Cloud Chamber 120
August 2001

I ought to be writing here about Finland, a wonderful experience from beginning to end except for the little git who broke into this house while I was still on my outward journey and pinched the laptop computer. I ought to be telling you further droll anecdotes of our house renovations (finished at last, thank goodness), my total collapse into a mindless puddle during the excessive heat (hence hasty purchase of replacement laptop to allow freelance work to be carried on in the cellar at 64° fondly Fahrenheit), and the final death throes of both the ancient Amstrad PCW computers on the same morning (just when a registered packet of those wretched 3" LocoScript disks had arrived for urgent conversion to something readable on a PC). All the above, however, is being overshadowed by increasing panic about that Discworld quizbook and its not very forgiving deadline. There may be no Cloud Chamber at all in September or October. Oh, you lucky people....

Josh Kirby was totally unsurprised when I got around to telling him about this latest project: 'Ah! such timing! Not only have I heard of your new quizbook, but later today [6 August] I'll be sending off the finished cover! The Wyrdest Link is one of the occasions when I'm told exactly what to do, so I feel a bit like a jobbing gardener being directed from the flower-hung balcony – just a head of the Librarian, looking like Anne Robinson plus mortarboard ... will she mind?! – no creative input possible. Well, I added her glasses, omitted from the doodle I was sent ... stroke of genius? Hm....'

Random Reading

HugeSouthAmericanRiver. Various including Philip K. Dick, Valis (1981) in the SF Masterworks edition, still impressively strange with its penetratingly funny self-perception and gnomic catchphrases: 'The Empire never ended.' • Stephen Baxter, Origin (2001), concluding the Manifold trilogy and at last spanning its sheaf of alternate universes via a wandering Big Dumb Object, the Red Moon. This habitable satellite flips from cosmos to cosmos like a Fortean deus ex machina, using the now traditional glowing blue transporter gate to shuttle random groups of people to and from the current version of Earth. Alas, Origin spends far too much time chronicling Red Moon primitives from all stages of human evolution as they eat each other, chip flints, strive to become alpha male or female, and are generally nasty, brutish and short. I suppose one could call this a frightfully mordant microcosm of human aspirations, but after so much primitive carnage the expected multiversal sense-of-wonder jolt comes as a belated and rather perfunctory infodump rather than developing via a long, effective crescendo as in Space. • Peter F. Hamilton, Fallen Dragon: as a change from the vastness of the Night's Dawn trilogy, this is a standalone work of a mere 647 pages, barely a novelette by Hamilton standards. Readers of the trilogy's final volume The Naked God will remember that, after a long and fraught interstellar chase, the entity of the title is finally encountered and proves to be a cosmic deus ex machina capable of fixing every outstanding plot problem, which it duly does. In Fallen Dragon, after a long and fraught interstellar chase, the ultimately encountered 'dragon' proves to be ... but perhaps you're ahead of me already.

Packed for Finland. Oliver Postgate, Seeing Things (2000), interesting, unsparing autobiography of the co-creator of Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, The Clangers, Bagpuss and other British children's TV classics. With a CD-ROM of further pictures, sounds and video clips – but my elderly computer has a dud sound card. [Later: much nostalgia in full sound and colour as Hazel and I played with this CD on the new laptop.] • Robert Goddard, Beyond Recall (1997), another of his complex thrillers about uncovering sinister past events, sort of Barbara Vine without the skilful creepiness. I liked this less than his earlier In Pale Battalions, since the determined piling-on of twists, elaborations and impersonations eventually pushed the whole thing well beyond plausibility. • John Diamond, Snake Oil and other preoccupations (2001), his unfinished book on dodgy alternative therapies, published as a memorial together with a selection of funny and/or harrowing newspaper and magazine essays written during the author's long succession of ups and (predominantly) downs as recurring throat cancer proved ultimately unbeatable. Many grim quips.

