Cloud Chamber 104
April 2000

Having started the previous issue with 'What happened to February?' I suddenly find it's 'What happened to March?' Well, losing John Sladek was particularly painful – a man who went straight on to my 'must buy' list with his first novel The Reproductive System, very nearly incited me to crime (the only copy of The Müller-Fokker Effect I saw before 1979 belonged to the Oxford Union library), and turned out to be a splendidly funny fellow in person. And when you're in the sf business, as it were, people die too many deaths: first the bad news came, then the realization that I needed to postpone the bit of fluff I'd planned for SFX and instead write about John, then the hunt for my long 1982 interview with him (with the side-obsession of scanning this for the web site), then a tribute paragraph for the Interzone column, followed by editing John Clute's JS obituary for Ansible, after which Chris Priest suggested that The Guardian bloody well ought to run a Sladek obit and I should write it, and on getting an unexpected go-ahead from the obits editor ('I'm not a sci-fi buff, but if you say he was very gifted ...') I spent the weekend of 1-2 April trying to construct something reasonably worthy of sf's cleverest author. It's all go.

Consolations of Philosophy. 'What do you know about Schopenhauer?' said Hazel, who is intermittently following the Alain de Botton TV philosophy series. Me: 'Not a lot.' Hazel: 'Suppose I record it just in case ...' Meanwhile I unearthed The Oxford Companion to the Mind and read out the great man's entry. 'As a challenge, he held his lectures at the same time as Hegel, but without success. He retired to Frankfurt-on-Main as a lonely and unloved bachelor, befriended only by his poodle Atma, "World Soul". He was a personal and professional pessimist. He held a subjective idealism that the world is a personal fantasy ...' Hazel: 'Suppose I don't record it?' (The sf connection is that R.A.Lafferty crossed Schopenhauer's best-known title The World as Will and Idea with William Morris, yielding a story called 'The World as Will and Wallpaper'.)

In Typo Veritas. Robert Day notes that The Bookseller lists the new Clarke collection as Greetings, Carbon-Based Biceps.

The Wrath of Andy Butler may just possibly be averted if I tell every fan in the world, with appropriate grovels, that the Pratchett critical tome mentioned in Ansible 153 is edited by Andrew M.Butler, Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. John Clute's omniscience also faltered: there was eventually a tiny Carroll & Graf US edition of John Sladek's Roderick books.

Commonplace Book. Dept of Eternal Whinge: 'Famous sportsmen who win victories at Olympia, Corinth and Nemea, have been assigned such distinctions by the ancestors of the Greeks that they not only receive praise publicly at the games, as they stand with palm and crown, but also when they go back victorious to their own people they ride triumphant with their four-horse chariots into their native cities, and enjoy a pension for life from the State. When I observe this, I am surprised that similar or even greater distinctions are not assigned to those authors who confer infinite benefits on mankind throughout the ages. For this is the more worthy of enactment, in that while sportsmen make their own bodies stronger, authors not only cultivate their own perceptions, but by the information in their books prepare the minds of all to acquire knowledge and thus to stimulate their talents.' (Vitruvius, De architectura, c27 BC. Astute readers will have guessed that this is Hazel's leisure reading rather than mine.) • Dept of Second Childhood: 'From an early age, [Bill] Gates was extremely energetic and used to rock incessantly in his cradle – a trait that is still said to be with him to this day.' (Computer Weekly supplement, 30 March)

Read in Reading

Hilary Spurling, Secrets of a Woman's Heart (1984), a follow-up to Spurling's Ivy When Young which covers the actual 1920-1969 writing career of the elusive, epigrammatic and slightly scary Ivy Compton-Burnett. The naff-seeming title, a phrase from Parents and Children, is actually quite funny in context; the book supplies interesting background to a sequence of novels whose characters alarmingly tend to say exactly what they think, though masked with irony and aphorism. 'Oh, must we be quite so honest with ourselves, my dear?' says one timorous person, and is answered: 'We do not know how to avoid it ... That is why there is horror in every heart, and a resolve never to be honest with anybody else.' • The Sandman Companion, acquired in the wake of Steve's enthusiastic plug. Good fun. I'd assumed the Library of Dream was a nod to the one in James Branch Cabell's Beyond Life, featuring all the books that authors never got around to writing ('Milton's own King Arthur, by the by, is quite his most readable performance.') and more familiar works as the authors had actually meant them to be. Neil also notes this in the Companion, though he seems to have forgotten the Cabellian source of his favourite bit-part character Breschau, the damned soul who pompously insists on being tormented for all his long-forgotten crimes. When Cabell's Jurgen meets his father Coth in Hell, Coth proudly recites the past murders for which 'my conscience demands that I be punished', and Jurgen (as later echoed by Lucifer in Sandman) offers totally unwanted comfort: 'Ah, but sir, that was fifty years or more ago, and these men would now be dead in any event, so you see it does not matter now.' • John Sladek is a much-reread author here; I revisited a few that had drifted towards unfamiliarity, like the impossible-crime mysteries Black Aura and Invisible Green, the surrealism and parodies in The Steam-Driven Boy and the skewed tales of office life in Alien Accounts. The latter's 'The Interstate' has an allusion to the famous US Burma Shave roadside ads, lost on me when first read in 1982, as a doomed protagonist notices part of a sequence of signs through the bus window:

