Cloud Chamber 130
July 2002

Nature notes from Harlech, late June.... One windy day at the beach displayed dune evolution in action, very nearly in fast-forward, as low mounds became visibly etched and striated, sand hissing away in airborne streams towards unpredictable destinations, chiefly the inner surfaces of my glasses and socks. At some time since last December the local authorities had improved the path to the beach with a helpful walkway of linked wooden sections, which had itself become a nucleus for dune formation and was now partly overlaid by a hill of fine clogging sand which (I ungratefully calculated) was somewhat higher and harder to negotiate than in the pre-path days. Along the beach road, scores of feet of hawthorn hedge were devastated by what looked like a low-budget special effect from Dr Who, all reduced to bare twigs swathed in cobweb: clusters of small wriggly black caterpillars seemed to be the explanation. Elsewhere, among the gorse and nettles of the Uncultivated Bits, we found several sprawling bushes of wild purple roses, maybe exactly what Gene Wolfe had in mind as growing in the necropolis of The Shadow of the Torturer; on closer inspection their flowers were full of chafer beetles mating and generally having a good time among the stamens. O rose thou art sick, etc, but in fact the flowers seemed to be coping reasonably well with this indignity. Elsewhere again, the outside walls and sometimes windows of our own flat seemed perpetually infested with teensy 'red spider' mites performing complex, random walks to no evident purpose. It's a crowded world.

Back at home, we shifted a heap of brushwood and burnt it elsewhere in the garden, which was just as well since right at the bottom we found an affronted-looking toad. Which hopped away and vanished into the ivy-covered log-pile....

The final stage of my essay work for Richard Bleiler's Supernatural Fiction Writers was a tale of two copyeditors. Both were properly scrupulous about house style and US spelling, but the one who did my McCaffrey and Pratchett entries had a light touch, while the Holdstock and Stableford pieces had a run-in with the copyeditor from hell (a figure of dread to many contributors, one of whom wrote a splendidly impassioned rant which Richard copied to fellow-victims). This person clearly believed that he or she could have written much better essays, and wrestled hard with the despised Langford style, introducing factual errors during the process of reshaping my inadequate sentences in accordance with some Platonic ideal of boring writing. I forget how many times I had to write STET. This fanatical attention to detail slipped at one point where, feeling it necessary to mention the setting of Mythago Wood (perhaps so that future researchers could visit the place), our copyeditor added a badly placed sentence stating that Ryhope Wood was in 'Gloustershire'. The author says it's in Herefordshire, but what does he know? Another correction to the Holdstock entry was 'lea line' for 'ley line', apparently because Webster's lists 'ley' as an obsolete form of 'lea'. My web search to confirm that 'ley line' is used internationally by the woo-woo community also revealed to my delight that Lea Line is (only) a breed of potbellied pig. Informed of this exciting new resonance of his Celtic boar imagery, the author said, 'Oh, God ...'

Random Reading

Walter Jon Williams, The Praxis (2002, volume 1 of 'Dread Empire's Fall'), in which all those Vingean and Broderickian future complexities are adroitly swept under the carpet by the immemorial rules or Praxis imposed throughout the universe by the alien Dread Empire. Fundamental axiom: 'All that is important is known.' So with nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, bioengineering, immortality research, mind-machine uploading and other sf complications all forbidden on pain of planetary destruction by good old-fashioned antimatter bombs, the far future remains safely confined to the traditional template of space opera. Fun when the action gets going, but determinedly lightweight.

Alastair Reynolds, Redemption Ark (2002), a direct sequel to Revelation Space in the same blockbuster hard-sf mould – enjoyed a lot despite what my HugeSouthAmericanRiver review discreetly calls 'glitches in story logic'. The plot ties itself in almost embarrassing knots regarding further pursuit of the former book's cache of 'hell-class weapons', here a McGuffin coveted by various parties including the now far more technologically advanced Conjoiners who built them centuries earlier. Q: Why can't they just build some more? A: Er um this dangerous knowledge was deliberately deleted once the weapons had been created as a result of a message from the future warning that they would be needed for use against the resistless Inhibitors who police the entire galaxy and stamp out spacegoing intelligence wherever it is found. Q: So to deal with this vast galactic threat, just 40 weapons were built, each unique and some apparently good for one-off use only, with no backups or possibility of replacement? A: Look, it's all very complicated.... Good marks to Al Reynolds, though, for showing this ultimate kit of boys' toys as very much less than a deus ex machina solution to tangled issues. The editor at Gollancz should have queried the dialogue about a damaged spaceship on pp131-2, where the remark 'It's a lot worse than it looks, Xave. Trust me on that.' is answered on the next page with 'You're right; it's superficial. We'll get it fixed easily enough.' ('Eek,' said the author.)

