Cloud Chamber 105
May 2000

I was afraid I'd be overcome with gloom and regret about skipping Eastercon in Glasgow, but in the event not having booked felt like a lucky escape: a foul Langford cold in the preceding week gave way to a miserably exhausting graveyard cough that lasted well into the Easter weekend, and I would not have been a happy bunny at 2Kon. But naturally it is my pious hope that those of you who did make it had a spiffy time....

Edward Gorey's death was a gloomy surprise. Since the Guardian had eventually used my John Sladek obituary in April, I quickly volunteered to do Gorey – amazingly, they had no prepared obit – and the piece appeared on 27 April. Don't much want to make a habit of this ('Hey, Terry, when you sign this Discworld book could you add a few last words just in case?'), but there's some satisfaction in badgering the paper into doing the right thing by one's own own literary heroes.

After Easter we went on a quickie holiday and inspected Portmeirion for the first time in some while. Most unexpected encounter: deep in the adjacent woodlands, a mother duck patiently leading a line of twelve very small offspring in a direction which seemed to change every time the party was in danger of reaching an actual pond. Minor irritation: I knew that Max Hora's fannishly atmospheric Prisoner emporium had changed hands, but not that the Village Management – while claiming continuity – had restyled the interior to look exactly like all the other Portmeirion shops, with reduced sf content but heaps of the generic postcards and souvenir gewgaws sold everywhere else. Boo, hiss. Another skiffy connection: Amabel Williams-Ellis (wife of Portmeirion's creator Sir Clough W-E) co-edited the ten Out of This World sf anthologies for kids, most of which I read at school. Everything is intertwingled.

Read in Reading (and elsewhere)

