Cloud Chamber 116
April 2001

I spent the last week of March in the throes of software, despite vowing never again to wrestle with the horrible document structure of the Amstrad PCW word processor 'Locoscript' (remember that?). The commission was to write something that could convert Locoscript 4 files en masse to Locoscript 3 format ... since the chap who now owns Locoscript would like to sell his customers upgrades to Loco Pro for the PC, which can read PCW Loco 3 but not Loco 4 documents. Oh, the agony. Let's stop this paragraph before it gets any more boring.

4 April: the final act, burial of my father's ashes near the lychgate of St Woolos in Newport. I hadn't expected the Dean to put on a little service in that huge empty church for just my mother, brother Jon, and me. Outside, a foot-square turf had been taken up, and they poured in the ashes from what looked suspiciously like a plastic sweetshop jar concealed in a kind of red velvet pod. It was a blowy morning, a fine cloud of dust went up, and I came perilously close to sneezing as the Dean carried on saying the things Deans say. A most disconcerting occasion.

Random Reading

Peter Dickinson, Touch and Go (1997), three creepy tales for children; good stuff, although the long middle timeslip story is so very evidently 'Dickinson does The Secret Garden' that its small surprise (good heavens! the present old lady of the house is in fact – !) can be seen coming a long way off. • Randall Garrett, Anything You Can Do ... (1963), a somewhat embarrassing pulp adventure featuring a beastly alien who eats people and terrorizes all Earth for years and years while our wise leaders (who know exactly where the bad guy is hiding) take the only logical course of action by rearing a human superman who will be capable of socking the foe on the jaw. Which duly happens in a climactic punch-up lasting just three pages. Er, that's it. • Compton Mackenzie, The Passionate Elopement (1911) – his first novel, I think, fervently commended by Catherine McAulay. Knowing Regency whimsy set in the fictitious spa Curtain Wells, replete with Publick Assemblies, draughts of Chalybeate, phantastick period spellings, and a tyrannickal Beau ordering the doings of the 'Exquisite Mob' with the iron hand of Greg Pickersgill running a fan room. Expected comick, romantick and melodramatick hanky-panky fails to turn out for the best. Interesting ... • Matt Ruff, Fool on the Hill (1988), campus fantasy novel set at Cornell, featuring somewhat implausibly larger-than-life undergraduates and fraternity boys, secret wainscot communities of cats, dogs, and sprites, a writer in residence called S.T. George, an annual ceremony featuring a fake dragon, and a tiresomely ad-hoc Dark Lord figure whose special talent is to animate and make deadly such objects as a frat house's inflatable-woman mascot and (did you guess?) that dragon. It's intermittently quite engaging, sometimes even touching, but I tired slightly of the post-Little, Big stuff about all this being a Story whose plot requires repeated 'Meddling' by its divine author Mr Sunshine, very evidently Apollo. • Susan Cooper, The Boggart and the Monster (1998), for rather younger readers than her Dark Is Rising sequence. Another fantasy 'explanation' of the Loch Ness Monster, which just for a change allows the newspapers to get a few photos of this beastie. (That magical doings must always evaporate from the world, leaving no proofs or evidence, is another of those default fantasy settings that used to pass unchallenged.)

Reread. Notes from Overground (1984) by 'Tiresias', a deliberate echoing of the 'Premeditated Notebook' format of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave (1944 as by 'Palinurus') from a railway commuter's viewpoint. One prophetic passage: 'The Great Train of Being: a theory in vogue for about a hundred years between 1850 and 1950. It proposed dividing human beings into three classes, further subdivided into compartments, sometimes intercommunicating, sometimes not. It further suggested that these categorized people might, to everyone's benefit, be conveyed long distances along pre-ordained routes. This theory has now been totally discredited.' • Plus tons of sf/fantasy for an SFX 'All Time Top 20' feature which unlike their reader polls admits no X-Files novelizations....

Mailing 98, March 2001

Maureen: thanks for the reminder of the Bodleian's Phi cupboard. Presumably the tides of literary filth have long since overflowed any mere cupboard, since – to my irrational delight – Tanaqui remarked that Men Only has to be trucked in from Nuneham Courtenay. The thought that this almost oppressively well-preserved Best Kept Village conceals secret vaults of porn is somehow soothing. • Martin Rowson's current cartoon series is still inflicting hideous deaths on generic figures (Lord Frump dying of loneliness on a signing tour for his political memoirs), identifiable ones (a donnish David eaten alive by students left starved for knowledge by their tutor's literary career; the description merges D. Lodge with M. Bradbury), and ones I can't make out at all. • Michael: Neil Gaiman's title Smoke and Mirrors was apparently presented to him by Gene Wolfe, whose collection of bookish little tales Bibliomen (1995 exp edition) includes one about 'Glenville Neal', a Briton who emigrates to the US Midwest and becomes famous for his Smoke and Mirrors graphic novels. 'Smoke, The Lord of Obscurity, was in effect a demigod (though not so called) ruling Earth from a vast palace outside time and space from which he set forth at the beginning of every episode to correct or eliminate abnormalities and anachronisms ...' • Chris H: Just as you say, 'Plot Coupons are actually Nick Lowe rather than D. Langford.' I loved the speech/essay in which Nick coined the term (see, and quoted it a few times in reviews and essays, which gave Bruce Sterling the fixed notion that it was my own coinage. So it got credited to me in the 'Turkey City Lexicon' of writers' workshop terminology, and this found its way into an anthology published by Tor, where hero editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden noticed the dud ascription and: 'Oh argh shit damn, I corrected it from "Dave Langford" to "Alex Stewart." Of course it was Nick Lowe; how did my brain mix up the two names? And the book's at the bindery now.' To try and set things straight, I insisted on doing the Encyclopedia of Fantasy entry for PLOT COUPONS.... • Paul K: I too had an opportunity to study the terrifyingly irregular teeth of Jan Howard Finder, and to listen to him going on about cricket and conventions, when he turned up in Reading on 6 April. We have both, as it were, been tested in the furnace. • Steve J: yes, I also noticed allusions to other Mars books in Ian McDonald's Ares Express, including a wholly gratuitous mention of 'silver locusts'. Funnily enough, the 'using children as furniture' theme also appears fleetingly in Terry Pratchett's new epic, Thief of Time. Since my nice editor passed on a shiny hardback of Ares Express after I'd reviewed it from A4 page proofs, I think I'll run off this Cloud Chamber on the backs of (some of) the latter.... • 8 April 2001