Margery Allingham, The Beckoning Lady (1955), late Albert Campion thriller which I must have read (vivid memory of one character's nickname and physical oddity) when too young to follow the allusiveness and dotty comedy. Campion survives parenthood better than Wimsey (who rapidly, as it were, petered out), and his family blends unobtrusively into a cast list of village eccentrics, artists, unusual policemen, shady outsiders, and a splendidly awful rustic with a whiff of Cold Comfort Farm. Maybe there's a touch of auctorial wish-fulfilment when the first corpse proves to be a former income tax inspector, whose death is regarded as a tiresome footnote to the important business of running a particularly elaborate and bizarre midsummer party. Allingham was arguably a better writer than Sayers, just possibly because she never took herself too seriously.

Simon Brett, What Bloody Man is That? (1987), more holiday reading as actor-sleuth Charles Paris's bumbling investigation of a murdered player in Macbeth is as usual overshadowed by delicious cattiness about the profession. 'The director in question had seen The Tempest as a fantasy taking place inside Prospero's mind. There was nothing wrong with the idea itself; indeed many directors have moved towards that kind of interpretation. Nor was there anything inherently wrong with having a set in the shape of a hollowed-out cranium. Charles really only began to part company with the concept when he saw the costume designs, and realized that all the characters except for Prospero himself were to be dressed as brain-cells.'

Frank Muir, The Frank Muir Book (1976), a surprisingly erudite compilation of strange, splenetic and silly quotations embedded in droll commentary, all more or less in accordance with the subtitle 'An irreverent companion to social history'. I was suitably moved to learn that 17th-century cleric Thomas Fuller suggested his own epitaph should read 'Fuller's earth'; much other wryness appears.

Ellis Peters, A Rare Benedictine (1989), slim volume of three short Brother Cadfael mysteries, easy reading despite or more likely because of the lack of room for prolonged subplots in which the course of young love fails to run smooth, events bog down in fearful pieties, and Shrewsbury Abbey is invaded by further suspiciously slender, beardless and high-voiced novices.

Daniel Pinkwater, The Time Tourists (1990), more pleasantly offbeat silliness. Includes some Aesop-meets-Thurber animal fables, like the tale of a trickster moose who – suggesting a tediously familiar parable of trust and betrayal – wheedles an impressionable squirrel with promises to store all the squirrel's nuts safely in its (the moose's) pocket. At last the squirrel yields, whereupon: '"I just realized," said the moose, "I don't have a pocket. Let's forget the whole thing." / Moral: Animals are stupid.'

Gladys Mitchell, The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1930), high-spirited detective nonsense featuring a dismembered corpse whose missing head may or may not be the skull found by a bishop on a bathing expedition, a skull for which a coconut is mysteriously substituted by some unknown hand, while the baffled police discover that the promisingly bloodstained suitcase unearthed from a woodland grave contains only an annoyed-looking stuffed trout. Mitchell's regular detective, criminal psychologist Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, prances enigmatically about the scene emitting hideous cackles and striking terror into suspects' hearts with her shrivelled, mummified complexion, yellow clawlike hands, and awful dress sense. Casting Diana Rigg for this part was the first clue that the BBC TV series of Mitchell mysteries would have only a distant, fleeting resemblance to the originals: see Yvonne Rousseau on this topic in Cloud Chamber 114. I still remember the ghastly Cadfael TV adaptation where they wrote out the original murderer and had to pin the crime on some other unfortunate character.

W.S. Baring-Gould, Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street: The Life and Times of America's Largest Private Detective (1969), which I thought might be an amusing critical tome but consists of truly dismal fanboy stuff, a soggy pudding of 'facts' copied from the Stout novels, with a few dim speculations (character X is Wolfe's twin brother!!!) and nearly 60 pages of laborious synopses of every Wolfe story then published. Blurbs rather than synopses, since although he's writing for enthusiasts who know the canon by heart, Baring-Gould carefully avoids identifying whodunnit and so rules out any useful comment on plot or construction. I swear there's more actual critical thought in my own 2,800-word Stout review feature (Million, 1992) than in this whole fatuous book.