Beards grow faster
In the grave
Take it with you –

Tom Phillips, A Humument: revisited as consolation after finding that another indescribable art book which I covet, Luigi Serafini's Codex Seriphinianus, now sells for coo er gosh $700. Phillips took a dire Victorian novel called A Human Document (by William Hurrell Mallock) and 'treated' each of its 367 pages, mostly by obscuring the text with ink or paint to produce a colourful picture with a teasing scatter of the original words showing through as caption or commentary: sad, bizarre, comic, poetic and opaque by turns. It grows on you. • Ivy Compton-Burnett (as unsubtly foreshadowed above), Pastors and Masters, her first acknowledged book and surprisingly thin at 96 pages. Here's one of her domestic tyrants, a clergyman who has reduced his small son to tears with a nastily manipulative sermonette: 'Mr Bentley just laid a hand on his [the boy's] head, and went upstairs and stood by himself, repeating his speech with additions which had not occurred to him.' • James Reeves & Edward Ardizzone, Prefabulous Animiles (1957). PFBA dealer, with heaps more Reeves/Ardizzone to sell: 'Is it the author or the artist that you collect?' Me: 'Er um there was this big fat book called the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and one of the other editors slipped this title into my entry on BESTIARIES, and I thought if I'm supposed to be an authority on it I ought to have a copy.' (Dealer's eyes have long since glazed over. Langford sidles furtively away, muttering 'Never apologize, never explain.') Sample of prefabulous lore:

The Nonny-bird I love particularly;
All day she chirps her joysome odes.
She rises perpendicularly,
And if she goes too far, explodes.

Mailing 85, February 2000

KVB ... wasn't it prose rather than grammar that M.Jourdain in Molière learned with delight he'd been talking all his life? (Cue Spike Milligan: 'Mathematics? I speak it like a native.') • Steve J ... just in case you're feeling almost alone, I should mention that I liked the TV Gormenghast too. Perhaps it had pacing problems (compare the first episode's headlong speed with the leisurely handling of the Professors in part 3), but I was amazed by the number of people, including Terry Pratchett, who insisted this just couldn't be Gormenghast because it wasn't all dank stone and gloomy labyrinths. There's plenty of justification in the text for colourful sets: the Prunesquallors' place is a Regency town house somehow plonked down in the middle of this castle, and book two has a memorable aside about the 'dove-grey' pillars of a lovely old courtyard being painted a hideous red for the one day each year when a ritual takes place there. Hence, perhaps, all those gaudy painted backdrops. • Chris H ... I'm waiting to see how Jon Courtney Grimwood reacts to being pinked by Thog in Ansible 153. Very probably he'll laugh. In issue 152, Thog picked on Patricia Wrede and a week or so later I noticed she'd joined the e-mail subscription list.... She's got her eye on me. It feels squishy.

