Cloud Chamber 131
August 2002

My brain tends to stop working in hot weather, and when things cooled down it was quite a surprise to find that some of the usual reviews, columns and news snippets had been produced on autopilot. Biggest thrill since the last Acnestis: receiving, only 10 or 11 months late, my first finished copy of Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek. Whoopee!

Martin Rowson cartoons continue to find their way into Acnestis. I was particularly taken by the horrible death of Terry Pratchett in the 7th July instalment of 'The Abuses of Literacy', and with a little insider help (thanks, Chris P) I approached the great man about buying the original as a surprise for Terry. This all went well, with a presentation planned at the Discworld con – sshh! not a word to Terry before then! – and I also emerged with an anecdote about the unspeakable horrors of the cartoonist life:

'I have a regular gig at the moment drawing the celebrity patrons at The Gay Hussar Hungarian Restaurant in Soho, in echange for a free meal. This struck me as a good bohemian arty idea at the time, but at what a cost! Yesterday I had to draw Michael bloody Heseltine, who told me that he had original cartoons from his Oxford days onwards, which line his enormous staircase. "I have a very big house" he smirked. He then moaned at some length about how in the good old days cartoonists would part with artwork for free or, at worst, a bottle of whisky. I replied that I had a sliding scale, in which I charge more money than I can think of to some rich shit like Charles Saatchi, but tend to give 'em away to deserving and cash strapped good causes. "I hope I qualify in the second group," he leered, lightly sweating gold ingots. I suggested an audit, and he made his excuses and left. What a cunt. What a rotten job....' (MR, 11 July)

Peter Hamilton's books continue to be sent out for review as signed, numbered, 'limited edition' proofs. As sf reviewer for HugeSouthAmericanRiver, I received number 476 of 841 copies of Misspent Youth. Meanwhile, as plain David Langford, my priority ranking was number 39. Such flattery.

Random Reading

M. John Harrison, Light (2002), in which the author plunges back into the space-operatic heartland from which his work has kept its distance since The Centauri Device blew genre conventions to shreds back in 1975. Plot strands set in 2400 are full of lyrically Banksian SF exuberance, weird technologies, strange and deadly cosmological features, vicious space-battles whose duration is measured in nanoseconds, and much headlong pursuit. Meanwhile in 1999, we meet Harrison's more familiar flair for grisly metaphysics, bleak urban paranoia, and grubby, sinister, perhaps futile rituals of propitiation. Like the female cyborg space-pilot of 2400, the physicist of 1999 (to be remembered centuries hence as co-father of the interstellar drive) is constantly fleeing and kills people for no very good reason. He obscurely hopes to appease the thing that follows, called the Shrander, part of whose aspect is the Welsh folklore horror already glimpsed in Harrison's Viriconium: the Mari Llywd or Grey Mare, a horse's beribboned skull. Somehow this resonates with the increasing quantum weirdness of our man's neglected researches. The Shrander also appears in other more or less anagrammatic guises in 2400, steering the plot to an oddly satisfying finale that brings various characters to different kinds of death, redemption and transcendence. A very tasty read, with a nice example of what John Clute calls a Slingshot Ending.

Mailing 114, July 2002

Me. Just to continue the monitoring of Lemony Snicket, I note that the Independent on Sunday hardback bestseller list for 4 August 2002 featured all six volumes of 'A Series of Unfortunate Events' so far published here, with The Ersatz Elevator (over whose presentation of thermodynamics I prefer to draw a veil) at #1. A further Top 10 slot was occupied by Eoin Colfer's second Artemis Fowl children's fantasy, leaving just three spaces for the entirety of current adult fiction and nonfiction. Are these the End Times? A few weeks earlier there'd been a discontinuity that made me ponder the validity of these lists: the Snicket books all vanished simultaneously, to reappear on the following Sunday as 'new' entries. On closer inspection, the figures for the aberrant week had been drawn not from Waterstone's nationwide as usual, but from sales at some literary festival where (I infer) childrens' books were poorly represented. It seems vaguely wrong to present an entirely different sampling as 'the' bestseller list for the week. • Chris H. Ha! It took you a mere five years to get around to reading Joan Vinge's The Summer Queen? Let me tell you, young whippersnapper, that my superior powers of procrastination have caused me not to get around to The Snow Queen, for all that I bought it on my TAFF trip in 1980. (Oh dear.) • Jae. Your calligraphy always impresses. The casual-seeming 'In three days I learned four different eighth- to tenth-century hands ...' made my eyes pop! • KVB. The Wilde quip about Browning and Meredith reminded me irresistibly of Beachcomber's immortal one-liner: 'Wagner is the Puccini of music.' • Ian. I have no memory whatever of posing in mirrorshades for your photo anthology. Perhaps you weren't the only one who was 'very drunk at the time.' • Fortean Times wanted a piece on Minority Report, and (not being a movie-goer) I was glad to pass the buck to A.M. Butler of this parish. The result in issue 161, August 2002, had sidebar comments on PKD from 'some of Britain's best sci-fi and fantasy writers', with a healthy measure of dissent: Brian Aldiss, Alan Moore, Steve Baxter, Ramsey Campbell and I expressed keenness, Terry Pratchett was diffident, Chris Priest tactfully disapproving, and Ken MacLeod said of Dick's books: 'It's difficult to overstate how much I loathe and despise them. Their – literally pathological – irrationality is a complete betrayal of the spirit of SF.'

My (brief, as requested) contribution to the FT 161 Dick forum: "The best of Philip K. Dick's fiction leaves you dazed and disoriented, ready to believe that consensus reality is a badly constructed stage-set and that you could at any moment blunder through the scenery into weirdness beyond. One of the first Dick stories I read, 'The Electric Ant' (1968), shows this quality to perfection as the protagonist discovers not merely that he's a humanoid robot but that his entire perception of the world – sight, hearing, all the senses – is a preprogrammed recording on an internal tape. Including his discussions of this existential problem with other characters. Think about that, but not too hard."

Maureen. Canonical bubble and squeak, here, is mashed potato fried up with brussels sprouts which must be leftovers from Christmas dinner. Canonical B&S may be cooked only on Boxing Day. • I'm mildly intrigued by the LiveJournal stuff, but not so much as actually to try it! It's all a wicked temptation, another Inner Ring (see C.S. Lewis's essay) whose fatal entry fee will be the last remaining dregs and driblets of one's spare time. Hence sympathy with Dop's rejection of this evil thing. • Cherith. Michael Swanwick's essay in Meditations on Middle-Earth (ed. Karen Haber) expands movingly on the sadness and loss you mention in Tolkien's saga. 'This is a book sad with wisdom.' • Steve. I promise that Stars and Stripes Triumphant is as awful and politically naive as I made it sound. I've expanded my comments for a New York Review of SF mini-review feature, adding (with malice aforethought) the tagline: 'I live in fear of Stars and Stripes in the Holy Land.' [Finished 7-8-02]