Cloud Chamber 123
November 2001

Our latest relaxing visit to North Wales had only one touch of excitement, when Hazel and I were directed into the already jam-full rear carriage of the little train from Porthmadog to Harlech because the front carriage had been booked by a film crew. Cameras and hairy microphones were much in evidence. If the next James Bond movie has a dramatic scene set on the Cambrian Coast Line, remember you read it here first. Admittedly we failed to detect any actual explosions or machine-gun fire, but lived in hope that some major villain's henchman was (say) being agonizingly sucked through a broken window by differential sheep pressure.

Ever since having snide phrases about sf shoved into 'my' writing by unscrupulous subeditors at New Scientist, I keep wondering about the distance between what was written and what was printed in other mass-media criticism. Here for example is Murrough O'Brien in The Independent on Sunday (28 Oct 01), with a fair enough review of Terry Pratchett's The Truth which gives accurate plot details and concludes: 'a funny and curiously tender satire on the origins of journalism.' But the opening sentences go: 'A good stiff drink should see you through this one. Failing that, give it to a Pratchett fan.' Is this the subeditor's hand, or the reviewer's cunning gambit to sneak a generally positive review of a popular fantasy past some sinister barrier of disapproval? I honestly don't know.

Also: delivered the much-mentioned Discworld quizbook, eight days early on 23 October. Only after the Welsh trip did I discover that Josh Kirby had died that same day and that The Independent wanted me to write the obituary, which I duly did, in mad haste and deep gloom. Produced Ansible 172 but not in time for the London first-Thursday affair, ho ho. Bought spiffy new laser printer since the old one was demanding spare parts to the tune of about £165. Enjoyed meeting several of the usual suspects at Novacon 31. Now feeling generally at a loose end in the post-quizbook era, but something is bound to turn up....

Commonplace Book. Dept of Bar Trek Enigmas. 'The crew of the Enterprise fall victim to a mysterious contaminant that causes them to behave in an inebriated manner.' (Independent TV listing, 30 Oct 01)

Mailing Comments. Oh damn. Sorry. I ran out of time.

Random Reading

As usual there were a few HugeSouthAmericanRiver assignments, but away with them: on holiday I soothed myself with assorted books I wasn't expected to review. The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (2001) had its ups and downs but was generally good value. I enjoyed the much-recommended 'The Blabber', introducing the ingeniously imagined alien Tines who are so important in A Fire Upon the Deep. The big surprise was the omission of 'True Names', that prescient look at cyberspace, which Tor are treating as a short novel and reissuing separately with a cluster of appreciative essays. • George MacDonald Fraser, The Pyrates (1985), splendid silliness which quite frequently made me laugh aloud. This is buccaneering on the Spanish Main as it ought to have been, with superheroic heroes swinging from the chandeliers installed in every cabin, hissable villains overacting madly, and gorgeous women with mysterious transtemporal access to nylons and the finest Helena Rubinstein moisturizers. The mixture of anachronistic excess and postmodern knowingness reminded me variously of The Princess Bride, of Brahms/Simon historical travesties like No Bed for Bacon and Don't, Mr Disraeli!, and even of Bored of the Rings. All very cheering and reprehensible. • Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party (1960), sinister and oblique play script, building up effective menace by implication. Hadn't read any Pinter before, and was relieved to find it made sense on the page without the theatrical weight of all those famous pauses (not that there seemed to be many). • Colin Dexter, Morse's Greatest Mystery (1993), suspiciously slim volume of six short detective stories. As usual with most of Dexter's work, it caused me no pain but left me wondering how he acquired such a colossal reputation as the main man in British crime. I gather the chap who played Morse on TV is quite good.... • Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), atypical and alarming fictionalized account of Waugh's personal peep over the edge of sanity when – after drifting into such habits as taking large, unmeasured doses of a favourite sleeping draught mixed with crème de menthe to improve the taste – he began to hear voices, generally talking about him in relentless personal detail. Not terribly effective as a story, but the real-life grounding gives it a gruesome fascination. • Freeman Wills Crofts, Inspector French's Greatest Case (1925), one of the Hogarth Press classic crime reissues, whose introduction by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan (somehow it needed two of them to produce two pages) records that in the 30s Crofts ranked among detective fiction's 'Big Five', with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, H.C. Bailey and R. Austin Freeman. Alas, French of the Yard is a bit of a bore, examining alibis, comparing handwriting and tracing stolen banknotes with conscientious realism and never a hint of Holmesian dazzle. He seems even further past his sell-by date than Bailey's Mr Fortune or Freeman's Dr Thorndyke, both almost forgotten but – according to me – still full of quirky charm at short-story if not novel length. • Walter Jon Williams, Aristoi (1992), a rather impressive presentation of galactic society run by human 'aristoi' with multiple talents and daimon subpersonalities. As in Iain M. Banks's later Excession, the resources available to aristoi allow tiny groups or even individuals to misuse them on an apocalyptic scale – here, seeding worlds with illicit evolutionary experiments involving billions of suffering spear-carriers. The story moves well despite a certain inherent arbitrariness in the firepower involved at any stage, with our hero conjuring up a vast interstellar battleship via a nanotechnological snap of his fingers, only for it to be casually destroyed offstage by the bad guys' even more ultimate weapons. Meanwhile, despite a purported intelligence orders of magnitude greater than mere readers who can see exactly what's coming, he personally infiltrates an enemy world with no more than minor small arms and martial-arts skills; and, guess what, the key confrontation reverts to old-fashioned, bare-handed breaking of necks. Enjoyable nevertheless. • Lindsey Davis, A Body in the Bath House (2001), with Roman informer Falco investigating systematic fiddling and murder at the vast British building site where a palace is being constructed for a local king in AD75. I seem to remember an Acnestic consensus that Falco's exploits work best closer to Rome, but this time half his family follows him abroad, to lively effect. There are cheekily Chekhovian gun-on-the-mantelpiece payoffs to repeated mentions of Falco's toothache and a scheme to sell animated mechanical statues. However, I boggled at the ease with which our man identifies the last two villains to be brought to book, since they're going under false names and he's never met them before. 13/11/01