Cloud Chamber 108
August 2000

'Can I persecute some Christians?' Hazel asked wistfully. After some thought I advised against the project, which arose from a realization that all her most admired Roman emperors tended to favour this hobby. A diplomatic incident was narrowly averted in June, when Hazel decided to treat herself to – if at all possible – an authentic coin of Julian the Apostate from a Reading shop that we hadn't previously explored. While I lurked in the background trying to avoid being sold first day covers, an aged and decayed numismatist mumbled something interminable over the counter to Hazel, who gradually realized that he was explaining how he'd used a stunning new scheme of mathematical logic to solve the riddle of the Trinity and revolutionize Christian theology forever. At this stage, her request for Julian the Apostate somewhat rapidly became Julian the This One I'm Pointing To Here.

At the end of July she bagged Caligula and Diocletian at a Criccieth antiques fair that was otherwise crammed with appalling chinaware. The most hypnotically awful items on sale, triumphing over strong competition, were Toby jugs with the heads of Cyrano de Bergerac at £75, Einstein at £78, and Scott of the Antarctic at £85. Which made me ponder on the fact that mere years ago I quite deliberately missed the chance to snap up a terrifyingly lifelike Terry Pratchett 50th-birthday Toby jug for only £50. Clearly I have no knack for investment.

Commonplace Book. 'My chosen career [was] at the infamous Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton which in the Sixties was referred to by the local Conservative party as "a place where hippies and perverts gather". The police thought it was "dirty" so they raided it from time to time and took away all the Jean Genet titles and gave them back when they'd read them.' (Patrick Newley)

• What else is new? As threatened last issue, I did indeed buy a replacement laptop (a Morgans special offer) on the August first-Thursday trip to London, and sprained myself hauling the thing home. Feeling it was too long since I'd written any fiction, I flogged myself into producing a lightweight story whose fate remains uncertain. Meanwhile, reprint deals loom. As noted in recent Ansibles, Ben Jeapes's Big Engine press is reissuing The Leaky Establishment with a new introduction by Terry Pratchett. Cosmos/Wildside want not only to publish the dread Langford/Barnett horror spoof Guts in their print-on-demand list but also to reprint our other doomed collaboration Earthdoom. The Richard Curtis E-rights/E-reads project is almost certainly doing The Space Eater in e-book and print-on-demand formats. As Jon Courtenay Grimwood put it, 'Something so much more reassuring about people demanding your books rather than buying them on whim because what they wanted was out of stock....' And a dozen short stories from the Langford backlist can be acquired on-line for trifling sums at, with more (I hope) to follow.

All right, I probably won't get rich from any of these deals, but I'm encouraged by these outfits' enthusiasm, friendliness, and ability to make purchase decisions without going into a Trappist retreat of eight months at an editorial meeting. The best immediate gratification came from Fictionwise, with a respectable advance per story. Cosmos/Wildside and Big Engine don't have the money for advances, so it's a royalty-only deal. Curtis treads closest to the dodgy ground of vanity publishing with his concept of a non-payable 'advance' deducted at the outset from each book's royalty account, supposedly to cover the costs of typesetting the print-on-demand edition; still, the sum is relatively modest. We'll see how it all goes.

