Cloud Chamber 133
October 2002

Well, September wasn't a lot of fun. My knee went all wonky, perhaps in sympathy with Paul Kincaid's, and I didn't get out much, until towards the end of the month my doctor decided to be invasive with a Very Big Needle: 'So that's what synovial fluid looks like!' This helped, but I'm still enfeebled by lack of exercise, not to mention bloated from forcing down three meals a day (rather than the usual one) because these industrial-strength anti-inflammatory pills will allegedly burn holes through my stomach unless buffered by food. Grump.

Julius Caesar's German Wildlife Masterclass. Discovered by Hazel in Caesar's The Battle for Gaul (A New Translation by Anne & Peter Wiseman, 1980) ...

'There is an ox shaped like a deer; projecting from the middle of its forehead between the ears is a single horn that is straighter and sticks up higher than those of the animals we know, and at the top spreads out like a man's hand or the branches of a tree. The male and female are alike, with horns of' the same shape and size.

'There are also creatures called elks. These resemble goats in their shape and dappled skins, but are slightly larger than goats and have only stumpy horns. Their legs have no joints or knuckles, and they do not lie down to rest: if they fall down by accident, they cannot get up or even raise themselves. When they want to sleep they use trees: they support themselves against these, and in this way, by leaning over just a little, they get some rest. When hunters have noticed their tracks and so discovered their usual retreats, they undermine the roots of all the trees in that area, or cut the trunks nearly through so that they only look as if they were still standing firm. When the creatures lean against them as usual, their weight is too much for the weakened trunks; the trees fall down and the elks with them.'

... It's as though Julius Caesar, whose interest in nature was generally confined to the availability of trees to be felled and converted into bridges or fortifications, suddenly found himself channelling Herodotus for a couple of paragraphs.

Ansible 183 Alarums. A million film fans have gleefully pointed out that the late Michael Elphick wasn't in Star Wars, though someone looking a bit like him was. Abject grovels to follow in our November issue. Then came outraged e-mail from Greg Egan about the 'malice or stupidity' of quoting him in that issue's Thog's Masterclass.... (Does the panel agree?)

Random Reading

Brian Stableford, The Cassandra Complex (2001), Dark Ararat (2002) and The Omega Expedition (2002). The final three volumes in the ambitious six-book 'emortality' sf series, chronologically the first, third and last respectively. Brian tends to deploy pulp/melodrama sf effects of violence, murder and kidnapping with almost sarcastic slickness as a frame for long and essentially static philosophical expositions. (See also The Angel of Pain, from another series altogether, in which virtually nothing happens on the physical level despite immense internal journeyings.) Cassandra revolves around the secret booby-trap in an early version of the 'emortality' life-extending process, Ararat grapples with a tricky alien biosphere whose secrets are linked to this biological issue, and Omega turns aside to examine the problems of coexistence with man-made artificial intelligences. Very readable but strangely exhausting. Omega has a substantial Stableford introduction which discusses the first five books as the author sees them – a useful cribsheet for reviewers.

Ursula Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind (both 2002), late additions to the Earthsea saga. The five stories in Tales all read well, and like Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (1990) they include some conscientious rewriting of Earthsea history to tackle all that terribly unfeminist 'weak/wicked as women's magic' prejudice in the original trilogy. The Other Wind goes further and rethinks Earthsea's chillingly bleak afterlife, with what seems rather unfortunate timing so soon after Philip Pullman's roughly similar harrowing of an imagined fantasy Hell in The Amber Spyglass.

Iain Banks, Dead Air (2002), consisting largely of ranting by a disc-jockey hero or antihero who's famously controversial, outspoken, etc. One list of his pet hates runs to eight lines and 28 items, from the Tories and New Labour to The War Against Drugs and The Cult of the Shareholder, and is avowedly incomplete: 'How could you leave out Thatcher?' One gets the impression that this awful chap is parroting all the favourite prejudices of Iain No Middle Initial Banks, in a deniable way – the author's heart may well be in all those outrageously over-the-top sentiments, but his tongue is safely in his cheek.There is a plot in there as well, but rather a silly one. Fun to read; desperately lightweight.

Calvin Trillin U.S. Journal (1971), first collection of this nifty journalist's New Yorker essays, mixing good stuff with some duller material.

