Cloud Chamber 109
September 2000

The scene is a semi-formal occasion at dusk, set on and around the concrete banks of what seems to be a canal. There's an air of low-budget and vaguely forced festivity, as might attend an event at the Millennium Dome. Ambling crowds are dotted with police and security personnel. Hazel and I somehow find ourselves seated at a slightly elevated table to one side, eating with various functionaries and, unexpectedly, the Prime Minister. This is embarrassing: Hazel intensely dislikes T. Blair and prefers to change channels when his dread features appear on TV news. Now she's sitting practically next to him, projecting extreme discomfort, while across the table I feel I must be wearing a fixed and glassy smile. The seating arrangement shifts as people come and go. Now Hazel and the PM occupy adjacent chairs, and in what may be a spirit of campaigning bonhomie he puts a flirtatious arm around her shoulders. Grimacing horribly, she tries in vain to push him away, while I'm paralysed by the thought that taking appropriate husbandly action will get me shot by the watchful security forces....

'That's appalling!' Hazel cried. 'How dare you have a dream like that? I feel ... psychically contaminated.' Of course I apologized profusely. But – where do these things come from, Dr Freud? I still have no idea.

Commonplace Book. Queen Victoria regretting a change of government: 'These are trying moments, and it seems to me a defect in our much-famed constitution to have to part with an admirable govt: like Lord Salisbury's for no question of any importance, or any particular reason, merely on account of the number of votes.' • Ralph Richardson and the Shower of Gold: 'He had some krugerrands; they brought out the worst in him, he said. / "How so?" I enquired. / He fell into reverie and confided that he would sit in an armchair in the crepuscule, take them, and pour them over his head. He went on to say that 17 had proved to be the ideal number, less than that providing an insufficient cascade, more than that, he averred, hurt. / "Gosh!" I replied.' (J.G. Ruffer)

Lexicon, Exeter College, Oxford. Herewith a slightly expanded version of my idle rec.arts.sf.fandom remarks:

I enjoyed myself a lot. Philip Pullman was a good guest, or rather a good guest speaker who convinced us all that The Amber Spyglass really will be out in November (October in the USA) but kept dashing off in between programme items to struggle with the great and much-rewritten work's allegedly final proofs. Meanwhile Lexicon was a curiously subterranean event, with an underground bar and book room in one corner of Exeter and two underground programme rooms at the extreme far end of the college. Standing around in the quad with a drink was a popular activity despite continual infestations of wasps and wedding parties. Jo Walton showed us all (individually and severally) the Locus ad for her first novel The King's Peace and, not to be outdone, I waved around Deidre Counihan's cover for the impending Big Engine reissue of The Leaky Establishment (With Introduction By Terry Pratchett!).

Gosh wow, college breakfasts haven't changed in 25 years. The kitchens still jealously guard their immemorial technique of preparing deep brown, case-hardened fried bread in a cauldron of ancestral fat that has bubbled without cease since the founding of the university.

This being Oxford, there was plenty of good eating and drinking out there to compensate for the lack of other college food and the utterly traditional Unicon bar closures. Thog liked the nearby sandwich place whose longhand sign appeared to say 'Herpes'. Thog was inconsolable when closer inspection suggested the P was meant to be an O.

Wasp War! The wasps in the space over our bedroom window-frame had become too loud and terrifyingly numerous. Their exit hole was just reachable with a long pole when I balanced at the very top of our step-ladder, so Phase 1 consisted of my taking unerring aim with an artfully carved wedge of polystyrene fixed to the end of the pole and, distracted by sudden crazed wasp attack, falling off the ladder. Phase 2 saw the hole neatly blocked and great agglutinated gobs of wasp crawling frustratedly around. Phase 3: 'By Klono, Grey Lensman, the Boskonians are breaking down our screens!' ... in a steady snowfall of wasp-masticated polystyrene. Phase 4 got a bit manic as we unleashed ravening cosmic energies, with Hazel standing on one ladder holding her Dyson vacuum cleaner while I, on the other ladder, had its extension tube taped to a wildly waving pole. Ever so many sucked-up wasps later (NB the secret is to squirt in fly-killer before you empty the cleaner) the surrounding air was clear enough for Phase 5, in which we used our very long poles to pack the wasp-hole with mandible-resistant aluminium foil. Amazingly, we weren't stung once.