Carl Hiaasen, Native Tongue. 'Better than literature,' says P.J. O'Rourke on the cover; well, it's a lot of fun, with mayhem at Florida's low-budget Amazing Kingdom of Thrills (strongly but deniably resembling Disneyland) after its less than ecologically sound Blue-Tongued Vole Project is disrupted by inept hitmen hired by a murderous little old lady environmentalist. There is much other silliness, including one overmuscled bad guy so unnervingly macho that he takes to carrying around his own IV drip to trickle steroids directly into his bloodstream. • John Bellairs, The Curse of the Blue Figurine, one of several YA supernatural adventures by the author of the very nifty The Face in the Frost. OK in a sort of low-key, routine way. Hazel ground her teeth at the cover artist's depiction of the figurine (in the text, a simple blue-clay Egyptian ushabti) as a miniature King Tut in gold and lapis lazuli. The US text is spottily anglicized for this Corgi edition, with graham crackers becoming Ritz crackers and checkers translated not as draughts but as chequers. Reminds me of those British editions of Rex Stout where people in US restaurants end their meal by asking for something called the 'cheque'. • Gene Wolfe, In Green's Jungles, second volume of the Book of the Short Sun, in which some of the tantalizing mysteries built up in the very fine On Blue's Waters are unveiled while others take a new turn or become more mysterious. For example, the puzzle of the narrator Horn's hinted physical and mental changes since his quest began is now quietly clarified, incidentally adding new irony to his original insistence that the mission (to bring back the great leader Silk whose story was told in the Book of the Long Sun) failed, and leaving the lesser question of why he seems to be in denial about one of his current identities. Despite the title the main setting is planet Blue, to which Horn has returned after visits – in the flesh, though not the same flesh – to both the sister planet Green and the starcrosser Whorl. Wolfe's love of multi-levelled narrative emerges early, with a storytelling contest whose participants all have agendas that go beyond merely winning the game. Horn, for instance, relates a harrowing episode of his visit to Green – home of the bloodsucking, shapeshifting alien 'inhumi' – which serves a double purpose: casting it as fiction allows the reporting of events which for him are too horror-filled for straightforward inclusion in his autobiography, and speaking of the inhumi conveys a message to the member of the storytelling circle who is merely passing as human. That last sentence shows how easy it is to misrepresent Wolfe by accurate but over-condensed summary. Bloodsucking shapeshifters; oh, how very sci-fi. His actual text expends a great deal of effort, indirection and implication to suggest and develop the nature of the inhumi (still partly enigmatic even now; they have a racial secret which Horn knows but has sworn not to reveal), and although they are indeed bloodsucking shapeshifters they're also thinking, suffering beings who constitute a subtle and complex moral problem. Even Blue's superhuman 'Neighbours', a now vanished folk whose ghosts or avatars have considerable traffic with Horn, were unable to solve the Inhumi Question despite knowing the secret; and just as Silk's real task proved very different from the original simple aim of redeeming some property, so the reluctant and self-deprecating Horn is emerging as the person best equipped to tackle the intractable issue of human/inhumi coexistence. Another label which he repudiates again and again is that of 'sorcerer'; he earnestly explains that the alleged spells he cast to help win a small war in book one were no more than tricks, side-effects of deals done with inhumi – skipping the question of how it is that no one else seems able or willing to make such bargains. Now a new and again seemingly inhumi-mediated power has come upon Horn: the ability to take others into his dreams of far-off places. Among these are the hated underground room where he was imprisoned on Green, and even the dim 'Red Sun Whorl' – Urth itself – complete with a visit to the fog-wreathed necropolis gate where Severian's journey began in The Shadow of the Torturer. This is wonderfully crafted stuff. Now I need to read On Blue's Waters again.... [These notes could be expanded, but I'm stopping here to rework them for a Vector review; hello, Steve!] • Brian Freemantle, Madrigal for Charlie Muffin (1981), late volume in seedily realistic spy series which I've seen praised. OK, but it's got one of those plots where everyone and everything is visibly jerking to the puppet-strings of the all-encompassing Soviet Intelligence master plan until very late in the book, and there's a certain tendency to drum one's fingers while waiting for events to veer at last from the script. • Philippa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden (1958), timeslip fantasy classic which I'd never read at all (or did I, way back at school, and later forget it utterly?). Very good and very moving even though, from reading far too much fantasy criticism, I knew pretty well how it would come out. Being able to survive foreknowledge is what we expect of a classic. • Harry Pearson, Racing Pigs and Giant Marrows: Travels Around the North Country Fairs, acquired on the strength of low price and a 'funnier than Bill Bryson' review quote. Suitably chuckleworthy, indeed. I liked the anecdote about the man with the camcorder tracking something uncertain in the distance across the valley, which Pearson supposed might be rare raptors or some such. No, said the man with deep contempt, he was of course recording car registration numbers and had bagged three of the new year's series already. How ... quintessential. Have I seen this recommended in Acnestis? • Charles Dickens, The Haunted Man; and the Ghost's Bargain (1848), last and I suppose the weakest of the Dickens Christmas books. The central idea should be a salutary example of a poisoned fantasy deal: when the Haunted Man accepts the Bargain he loses all memory of the bad things in his life, and therefore can't appreciate the good bits, and furthermore communicates this same curse to everyone he meets. But it takes far too much of a short book to get to this crunch point (e.g. the early Thog's Three Pages of Random Atmospherics Masterclass, establishing no more than that the chap does indeed look a bit haunted), and then Dickens's surplus of Xmas goodwill nervously unleashes the antidote to the evil – in the shape of a very very good woman whose mere presence heals – with such alacrity as to defuse suspense. Bah. Humbug. • Posy Simmonds, Pick of Posy (1982), a recently acquired selection of those Guardian cartoons that were anatomizing liberal dilemmas and taking the piss out of PC before the term was invented. I still have no idea why the series title was The Silent Three [of, sometimes, St Botolph's]. • Brian Stableford, War Games (1981), intelligent though not terribly involving sf about far-future warfare, genetic determinism and a quest for ancient secrets. Unfortunately, at the first mention of one seemingly minor character who's an enhanced soldier or 'optiman', I had an immediate flashback to Brian's rant about how DAW Books had blown his big surprise – the central importance of a seemingly minor character – by retitling their edition Optiman. • Captain W.E.Johns, Biggles Flies East (1935), in which to his own tight-lipped disgust the air ace becomes a coo er gosh double agent working behind German lines. Rattles along at speed, although nowadays it seems awfully evident that the long, numerous and very busy arms of coincidence are juggling frantically to keep the whole farrago airborne. You don't get chapter headings like Johns's any more: 'Algy Gets a Shock' ... 'Biggles Gets a Shock' ... 'More Shocks' ... 'Still More Shocks' ... • Robert Charles Wilson, The Harvest, interesting story of benevolent aliens offering us immortality and transcendence, with the spotlight being on the handful of people (one in ten thousand) who say No. This keeps the action focused and very human; any initial sense that the 'important' stuff is happening offstage is artfully rerouted into thoughts about personal definitions of importance. But the drama and irrevocability of having chosen a finite lifespan is undermined by the discovery that – reasonably enough in terms of sf, if not the fantasy bargain of which the whole deal is so very reminiscent – there are in fact all these options for second thoughts, deathbed recantations, etc. • Elizabeth Knox, The Vintner's Luck – a seriously good historical fantasy that left me feeling a bit tongue-tied. Many thanks for all the Acnestis recommendations. • Sam Moskowitz, Seekers of Tomorrow, essays on sf authors which from time to time support various sf critics' complaint that Moskowitz, though a brilliant digger-out of facts and sources, couldn't be trusted to draw sensible conclusions from them. Here, for example, he deduces Ray Bradbury's lack of religious commitment from Fahrenheit 451: 'It offers scarcely a word on religion which was the core of "In This Sign" and "The Man" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, February, 1946), so we may reasonably conclude that his use of this material was for impact value and not through conviction.' Um, yes, and many of G.K.Chesterton's political essays contain not a word about religion, which proves that ... oh, forget it.