China Miéville, The Scar (2002), much enjoyed and admired but not covered here since I'm toiling at a longish piece about it for The New York Review of SF.

Mailing 113, June 2002

Me. A footnote to my mention of a Lemony Snicket book's appearance in the Independent on Sunday hardback bestseller list: since then, the first five titles have spent weeks in that list and we await the arrival of the sixth, The Ersatz Elevator (2001; only just published in Britain). • Maureen, responding to Steve J's April remarks on the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. I suppose it's true that 'literary' fantasies can be more critically interesting to write about than the 'heartland', and especially those parts of said heartland which consist of endless series in which less and and less that's new seems to happen – what certain horrid fans call Extruded Fantasy Product. Robert Jordan is the example usually cited. Yet Jordan gets a 900-word EoF entry, longer than half the 'favoured/literary' authors Steve lists (these include Alasdair Gray, who didn't get in at all), while David Gemmell's entry is close to the 1,000-word mark. There's an interesting mechanism at work in the EoF, which makes writers operating in the 'genre heartland' – in Fantasyland – seem relatively slighted in terms of entry length, since so many shared heartland motifs have their own entries. E.g. Jordan's entry has 32 outgoing cross-references, almost all to theme entries discussing common Fantasyland motifs. Arguably, the matters of the heartland inform the whole book rather than being reiterated in dozens of author entries. • AMB on Steam Engine Time: I was delighted to receive early copies of #2 and #3 from Paul and Maureen, but a little bemused when, months later, duplicates arrived from Bruce in Australia. Isn't saving postal costs one reason for an editorial team on two continents? (By the way, UK overseas rates were quietly increased in July, and also inland postage for packets of 400 grams and up.) • Steve J. Perhaps Chris P will be permitted to reveal the web URL for Simon's 'Spikedance' page? This purged me with pity and terror.... • Chris P. I feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of WWII books that I haven't read. Gerald Kersh's and Spike Milligan's memoirs, yes, and George MacDonald Fraser's fictionalized anecdotes, and fragments in many autobiographies, but almost no nonfiction about the war. In fiction, the WWII genre never really appealed, though I read about older wars in Sapper, Kipling and even Ian Hay. • Chris A. I don't know if it counts as a Red Cow in Literature, but one of A.P. Herbert's first series of Misleading Cases revolves around a pub called the Red Cow, with a quixotic lawsuit against the licensing magistrates for closing a second pub as 'redundant' and thus making the Red Cow overcrowded and insanitary with the influx of displaced pub-goers. When I first read this, more pubs seemed a good idea, but clearly I've become a boring old fart, since I'm a bit dismayed by the way banks, building societies, supermarkets and even the head post office in central Reading have been turned into vast horrible pubs with perpetual background music and pimply bar staff who appear to be rejects from a call centre. Yet, terrifyingly, these places are almost all overcrowded.... • Tanya. Your mention of Gwyneth's 'The Salt Box' reminds me that I had an aggrieved letter from the chap who complained to the police about this 'pornographic' story. He blustered somewhat, but it seemed to emerge from between the lines that his real annoyance was that the story was by no means sf. So, although he preferred not to cancel his Interzone subscription, he effectively tried to have the magazine closed down. There's logic. (I didn't think the story worked too well as a standalone, partly because the salt box of the title seemed so initially important yet ended up as a Chekhovian gun on the wall that never got fired.) • Penny. I think the British Milfords had relaxed a bit by the time this particular young punk author was invited in 1977: there was plenty of pressure to work, but a sense of informality very different from the rigours recalled by Chris P, perhaps partly because James Blish (who sadly died in 1975) and Anne McCaffrey were no longer present to loom terrifyingly. Silly rules like 'no taking MSS to read in private' had been dropped, and it felt more of a gathering of equals, although I was faintly puzzled that one or two of the established regulars seemed to have published little or nothing. (But, pace Chris, Judy Blish had published half a story before the first UK Milford, a collaboration with her husband in Again, Dangerous Visions.) • Everyone Else. Thanks as always. [10-7-02]