Cloud Chamber 129
June 2002

Like others of this parish [i.e. members of Acnestis], I've been sweating over essays for Richard Bleiler's latest reference volume: Stableford (as mentioned in April), Holdstock (am much impressed by the new 'Merlin Codex' series, in which his Celtic creativity at last escapes from Ryhope Wood), McCaffrey (imagine an uncontrollable fit of coughing here) and Pratchett (needing almost no new research reading beyond the 1992 revision of The Carpet People). Unlike Paul K and Maureen, I'm somehow disinclined to publish my efforts here. Sorry!

What else? Not all that much beyond the usual reviews and columns. The famous Discworld quizbook The Wyrdest Link was published on 25 April, the same day as Gollancz's spring party, and I went along full of naive hope that there might be copies, or promotional material, or at least some mention of this publisher's newest titles. Silly me: Malcolm Edwards was far more interested in bragging about having poached Robert Rankin from Doubleday. Other good news included David Hartwell's wish to reprint 'Different Kinds of Darkness' yet again, in some vast anthology provisionally titled The Hard SF Renaissance; a couple of 2002 Hugo nominations; and a lot of free OUP reference books as a by-product of efforts to unwind by doing crosswords, leading to first prize in the Independent on Sunday cryptic puzzle for 14 April and a runner-up prize in the same paper's 12 May competition. Coo er gosh. Meanwhile in Chicago, there was some tension as the new baby expected by my brother Jon and sister-in-law Helen on 4 May had still failed to appear on the 14th when my mother flew in to revel in triumphalist grannyhood. That very night, however ... see Ansible 179. Just call me Uncle Dave.

24 May: at last, I've received the proofs of Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (originally scheduled for September 2001). 358 pages! First, a surge of relief that typesetter Paul Brazier had made a decent job of the difficult one, a multiple-choice story which is a 4x9 rectangular grid of paragraphs across a double-page spread. Then a sinking feeling as I saw that all the italicization had vanished. Then reassuring e-mail from our publisher Ben Jeapes, explaining that this is just a hiccup in the DTP software and that italics can be restored throughout by mysterious program tweaking. Phew....

Ansible 179 Update. John Clute saw an early copy and felt that our 'Usually Reliable Source' had misheard or misunderstood Adam Roberts (see item headed by his name), whose actual point seemed closer to John's own: 'either before or after Roberts, I said almost exactly the same thing, except abstractly. Responding to the challenged-every-which-way moderator's statement that our initial response to 11 September was a profoundly shocked inability to comprehend that something like this was happening, I said that our initial response was not one of incomprehension but of shamed recognition. Sort of thing....' So I deleted that para from later editions (overseas and digital) and substituted the following, which had somehow been lost in the general editorial frenzy:

Richard Cowper (John Murry) might have been amused that there was standing room only at his funeral on 7 May. Rob Holdstock and David Wingrove delivered tributes; Chris Priest read a moving passage from John's autobiography. Later we recalled his favourite anecdote, of the alarming lady who welcomed him to the first UK Milford with a kiss and a cry of what sounded like, 'You have the eyes of a prune!' It was Anne McCaffrey. Who thought he looked like one of her characters....

[See comment to Chris P in Mailing 112, below.]

Rob Holdstock is stoking the fires of inspiration once again: '... by God, I Needs To Write. I have one image, so far: of the slopes of the huge hill fort of Taurovinda beginning to bleed, not blood, but blood-red bulls! The blood-lava of the Oldest Animals, the Dreamtime awakening in the bowels of Albion. / And giant chickens; there must, for sure, have been Giant Chickens in the Dreamtime.' Er, yes, Rob.

8 June: gosh, little more than six weeks after publication, here are the 10 author copies of The Wyrdest Link. At last I have a spare to give my mother. Meanwhile, Ben Jeapes very much hopes to have finished copies of Maps by the end of this month, but let's not count the cartography before it hatches.

Mailing 111, April 2002

Chris A. Re Moorcock on Tolkien, I confess that I decided to spare Ansible readers Mike's prolonged commentary on the radio dramatization, which he seemed to be following with a kind of mesmerized compulsion. 'And who's this bloke Legless who's just turned up on the wireless. It's no good. I tried to like 2001 three times and have consistently failed to wade through LOTR. I gave up on the Golden Age of Science Fiction after trying to read through a run of Astoundings, but it wasn't quite as painful as this. Even this radio version has such dreadful writing I can't take it. Don't say I'm not trying to see the appeal. But it continues to defeat me. [...] Oh, my god, if they wouldn't keep breaking into that awful doggerel. [...] "It sounded like a Black Rider but one up in the air." I quote directly. Thog seems to be turning a blind eye to all this. Paid off, no doubt, by powerful Christian interests. Taking brown envelopes from the Oxford Movement are we? Everyone has their price, I guess.' And so on. • Chris P. The style of argument you report from that UFO book Blue Fires reminds me of reviewing something called Mysticism and the New Physics long ago. As I wrote, 'Later it's proved that Tantric philosophy includes full knowledge of black holes: there is a Tantric concept called bindu, a mathematical point, which amazingly is just the same shape as the singularity point within a black hole!' When Joseph Nicholas (I think it was) typed this up for Vector, he improved it by dropping all the words between 'mathematical' and the second instance of 'point'. • Tanya. Much sympathy re the reported visual trouble. I hope you're consulting the doctor and/or optician about this. A situation where a palmtop is less visually stressful to read than a conventional paper book seems very weird and alarming to me. • Penny. I have a comic book version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner too, but with art by some chap called Doré rather than Hunt Emerson. • The Samuel Richardson namecheck in Northanger Abbey is fondly remembered here. 'Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.' To which someone accurately replies, 'It is not like Udolpho at all ...' • Chris O'S. Welcome!

Mailing 112, May 2002

Chris P. That Richard Cowper story about being seized by Anne McCaffrey and informed 'You have the eyes of a prune!' brought it all back – not that I was at the first UK Milford, or the first several, but he told it with enormous relish at later workshops too. As I remembered when I passed the story to Yvonne Rousseau recently, the 'explanation' had to do with McCaffrey's visualization of one of her own characters whose name presumably sounded – at least to a terrified author in extremis – a bit like 'a prune'. Knowing that I'd been swotting up the lady's work for one of those reference-book essays, Yvonne eagerly asked: 'During your fortunately ended researches, did you in fact discover a McCaffrey character whose name was an a-prune homonym?' Well, while deciding that I couldn't really face re-reading Decision at Doona, even for ready money, I did note that the cast list's first alien character is called Hrruna. Could that have been it? Did our man have the eyes of a slinky felinoid? Oddly enough, the Independent obituary by John Clute includes the lines 'In person, Richard Cowper seemed both delicate and wiry; he was physically beautiful. In conversation he was supple, self-deprecating, and feline.' So perhaps it was Decision at Proona after all. • Steve J. The folk song you 'can't immediately place' is in the 1969 Oxford Book of Ballads as 'The Famous Flower of Serving-men; or, The Lady turn'd Serving-man', dated as 'Text, seventeenth-century broadside, Bodleian Library, Wood E. 25.' It's been picked up by fantasy writers, too: its composition drives a subplot in Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer (1990), and the story is retold in Delia Sherman's Through a Brazen Mirror (1989). I confess I'd never heard of the ballad until these references cropped up in Encyclopedia of Fantasy submissions. The Oxford anthology (recently found in Reading's Oxfam bookshop, a snip at £2.89) features several more folk verses pillaged in fantasy, including of course 'Thomas the Rhymer' and 'Tam Lin'. • Chris H. Your closing remark on The Light of Other Days reminds me that I wrote a whole column in SFX 68 about the recent tendency for hard sf authors to bring dead characters back from the grave, citing Baxter and Baxter/Clarke as egregious examples. • In the wake of the mini-denunciation summarized in Ansible 178, H*rlan Ell*son posted a far more extensive rant on his public website bulletin board; I'd contemplated running this through Acnestis for your entertainment, but it's so distasteful and incoherent that pity stayed my hand. One digression, an account of his July 1976 visit to the One Tun fan meeting in London, describes how he issued a loud, incredibly heroic public challenge to a hated foe (no, not me) who refused to step forth from the concealment of the crowd and take his deserved beating like a man. Curiously enough, not a single Brit who was there that night (including myself) has the faintest recollection of this. Even Mike Moorcock, an Ellison buddy, could only say: 'Any report Harlan makes is bound to be weird – I've been with him in places where what he says happened simply didn't. I still like the silly little bugger.' • Benedict. Yes, I've written one Sherlock Holmes pastiche, 'The Repulsive Story of the Red Leech' – actually authorized by the Doyle estate, along with all the other new material in Mike Ashley's anthology The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories (1997). This and eleven other Langford shorts should shortly be joining the thirteen already available as little e-books from • Andy S. Thank you for the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, which I confidently expect will turn up any day as the guest publication in the 'headlines with missing words' round of Have I Got News For You. Thanks even more for not going into the article about cat leprosy. Particularly the illustrations. • Jae. I'd wondered what you and Ulrika thought of the British nostalgia chorus about Adam Adamant. I even recall it being spoofed on the BBC kids' variety show Crackerjack, under the utterly memorable title Cedric Sediment. • Mr Moorcock does still churn out the occasional Elric fantasy (more cock from Moorcock, as Martin Amis used to put it), e.g. The Dreamthief's Daughter in 2001. From another of his many e-mails, just a few weeks ago: 'Pleased to report that Mother London, which [...] celebrates ordinary Londoners, is outselling all my fantasy books, including the latest Elric. Looks like I'll have to start writing literary novels in order to support my habit for writing fantasy and sf.'

Random Reading

Robert Silverberg, The Longest Way Home (2002), a typical late Silverberg product, smoothly written with a reliable flow of exotic travelogue, but not actually about very much. A 15-year-old scion of the aristocracy is stranded 10,000 miles from home on a huge planet – not, for a change, Majipoor – after peasants who have been placid for centuries suddenly rise up and slaughter the entire continent's upper classes. Our young hero still gets a lot of help (one loyal peasant, enigmatic alien, more enigmatic aliens, independent peasant community, etc) and never seems in serious danger, but this proves to be a novel of Growing Up. Late in the book the lad must grapple with mind-shattering new political concepts such as the notion that nobles like himself may not have a divine right to rule! That his family's eldest-son-inherits principle (no women need apply) may not guarantee the best possible leadership! Red-hot revolutionary stuff, you bet. If it weren't for one brief interlude of tasteful sex I'd suspect RS had meant this as a juvenile.

Harry Harrison, Stars and Stripes Triumphant (2002), third in trilogy of alternate-1860s transatlantic war thrillers, transparently slanted for maximal US wish-fulfilment. In book two, I remember, America solved the Irish Question forever by invading, kicking out the Brits, and ordering the country to become united, which it instantly did. Just like that! In book three, since the bloated and corrupt British Empire hasn't yet been humbled enough, the USA continues to develop a military-industrial base now about 70 years ahead of its time (1865) and invades England with brand-new tactics. As General Sherman resonantly puts it: '... If this new kind of army attacks in force it can destroy all who stand before it. The faster the attack, the quicker the end of the conflict. That is why I call it lightning war.' Somewhere in the distance, I imagine a gnashing of Kincaidian teeth. After a near-bloodless (for the USA) mowing down of innumerable British troops by tanks armed with Gatling guns, the English Question is solved as readily as the Irish one – by granting independence to Scotland, abolishing the monarchy, separating church and state, and introducing US-style constitutional democracy, after which everything is bound to be OK. The politics of terrible simplicity.

Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events 5: The Austere Academy (2000, but not UK until 2002). The mixture as before, with enough morbid, bizarre and outrageous variations to keep me interested. Tasteful dedication: 'For Beatrice – You will always be in my heart, / in my mind, / and in your grave.' Volume 1 recently crept on to the Indy on Sunday hardback bestseller list, and has since been joined by this one.

Lillian de la Torre, Dr. Sam: Johnson, Detector (1946), a rather jolly collection of Boswellian pastiches in which Dr Johnson investigates crime. '"If Lord Monboddo," continued my learned friend severely, "avers that the ourang-outang is cousin-german of man, he must expect the mob to believe that he peoples his estate with apes. If he speculates upon chymistry, he must put up with a rumour that he has found the philosopher's stone and changes base metal to gold."' This from the baffling and very silly case 'The Monboddo Ape Boy'.

Bruce Rux, Hollywood vs the Aliens: The Motion Picture Industry's Participation in UFO Disinformation (1997). All right, I've only read the Postscript catalogue blurb, but I love this strategy for dealing with the embarrassing point that so much 'real' UFO imagery is prefigured in sf.

After a review of ancient technologies and Roswell, Rux examines American and British TV, cinema and literature, 1947-97. He contends that the film industry particularly has worked with governments to control popular knowledge of UFOs and related phenomena, in line with the prevailing politics. Hundreds of examples, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day, Star Trek to The X Files, are shown to have contained accurate information before public disclosure, their creators to have had insider links.

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), the seven already published stories by this terrifyingly talented writer, plus one new one. Remarkable stuff. I agree with Paul's and others' praise of 'Seventy-Two Letters', with its weird refraction of genetic engineering in a alternate Victorian world without genes, where life functions on alchemical (and animistic, and cabalistic) principles.

Harold L. Klawans, Chekhov's Lie (1997), a sort of epistolary novel consisting of letters from a thinly disguised Klawans to a friend, mixing his usual anecdotes from the working life of a neurologist (yes, Oliver Sacks territory, and a meeting with Sacks himself is described) with musings on Being A Writer. He naturally has to change all the names when talking about patients, but further roman à clef elements get a bit tiresome here, as when Klawans's own book Toscanini's Fumble is tweely referred to throughout as Toscanini's Miscue. Was he really sued by an obscure baseball player whose name he borrowed for a minor character? Did a close friend really end up in a pitiable condition after trying a dodgy Mexico City surgeon's miracle cure for Parkinson's disease? Some of this is compelling, like the continuing theme of Parkinson's and its dreadful intractability, but the anecdotal material seems to have lost its former anchor in factual reportage without being well enough organized to work as fiction. A curate's egg.

Kevin J. Anderson, Hidden Empire (2002), a huge great fat space opera which is merely book 1 in 'The Saga of Seven Suns'. Thog liked a few sentences of this –

When a small-statured server compy [sic] came by bearing a tray filled with expensive champagne, the powerful Chairman of the Terran Hanseatic League snagged two extruded-polymer glasses and walked over to her, proud and beaming.

– but I found the level of idiot-plotting extraordinarily tiresome. Skip to the next bullet if you don't want to read spoilers.... On page 23, for no very good reason, hubristic humanity uses an alien device known as the Klikiss Torch to detonate a gas-giant planet and turn it into a small sun. Very soon afterwards, from this same gas-giant planet, 'several incredibly fast spherical objects streaked out like shotgun pellets [...] and soared off into open space.' The seasoned sf reader thinks: 'Oops.' Just to make the point clear, someone remarks to the chief hubristic scientist, 'They looked like ships to me, artificial constructions.' And is answered: 'That would be highly unlikely. After all, what sort of life form could possibly survive within the high-pressure depths of a gas-giant planet?' Plonk. End of chapter. On p192, spherical alien ships emerge from the high-pressure depths of a gas-giant planet to destroy a human installation. This happens again and again, always in the vicinity of a gas-giant planet. On p282, someone idly wonders, 'Had their test of the Klikiss Torch somehow provoked this attack? What life form could possibly exist within the high-pressure bowels of an enormous gas planet?' However, this thought continues not to occur to Earth's top politicians and generals, who remain utterly baffled by these seemingly unprovoked attacks from within gas-giant planets. Even on p509: 'What could the aliens want?' And the most savvy politician is still saying as late as p556, 'no one knows why these aliens launched their aggression. [...] Why should this enemy choose to strike now, without warning?' Fortunately, putting readers at last out of their long misery, a knowledgeable alien of another race now proceeds to tell him. Less fortunately, the figurehead King of the Hanseatic League still hasn't been briefed about this when a tardy emissary of the gas-giant folk finally turns up at court. So on p564 he says in his kingly way: 'Then why do you attack us? [...] Thousands of innocent people have already died because of your aggression.' He is duly told the astonishing, unbelievable fact that gas-giant planets (including of course the one capriciously set ablaze on p23) are inhabited. Presumably the idea is that readers – tracing the words with a laborious finger, slowly moving their lips all the while – might not properly have taken in this out-of-the-blue revelation from eight pages earlier, and need to be informed again just in case. Enough!

Don Marquis, archyology: the long lost tales of archy and mehitabel (1996), 41 quirky poemlets ostensibly by Marquis's creation Archy the Cockroach, a poet reincarnated in insect form for writing too much free verse and able to use a typewriter only by headlong dives at the keys (but not Shift). There were three collections of the comic and sometimes charming results, archy and mehitabel (1927), archy's life of mehitabel (1933) and archy does his part (1935); this is an enjoyable round-up of uncollected material literally found in a trunk, long, long after the author's death in 1937.

Kenneth Morris, Book of the Three Dragons (1930), read with a view to concocting a 'Curiosities' column for F&SF. It's every bit as good as John Clute says. Other pillagers of the Mabinogion have reworked or echoed it in a modern idiom, e.g. Lloyd Alexander with his Prydain series, the great Alan Garner with The Owl Service and the dread Evangeline Walton with The Island of the Mighty and other prolix retellings; but Morris builds on and embellishes the Mabinogion's tantalizingly unpolished fragments as a Celtic storyteller might have. Thus a bit in the Third Branch about the hero Manawyddan making a living by various crafts becomes a lengthy triad of apprenticeships in esoteric arts like Subtle Swordmaking:

'Further, I will tell you the peculiarities of this art. A sword made according to it will take the four sharpenings at pleasure; without touch of the grindstone it will wound the wind and cause blood to flow. It will be tougher than whatever is toughest, and yet more supple than the leathern thong. And it will have another peculiarity: the bare blade of it will be better than moonlight, of a night when no moon may be shining.'

(Did Tolkien know that passage?) Swords like this are also useful, should the occasion arise, for 'shaving the beard from the gnat in mid air.' All the characters seem a little tipsy with their own splendidly Celtic magniloquence....

'Jude Fisher', Sorcery Rising (2002); from the sublime to, er, the pseudonymous. All right, I haven't actually read it, but dipped into the Prologue and was bemused by Thog's Lost Innocence Moment as a subtly named wizard's apprentice sees a magical vision of his very first naked woman:

Virelai, about to question the mage as to the identity of the miracle, was distracted by the sense of something unfamiliar stirring in his breeches. He reached down to investigate and was horrified to find that a previously innocent part of his anatomy had become hard and misshapen. Alarmed, he pushed it away between his legs, but the image of the woman returned again and again, so that no matter what he did the offending item sprang back up, throbbing and insistent.

It is stated, twice, that this chap has been indentured to the mage and busy learning magic for 29 years. Clearly a late developer. Turning to the end, I found an epilogue foreshadowing sequels in Present-Tense Portentous mode: 'Fate has just laid its freezing hand around that ancient organ he once called his heart, and squeezed it tenderly ...' Let's not ask what he (a different he) calls his withered organ nowadays.

Alan Moore, Promethea Book 2 (2001, with J.H. Williams II & Mick Gray) and Top 10 Book 2 (2002, with Gene Ha & Zander Cannon): bloody hell. Dangerously addictive stuff. Suffice it to say these are the only current graphic novel compilations that penny-pinching Langford is prepared to buy in hardback.

• Time to wrap up this issue.[12-6-02]

On-Line Supplement: Virtual Toes

Following Charles Platt's heartfelt plea in response to Ansible ...

One minor gripe: I really don't want to read any more news items about Moorcock's toes. I think you should drop this topic unless he loses at least a whole foot.

... I decided that Ansible readers should indeed be spared further news of the Moorcockian toes. However, Diana Wynne Jones also commented, and it seems a pity not to publish her inspirational e-mail somewhere:

I am probably one of thousands to be intrigued by the Matter of Moorcock's Toes. Why wouldn't they let him keep them? They let me keep my appendix – I had it in a jar for years. So I see he is offering e-extremities instead. I feel these Virtual Reliques should be suitably enshrined in a virtual Runic Reliquary (a sort on mini-version of the pagoda thingy in Kew Gardens, tastefully done in e-gold and digital rubies), which could then make Grail-like appearances at selected BSFA meetings, to the sound of unearthly music or a mystic hush – or maybe both, in a suitably Thogworthy manner. Has MM considered this?

Meanwhile Sue Thomas has what ought to be the last word:

I'm sorry, I tried to resist sending this, but if Mike Moorcock wasn't allowed to keep any souvenirs from his op, then those embalmed, autographed, auctioned toes you mention must be mere leg-ends.

Naturally I suggested to Mike Moorcock that he might want this line for his autobiography, and he wrote:

Walt Willis lives!

Shame to waste it. I am NEVER going to write an autobiography. Not so much as a fucking memoir. When I did an interview with Iain Sinclair for his Crash book my read on the past was so at odds with Ballard's, Ballard nearly went nova. I decided that the past wasn't worth arguing over, since we'd spent so much time arguing over the future. I prefer to keep my old friendships. And old enemies, too.


Sorry to hear Charles Platt is bored with my toe news. I can see why he's so irritated. I shouldn't have been so thoughtless when allowing my little toe to be disposed of. It could have been of considerable help to him, there being more talent in it than in the sum of his own parts. As someone so boring that a dying Timothy Leary desperately ordered him from the room before his head could be cryogenically preserved, his plan to be decapitated and dropped in a deep freeze inspired the passing notion of a kind of anti-Baconian head-on-a-platter, unwise and non-revelatory, which sits there aching on about computer programmes and different kinds of rope knots until it is finally kicked out of a window and into the moat. Maybe this isn't the right place to go into his sexual predilections but someone once close to me said he was the most boring sadist she had ever subjected herself to ...

Our legal advisers think this correspondence had better stop now. [19-6-02]