Cloud Chamber 112
December 2000

Did I mention I was going to Florida? Oh. Oh, I did. They were having some kind of election over there, it seemed. Oh, you knew. You're just no fun any more.... See separate report.

Random Reading

Robert Silverberg, Sailing to Byzantium: five novellas, a length at which Silverberg is rather good. The title story, rather than developing its premise (far-future Earth culture recreates legendary cities) in an obvious way, achieves a nice resonance with an image from Yeats's poem. 'Homefaring' features a human mind-time-traveller projected into a remoter future to share the body of a Giant Intelligent Lobster: this is a kind of reply to Lovecraft's 'The Shadow Out of Time', which tried hard to suppress the wonder and milk the horror of crossing deep time to inhabit a strange form. Silverberg takes the opposite tack, and good for him. Not that he actually mentions HPL; his links are more Respectable, overtly to T.S. Eliot's temporal mysticism in Four Quartets and allusively to 'I should have been a pair of ragged claws ...' The oldest of this bunch is 'Thomas the Proclaimer' from 1972, which is bleakly satirical about what would actually happen if God provided the world with a new and definitive Sign ('Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon') – I liked such resulting splinter sects as the United Diabolist Apocalyptic Pentecostal Church. Next, 'We Are For The Dark' has a terrific Shakespearean title (also used by Robert Aickman, but never mind) that seems to have hypnotized Silverberg into believing the story underneath is something particularly special. I couldn't quite see why human expansion via matter transmitter into the galactic 'Dark' should happen under strict religious control, or why theological 'Darklaw' forbids the (physically feasible) return of anyone at all from any colony, or why the Earth-based hierarchs are so terrifically upset that the expansion seems to be going faster and farther than planned, or above all how – given certain relativistic restrictions that still apply, plus the fact that the speed-up proves to result from the discovery of a superior alien network of public transmitters rather than use of our own equipment – Earth can even know that things are going 'wrong'. ('Probability projections' is the best we get.) As for literary resonance, the final situation strongly resembles that of 'Ticket to Anywhere' by Damon Knight (1952), whose small seasoning of mysticism works better than this 1988 novella's great dollops. The collection ends with freewheeling but rather faithful sf homage to Joseph Conrad in 'The Secret Sharer', which worked pretty well on its own, but I really ought to reread the Conrad.... [Waste not, want not: the above is a tidied version of the notes which I had to distil painfully into a 250-word review.] • James Joyce, Ulysses, another Famous Monster of English Lit that I'd been keeping for a long plane journey. It seems pretty bloody presumptuous to comment at all, partly in the light of legendary advice to tourists from an Uffizi Gallery guide – 'Remember, it is not the pictures which are on trial here' – and partly because the book's impact is blurred by 78 years of criticism, influence, excerpting (I'd read big chunks out of context in anthologies) and outright imitation. Even 45 years later, a few sub-Joycean puns and a format lifted bodily from the 'Cave of the Winds' segment of Ulysses amazed fandom sufficiently to bag Philip José Farmer a Hugo for 'Riders of the Purple Wage'.... General slack-jawed appreciation (despite passages that had me struggling a bit, or a lot) of the rhythms of speech, the parodies of all sorts of literary styles, the sometimes hilariously over-the-top lists and special effects and fantasies, the internal monologues that transport you right into the heads of Dubliners on 6 June 1904 in a way that forbids the obvious joky comparision one might make with Silverberg's mind-traveller and intelligent lobster.... One surprise in this too-well-critically-mapped maze was how very far from tame the Circe/Nighttown sequence still seems, a comic-surreal-porno-horror nightmare in dialogue and (frequently impossible) stage directions that perhaps goes on a bit long but is often shockingly intense. I begin to gibber. Enough; again, I'll have to reread parts of this. • Vernor Vinge, The Witling and Tatja Grimm's World ... catching up on these early novels. I remember one or both being slagged off in long-ago BSFA reviews, for gratuitous brain-damaging or killing of personable female characters. Not so much sexism, as was alleged, as determined avoidance of conventionally happy endings; but it's still a bit clumsy and VV has since come a long way. • Diane Duane, Deep Wizardry and High Wizardry, follow-ups to So You Want To Be A Wizard? which take our world-saving young wizards undersea and into space. The latter is unusual in fantasy (with Jack Vance's 'Morreion' a notable exception), and exhilaratingly different. The underwater epic has good stuff, but its young female lead's rapid and unnoticing acceptance of a contract whose small print involves her death did seem a bit cretinous, and I was subsequently distracted by speculation on just what form the inevitable escape clause or substitute sacrifice would take. • Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, an utterly gripping read that wouldn't let me go. Like Steve J, I thought this conclusion to the trilogy had a suitable inevitability – except that here and there, as certain undisclosed properties of Dust, doors between worlds and the subtle knife emerged, I felt the presence of the author's thumb pushing hard to disallow the possibility of one particular flavour of conventional ending. (See remarks on Vinge above.) More, perhaps, when everyone else has had time to read this. • Rudy Rucker, Master of Space and Time, genial silliness with an outrageous quantum-doubletalk device that grants three wishes (or rather, three brief intervals of omnipotence), with all the usual problems of getting metaphorical sausages stuck to the end of one's nose. • Harry Turtledove, Colonization: Second Contact and Down to Earth, continuing the Worldwar saga in the 1960s with invading Lizards established but far from dominant on Earth, and their big colonization fleet now arriving. Good unpretentious sf read with few graces but much action and suspense. Painful contrast between US and UK covers: book 1 (US hc) shows Khomeini, Himmler and Martin Luther King in subdued b/w with a discreet spaceship in the distance; book 2 (UK pb) has a lurid image of a crazed, heavily armed and anatomically incorrect Lizard that might have been regarded as overly garish by Planet Stories. • Gene Wolfe, Return to the Whorl ... a tricky, tortuous read, still in progress.