We didn't try to count the slaughtered wasps, but there were literally pints of them, nervously sealed into multiple plastic carrier bags and dumped in our huge wheelie-bin (for which, unlike Maureen, we have ample room). Our old Britannica suggested an average colony size of about 5,000.

Which leads into the Britannica rant, and why we hang grimly on to the battered 1929 encyclopedia despite having 1975 (remaindered) and 1999 (CD-ROM) versions. In Brian Aldiss's The Brightfount Diaries, the bookshop's star salesman is good at shifting elderly sets of the Encyclop. Brit.: '"Much better than latest edition ... No good nowadays – all science ... They knocked two pages off Beethoven when jets were invented. Greek Art had to go to make room for Geiger counters," etc., etc. All highly inaccurate ...' Oh, I don't know. An awful lot more science, and likewise art and history, happened between 1929 and the not hugely fatter 1975 edition, so something had to go – just as Vance Aandahl, who had the first entry in the old SF Encyclopedia, failed to meet the tighter criteria of being either major or a novelist, and so was very visibly dropped from the second edition. You'd think the EB editors could spread themselves again in the CD-ROM; but on consulting this about a lesser work by a standard author, Jane Austen's Love and Freindship, I found it wasn't mentioned at all. As far as 'BCD99' is concerned, Austen's 'Bibliography' consists of a handful of biographies and another handful of critical texts. The 1975 paper edition has over a column of information under the headings Novels, Unfinished Works and Juvenilia (including the sought publication date of Love and Freindship), Bibliographies, Manuscripts, Editions, and, at rather greater length than BCD99, Biography and Criticism. Somewhere I hear the Brightfount salesman glibly saying, 'They knocked two pages off Jane Austen to make room for a mess of video clips!'