Mailing 86, March 2000

Paul H ... congratulations on your and Elaine's engagement! • Mike ... having been to the Other Place (the one that won the Boat Race this year), I've only viewed the wonders of Jómsborg at a distance, but was much taken with The Book of Lost Things. For those in Acne who haven't seen it, this is an anthology of invitations to Jómsborg literary discussions (Things), almost all of them couched as pastiche or parody of the author under scrutiny. Nick Lowe doing David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus was unforgettable, with the hero being told the uses of all the exciting new organs he's grown. From memory (where did I put my copy?): 'Now this one that looks like a clockwork bust of Schopenhauer attached to your head with a cartilaginous spring is ...' • Yes, Gormenghast the book ends with Titus leaving by night, but I wouldn't call it sneaking off: he does first confront his mother and tell her he's going. • Claire ... my lips had better remain semi-sealed about the Pratchett essay collection, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) it was one of the 'academic' rather than 'fan' contributions that had me most vigorously chewing the carpet. Its Earnestly Socially Relevant approach would, if transferred to P.G.Wodehouse, have explained that that author was fundamentally concerned with the class struggle in a century of growing social upheaval. Farah: 'We rewrote it a lot.' Me: 'Rewrite it some more.' By the way, Farah expressed mighty disapproval of those wicked contributors who 'published' their essays in advance, i.e. ran them through Acne for feedback. Tra la. • Regarding Edward Gorey: after reacquainting myself with John Sladek's fondness for concocting weird test papers and forms, I couldn't resist wheeling out the Ansible random text generator and making up a 'Simple IQ Test' template. For some reason it seemed a good idea to mix the Sladekian form with some Gorey content, being the Improving Words For Children that appear throughout The Nursery Frieze. Hence this kind of thing:

Here is an easy sample question. Which word is the odd one out? (a) gibus (b) maremma (c) hiccup (d) salsify (e) opopanax.

The correct choice is of course 'opopanax'. Now answer the following in the same way:

• Which noun is the antonym of 'hellebore'? (a) ligament (b) cassation (c) chalcedony (d) tacks (e) purlicue.

• Which is a connection between 'catafalque' and 'narthex'? (a) cranium (b) cardamon (c) thunder (d) wax (e) ichor.

• Which is to 'quincunx' as 'thurible' is to 'amaranth'? (a) aphthong (b) betrayal (c) accismus (d) paste (e) sparadrap.

• Which item is least like 'spandrel'? (1) obelus (2) distaste (3) samisen (4) badigeon (5) tombola. (And so on, forever.)

Chris A ... 'The Supremacy of Uruguay' reminds me of yet more stories featuring songs or tunes of alarming potency, usually leading to obsessive-compulsive behaviour: Mark Twain's 'Punch, Brothers, Punch', Fritz Leiber's 'Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee', Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man (where the unforgettably banal jingle 'Tenser, Said The Tensor' helps block out spying telepaths), and Henry Kuttner's 'Nothing But Gingerbread Left' (a million variants of which turned up recently on Usenet rec.arts.sf.fandom). • Cherith ... I know the phrase as 'traditional narrative elements' – euphemistically, clichés – and I think I remember John 'Richard Cowper' Murry introducing it to one of the UK Milford conferences, way back, in a tone of voice that demanded the new typestyle which Bernard Shaw felt our language needed: backward-sloping italics or 'ironics'. It raged through Milford like one of those compulsive tunes. No critique that year was complete without a mention of Traditional Narrative Elements. • Penny ... yes, I can never read the stuff about the utter uncrossability of the river in William Morris's The Sundering Flood, especially the bit where the hero manages to shoot gifts of hose, shoes and even smocks across the torrent to his girlfriend, without wanting to shout like a pantomime audience: 'Throw her a rope, you fool! A rope!' • Mark ... Thog insists that the corrected 'silky panties' quotation from Mindstar Tumescing was entered into his master file soon after you first blew the whistle. • Mention of the Guardian's van Vogt obit reminds me that its author Steve Holland was less than happy that corrections to his piece about Laurence James – sent five days before the obit saw print – were brushed aside by the G editor with a cheery 'Not to worry. I'll wait to see whether any reader picks them up.' So Chris Priest duly picked them up and they appeared the next day. Good grief. • I smugly report (after a panic-stricken check) that the Steve HOLLAND link in the SFE Phil HARBOTTLE entry goes to the right place in my viewer software.... • Tanya ... the out-of-print novels I dissected and scanned were The Space Eater, which may possibly appear from a print-on-demand publisher, and The Leaky Establishment, which as Ansible 153 reveals was wanted by Ben Jeapes's new small press. Provided some guy called Pratchett writes the promised introduction; I've just been introducing him (well, a book about him), so it's his turn again. • Dave C ... welcome aboard! The sight of me buggering off early from the first-Thursday meeting should not be taken as a grim omen that it's all over. I sneak away when I feel tired, which after the usual day of finalizing Ansible (with lots of help from the people who feel that publication day is a jolly good time to mention the major changes to convention details that they secretly made weeks earlier), travelling to London, getting Ansible printed, healing the myriad ills of the Clute computers, and tottering pre-exhausted into the pub, can be pretty soon. Oh well. • Bruce ... how I envy the quality of your printer and photographs. But I'm sure everybody is going to point jeeringly at that caption about 'Noble DUFF winner, Paul Kincaid'.