Random Reading

Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign, for Foundation review. I've come to like the Miles Vorkosigan series more than I'd have imagined after disappointment on choosing a bad place to start: Barrayar had just won a Hugo, but was written into a series gap overly littered with the rubble of established 'givens', and I still reckon this was more a 'we love the whole sequence' award than anything particularly merited by the book. A Civil Campaign is a direct sequel to the 1998 Komarr, and drops just about all the remaining vestiges of military action-adventure in favour of romantic comedy, sometimes jolly funny. By way of advance warning it's dedicated to 'Jane, Charlotte, Georgette and Dorothy': there are distinct echoes of Sayers not only in the social complications of the run-up to a colossal Imperial wedding (recalling early bits of Busman's Honeymoon) but also the depiction of this undersized sprig of nobility making a serious hash of wooing a woman with a Difficult Emotional Past. • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Diamond As Big As The Ritz (Penguin collection). Had never realized that the apparent hyperbole of the title's size comparison is a huge understatement – the diamond fills a cubic mile inside a mountain – or that this tale of the differentness and paranoia of the very rich has a flavour so close to sf. Perhaps John Brunner had it in mind when he wrote 'The Totally Rich'. Perhaps Fitzgerald was thinking of those (subcontinental) Indian evocations of immense cycles of time, with a similarly enormous stone a million times harder than diamond, to which once a millennium a holy man gives the lightest possible touch, until the stone is entirely worn away. The British mathematician J.E. Littlewood once worked this one out and calculated a span of some 1035 years. 'Poor value for so much trouble,' he said. • The collection also invites mention in Thog's Back-Cover Blurb Masterclass, thanks to: '"The Bowl" is a clear metaphor for this cold and brittle world, as a beautiful woman is made to suffer for the cruelty of her youth, her punishment ironically taking the shape of a cut-glass punch-bowl.' Since the bowl of the title is a US football stadium, no punch-bowl appears, and the actual story concerns a football player who eventually chooses the game in preference to a fiancée who hates it, I suspect someone was pulling that blurb-writer's leg. • Philip Pullman, I Was a Rat! A post-Cinderella revisionist fantasy which is lots of fun, though of course aimed at rather younger readers than His Dark Materials. Calculated to instil deep distrust of tabloid newspapers, which is definitely a useful and worthy moral for our times. • Leon Garfield, Smith (1967), effectively atmospheric derring-do in 18th-century London when young pickpocket Smith lifts a document that provokes murders but whose significance is lost on Smith since he can't read. • E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Adventures of Mr Joseph P. Cray (1925) – a touch of holiday nostalgia, since this battered volume looked just like the thrillers I long ago rented out for a pre-decimal tuppence at the library-cum-general store in my family's favoured holiday village Llangranog, to read at high speed on the beach or rocks. This was mostly the kind of Lesser Literature from which the works of Leslie Charteris, Sapper or, at a pinch, Edgar Wallace stood out as pinnacles of genius. The Oppenheim effort, linked stories about a particularly tiresome amateur investigator, is more representative of the average rubbish that I hoovered up at the rate of four to six books a day on those excursions. Oh well, at least it contains educational examples of how Americans talk, or how British hack authors thought they did. A chance encounter in London: 'If it isn't Ed! ... Welcome to the gay little burg!' 'Joe, old sport, if this isn't bully! ... Put it there, my son of the Stars and Stripes.' • J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – not a lot to say that hasn't already been said far too often by far too many people. Except perhaps that the clutter of established devices is becoming an impediment – not so much the important (in retrospect) need to take the Marauder's Map away from Harry early in the game, as that the tradition of elaborate deceptions has now got to the point where someone we've never met before is in fact secretly being impersonated by someone else we've never met, lending a certain feel of 'So what?' to the enterprise. It's a pretty good story, though. • J.I.M. Stewart, Myself and Michael Innes (1987), autobiography – rather reticent about personal matters, but with various well-honed donnish anecdotes and some gently deprecating commentary on the Innes novels, of which to my surprise he reckons The Journeying Boy to be the best. One moment of mild temporal bogglement comes when, attending Philip Larkin's memorial service at Westminster Abbey in 1986, JIMS recollects having been at Thomas Hardy's in 1928, with the remains escorted up the aisle by Barrie, Galsworthy, Housman, Kipling, Shaw and others. 'Hardy's heart had been removed for burial among other Hardys in the churchyard at Stinsford in Dorset [...] A good many years later, Wystan Auden told me that there had, in fact, been no burial at Stinsford. They had been a little careless about the heart, and the Max Gate cat had got away with it.' • Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae (1992) another and much more personal autobiography, slightly overlapping J.I.M. Stewart's thanks to early days in Edinburgh: it was mildly startling to come across Jingling Geordie in two successive books. After a while I realized that the flamboyant scrawl on the front endpaper read 'Jan Morris, Trefan Morys 1992'. It's JM's review copy, with copious annotations on the publisher's compliments slip: 'Repetitive (Jingling Geordie) p49 and 102' – I'd noticed that as well. Aha: I bought this at a pleasant second-hand shop in Criccieth, and Morris must recently have been clearing out surplus books just up the road in Llanystumdwy.... One episode in CV that seems almost too appropriately literary to be true has Spark applying to a London employment bureau in 1944, being spotted as a high flyer because she was reading Ivy Compton-Burnett, and immediately entering a Foreign Office black propaganda unit where she helped manipulate radio news stories for the rest of the war. Another unexpected connection – when Spark was later running the Poetry Society and getting into trouble with the old guard who felt that a small cheque addressed to the editor should ensure publication in the Society magazine – was a terrific 1948 quarrel with (of all people) Dr Marie Stopes, who could not be doing with all this modern new-wave T.S. Eliot stuff. 'She was absolutely opposed to my idea of poetry. Up to his death three years earlier she had been living with Lord Alfred Douglas, the fatal lover of Oscar Wilde, an arrangement which I imagine would satisfy any woman's craving for birth control. I met her at one of our meetings and knew she disliked me intensely on sight. I was young and pretty and she had totally succumbed to the law of gravity without attempting to do a thing about it.' Meow!

