like this, since I can finally read the droll bits that I never managed to hear on the TV. Bonus: many deleted scenes from penultimate drafts are included. Surreally funny stuff. • John Batchelor, Mervyn Peake: a biographical and critical exploration (1974) ... a short biography plus workmanlike examination of Peake's published work in the light of notes, diaries, early drafts, etc. OK, but Batchelor seems less than sympathetic to the playful, nonsense-creating facet of Peake's talent. He ponderously divides the verse into six numbered categories, 'Head-hunting' (pen portraits analogous to sketches), 'Inward', War, Love, Mystical and Romantic, and astonishingly omits Nonsense altogether. Elsewhere is what strikes me as a dreadfully facile aside about one of the wonders seen by Steerpike on his epic roofscape journey, the horse and foal swimming in a lake at the top of a tower: 'which is itself a clear metaphor of procreation with the tower as male and the lake as female symbols.' Oh dearie me. When Peake wants to be slyly Freudian, he makes it much clearer and wittier than that – as in the inset verse 'The Frivolous Cake', whose eponymous cake ends up moaning in the throes of love after eventual, ahem, penetration by the pursuing knife. Batchelor doesn't seem even to notice this, or any possible significance of its being 'a great favourite' of the repressed adolescent Fuschia. After all, it's only nonsense.

Reread. Lots, partly because HugeSouthAmericanRiver were (despite frequent reminders) too seasonally challenged to approve reviews of any of the stacks of sf/fantasy titles I'd expected to be reading for corrupt personal gain over the hols. Just as well, perhaps – I think I'd been overdoing it. Instead: all the rest of Robertson Davies's fiction except Murther and Walking Spirits; Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose; Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. STOP PRESS: HSAR just gave the go-ahead for 22 reviews. I may be gone for some time.

Mailing 83, December 1999

Claire, Claire, Claire ... a footnote to both our reviews of Starfish comes from Peter Watts himself, who e-mailed me after my piece appeared in The New York Review of SF (not Nova Express – I did the new Gene Wolfe for them). Thus:

Just came across your kind review of my novel in the NYRSF. It was a nice boost. Also one of the more insightful reviews I've read; I'd forgotten that I'd even read Under Pressure until you mentioned the parallel. Then I went through my bookshelves and found it left over from 1972, when I picked it up from a drugstore in Wolfville. Nice call, that. • I also thought you might like to know why Starfish did that hairpin turn at the halfway mark, skidding over into Andromeda Strain territory. I had actually written the story you wanted – 'the further transformation and ultimate fate' of the rifters. Problem was, they all got squashed like bugs. I mean, realistically, what are the odds that a bunch of squabbling basket-cases could actually win in an arena built by a corporate overlord who holds all the cards? Maybe it's my Canadian heritage shining through here, but I saw two alternatives: they could make a stand, and get squashed; or they could all go native in Fischer's footsteps, and effectively squash themselves. • The only way I could give them any kind of fighting chance was to throw in a monkey wrench that scared the puppet-masters more than the puppets. An arbitrary, world-threatening apocalypse offered the only hope for a happy ending. Such as it is. • I've got to admit that I, like you, wasn't entirely happy with the resulting change of pace. Your review pretty much nailed my own misgivings in that regard. I too feel a bit deprived of the story I didn't choose to tell. Still. There's always the sequel.

I often think 'Gosh, I'm for it now,' when an author responds to a review, but have got off fairly lightly in recent times, with cheering letters or e-mails from Greg Bear (Slant – it was ages before he saw that issue of Foundation), Mark Chadbourn (World's End), Jane Palmer (The Drune) and Darren O'Shaughnessy (Ayuamarca), besides nice Peter Watts. Mike Scott Rohan abused me in a friendly way for my moderately appreciative but less than respectful coverage of his lightweight Castle of the Winds: his hackles didn't half rise at a mention, even a carefully qualified mention, of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.... • It's been said that Patricia Anthony's very fine Flanders actually damaged her career, with poor sales leading to a black mark against her name in the dread US distributor databases. Some people can get away with novels that fall between genres and are praised as 'slipstream' or whatever. Others are less lucky. Often it seems to depend on whether the publisher's marketing department announces, 'We'll never be able to sell this' – one of the book trade's most notoriously self-fulfilling prophecies.

Barry ... aha, another Dunsany fan. I don't remember The Fourth Book of Jorkens (which I've had for ages) as expensive or hard-to-find – just luck, no doubt. Mr Jorkens Remembers Africa was the one that took longest and cost most. • One reasonable TV spinoff novel is Thomas Disch's The Prisoner, which I think the fans disliked for elusiveness and for aiming at the spirit rather than the letter of Patrick McGoohan's series. Non-fans, meanwhile, were irritated that it didn't neatly explain all the mysteries (after the fashion of Arthur C. Clarke resolutely applying his whitewash of rationality to Kubrick's 2001). Very minor Disch, but it has a certain elegant integrity.

Lizbeth ... the best typo of the mailing was your 'needing to sue the family at the front of One Hundred Years of Solitude'. Legal vengeance for all those too-similar character names!