Random Reading

Lindsey Davis, Ode to a Banker ... more Falcoid fun, even sillier than usual despite a particularly gory murder (but it's a vanity-press proprietor, so who cares?) and evident massive research into old Roman publishing, banking and interior decoration. 'She's been reading the same reference books as me again,' said Hazel with quiet pride. • David Feintuch, Midshipman's Hope, Challenger's Hope, Prisoner's Hope, Fisherman's Hope ... ages ago I'd sort of liked the first book of this series and also had a review copy of the fourth, so zipped through all four when the middle ones turned up second-hand. It's highly readable, even compulsive, tosh: a Hornblower-in-space saga which outdoes C.S. Forester in subjecting its hero Nicholas Seafort to ever-increasing levels of guilt, Angst, self-doubt, injury and personal loss – friends, mentors, wives, children, etc – compounded by his having both a much more abrasive personality than Hornblower and a severely religious outlook. When as a last resort Hornblower solemnly swears to a lie in hope of saving England from the Corsican Tyrant, and gets away with it, he feels only a huge wave of relief. When Seafort does much the same, he knows he's Damned and spends the rest of the saga reminding himself and us of just how jolly irrevocably damned he is, which can get quite tiresome – especially since he repeatedly damns himself all over again to save humanity from the despicable hordes of alien 'fish', with self-loathing increasing by several notches with each new triumph. It's surprising that it all reads so well as a sequence of ripping yarns despite having such a rebarbative hero in such a grisly recreation of the 18th-century British Navy. The punishment for practically everything is death, and while Hornblower always tried to let off lesser offenders indicted for crimes like breathing on a superior officer, Seafort dutifully hangs them and only then moves on to spend further chapters feeling guilty about it. (Meanwhile in Acne mailing 91, Tony is coincidentally made queasy by the 'masochistic self-doubt' in Midshipman, and Ian's advice not to bother with Patriarch caused me to unearth this from the reviews pile and dutifully not read it. The Group Mind at work again.) • John Gordon, The Quelling Eye (1986) ... one of those tangles of odd magic and adolescent sexual stirrings that Gordon does rather well. Young hero Chuck is bothered that his not-so-old widowed mother has plans to sell the house he loves, disapproves of his village girlfriend's class and diction, and is beginning a new relationship of her own. Meanwhile there's elusive magic about, whose transformations of size or perspective may or may not be all in the mind's eye, leading to a hallucinated climax as the dotty villain seems to (no, surely does) take flight as the falcon whose shape emerges from a map of the locality, with its 'quelling eye' somehow isomorphic with the pool in Chuck's garden. An offbeat, underrated YA author. • Dornford Yates, The Brother of Daphne (1914) ... acquired on a nostalgic visit to the Little Bookshop in Oxford's covered market. Another of the once immensely popular 'Berry' series, which I never pursued when gobbling down books on those long-ago holidays (see CC108), very possibly owing to an encounter with this one. Lacking the stiffening of thriller plots and comic variety found elsewhere in Yates, this begins like a light romantic novel whose flirtatious hero has repeated chance meetings with the same woman until ... well, whatever. Actually and a little deadeningly, they're all different girls who merely seem the same, introduced at a steady rate of one per chapter for our hero to pursue to the stage of a few modest kisses and/or a severely chaste feel-up, whereupon all the weary work of flirting begins again with another gorgeously silk-stockinged stranger in the next chapter. Ho hum. Cyril Connolly disagreed, accusing Yates of 'fine writing' and 'a wit that is ageless united to a courtesy that is extinct', but I keep suspecting that he may have been taking the piss. • Frank M. Robinson, Science Fiction of the 20th Century: An Illustrated History ... vast and expensive ($59.95) coffee-table book from Collectors Press, whose arrival made me guiltily ask Andy S to let me cover it for Foundation. Lushly produced and full of spiffy reproductions of (mostly) old magazine covers at generous size. Robinson's idiosyncratic view of the century's sf is summed up in the allocation of space: six chapters for magazines, one for paperbacks, one for other books, one for movies/TV. So much of the 256pp is devoted to pictures that the text 'history' naturally has to be terse and fast-moving, making it all the odder that Harlan Ellison should get a four-page guest appearance to wax hyperbolic about the horrors of working for an obscure 1950s digest editor who mainly published thriller material (there's no corresponding first-hand author account of any major sf editor like Gernsback, Campbell or Gold); or that in such a whirlwind tour of sf, where no full novel gets more than a line or so, Robinson should pause to offer minutely detailed synopses of two short stories, a forgotten one by Charles Beaumont and a very well known one by (that man again) Harlan Ellison. Well, it's his book, and the 400+ pictures really are impressive. [And shortly after I wrote that, it won the 2000 Hugo for Best Related Book.]James White, Double Contact ... the last Sector General novel of all, sent by kindly Patrick Nielsen Hayden as background reading for (polishes fingernails immodestly and tries hard to maintain cool) the introduction I'm writing for a Tor/Orb omnibus of the second trio of SG books – a similar omnibus of the first three is being introduced by Brian Stableford. • 'Lemony Snicket', The Bad Beginning (1999), a vaguely Goreyesque children's story in a series which Yvonne, below, describes far more meticulously than I could hope to....

Letter Column: Yvonne Rousseau

Recent reading: have you encountered the works of Lemony Snicket (the pseudonymous – and no doubt mild-mannered – 30-year-old New Yorker, Daniel Handler) (whose Baudelaire series is published by HarperCollins Children's Books, and illustrated by Brett Helquist)? I was recently presented with The Reptile Room – second book in A Series of Unfortunate Events: the distressful misadventures befalling the unhappy Baudelaire orphans. Useless to expostulate that the blurb hasn't warned one what to expect: witness the back cover of the first book, The Bad Beginning

Dear Reader, I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they were magnets for misfortune.