From Jyväskylä bookshops. When most titles are in Finnish, you take what you can get – the first six items below being my total haul from the town's largest second-hand shop. H.C. Bailey, Clunk's Claimant (1937), which at a mere £2 I'd have bought anyway: first edition of less than topnotch crime novel by the author of the underrated Mr Fortune stories, featuring Bailey's alternative sleuth, the crooked solicitor Joshua Clunk. • Adam Diment, The Great Spy Race (1968), with all the awful datedness of a relentless Swinging Sixties romp, drooling over the astonishing novelty of sex, mini-skirts, joints, etc etc. I probably read this and thought it terribly daring in 1968. The chase sequences in eccentric vehicles, no doubt the author trailing his coat for a movie option, are still quite fun. • William F. Temple, The Fleshpots of Sansato (1968, abridged pb 1970), modestly entertaining sf thriller featuring the urgent search for a Missing Man with a Cosmic Secret last seen in a far world's eponymous red-light district, whose joys are described with considerable spareness and restraint. What, I wonder, was taken out during the abridgement? • Edgar Wallace, The Council of Justice (1908) and Sanders of the River (1911). Vintage crap. The first features our old pals the Four Just Men effortlessly dealing with an evil anarchist conspiracy whose 33,478 members plan to bring England to her knees. Sample coup: London helpless against bad guys' pre-announced aerial bombardment, until a Just Man atop St Paul's unleashes falcons with extra-sharp steel spurs that puncture the attacking airships' flotation bags in no time at all, coo er gosh. Sanders is the, er, acknowledged classic of gunboat diplomacy, whose tremendously savvy hero preserves order over large imaginary tracts of Africa by treating the good-hearted but overly excitable natives like children, i.e. shooting and hanging them rather a lot. As Belloc summed it up, 'Whatever happens we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not.' • Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), the fictional autobiography of a really good man. Here for example is the secret of marital harmony: '... I wrote a similar epitaph for my wife, though still living, in which I extolled her prudence, economy, and obedience, till death; and having got it copied fair, with an elegant frame, it was placed over the chimney-piece, where it answered several very useful purposes. It admonished my wife of her duty to me, and my fidelity to her; it inspired her with a passion for fame, and constantly put her in mind of her end.' (Hazel: 'It's even worse than Mr Sapsea!') Alas, two of the vicar's daughters are ravished by seducers, demonstrating the only possible happy endings available in such case: one dies ('When lovely woman stoops to folly,' etc) and the other's apparently faked marriage to a highly unpleasant serial bigamist turns out to be genuine after all – so she's respectable and has a husband, however hated and feared, which makes everything OK. Oh dearie me. • Mauri Kunnas, The Canine Kalevala (1992, trans Tim Steffa), selected Kalevala stories adapted for children with a comic cast of anthropomorphized dogs, cats, wolves, etc, and enjoyably silly cartoon illustrations. Just like everyone else in those antique days, the Swan of Tuonela wears a little iron helmet. There's even a plausible picture of the Kalevala's repeated McGuffin the sampo, a magic mill that can grind out all manner of useful goodies. My first moment of culture shock at Helsinki airport was the discovery that Sampo was now the name of a cash card (actually, of the relevant bank); it also turned out to be a brand of matches.

Other. Quentin Blake, Words and Pictures (2000), a spiffy sampler of the great man's work, with a huge checklist of books he's illustrated that looks liable to cause nasty bookshop accidents in the future. Nice to be reminded of all the stuff with QB drawings that I already own: Patrick Campbell, J.P. Martin, Roald Dahl, Ogden Nash, and a heap of Folio Society editions (The Hunting of the Snark, Animal Farm, Cold Comfort Farm, some Evelyn Waughs) ... but I'd completely missed many volumes for children, including the Agaton Sax detective stories, books by Russell Hoban and Joan Aiken, and QB's own solo stories and verses. • Philip E. High, Butterfly Planet (2000 copyright notice but really 1971), yet another 'classic reissue' from Cosmos, and the only novel by this very minor sf author that I couldn't trace for my silly statistical look at his fiction in a 1989 article. Many common themes are duly repeated, including a nastily dystopian opening and a finale of global unity, symbiosis with the ecosphere, predestined telepathic sex with the one right person, etc; a hero with amazing hidden powers that even he doesn't know about; unlikely small arms (congealers, spore-bombs); bad guys whose ultimate choice is to be chastened/reformed or to rot away from natural causes (here, those failing to see the light devolve at speed into feral animals who are Cowed By The Power Of The Human Eye); unnecessary alien invaders wheeled on to show what a tough proposition the unified Earth has now become ... A theme I missed in my original squib is High's fondness for splitting the human race into hostile factions along lines unrelated to race or nationality (here it's all-powerful organized crime vs. dwindling police forces), often as a result of insidious manipulation by aliens whose motto is 'divide and conquer'. The books have an appealing simplicity which may even make them a useful experience for prentice critics: organisms which are transparent and all too easy to map, like the amoeba. Anyway, I quite like reading rubbish from time to time.

