Cloud Chamber 117
May 2001

I'm feeling rather more cheerful after surviving the first third of 2001, including Paragon (which I enjoyed despite arriving in a gloomy, overworked and generally low-energy state) and the horror of my favourite aunt's silver wedding party. A triple curse lay on the latter: first, Railtrack impulsively closed the Severn Tunnel and diverted South Wales trains for hours of wandering through the Cotswolds; second, the event was in a sports club well up the Cwmbran valley, accessible only by road and so priming Hazel with a good dose of her invariable car sickness; third, there was a background of INCREDIBLY LOUD DISCO MUSIC, painful even to me with my hearing aid turned off and a finger in the other ear. We escaped early, but not early enough, and I brooded on being made to feel a boring old fart by the musical tastes of my now 60-year-old aunt.

Otherwise there's much good cheer. The Leaky Establishment has appeared from Big Engine at last, and Ben Jeapes is working hard on his other titles, including the now (fingers crossed) finalized Sladek book, of which more below. The 'unpublishable' Langford/Grant horror spoof Guts has at last gone to press at Cosmos Books – whose Sean Wallace wants a Langford as well as a Kincaid critical collection, so I've been assembling a huge wad of otherwise uncollected reviews and essays. Ah, the joy of finding that old copies of Vector and Foundation are mostly scannable; the gnashing of teeth at the fact that BSFA Paperback Inferno isn't! More financially rewarding, Jo Fletcher at Gollancz asks for a follow-up to my 1996 Discworld quizbook The Unseen University Challenge, and everyone concerned (including Terry Pratchett) likes the title which popped into my mind with a certain horrid inevitability: The Wyrdest Link.

Commonplace Book. Gore Vidal considers Henry Miller: 'Sentences swell and billow, engulfing syntax. Arcane words are put to use, often accurately: ectoplasmic, mandibular, anthropophagous, terrene, volupt, occipital, fatidical. Not since H.P. Lovecraft has there been such a lover of language.'

CC116 Erratum. Yvonne Rousseau deduced, without seeing Peter Dickinson's Touch and Go, that the story I described as like The Secret Garden is in fact like Tom's Midnight Garden.

Random Reading

Philip Pullman, The Tiger in the Well, great stuff, very tense and inventive, although at least one longish speech about the injustices of Victorian society (We Are All Guilty) seemed a shade implausible in context, as did the extraordinary narrative convenience of the floor giving way and house beginning to collapse just at the climactic moment. I suppose the way to put it is that despite injecting social conscience, Pullman faithfully retains the conventions of period melodrama. • George Alec Effinger, The Nick of Time (1985), Paragon fan-room freebie read on the way home. A curiously unfunny time-travel romp with some nice ideas but a general tone of utter inconsequentiality, not helped by a thick protagonist who (as opposed to, say, Bill the Galactic Hero) isn't even amusingly stupid. • Alan Moore et al, Top 10, sought out after reading a fanzine review by Michael A., to whom thanks for the recommendation. Utterly silly graphic-novel collection of this police procedural comic, sort of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct in an sf city where everyone is a superhero, monster, mad scientist or whatever. There's the usual Mooreish density of allusive background detail. Particularly touching was the legless beggar still in his gaudy, skintight costume, sitting hopefully by a scrawled message on the pavement: VICTIM OF THE '92 CIRCULATION WARS. • Keith Roberts (1998), Lemady, a sort-of-autobiographical ramble in surprisingly sunny vein, despite some snidery about the Kerosina collective who impudently brought the great man back into print when no one else would (how dare they trade on his fame and talent, the swines!). Reading it feels like being at the kind of cheery pub session recalled by Rob Holdstock, with KR telling all his best anecdotes, some of them perhaps improved from mere reality. One phrase quoted as an example of tiresome fanzine reviews seemed vaguely familiar, and after a while I realized it was me, writing in the very fannish Foundation: a grudge cherished since 1980. Oops. • Judy Horacek, Lost in Space (1997), droll essays on life, the universe and everything by Aussie cartoonist (see the Dread Called Kevin in Maureen's recent admin pages). With some cartoons. A birthday present from Yvonne Rousseau, bless her. Great fun.

Reread. Frederik Pohl's Heechee tetralogy, each better than the next. Gateway, the first, still stands up very well.