In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.

It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing to stop you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.

With all due respect, Lemony Snicket.

The blurb for The Reptile Room warns that: The story may seem cheery at first, when the Baudelaire children spend time in the company of some interesting reptiles and a giddy uncle, but don't be fooled – and also that: the three siblings endure a car accident, a terrible odor, a deadly serpent, a long knife, a large brass reading lamp, and the reappearance of a person they'd hoped never to see again.

As for the style: when Uncle Monty shows the orphans (14-year-old Violet, 12-year-old Klaus, and their infant sister Sunny) a snake that was named by himself (as its discoverer), Violet asks him what it is called:

'The Incredibly Deadly Viper,' Uncle Monty replied, and at that moment something happened which I'm sure will interest you. With one flick of its tail, the snake unlatched the door of its cage and slithered out onto the table, and before Uncle Monty or any of the Baudelaire orphans could say anything, it opened its mouth and bit Sunny right on the chin.

By the end of the book, Sunny has learnt her first orthodox word: 'Brilliant!' Before that, her utterances have to be translated – as in this scene with the evil former guardian Count Olaf, now disguised as the reptile-expert Stephano:

'You haven't changed, either,' Olaf said. 'It is clear to me, Violet, that you are as stubborn as ever. And Klaus, you are still wearing those idiotic glasses from reading too many books. And I see that little Sunny here still has nine toes instead of ten.'

'Fut!' Sunny shrieked, which probably meant something like 'I do not!'

'What are you talking about?' Klaus said impatiently. 'She has ten toes, just like everybody else.'

'Really?' Olaf said. 'That's odd. I remember that she lost one of her toes in an accident.' His eyes shone even brighter, as if he were telling a joke, and he reached into the pocket of his shabby coat and brought out a long knife, such as one might use for slicing bread. 'I seem to recall there was a man who was so confused by being called repeatedly by the wrong name that he accidentally dropped a knife on her little foot and severed one of her toes.'

Impossible to deny the strong educational element in these books: 'Doog!' Sunny shrieked, in a generic cry of frustration, and pounded her little fists on the floor. The word 'generic' here means 'when one is unable to think of anything else to say,' and Sunny was not alone in this.Violet and Klaus were of course too old to say things like 'Doog!' but they wished they weren't.'

Rather more usefully: But this story is not a happy one, and I am not happy to tell you that the Baudelaire orphans sat dumbly in Violet's room – the word 'dumbly' here means 'without speaking', rather than 'in a stupid way' – for the rest of the night.

A balanced assessment: although I read The Reptile Room with great intensity (struggling throughout to disbelieve the promises of its blurb), it failed to hold John[ Foyster]'s interest when he tried to read it.

Mailing 91, August 2000

Bruce ... your essay's early mention that the SF Encyclopedia lacks any BIOGRAPHY/AUTOBIOGRAPHY theme article made me (as a potential co-editor of the third edition) sit up and take notice. John Clute instantly agreed that this should go in, characteristically adding that the theme 'has become a much bigger part of the genres over the past 10 years, of course, as the dinosaurs age and the field is shaped more and more by the great keel or remora of retrospection.' Further Acne suggestions for needed SFE theme entries would be ever so welcome, either brand-new themes or useful subdivisions of existing ones: I noted when reviewing The Light of Other Days, for example, that TIME VIEWER is now a sufficiently explored concept to be split off from TIME TRAVEL. See the SFE entry TERMINOLOGY for a current run-down. • Meanwhile, I imagine there'll be a chorus of suggestions for additions to the list. Here are a few from me. Autobiography: H.G. Wells's Experiment in Autobiography and its posthumous sequel, Asimov's extra volume I. Asimov, Clarke's Astounding Days: A Science Fictional Autobiography, L. Sprague de Camp's Time and Chance. Biography: L. Sprague de Camp's Lovecraft: A Biography, Neil McAleer's Odyssey: The Authorized Biography of Arthur C. Clarke, Paul Williams's Only Apparently Real (Dick again). • Kev McV ... my Dover edition of the Doré-illustrated Ancient Mariner does indeed alternate text (on left-hand pages) and relevant engravings (on the right) just as you wish. • KVB ... a small mea culpa regarding that Pratchett book's introduction. I wrote something to the effect that the first two Discworld books were a rapid success as, effectively, paperback originals – the Colin Smythe hardbacks having been virtually invisible. Then I cleverly lost the 'effectively' while editing the text, and have as a result been mightily jumped upon by TP anorakdom, including the quasi-official bibliographer. I sent the latter a friendly e-mail with the above explanation, only for it to bounce with the stern message that his software had been set to reject anything received from my address. Well, I murmured forgivingly, fuck him. • Claire ... as I contemplate the vast 2pp extent of a typical Cloud Chamber in the light of your 'this time I'm not even going to manage a decent long contribution' followed by nine pages of small print, I ... I go all silent, that's what. • I promised myself no more 2Kon grumbles in Ansible, even when four months after the convention I received the programme book and discovered the total absence of credit or thanks for the 'In Memoriam' list I'd done for them. Then I was sent and indeed encouraged to print grumpy e-mail from someone who does not wish it to be attributed and will thus be referred to only as Jeremiah Concatenation. Excerpts:

2Kon having announced that to counter their fantasy focus they would have additional themes of science, I offered either a custom talk or an off-the-shelf exotic science presentation. I was told the latter and to send a list. No reply was forthcoming over the following 12 months, so I spoke to the Committee member concerned [...] and was told yes they wanted the talk but no they had not received the list. So I subsequently sent another copy to the chair and the Committee member concerned. Again no reply, not even a 'no thanks', or 'we now have a full programme.' • Jack Cohen, whom I see every other month at the Institute of Biology, told me that he too had no reply when he offered to do a talk and asked what was wanted! • Meanwhile NW Kent SF were getting concerned at not having heard from the programme booklet people (as the deal was that NWKSF would sponsor two Eastern Europeans, paying their travel, accommodation, meals, and having sole responsibility and liabilty over their visas – a total of some £2.4K!) while 2Kon would provide some programme space and coverage in their programme booklet. Asking for guidance as to what they'd like, NW Kent heard nothing and so they wrote to the chair and were told to use the lines of communication already established ... Still without guidance, NW Kent obtained one-paragraph testimonials as to the value of international fanac and/or eastern European SF pros from the likes of Aldiss, Banks, Greenland, Harrison, Spinrad, and Quaglia. The con Chair then wrote to us asking what made us think that those attending their convention would be interested in such author contributions? ... And that he was too busy dealing with Guy K to sort out committee communication problems. (Enough of this – Ed.)

Gary ... getting involved in journalism does seem a weirdly hit-or-miss process. My sf stint at The Guardian was a result of their asking David Pringle to suggest some reviewers. My habit of occasionally leaving copies of Ansible in the sf sections of local bookshops led to a recent enquiry from the editor of the upcoming Waterstone's on-line sf newsletter, asking about recycling items from this thing the Reading branch had passed on to him.... • To digress, some of my bouts of journalism went on awfully long, enough to make up whole books, but the rule was that one had to be within groping distance of Clive James's or Bill Bryson's fame to get such collections published. When the Amstrad PCW boom was at its height and I'd written lots of related computer magazine columns, the collected-columns book proposal I tried on a few publishers was bounced with stunning bluntness: 'There is no imaginable market.' The material, eventually totting up to 88 columns over 11 years, is now a Langford website freebie. Those 'Ansible Link' news pages, of which I'll have delivered the 100th by the time you read this, are similarly appearing on the Interzone site. But I made a little money from two self-published volumes collecting the 101 book review columns I wrote for British RPG magazines from 1983 to 1991 – and now Cosmos Books/Wildside Press plan to reissue the lot as The Complete Critical Assembly. Hooray for small presses! Meanwhile, having had a tougher time than usual completing my 71st column for SFX (where I've been in every issue since the first), I'm wondering whether I can hold out long enough to accumulate another book's worth. Gasp. • Penny ... What goes around, comes around: I remember Cherith and myself talking about E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady books here in Acne towards the end of 1997. More coincidence: this month's Oldie magazine has a reminiscence by Delafield's daughter – little Vicky in the books – who remembers it all as closely based on real home life.