Michael Innes, several early novels for comfort reading while confined to quarters. Although I pontificated in CC132 about all his best titles being in the first dozen (1936-46), the offbeat Christmas at Candleshoe (1953) is charming and fun, with a nice intersection of childhood fantasies and fantastical 'real-life' crime, plus effective atmospheric use of George Meredith's poem 'The Woods of Westermain' – 'Enter these enchanted woods / You who dare!' • I revisited some early Ellery Queen crime novels too, and almost wished I hadn't: The Roman Hat Mystery (1929), The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931), The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) and The American Gun Mystery (1933) haven't worn well. But they were great when I was, er, about fifteen.... Fast-forward to The Finishing Stroke (1958), which is lots more enjoyable: after going through a period of realistic psychological detection, the Queens produced this ironic self-pastiche as a historical crime novel (with a particularly silly and obsessive pattern of clues) set in the period of their debut, 1929-30. John Dickson Carr's long career led to a similar oddity: his first novel It Walks By Night (1930) is a 'contemporary' mystery dated April 1927, while the late and not terribly good Deadly Hall (1971) is an obtrusively researched historical evocation of the same month and year.

David E.H. Jones, The Further Inventions of Daedalus: A Compendium of Plausible Schemes (1999), lots of daft yet eerily convincing – and sometimes even workable – technological excesses from the fictitious labs of DREADCO (Daedalus Research Evaluation And Development Corporation), as now published in Nature. Mindblowing in the way hard sf tries but so often fails to be.

Mailing 116, September 2002

Me. I am glad to confirm that, although Stella Whatsit who sued McDonald's after spilling coffee on herself is of course real, all the cases in the Stella Awards supposedly named after her were fictitious. Phew. • KVB. I thought of you when I came across the crossword clue 'Island tree under which French soldier is buried'.... • Chris P. I was surprised to learn from Ansible 183 reader response that Simon and Schuster had placed an extract from The Separation on-line without telling you, and that – according to Kevin J. Maroney of The New York Review of SF – 'Amazon "sales figures" are based purely on hits, not on actual orders. If had a hardcover edition listed spuriously, it's almost certain that a search for "priest separation" would lead to the hardcover first, then to the tpb.'

Paul K. I didn't even need to kneel down for a cup of tea to bugger up my knee. Just woke up one morning and argh! • Discussion of the wickedness or otherwise of Richard III is a minefield of partisanship, with the fascinating but distinctly loaded argument of Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time (1951) merely the tip of the iceberg. As I remember it from Tey, one of the pet theories of the pro-Richard III faction is that The History of Richard III wasn't in fact by justice-loving Thomas More but was More's MS copy of an account by his mentor John Morton, of Morton's Fork infamy.... • I was sufficiently impressed by your efforts to grapple with Utopia that I reread the 1965 Penguin/Folio Society translation by Paul Turner ... and feel uncertain about my engagement with the wit of a man further off in time than Shakespeare. Apart from the joky names which Turner brings determinedly up to date (Nonsenso for Hythlodaeus, Nowater for the river Anydrus), the humour seems to lie in the tension between hearty endorsement of an ideal state and the depiction of Utopia as thoroughly dreary and regimented, albeit on a voluntary basis; but did More see it that way? What was the narrative tone of his original Latin? Hazel could tackle it, I suppose, but I can't! As you record in a footnote, there is another, older translation in print, in the Dedalus omnibus Ideal Commonwealths (1988, conflating without acknowledgement two 1880s volumes of Morley's Universal Library, so the two introductions by Henry Morley LL.D. are not precisely on the cutting edge of utopian scholarship). It's not clear from either the Dedalus book or the 1885 Ideal Commonwealths whether this is More's own translation or the 1551 Ralph Robinson translation which Turner identifies as what most people who think they've read the original have actually read. Either way, it's rather more turgid than Turner's, has huge featureless blocks of text owing to a convention of not starting new paragraphs for mere dialogue, and – I'm guessing – adheres more literally to the Latin. As you note, Turner's introduction of 'capitalist countries' and 'private property' is somewhat suspect. An early sentence of book I has More indicating that he does not intend to, 'according to the proverb, "Show the sun with a lanthorn."' Turner renders this as 'I have no wish to labour the obvious', without any indication that a forgotten proverb has been invoked. At this point I searched out the Project Gutenberg text on the net, which proves to be a slightly modernized version of that in Ideal Commonwealths (e.g. 'lanthorn' above becomes 'lantern') and is identified in Gutenberg's introduction as the 1684 translation by Gilbert Burnet, taken from a 1901 Cassell edition. The introduction is signed H.M.: hello, it's our old friend Henry Morley LL.D. again! Anyway, for convenience of electronic searching, this public domain version of Utopia is downloadable from ... • Meanwhile, what's this? A dispassionate and fair-minded review of a book about Harlan Ellison, which sticks carefully to the known facts? Sorry, Mr Kincaid, your name's on the death list now.