Mailing 90, July 2000

Tony ... much rueful nodding here at your remark about the one-volume Ash being 'not very portable'. Damn right. This and the yuppieback Cryptonomicon (I wish I'd bought the hardback now) have made me painfully aware of how much reading I do during meals – when I want something that will lie flat – or walks and train journeys, when I don't want my wrist sprained by massively heavy books.... • Mike ... congratulations on the successful completion of jury service, commiserations on lousy recompense, and muted noises of envy from this direction: it's something I'd rather like to try, but thanks to my hearing justice would probably be done a serious injury. (I had a jury summons once, but after I'd explained the state of affairs the authorities agreed I'd better not.) • Maureen ... may I join you in the timeless universality of grumbling about the PO? Information on current charges is represented in small Reading post offices by a reasonably substantial booklet titled All You Need To Know. Apparently no one could possibly need to know the cost of sending anything overseas that weighs more than 200g (air) or 450g (surface). Well, after our last Welsh trip I had to walk miles to the collection office thanks to the postman's brilliant compromise of leaving some parcels in the porch as a welcoming signal to burglars but taking the rest away, and there I spotted what appeared to be The Rest of What You Need To Know, actually The Easy Way to Mail Abroad. Only when I'd got home again did I learn that thanks to the inclusion of several artistic full-page photos of letters, envelopes and a cute dog, there was no room in this leaflet for such trivia as the prices, which as any fule kno have been deported to a supplementary guide entitled The Easy Way to Mail Abroad – Prices. Argh! • Chris H ... I appear to have had several of the same thoughts as you about A Civil Campaign: see above. • Austin ... the last time I was at Andromeda, Rog Peyton still seemed to have mounds and mounds of remaindered Dobson hardbacks (he also showed me a secret storeroom crammed with yet more remainder stocks), and I think these included the 'preferred' – at least by me – edition of Wasp. • Cherith ... Cold Comfort Farm is likewise one of my and Hazel's favourite books ever, and we have the Quentin Blake-illustrated Folio edition too. Full of happy memories. • KVB ... suitable gloom and despondency was generated by the tale of the Berkeley student who didn't know about the loaves and fishes, or Matthew, or the New Testament. Hazel once skirmished with some visiting Jehovah's Witnesses and was unable to persuade them that their infallible scriptures had been translated from Aramaic and Greek, or that the Apocrypha so much as existed. • Paul K ... belatedly I remembered e-mailing you my 'entry' for the Great Cryptic Century Quiz, so I dug out the message to compare with your Official Answers. 94 answers (plus six passes), 90 of them correct by my impartial count: yes, I admit to getting obsessive and doing various electronic searches. Nitpicks. 1910: title is The Mayor of New York, not Major. 1914: When William Came is actually 1913 but wrongly dated in the SFE Saki entry. 1957: the 'curious signal' in On the Beach came not from San Francisco but from near Seattle. 1991: the eponym of Sarah Canary is described as a small rather than a 'huge' ugly white woman. • I agree with the comments on Look to Windward, especially the sense that Banks is playing with the idea of a decadent and subtly declining Culture ... but, being Banks, is so effectively counterpointing these introspective bits with big concepts and socko action that this aspect may well pass as mere incidental 'colour' to readers mostly interested in the bangs, surprises, rough justice and droll ship names. (Also agreed with Steve J that those self-indulgent pages in which characters do nothing but swap their favourite ship names like particularly rabid Banks fans were a bit cringe-making.) • Penny ... I've been looking for Mixed Magics, so far without success, though I found hefty displays of many other reissued Diana Wynne Jones titles both at the remotest ends of the earth (Porthmadog, Barmouth) and in the Charing Cross Road (where Blackwells have filed her under W – anathema! anathema!). • Everyone Else ... usual thanks, usual grovels, and goodbye.