Mailing 102, July 2001

Maureen: Don Malcolm, he of the prudish 1960s response to sf that dared consider the facts of life, was a minor sf and pop-science author who was then in his 30s (old fogeydom sets in early for some). He published a number of stories in the pre-Moorcock New Worlds and later in E.J. Carnell's New Writings in SF; he is remembered by me for just one of them, 'Beyond the Reach of Storms' from NW and Carnell's anthology Lambda One, which stirred my youthful sense of wonder with a toroidal sun whose hole was a gateway to higher space. Maybe Stephen Baxter also read this when he was little. • Paul: Reading your strictures on B.R. Myers, I thought again that there's something insidiously seductive about forceful critical attacks on authors and books one has never actually read. Such dismissals appeal directly to our inner lazy sod, who in a world of too many books can be overly keen for the excuse to cross off whole swathes of fiction as just not worth the trouble. Good to see you steadfastly rising above this temptation, to which I'm rather prone myself.... • Penny: It was in fact our 25th wedding anniversary that happened in June, which was something of a jolt. Where does the time go? • Ulrika: Welcome! I too enjoyed I Capture the Castle despite a prior warning from Jilly Reed to the effect that this was a girlie book and boys wouldn't like it. • Jae: slight confusion of Tom Wolfe's titles there, I think. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was a standalone book whose account of the Merry Pranksters I likewise found curiously unmemorable; the satirical piece about Leonard Bernstein's fundraising party for the Black Panthers was 'Radical Chic', not (although these two long essays were packaged as one book) 'Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers'. The Annotated Alice and The American Way of Death are old favourites here. • Steve: although I didn't mention this aspect, I agree that I found the relentless grottiness of the hero's early life in Adam Roberts's ON to be a bit of a drag. As for your suggestion that Gene Wolfe 'is writing to delight and frustrate the half dozen or so critics and reviewers that he considers his intellectual peers', I think he puts in some little japes and teases for us obsessives, but – particularly in the Long Sun and Short Sun sequences – takes pains to clarify the important narrative developments, however complex, through a backfill of explanatory exchanges between the characters themselves. • Ian: I've already said that I quite enjoy reading occasional rubbish. Indeed my list of books above shamefully omits The Saint and the People Importers (1971), idly scanned to find whether there was any of the old verve in Leslie Charteris's vaunted stylistic revision of a thriller actually drafted by Fleming Lee from a TV script solely by Lee: no, not really. However, I gave up on Jack Chalker a long time ago, only occasionally peeping to see whether he continues his old kink of having women transformed into gorgeous, sexually insatiable, helplessly submissive love slaves, while as a nod to gender equality men tend to be changed into gorgeous, sexually insatiable, helplessly submissive female love slaves. No kidding. • To revert to that Saint book, I've just realized this was so unmemorable that I bought it on spec at the local church hall fundraiser sale despite already having (and having read) a copy. Oh well, at 20p per paperback one can be a little frivolous. I even acquired a couple of the utterly ghastly Duelmaster interactive gamebooks on the strength of their Josh Kirby covers. How about this random selection for sheer evocative force? 'You cry aloud Ashmodel! but the demon Origob takes no heed. A wave of pus breaks over you and you are swept out of the room. You pick yourself up and run down to the courtyard as fast as you can, but you have suffered the touch of Origob, Demonlord of Slime. Your skin erupts into pus-filled boils and the inside of your lungs begin to fill with slime in which you will soon drown. Lose 1 LP [Life Point].' But don't worry, there's a cure for which it would now be a good idea to go questing ... and so on, forever. • Finally ... our very own Steve Jeffery's comment (or Uluru) on the 1999 Hugos with their Ayers Rock bases, drawn on a letter ingeniously mislaid for a couple of years in the Langford piling system: