Cloud Chamber 119
July 2001

One of R.A. Lafferty's stories, I seem to remember, mentions a bar where they take the roof off so you can get as high as you like. Contrariwise, I've been feeling rather low during the hottest weeks of June as house repairs continue with the removal of our roof slate by slate, punctuated by shattering crashes as flawed or otherwise unworthy slates are dropped three storeys to oblivion. One evening I sneaked out to photograph the house in its worst state of undress; using a digital camera does at least mean that the Boots film processing lab won't be shopping me to HM Police for filthy pictures of naked battens. ('The perp claims the subject is 120 years old, so the paedophilia charge may not stick.') Later: the steady thump of slates being nailed back on is more subtly jangling to the nerves....

At last (27 June) I have my very own copy of The Complete Critical Assembly in Cosmos hardback, with a trade paperback to follow. My next critical tome is 'finished' but undergoing tinkering. I was tempted to circulate it through Acne on disk, but that would smack of laying cruel burdens on you. If anyone would like to take a confidential look and help spot the more egregious scanning errors, e-mail me and I'll send a copy as a Word/RTF attachment. Or, if you prefer, a floppy disk. [NB: this offer restricted to close friends and Acnestis members only.]

Advertisement. To drop a few names, contributors to the nifty Tiptree cookbooks plugged in Ansible 168 include Pat Cadigan, Suzy McKee Charnas, Ellen Datlow, Phyllis Eisenstein, Suzette Haden Elgin, Karen Joy Fowler, Gwyneth Jones, Nancy Kress, Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Pat Murphy, Kit Reed, William Rotsler, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Pamela Sargent, Lisa Tuttle, and Joan Vinge. Not to mention Jae Leslie Adams.

Commonplace Book. 'You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.' (George W. Bush, Feb 2001) • 'The earliest papyrus ever dug up on the site of Ur bears the inscription, "The book trade isn't what it was."' (Brian Aldiss, The Brightfount Diaries, 1955) • Kingsley Amis on Harry Harrison: 'It comes as a surprise to meet this tall, lean, shambling character, with his mop of red hair, tragic countenance and lazy Texan drawl – when indeed he can find anything to say. No doubt he needs to husband his resources for his work, which must also be the reason for his fanatical teetotalism.' (Appreciation written for Trieste Film Festival, 1975.)