Mailing 99, April 2001

Andrew B: nothing to do with Acnestis, but I finally looked into your famous Discworld Essentials book and was gratified by various Langford namechecks and kind remarks. Thanks! • Paul K: still most flattered at being asked to introduce your critical volume. Maybe my early, abandoned opening will serve as jacket copy: 'NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH! Kincaid's unique cocktail of hot sex and cool criticism will shake the very foundations of your literary sensibility. With 1,000 elephants ...' • Bruce: excellent stuff about Avram Davidson – who may now have more in print than ever when alive. As well as the anthologies you discuss, a heap of his titles have been reissued (like Lemady) as Wildside Press print-on-demand editions. I agree that Gene Wolfe can be a fearful tease, sometimes to the point of tiresomeness, when writing about others. That piece on 'Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman' is a prime example. Similarly, in the British Library's book of Jack Vance appreciations, Wolfe seems to introduce a mystery where there wasn't one before by saying it isn't hard to understand the true nature of the amulet which Turjan of Miir retrieves for Pandelume in The Dying Earth, but leaving this as 'an exercise for the reader'. Duh. I thought it was just your basic magic amulet.• Gary and others commenting to Mark on Crouching This, Hidden That ... I remember the convention of flying martial arts from that seminal Hong Kong fantasy flick Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1982), so this seems to be long entrenched in the genre. • Ian: thanks for Linux reassurances. It all seems a bit unecessary for what I do (which includes a little Windows programming on the side).... • Maureen: thank goodness Paragon was a lot more fun than suggested by all our advance bodings. I missed the fireworks too. • Cherith: that amphibolous Latin message appears in the one bit of Marlowe's Edward II that's stuck in my memory since school. 'This letter, written by a friend of ours, Contains his death, yet bids them save his life; Edwardum occidere nolite timere, bonum est, Fear not to kill the king, 'tis good he die: Yet read it thus and that's another sense, Edwardum occidere nolite, timere bonum est, Kill not the king, 'tis good to fear the worst. Unpointed as it is, thus shall it go.' According to Marlowe, bad guy Mortimer sends the unpointed (unpunctuated) letter in hope that his pet murderers will read it in the first sense, which they do, and that if it comes to light he can claim he meant the second. • Finished 5 May.

Maps of Minnesota: Stalking John Sladek

A little extra something for the 100th mailing of Acnestis: my draft article for The New York Review of SF about researching the famous John Sladek anthology. Apologies for the recurrence of familiar bits which have already surfaced in Cloud Chamber.

Furthermore (8 May) ...

Congratulations to Maureen and indeed all of us on reaching this stupendous 100th mailing of Acnestis. I've enjoyed a huge amount of good and entertaining writing here, and tend to be a bit miserably minimalist in commenting on it – more on account of workload worries than actual curmudgeonliness. Well, I would say that, wouldn't I? (Speaking of which remark, it took me a fair old while to work out the cryptic comment 'MRDA' which still turns up from time to time in CIX on-line conferences, standing for 'Mandy Rice-Davies Applies.')

Clarke Award Horror! I think I'll restrain myself from pursuing this one in Ansible, but after trying to be reasonably tight-lipped during my own Clarke judging stint and not too terribly indiscreet even afterwards, I was startled to discover that either Alison Scott has bugged the 2001 judges' meetings or someone is spilling beans far sooner and more copiously than common sense would suggest. Or is Alison making it all up? Anyway, the entire rec.arts.sf.fandom Usenet newsgroup was regaled with the following from Alison on 3 May:

The judges are going to be split between Ash and Perdido Street Station. All apart from one judge who is determined that the award will go to Cosmonaut Keep (as much because they're still sore about The Sky Road not winning last year as for the book's intrinsic merit). They're particularly stressed because they have to give the Clarke to an SF novel, and two of the judges believe Ash is ineligible because it's fantasy, and two of the judges believe Perdido Street Station is ineligible because it's fantasy. Or horror, or something. Genre-defying, at any rate. Not the same judges in each case. One of the other judges believes that Ash isn't SF but ought to win anyway. After it looks as if it will all come to blows horribly, they settle on Revelation Space as a compromise candidate.

Should be a fun judging meeting. I hope they have plenty of wine.

Sounds all too credible, actually. I'm curious as to how accurate this is, and am looking forward no end to the presentation on 19th May 2000 (well, that's what the invitation card says), very likely past by the time you see this. Which reminds me that Pat Cadigan cunningly sent me the programme for her same-day Science Museum Event, with imperious demands for massive Ansible publicity, a couple of hours after I'd e-mailed this month's Ansible to the world on 4 May. La Cadigan makes quite a habit of this kind of split-second timing. 'You dog, Langford.'