Ian ... it never occurred to me to put Xmas cards through Acne. I didn't even send a festive message to the Ansible e-mail list until Boxing Day. This gloated that the whole first series of Ansible is now on-line, in HTML and including all the artwork, at Next came seasonal glitter with Thog's Retro Masterclass, featuring a naughty passage from Amanda M. Ros's immortal Delina Delaney (1935). Addressing the adored lady of the title, noble young Lord Gifford discusses the fashion sense of the cousin his mother would prefer him to marry. Is he perhaps too knowledgable about intimate female accessories? Thog admires the finesse of the closing sentences which deal so neatly with this question....

'... She stands almost a six-footer, with her treadles thrust into shoes you'd swear once long ago belonged to a Chinese madman; her long, thin wallopy legs enveloped in silken hose, with birds, fish, fowl, cabbage leaves, ay, by Jove, with every species of animal, vegetable and mineral rainbowed in coloured fashion over their flimsy fronts.

'Then her garters! Ah, ha!

'How I remember one fine day finding a lost one that at a time had fastened itself, I presume, above or below the knee, and, thirsting probably for a dash of fresh air, broke loose, and there it lay. That garter! Composed of every colour, resembling the amethyst, opal, emerald, jasper, garnet, onyx, pearl, and sapphire, terminating in a cat's face studded with diamonds. I remember perfectly examining the article at first, wondering under heaven what it was. I concluded it must be a necklet, and proceeded to carefully roll it up. As I coiled it, I couldn't fail seeing the word "garter" worked in emeralds about its centre ...'

Tanya ... Throwing stuff away does make one feel virtuous, especially at year's end. But, having finally brought myself to bin a mass of elderly office flotsam, I'm now haunted by the sense that 2000 will surely bring an urgent need for broken Selectric typeballs, plastic boxes that once contained 35mm slides, blue Tipp-Ex paper for air letter forms, carefully cut-out scraps of electrostencil saying things like LETTERS and BOOK REVIEWS, Sperry-Remington typewriter accessories, deceased calculators, spare 1979 Hugo bases, perished rubber bands, ancient jiffybags that steadily leak a shredded grey mess, carbon paper, quarto carbon paper, 5 1/4 -inch cover disks from computer mags, 300-baud modems, copies of D. West's The Horrors of TAFF ...

Penny ... Yvonne Rousseau was cruelly deprived of e-mail in December – computer failure – but I'll let you know when she's on line again. • I agree that stepping on mice is infinitely more disgusting than stepping on wasps. Am now trying hard not to remember the anecdote about stepping on a tortoise.

Steve ... Good grief, I recognize your summary of Geoff Ryman's 'A Fall of Angels' from a long time ago. Geoff brought a novel extract and synopsis to Milford UK, way back when. The extract from 'Part 1: A Low Comedy', much reworked, eventually developed into The Child Garden. The synopsis went on into all this wildly ambitious stuff about Angels, entropy reversal, the Charlie Slide, the enigmatic sundwelling alien, and more. It's good to hear that Geoff salvaged the high-concept material which he seemed to have discarded.

Bruce ... Much guilt as I compare your longish and spiffy Aussiecon report with my not very much at all (although I still have lots of notes made en route and on the flight home). Paul Starr's notion that you personally 'put a spell of graciousness and civilization over the convention', and thereby banished all rudeness from the event, certainly seems awfully convincing. A spell like that did indeed appear to be in force, though perhaps not quite extending to John Foyster. (Er, only joking, honest.)

Maureen ... I consciously registered your triad of section headings at 'Thorn', and was somehow relieved to turn back and find 'Oak' and 'Ash' rather than 'Memory' and 'Sorrow'. • You do make the Angel pub sound inviting. It's years and years since I went there (and was amazed to meet James Manning, who edited Knave in the glory days when Barnett, Gaiman, Langford et al were allowed to fill the pages between the tit pictures with funny stuff ... alas, the post-Manning regime had a strict prose policy of 'My God, I've Never Seen One As Big As That,' She Whispered Huskily. James moved into advertising). Anywhere quietish and as central as that sounds splendid.

Cherith ... Seeing previews of the Pratchett essays in Acne is probably going to come in handy, since I've apparently failed to weasel out of writing an introduction for this book. I should have been firmer when my noises of reluctance to A Certain Lady Academic were met by a contributors' form letter stating that all those approached, including me, had eagerly agreed.

Paul ... I do agree (see 'self-fulfilling prophecies' above) about the defeatism of UK publishing. You cite Brian Stableford and James White as victims. By coincidence, Brian just got himself into hot water with a NYRSF White retrospective which says quite flatly that James was bullied by Tor into writing bankable Sector General books rather than anything innovative. His Tor editors the Nielsen Haydens – who encouraged James to spread himself and had indeed contracted for a non-SG book on which he was working when he died – are furious.

Mike ... conversely, I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for David Spanier's Total Poker. but read and enjoyed Total Chess.

Everyone ... Happy New Temporal Period Of Your Choice!