Cloud Chamber 136
January 2003

That was 2002, that was. It ended with upheavals in the Ansible mailing list (see opening section of number 186); with hopes of a lucrative book deal that kept receding as the publisher promised a supreme effort to sign the contract in good time for Christmas and still hasn't managed it; with further unexpected crossword puzzle prizes bringing the year's total wins to eight (we are awash with reference books as a result); with much gnashing of teeth concerning the two publishers who still owe me significant sums from 2001, let alone 2002; and with determined efforts to learn how to produce good-quality Acrobat PDF document files. I felt a bit despairing on sight of the Cosmos Books PDF 'proof' of my new Big Critical Tome, which arrived on 31 December and was as usual riddled with systematic errors after conversions from my word processor to Rich Text Format to the Cosmos typesetting software and onward. Sudden realization: if I produce my own PDF, I can fix all the problems here and not feel guilty about sending an immense errata list to the desperately overworked chap at Cosmos (who is greatly taken with the idea of letting me do it all).... Speaking of overwork, I still expect to be ever so busy until early July, with slim or nonexistent Cloud Chambers.

Commonplace Book. The rock star Moby, who has apparently launched a book club, defines the priorities for all of us in Rolling Stone: 'One can only snort so many ants and have so much sex before one starts to long for the comfort and companionship of a good book.'

Random Reading

Captain W.E. Johns, Kings of Space (1954): coming across the first edition for a fiver at a book fair, I couldn't resist a sort of anti-nostalgia trip. I encountered this one when about twelve and, having read a load of goodish 1950s sf in a family friend's run of Galaxy, could already sense that the creator of Biggles was not terribly good at this stuff. Prof. Lucius Brane shows his intrepid friends around the Solar System in his home-made UFO the Spacemaster, discovering such hazards of high vacuum as sudden long streaks of blue flame: 'I can only think we must have passed through some stray particles of hydrogen. Being an inflammable gas our velocity might have caused it to ignite.' Oh dearie me. • Spike Milligan, Goodbye, Soldier (1986), book six of the war memoirs, not quite as manic now the fighting's over and Milligan is swanning around Italy playing jazz to entertain the troops and having an affair with a ballerina. • Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002): nothing to add to perceptive Acnestis comments, especially from Maureen: yes, it's very very good. • Lemony Snicket, The Vile Village (2001): well I would, wouldn't I? Book seven. The mixture as before. • John Baxter, A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (2002), highly enjoyable literary and book-collecting memoir by an expat Australian whose writing career began with sf for New Worlds. There's a 50-page appendix of best-book lists, with familiar names from sf and fandom invited to name favourites: J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, John Foyster, Patrick Janson-Smith, Kim Newman, Yvonne Rousseau, Iain Sinclair, Lucy Sussex.... (Wot, no Peter Nicholls?) • Harold Nicholson, Diaries and Letters 1945-62 (1968), recommended by a fellow scientist at Aldermaston in the late 70s – typically, it took me a little while to get around to it. Interesting reading; good anecdotes; literate political gossip from an insider. • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000): acquired as a result of Acnestis discussion and duly mislaid in the piling system until the recent Xmas break. Fascinating but ultimately exhausting. The central idea of an ordinary American house that conceals an infinite, dark and mutable labyrinth is spun out remorselessly (though with some skill) and overlaid with all too much apparatus. We do not directly meet the house – a word almost always printed in grey – but its horrors are documented in the possibly nonfactual or nonexistent film The Navidson Record, described in an incomplete textual maze created by a blind man called Zampanò (who has apparently been at great pains to expunge the word 'minotaur'), arranged, footnoted, defaced and in part filtered through the understanding of the obsessed, streetwise 'Johnny Truant', who at one stage capriciously emphasizes his own potential unreliability.... Blind labyrinth-makers suggest one obvious homage, and sure enough Truant is completely flummoxed by Zampanò's citation of comments by one Pierre Menard. There is further apparatus, including a supremely unhelpful index which is a kind of parody of computerized indexing, with huge blocks of page numbers recording every instance of words like 'again', 'all', 'into', 'so', and 'you' (though not 'a' or 'the'). Very strange indeed. • John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Primrose Path (2002), comfort reading, competent and enjoyable if never hugely surprising. A comeback for the title character, who strayed perilously close to the Reichenbach Falls in the previous book.

Mailing 119, December 2002

Maureen. I like the splenetic Miévillism of Tolkien having 'pilfered' his words from Anglo-Saxon sources. One of Bernard Levin's essays has fun with a Guardian letter about a certain ineffably bourgeois painter's similar shocking practices: '... his family possessed the land; Constable took possession of its visual appearance.' Levin: 'Yes, indeed; anyone who has visited the countryside painted by this lickspittle lackey of the reactionary forces, whose present popularity with the middle classes is, rightly, so suspect, will have noticed that there are huge chunks missing from the landscape, where Constable "took possession of its visual appearance" ...' • Ian. I would not define Thoggisms as narrowly as you suggest. Mere literal readings often fail to be funny, as when someone walks down the street and turns into a shop; Thog also deals in bad sex, awful science, purple prose, and images which like the Iris Murdoch line just don't work. • The Cageworld books must be the only Colin Kapp sf that I haven't read. Must have a look, though some of his work – particularly The Chaos Weapon and Manalone – strikes me as both dire and silly. • Penny. Much sympathy for the loss of your grandfather. • Lewis Carroll wrote a pastiche of Goldsmith's 'The Deserted Village', set in Oxford: 'The Deserted Parks'. One of those bits of relatively obscure Carrolliana often left out of Complete Works volumes. • Paul K. Commendations from you and CIX prodded me into buying Carter Beats the Devil when last in Waterstone's. On present form, I'll probably comment here in 2005 or so. • Tanya. I also get pretty gloomy in dark, dull weather, and am pondering reports of cutting-edge LED lamps which use little power but produce something close to a true sunlight spectrum. Expensive at present, but likely to get cheaper. • Andy S. I mentioned Adam Diment's third novel The Great Spy Race in CC120 (August 2001). The fourth and last, which unlike the others had no US edition (ominous sign!), was Think Inc.13/1/2003