Cloud Chamber 121
September 2001

Discworld quizbook madness prevails, but from time to time I need to stop reading the complete works of Terry Pratchett and lie down for a bit, or even read something else. Of course I am still boggled beyond belief by the fiction Hugo win, but have been duly sobered by British publishers' rapid explanations that they are completely unable to market collections of short sf even with HUGO WINNING STORY splashed all over the front.

Random Reading

Joan Aiken, Midnight Is A Place (1974), an enjoyable Victorian romp in which well-brought-up kids are reduced to penury and subjected to the joys of sewer scavenging (signs of intensive research in Mayhew here) and a Dickensian factory even less concerned with safety regulations than the real thing. My one small grump is that the evocative title sounds like fantasy, the Puffin blurb describes it as fantasy, and had I read this when young and eager for fantasy I'd have felt very much let down by the first-paragraph discovery that the story just happens to open in a big old house called Midnight Court.... • Alan Moore et al, Promethea Book 1 (2000), first collection of yet another of the 'America's Best Comics' books that Moore is scripting. This one tends towards the mystical and archetypal (astrological and Tarot symbolism, etc), Promethea being not precisely a woman but an eternal Story which possesses and transforms a succession of lucky or unfortunate women over the centuries ... most of them now dead but still able to instruct the latest, teenaged incumbent. Also, the Immateria or world of the imagination is very literally a place. Wittily scripted and very nicely drawn. A demonology subplot includes explicit nods to Black Easter which made me smile. Thanks to Michael Abbott, late of this parish, for the recommendation. • Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events 3: The Wide Window (2000). Still good, gruesome, Goreyesque fun as the hapless and wretched Baudelaire orphans are farmed out to another unlikely relative in menacing surroundings (the leeches of Lachrymose Lake are substantially more horrid than book 2's mere snakes), pursued by wicked Count Olaf in another transparent disguise ('This does not mean that the person is wearing plastic wrap or glass or anything else transparent ...'), etc. Perhaps the formula needs to vary more? Perhaps it will. Next: The Miserable Mill. • P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins (1935), smooth and inoffensive farce, perfectly crafted and perfectly forgettable: I remember it's set on an ocean liner, but little more than that. • Richard Bradford, Lucky Him: The Life of Kingsley Amis (2000) – see quotation in Ansible 170, to which I will add that Bradford is suspicious of Amis's claim to be writing 'Alternative World' sf when of course The Alteration is about, and only about, the author's own loss of sexual drive. Again and again, Bradford favours the dangerous assumption that Amis's fiction does not merely draw on his life experience but is heavily autobiographical, leading to such tiresome suggestions as that Take A Girl Like You (remotely modelled on Richardson's Clarissa, with the siege of a naive heroine therefore ending in something close to rape) has dark implications about Amis's pursuit of his first wife. There is dodgy scholarship here, too. Edmund Crispin's crime novel The Case of the Gilded Fly is identified as A Gilded Fly. An important minor character in Take A Girl Like You is called French when it's a crucial personality point that she only pretends to be French. Bradford must be the first reader to emerge from that dark espionage thriller The Anti-Death League with the belief that Operation Apollo (a multi-layered stratagem whose inner nastiness is made abundantly clear) 'is never fully explained', or that the hero who retreats to bed in despair and consciously refuses to talk has 'gone into a coma'. Most deliciously, there's a chilling scene in The Green Man wherein God manifests in human form and – as a reminder to the narrator of his power – accepts a drink with a hand that is momentarily 'by no means complete, so that the fingers clicked against the glass', with an attendant stench of decay: obviously the click is of bone against glass, but Bradford offers a bizarre gloss about this being 'as if Christ's nails are still there.' Nailed through the fingers, was he? I could, I'm afraid, go on and on. • Robertson Davies, Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre (1997), another posthumous collection of occasional writings, and none the worse for that. I was particularly pleased that the 'music' aspect (a vast blank in my own understanding) was chiefly confined to enjoyable rants about the awful things done to classic plays and novels when adapted for opera. Charming, witty, learned; it scored highly on the internationally agreed scale of Books I Couldn't Resist Quoting Out Loud To Hazel.

Mailing 103, August 2001

Maureen: Here, already conveyed to you in e-mail, is Robertson Davies's 1959 comment on Strunk & White. 'This is a wonderful book, if you want to write like a White or a Strunk. But do you? I should hate to read a novel written in Strunkese. As for Mr. White, his style is a perfect instrument for what he has to say, but for my taste that sounds too often like a few wise, weary words written by a man who is on the point of retiring to bed with a heavy cold.' • Steve: Yvonne Rousseau's guest appearance in Cloud Chamber 109, September 2000, was perhaps the first mention of Lemony Snicket in Acnestis. Glad you liked The Reptile Room, anyway. At present the series looks open-ended: the adumbration of The Miserable Mill at the back of The Wide Window warns that the MS will be accompanied by 'some information on hypnosis, a surgical mask, and sixty-eight sticks of gum.' Yes, Fiddler's Green is a Sandman character (the Chesterton lookalike), but also a long-established Great Good Place of nautical folklore. It's listed in the 1894 Brewer. • KVB: no, C.S. Lewis doesn't explicitly name J.D. Bernal as a scientific Enemy in That Hideous Strength; this was my inference from various scientifically hubristic notions mentioned in the book (such as clearing away life for the sake of tidiness), which struck me as exaggerations of Bernal's rather than Stapledon's ideas. I fear that Jules of the NICE does seem to be a caricature of Wells: see section V in chapter 15 of That Hideous Strength. Jules is a bumptious cockney, short-legged, learned science in London over 50 years ago but hasn't kept up, gained fame and affluence through novels – and somehow his name suggests scientific romance, doesn't it? • Paul: ahem. Damon Knight has struggled for many years against that misquotation of his flip definition of sf – not the autocratic 'what I point to when I say science fiction' but the implied consensus 'Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.' • Welcome to Acne newcomers and revenants; farewell to the departed; what a busy time this is. Huge thanks to Claire and Tanya for reading and correcting many typos in my Big Critical Tome. Now it's 9 September and I find I've drafted 405 questions and answers for the much-mentioned second quizbook, probably about half of what's needed. Time to submerge myself once again....