Her depiction of my father was a little uncomplimentary. He did talk, quite often, and he was capable of being witty too.... / Yes, there was a French governess, and I did not like her at all because she used such a lot of no doubt very expensive scent. / And yes, we did have a yearly panic about the bulbs and we did have a cat called Helen Wills and there was someone who was actually called Lady B (my mother had this optimistic theory that people only ever recognized other people in books, never themselves). / My brother and I were offered a huge sum of money, I think it may have been five shillings, if we could come up with an idea for her weekly Punch article.

Ian ... much sympathy on getting the push in Abu Dhabi, though I'm relieved to be reminded that you were in any case planning to jump. On The Stars My Destination: the prologue appears in all editions I've met; the Gaughan 'synaesthesia' artwork, omitted or roughly echoed as type effects in past book versions, is from the original Galaxy serialization; and Bester did indeed write 'Vorga, I kill you filthy,' which his first British editor thought a bit too strong. On The Rediscovery of Man: it's not an abridgement but a reprint of Gollancz's 1988 retitling of the 1975 US Best of Cordwainer Smith. Orion presumably have rights to this but not to the 1993 NESFA Press The Rediscovery of Man, correctly subtitled 'The Complete Short Science Fiction of CS'. • Paul ... your review of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is sufficiently impassioned that I'll just have to obey and buy this one.Maureen ... how do you now feel about your 'voyage of discovery' into legend-haunted Oxford? • Austin ... though I'd love to do more, I'm responsible only for those few F&SF 'Curiosities' pieces signed 'David Langford' at the bottom. (A dead giveaway for those in the know.) • Tony ... since you ask, Thog couldn't in fact face the Trek poetry book, especially after wrestling with the problem of whether editor Valerie Laws's e-mailed plug was postmodernly ironic or just deeply naff: 'Hi! It's poetry, but not as we know it ... it's Star Trek – the Poems! Beam aboard this great new anthology. Odes to Picard's pate and Uhura's thighs, as yet unwritten episodes in which the crew face the miners' strike, artists in residence, old age and the lack of toilets on the Enterprise.... I've gone beyond the final frontier to collect and commission poems,' etc, etc. • Steve J ... your mention of Brian Stableford's Year Zero reminds me of the great man's complaint – offered for Ansible publication but tactfully not used since I felt it placed him in an unduly petulant light – that his IZ158 interview was censored and should have ended:

Unfortunately, David Pringle delayed replying to my proposal [to write a series of stories] for so long that I had actually written the whole thing before he informed me that the later items were far too long to suit his parsimonious tastes. Although Interzone is nowadays a black hole from which no information ever emerges I gather that he does not intend to use the relatively short 'Molly and the Neighbours from Hell' and 'Molly's Lost Weekends', let alone the novelette-length 'Molly – Warrior Princess', 'Molly and the Mad Scientists' or the novella 'Molly and the Apocalypse of Evil'. It also seems unlikely that he will accede to my request to publish a note explaining to his readers that although he had been offered the entire series he had refused to continue it beyond the point at which he had rendered it impossible to contemplate placing any of the stories elsewhere, and that readers interested in knowing how Molly's quest to recover her children and thwart the Men in Black (not to mention the Devil) eventually works out would therefore have to fight over the 270 publicly-available copies of the Sarob edition.