Reread.Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun, The Urth of the New Sun and Bibliomen. • Daniel Galouye, The Lost Perception (1966), read long, long ago and remembered for the sense-of-wonder stuff about a forgotten sixth sense using metaphysical radiation from a hitherto eclipsed source at the centre of the galaxy. I'd forgotten the busily paranoid plot with its ambiguous aliens and not terribly logical government conspiracy theories. Sometimes the book in one's Memory Library can be better than the real thing. • A.P.Herbert, Independent Member, autobiography to 1950. Quote from a State Dinner in Wellington, NZ, with the Minister for the Maoris speaking: 'People often ask me to what I attribute my success in life. I tell them that my great-grandfather ate the first Presbyterian missionary to land upon this island; and I attribute my success in life to the Scottish blood in my veins.'

Mailing 87, April 2000

Ian ... I haven't actually read Gadsby either, but Martin Gardner made frequent reference to it in his Mathematical Games columns, which tended to spill interestingly over into word games, the Oulipo group (an apparent influence on John Sladek), and anything else that occurred to him. • Richard Calder's mysterious enthusiasm for girls as shiny-shelled toys comes up again in Malignos, where they're sexy 'demons' with scales, tails, horns, wings, and big breasts too – Jim Burns depicts two of them with a kind of soft-porn relish in his cover painting, also featured on Interzone 154. • Andy B ... John Clute corrected his Ansible 153 Sladek obituary in the light of feedback, including yours, and the web version is both more accurate and longer: editorial cuts restored, new bits added. • Steve ... interviewed for HugeSouthAmericanRiver by yours truly, Alastair Reynolds admitted that he found so many unmeant Dark Star echoes in his draft of Revelation Space that he tried to make it seem more intentional: 'I consciously added some scenes in which Volyova goes and talks to [the frozen captain], and – like the captain in Dark Star – he's completely bonkers and not quite sure where he is. There's no country and western music in it, though.' • Penny ... I grumbled in a Fantasy Encyclopedia theme entry called MEMORY WIPE about the tiresome children's-fantasy trope of having the poor kids forget all the fun adventures they've had. Other offenders besides Kipling are Susan Cooper in Silver on the Tree and Pat O'Shea in The Hounds of the Mórrígan; later I found that E.Nesbit had also perpetrated this one in Wet Magic. • No, Alfred Austin wasn't 18th century: he became Poet Laureate in 1896, an unbelievably feeble successor to Tennyson. A correspondent in The Critic wrote: 'Mr Austin has been a prolific writer, but at sixty he has made but little reputation as a poet. One thing, however, he has in common with his predecessor: his Christian name. Tennyson has occasionally been called Alfred the Great. He will be called so oftener hereafter.' • Kev ... I had no idea that Ottakar's had run a competition about the true identity of K.J.Parker. But what did they reckon was the right answer? • Chris H ... Jurgen is a great favourite here; I recommend Cabell's The Silver Stallion and The High Place as well, if you can find them. I believe it emerged during the obscenity trial that what really annoyed the prosecution wasn't the harmlessly naughty symbolism ('You are offensive ... because this page has a sword which I choose to say is not a sword. You are lewd because that page has a lance which I prefer to think is not a lance. You are lascivious because yonder page has a staff which I elect to declare is not a staff.') but the little dig at the fallibility of the Catholic Church – that is, the Britannica quotation about the Pope who should have been John XX being accidentally elevated as John XXI, a potent piece of information which Jurgen uses to bluff his way from Hell into Heaven. • Everyone Else ... thanks as always! See some of you at plokta.con?