Yvonne Rousseau confided that she'd recently had a 'Michael Innes moment ... while travelling on an Obahn bus, I became subconsciously aware of an oddness, and surfaced from my reading in time to hear the final part of a broadcast message, where our driver (or perhaps some other driver) was being loudly advised that all would be found to be well, in the vicinity of Reynolds and Sargent and Landseer. This naturally recalled to my mind the absurd Michael Innes novel, The Secret Vanguard (published in 1940, in the midst of J.I.M. Stewart's time in Adelaide), where spies pass messages by loudly declaiming fake verse in railway carriages, and where a youthful American conveys a secret formula by means of a numbered set of rapidly executed Caravaggio sketches. On returning home, however, I checked my street directory and found that Reynolds Avenue, "Sargeant" (not Sargent) Avenue, and Landseer Crescent all run around together in the suburb of Dernancourt – off Grand Junction Road, about 1200 metres from the street on which Juliette Woods and Damien Warman currently live (which is accessible from one of the bus-stops on the route of a species of OBahn bus that diverges from the busway at the Paradise Interchange). Phew! – democracy safe, once again.'

My own, less exciting Michael Innes moment came in the Charing Cross Road, where I noticed in Murder One that the new print-on-demand publisher House of Stratus now has acres of shelf space for its reissues of, mainly, period detective and thriller fiction. They seem to be doing the complete works of quite a few authors, such as Henry Cecil, Cyril Hare, Michael Innes, Edgar Wallace and Dornford Yates, with Brian Aldiss as token sf person. (Of course the Stratus Complete Aldiss excludes books in print from or committed to other publishers.) There's a certain faint wrongness about the Innes 'Appleby' novel covers, identified by a full-length silhouette of detective John Appleby himself against various stock backgrounds. He wears large glasses and looks quizzical. In fact, he is clearly not Appleby at all but Margery Allingham's Albert Campion.

Small Gloat. I tend to feel obscurely guilty about not writing enough fiction; on the other hand, there's a peculiar smugness in acquiring a Hugo nomination for the only sf story I published in 2000. Will there be another in 2001? I managed to produce a short humorous piece last July, and 'sold' it to Weird Tales, the inverted commas being because WT cashflow trouble keeps delaying the actual issue of a contract until (they say) some of the advertisers pay up. The next item of Langford fiction or at least non-fact was written on 8 May, a submission for that deeply odd sf project The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric or Discredited Diseases ... invitation only, alas, so I can't pass the word to all my writer friends. We shall see. Meanwhile nonfiction spews from my word processor in the usual copious quantities, and further work on the Great Critical Tome (tentatively titled Up Through an Empty House of Stars, a line which I bet KVB will recognize) has taken it up to 86 reviews and essays totalling 115,000 words – and counting.

Further Reading

Pete Johnson, The Frighteners (2001), inoffensive horror (well, mild alarm) story for children by a highly praised writer I hadn't consciously noticed before. Slick and readable, but pulls its punches somewhat, making me think longingly of Ramsey Campbell's maxim when editing a horror anthology for a similar audience: 'I want to scare the shit out of the little buggers.' • Simon Singh, Fermat's Enigma (1997), fatter and somewhat more reliable-seeming treatment of the famous proof than the Aczel Fermat's Last Theorem which I mentioned a few mailings ago. • John Allen Paulos, Once Upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories (1998), drier than his other pop-maths books but still interesting. • Charles M. Wynn & Arthur W. Wiggins, Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends ... and Pseudoscience Begins (2001), reviewed for The Skeptic, a UK mag which insists on US spelling of its title. Competent coverage, but lacking the charm and persuasiveness of Martin Gardner and other noted writers in the field. For example, it's routine for scientists (the authors are science professors) to indicate at the beginning of a paper what the findings will be. But to lay readers, it looks closed-minded and prejudiced to announce before examining 'the five biggest ideas of pseudoscience' that 'Each will be shown to be riddled with flaws.' And I'd have restrained myself from declaring that Newton's law of gravitation 'would be falsified if an apple moved upward from an apple tree.' Even quite stupid lay readers can imagine a branch swaying violently on a gusty day and losing an apple on the upswing. • Alastair Reynolds, Chasm City (2001), not as cosmic in scope as Revelation Space though set in the same universe. It aims for a Banksian trickiness with memory and identity, and goes quite satisfyingly through all the right hoops without my ever liking the main character(s) enough to get really concerned over the outcome. Plenty of incidental excitement, though, including the millionth sf example of a decadent society getting its kicks from hunts to the death with hi-tech weaponry and human prey.