Maureen. My best guess about all those signed, numbered Peter Hamilton proofs is that the publishers are trying to build up the arrival of another set of (yawn) book proofs as a significant event, a mark of something special. One cynically adds that little extra effort is required from the publisher – it's the author who has to scribble away until his wrist aches. Rob Holdstock also complained about having to do this for review proofs of The Iron Grail (not numbered, though). • Cherith, Penny, Steve J. I am so glad, and grateful, for feedback on Maps! We're nervously waiting for the magazine reviews now. • William Chamberlain's writing program RACTER (short for Raconteur – it originated on a computer system with a 6-letter filename limit) produced a whole book of weird prose and verse snippets, published with extensive clip-art padding as The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed (1984). The output follows a chain of surreal free-association which – at least in small enough doses – lifts it a little above the sewing-machine rhythms created by simply plugging random words into one or two Sladekian sentence templates.

'Bill sings to Sarah. Sarah sings to Bill. Perhaps they will do other dangerous things together. They may eat lamb or stroke each other. They may chant of their difficulties and their happiness. They have love but they also have typewriters. That is interesting.'

Or this brief soliloquy which I strongly suspect was hand-picked by Chamberlain from a mass of less impressive output:

'More than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity. I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber. I need it for my dreams.'

It should be noted that certain foodstuffs, also including steak and flounder, crop up regularly in RACTER babblings. 'Lettuce sipped with seltzer.' • Ian. Yes, I got your e-mail about reversed Arabic script on the covers of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 'Arabesk' titles: many thanks, but it seemed too fussy a nitpick to take note of, so long after publication. As you can imagine, there are also times when Thog gets nervous, for example when someone sent the following submission: 'He came out into the hall and looked at the telephone which was lying like an amputated arm upon the table and fizzing slightly.' (Iris Murdoch, The Green Knight, 1993) What a deeply peculiar image – but the author was showing symptoms of Alzheimer's in 1994 and possibly earlier, so even Thog hesitated to take advantage. • Steve S. Welcome aboard! • Gary D. That swingeing assault on Minority Report gave me a certain sense of relief or Schadenfreude or feeling of being let off the duty to see the film – highly irrational, because on past performance I'm extremely unlikely to drag myself along to the cinema anyway. Is it true that someone put out a movie adaptation of Tolkien last year? • AMB. It sounds as though the horrors of convention organization are unaltered by the mere fact of its being an academic conference set in a utopian venue. • I've been short of book-buying accidents despite being stuck at home for a month in hideous proximity to the computer and thus to Amazon and Bookfinder – am quite amazed at my own restraint, really. However, I did track down Kenneth Morris's other epic Welsh fantasy, The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (a mere 1978 reprint edition rather than the 1914 first, so John Clute will sneer at me again). Report to follow some day, no doubt. • Dop. Congratulations on that first solo flight, duly commemorated in Ansible. Your fannish fame is assured for another fourteen minutes, fifty-nine seconds ... fifty-eight ... fifty-seven ... • Jae. How alarming that your former fantasy reading/discussion group didn't allow you 'to make knowing references to Narnia, or to Alice, without being stared at blankly or put down as a snob.' One can understand that kind of reaction if one made dizzy leaps into the empyrean of literary theory, or burbled excitedly about fantasy aspects of some author regarded as terrifyingly, inaccessibly 'mainstream', or suddenly shouted 'Clute!' in a crowded theatre, but Lewis and Carroll are surely part of our universal common ground as fantasy readers? • Whitley Strieber seems more bonkers than ever, and should stop eating cheese at bedtime. See Ansible 183, excerpting a very much longer outbreak of strieberism visible on-line at [9 Oct]