Guest Review: Greg Pickersgill

Now here's a wonderful thing indeed! You know how every now and again some people with more optimism than sense go on about how there ought to be more books of fanwriting published? Well, here's one. OK, it's fannish more by accident than design in several senses, but it is definitely a fine thing in itself. It has a surprising number of fannish connections too!

The book is question is 88 Gray's Inn Road – A Living Space Odyssey by William F. Temple. It's a neatly produced and attractively bound 243 page (plus long introduction) hardcover with illustrations by James Cawthorn.

OK, Temple wasn't any great fan compared to Vince Clarke or Ken Bulmer, but he was There at the time, and this is a somewhat fictionalized account of his residence at The Flat, probably the first slanshack in the UK, in 1938, which he shared with Maurice Hanson of Novae Terrae fame, and scientific dabbler and occasional filthy pro Arthur C. Clarke.

Originally written entitled Bachelor Flat as a mainstream novel in the Forties and revised in the Fifties, it found no interest at all among British publishers. The manuscript seems to have then gone missing until recently when it was discovered by George Locke, British onetime fan (the excellent early-Sixties fanzines Smoke) and later quality bookdealer and publisher (Ferret Fantasy – his two books of bibliographic notes on his own sf/fantasy collection Spectrum of Fantasy are highly recommended – but hard to find.)

Locke has now published, under the Temple-esque imprint of Sansato Press, a reconstructed version of Bachelor Flat as 88 Gray's Inn Road, and frankly, it's enormously entertaining and interesting, one of the best and funniest stories I've read for a long while. Filled with fascinating – and possibly even true! – detail of what it was like to live with Hanson and Arthur Clarke (referred to as 'Ego' throughout – and with plenty of evidence as to why that became his fannish nickname) it has much of the flavour of Three Men in a Boat and surprisingly much of the same effect; it made me laugh out loud, and gave the impression I was reading about friends with whom I had not been in contact for a while, and whose adventures I was glad to catch up on. Full of period detail – the Thirties were a different world in every sense, almost science-fictional in their strangeness now – it is a real adventure into the surreal as these three sf fans cope with each other and the bizarre world they inhabit.

It's nicely written in every sense, and a genuine pleasure to read, and ought to be essential for anyone with any interest at all in science fiction, sf fandom, fan history, or even just straightforwardly entertaining storytelling.

Along with it are two William F. Temple sf stories – which I would be lying if I said were either as good as 88GIR or as notable as the book's introduction claims them to be. In them Temple's prose is workmanlike at best and somehow fails to lift the stories above what might have been average inclusions in a Fifties issue of New Worlds. But they're just extras – the meat and substance of the book is 88GIR itself, closely followed by an excellent long and detailed introduction by George Locke writing as Gordon Walters (a name he occasionally used for fiction in the Compact-era New Worlds – why he uses it here is beyond me!); there's even, for the real fanatical Clarkeophiles, a page by Ego himself in which he refers briefly to 'our duplicated fan magazines' – and then did that happen then? I don't recall ACC being a faneditor! Memories fading fast, perhaps indeed.