Random Reading

John Brunner, The Crucible of Time (1984), episodic novel with an all-alien cast which John got very excited about at the time, though somehow I didn't buy a copy until this year. It's strong on historical sweep, covering generations of progress as sympathetic aliens get to grips with problems of biology and climatology on a planet so radically awful that the only hope is escape into space. All this reads well enough, but with two recurring tics that eventually got on my nerves. First, even from my atheist viewpoint it seems unfair that religious feelings in this race are (a) almost without exception side-effects of deficiencies or toxins, from starvation and (the analogue of) scurvy to radionuclide poisoning and mind-bending drugs; (b) always uncompromisingly anti-progress, anti-survival. Including a few mellower believers might have reduced the sense of a heavily loaded argument. Second, the characters' alienness is constantly underlined by phrases like 'on the other claw', 'I've felt in my tubules [guts] how right they are', 'his pith [heart] wasn't in it', 'Have you padded across [met] her?', the rejection of proposals 'out of claw', and a family tradition being 'in the ichor'.... There's even a Stephen R. Donaldson moment involving one of those cryptic organs: 'Awb's mantle clenched around him.' Also perhaps overdone is the use of modified English words for alien equivalents, with a special fondness for the letter Q. Thus living vessels called briqs and junqs sail a sea full of sharqs, mollusqs, qrill, sponqs, and (just for a change) porps. On land we have oaq trees, sluqs leaving trails of slime, knives made by chipping flinqs, and spuder-webs. Above fly hawqs, hauqs (perhaps a typo), yowls, and fish-hunters called gorborangs. Oh dear. • Paul McAuley, Whole Wide World (2001), a near-future noir police procedural covered for HugeSouthAmericanRiver. Very net-savvy, giving the full headers and IP address for a supposed Cuban anonymous remailer: [], which I suddenly recognized as a Demon domain, belonging to (pause to check archive) the author himself. Paul: 'Curses! Now my plans for world domination are in disarray! Pleased of course that someone has spotted the feeble microjoke – might have known that it would be the mighty Langford.' • Martin Amis, Experience (2000), autobiographical. Had previously found MA's nonfiction persona unsympathetic and often irritating, but (maybe realizing the enfant terrible role is less effective when you're past 50) he seems unusually open and likable here. The relationship with his more famous father is well handled, and genuinely moving as Kingsley A. goes into decline. Little shudders of sympathy. • Adam Roberts, ON (2001), yet another HSAR assignment. SF with a physical setting of trans-Baxterian daftness (my review duly cited Raft and The Integral Trees) and a storyline which after the inevitable and rather enjoyable Cook's Tour of this weird geography doesn't so much move towards closure as stop with a bone-shaking jolt. All credit for audacity, although even accepting the premise and the handwaving about space-time physics, I don't believe the environment could remain habitable for generations as described. Without giving away the big surprise, there's so much free kinetic energy available – literal perpetual motion – that its inevitable degradation to heat would surely cook everyone in short order. The theme of a world on its side, an infinite cliff, made me wonder whether the gnomic capitalized title conceals a 90° rotation of the Greek root ZO (life on its side?) or even of OZ (insert suitably deep po-mo interpretation here). • Ellen Kushner, Thomas the Rhymer (1990), a finely written fantasy based on the traditional ballad, with nice handling of the Faerie episode ... but as with EK's Swordspoint though even more so, it didn't quite seem to match up to all the extravagant praise of it that I'd read. For example, a strong part of the story ought to be the former silver-tongued liar Thomas's struggles when he returns home able to speak only pure truth, but other narrators take over and this aspect is distanced almost out of sight. • Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), continuing my intermittent programme of reading books I should have read long ago. Another of those stories whose distillation into myth may be better than the mere original, which despite nice trademark epigrams (and grimly routine ones too: 'there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about', boom boom) tends towards the florid and implausible. For a long while Dorian Gray's wickedness appears to consist entirely of jilting a young actress and reading J.K. Huysmans's À Rebours again and again, evilly compounded by successive interest in mysticism, perfumes, music, jewels and – treading ever closer to the abyss – embroidery. Presumably the extreme vagueness of hinted worse stuff in the background indicates that he was engaged in doings too frightful for a contemporary audience, such as having it off with Lord Alfred Douglas. It's almost a relief from these mumblings of unmentionable crime when Dorian finally commits an honest murder and can in due course go to damnation, go directly to damnation, do not pass GOD, do not collect 200 indulgences.... • Richard McKenna, 'Fiddler's Green' (1967), disturbingly odd tale of escape from death at sea into a flawed consensus reality. 'There's only one tree here. You find it wherever you look for it and it's always got what you want growing on it.' The term 'magic realism' kept coming to mind; One Hundred Years of Solitude also appeared in 1967, though not in English until 1970. • Dave Sim & Gerhard, Going Home (2000), 13th and possibly penultimate Cerebus graphic novel, continuing a weird seriocomic story arc long promised to end with the short, furry, psychotic hero's death. (NB: Cerebus began in 1977, 11 years before Sandman.) The latest addition to the eclectic cast – incorporating many parodied fantasy and comics characters, two Marx brothers, a slew of rock stars, Oscar Wilde, Granny from the Giles cartoons, and Mrs Thatcher – is, for no very logical reason, an aging F. Scott Fitzgerald. Blimey.

Mailing 101, June 2001

Me: Apologies for a rather skimpy Cloud Chamber with too much pasted-in text and failure to mention a number of mighty contributions to mailing 100 by Claire, Ian, Mark and others. The combination of builders and RSI was getting me down, and I couldn't face typing any more. • Bruce: splendid Philip K. Dick Special! You named the same favourites that I would have picked offhand, The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. When recently given the invidious assignment of picking 20 'best' sf/fantasy novels for a special issue of SFX, I included Eldritch as the Dick choice because it's so uncompromisingly twisted. As for my other selections, many would doubtless have been different if I'd fudged up my list in some other year or month. After SFX reader polls which named some ghastly X-Files spinoffery as best novel of the year, I wonder how much consternation greeted the appearance in my #1 slot of The Book of the New Sun. • Chris H: as reported in Ansible 13, November 1980, A.E. van Vogt got a $50,000 out-of-court settlement for being allegedly plagiarized in Alien. 'He felt he could have got more but would be dead by the time the courts gave it him.' Apparently one clinching point was unused footage of paralysed crewmen with Alien eggs growing in/on them, corresponding to the nasty habits of the intruder Ixtl in 'Discord in Scarlet' (incorporated as the third episode of Voyage of the Space Beagle). • Ian: the Spawn of Gernsback ('Soggy') award doubtless fills a much needed gap; I like your criterion of worst sf novel from a highly regarded publisher like Tor. Oddly enough, in the same post as Acnestis 101, a highly regarded sf author who prefers anonymity passed on Borrowed Tides (Tor, 2001) by SFWA President Paul Levinson, commending it to Thog. So far my dippings have come up with subtle info-dumps like: 'Most people knew that Alpha Centauri was the closest star system to Earth's own. Fewer knew that its distance from Sol was about 4.3 light-years. Even fewer knew that it was actually a triple star – and that Alpha Centauri was a G2 V star, just like the sun.' Well, I never. Sample technical dialogue: '"Which gives us a one-way trip to Alpha," David Percival, Aaron's chief assistant, said. "Which means we do it either nonpersonned, or as a ticket to oblivion."' I was most impressed that, having seen only those two passages, Maureen responded: 'I would like to know who edited that one ... I detect the fell hand of Hartwell.' And David G. Hartwell is the right answer! Meanwhile, in Mars orbit: 'Tea brewed at .78g is a true delight. [...] Water under pressure permeates the tea leaves more thoroughly at our lower gravity.' Eh? • Cherith: lots of thanks for encouraging words on The Leaky Establishment – and for organizing the spiffy Acnestis key-rings, much admired by Hazel as well as myself. • AMB: it was a little alarming to be taken to task for (as far as I was able to comprehend the gravamen of the charge) failing to eavesdrop on private e-mail between you and Lizbeth ... but I'll try not to do it again. • KVB: your list of literary Nottingham streets from the 19th century stirred up memories of the Gaer Estate in Newport, Monmouthshire (now Gwent), where I used to go to school. Its roads were named according to the mid-20th-century planners' hierarchy of literary clout, working down from the very long Shakespeare Crescent through Dickens Drive, Ben Jonson Way, Ruskin Rise, and Kipling Hill. Lesser literati got Groves (Brontë, Pepys, Shaw) or Gardenses (Barrie, Macaulay, Marlowe), until you reached the many small fry deemed worthy only of Closes, from Austen to Wells – rather surprisingly including Joyce. Naturally the tiniest and most insignificant of all the Closes, as far as I can make out on the map, was allotted to a critic: Hazlitt. I always hoped that Morton Way might commemorate the great J.B. 'Beachcomber' Morton, but I suspect they intended the travel writer. • Chris A: I too remember the Observer's Books and used to own several (Astronomy, Insects & Spiders, Sea & Seashore ...), but they somehow became common family property and remain in the parental home to this day. Genuinely pocket-sized books have a special charm; maybe ten years hence we'll be telling disbelieving new Acnestis members about the Penguin 60s. Further back, there was the 'Today and Tomorrow' series of tiny futurology books, of which I've amassed 21 over the years – there were many, many more. Notable titles included Bertrand Russell's Icarus. or The Future of Science (1926), J.B.S. Haldane's Daedalus, or Science and the Future (1923) and Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare (1925), and J.D. Bernal's The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929). The latter's speculations on space colonies, cyborgization, and long-range possibilities of transcending biology and death so horrified C.S. Lewis that he inserted a kind of nightmare travesty of Bernal as the supposed aim of godless scientists in That Hideous Strength. (For example, Bernal wondered about transformed men 'penetrating those regions where organic bodies cannot enter or hope to survive', a line of thought which Lewis seemed to think not only blasphemous – 'God's quarantine regulations' again – but liable to lead to the deliberate wiping out of Earth's biosphere because godless science won't need it any more.) In a series whose default title template was Classical Person, or The Future of Something, frivolity had to creep in: Robert Graves contributed Lars Porsena, or The Future of Swearing (1927), which begins 'Of recent years in England there has been a noticeable decline of swearing and foul language, and this, except at centres of industrial depression, shows every sign of continuing until a new shock to our national nervous system, a European war on a large scale or widespread revolutionary disturbances at home ...' Well, World War II bloody well fixed that problem. • Maureen: 'the collector of medieval manuscripts who catalogued his holdings according to the nearest bust in his library' rang obscure bells until I remembered that this system is used in the university library of Diana Wynne Jones's The Year of the Griffin. Never assume an author has necessarily made something up. • Paul: thanks to a recommendation by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, I returned from a 1998 US trip with two of Molly Ivins's essay collections (Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? and Nothin' But Good Times Ahead), much enjoyed; clearly I need her Shrub study. Your Russell Hoban piece makes me guiltily aware that despite early admiration I haven't been following this author for some while, not since The Medusa Frequency or thereabouts, and need to catch up. Oops. • Finished early, 5 July, owing to Finland gig.