There are many reasons to get this book. Primarily because it's thoroughly entertaining, genuinely funny, peculiarly fannish, and full of possibly-correct genuine fanhistory. Secondarily because unless books like this are supported – supported with enthusiasm to buy, with real money – by sf fans, the general myth that 'no-one's interested in fandom and fan-derived writing' will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fortunately I don't have to ask you to buy this book to support some vague principle, I can do so because It's Good. Essential for anyone who is a Bill Temple fan, vital for ACC enthusiasts, and a definite must-buy for anyone interested in the history and background of sf and sf fandom.

The last fannish connection is that the sole distributor of 88GIR on behalf of George Locke is the genuinely fannish (even though he isn't at all sure about it himself) British bookdealer Andy Richards of Cold Tonnage Books, contactable at 22 Kings Lane, Windlesham, Surrey, GU20 6QJ, UK; phone 01276-475388, email, web site at 88 Gray's Inn Road costs £25. There is a total print run of only 350 copies, including a 'limited edition' (of course!): 50 numbered copies at £75 with a Arthur C. Clarke-signed bookplate tipped in.


(Greg Pickersgill)

Mailing 94, November 2000

Steve J: according to Interzone, Jan Siegel is Amanda Hemingway, author of the literate but flip and inconsequential sf novel Pzyche (1982). • No, I didn't run a Joyce/Milne 'collaboration' in CC – you're remembering my Bester/Milne conflation Tigger! Tigger! alias The Stairs My Destination (CC58). • KVB: perhaps 'on the cusp' has become a more common metaphor in English owing to once-trendy popularizations of catastrophe theory? The cusp catastrophe was conveniently easy to picture, with its knife-edge or spear-point representing an unstable situation liable to topple one way or the other, like a shower tap that flips maddeningly between too hot and too cold. • Paul K: your thoughts on the Panshins' The World Beyond the Hill are reminiscent of John Clute's. His NYRSF review, collected in Look at the Evidence, is a prolonged and rather satisfying hatchet job. • Regarding Grahame Greene, there's an even more bizarre deal with God in his play The Potting Shed. Teenage boy hangs himself; his uncle, a priest, offers to swap his faith for the boy's life; the boy lives and the priest duly loses his faith; gorblimey. • That Bertrand Russell biography sounds odd. I've been reading another bio, Judith Cook's Priestley, which sometimes goes to opposite extremes of favouring its subject, J.B. Priestley. Not that I want him denigrated for his surprisingly wide-ranging love life, but several people appear exclusively through the lens of one brief negative encounter with JBP, and it seems less than fair to present Bernard Shaw only as a rather silly old man; F.R. Leavis only at his most tiresomely elitist; Evelyn Waugh only as a bibulous snob (the last essentially because JPB hated The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which as far as this biographer is concerned disposes of Waugh's entire literary reputation). • Andy S: the mention of the new AELITA hands-across-borders organization for sf pros presumably confirms that SFWA remains pretty useless outside North America, and reminds me that 'World SF' was founded in 1976 with closely similar aims. Haven't heard from them since 1993, when Ansible reported from Helicon in Jersey that 'John Jarrold was elected President of World SF but explained that he wasn't there at the time and knew nothing about it.' What became of World SF? • Chris H: yes, Brian Ameringen is an ace bookhunter but can Assume Things. I remember his conviction that I needed some musty pop-science book by Professor A.M. Low as a perpetual source of Thog's Physics Masterclass quotations, and a sense of growing frustration as I kept politely refusing. • Claire: the wasp saga was topped by an anecdote from the family in South Wales. My late grandmother once had hornets in her toilet cistern, building in the space above water-level, coming and going through the external overflow pipe. Being of the firm belief that sons-in-law are put into this world for a purpose, Granny summoned my uncle, handed him a small can of insect spray, shoved him firmly into the bathroom, closed the door and awaited results. He remains uncertain how he ever got out of there alive. • The joint accolade of a good word from Claire plus the World Fantasy Award suggests I'd better sample the Thraxas books, whose packaging convinced me they'd be 'humorous' fantasy in the deeply unfunny tradition of Andrew Harman. O, the embarrassment! • Me: Dan Hoey tells me I was too ignorantly kind to Aczel's Fermat's Last Theorem, which apparently gets a lot wrong. Oops. • Finished 2 December 2000.