Cloud Chamber 138
March 2003

I've spent a lot of time in recent weeks hunched over a hot scanner, converting old texts to digital form and fiddling with endless small corrections. First, I've long wanted to do an update of my 1988 sf parody collection The Dragonhiker's Guide to Battlefield Covenant at Dune's Edge: Odyssey Two, published by Rog Peyton's short-lived Drunken Dragon Press with no paperback edition (except, strangely, in Spanish translation; it was a proud and lonely thing to find myself the author of Guía del Dragonstopista Galáctico al Campo de Batalla Estelar de Covenant en el Límite de Dune: Odisea Dos). Now the much expanded version, more than twice as long, is in the works at Cosmos Books as He Do The Time Police In Different Voices. Second, it seemed logical to follow up with a fat collection of my 'straight' genre stories – work on this continues, slowed by my tendency to drop the relevant book or magazine with a sharp cry of loathing when revisiting stuff I somehow managed to get published in the 1970s. Third, there's the mighty publishing monolith of Ansible E-ditions....

This is a Priest/Langford venture, originally inspired by our realization that John Sladek's last completed work, an illustrated novella called Wholly Smokes, was too short for book publication and too eccentric for the magazines – but suppose we published it in e-book format right here in the barn? The venture expanded to include a new edition of David Masson's long out-of-print book of his New Worlds stories, The Caltraps of Time (1968), which by adding three 1970s pieces became his complete sf; and then there was our old pal Charles Platt, whose two lively Dream Makers volumes of interviews with sf authors seemed well worth reviving. It's all turned out to be rather more work than expected. The state of play can be seen at the website,, enlivened by various freebies like a Sladek convention speech, Masson's light verse, reviews by both authors, and samples of the actual e-books. I've begun to hate the sight of my scanner.

Commonplace Book. 'Lawyer books driving everything else off the bestseller lists. It's Grisham's law.' – Arthur D. Hlavaty. • 'Let us prise off the tinfoil hat of ideology and focus the orbital mind-control beams of reason.' – Ken MacLeod.

Random Reading

E.S. Turner, Boys Will Be Boys (1948, updated 1975), a jolly survey of ripping yarns which reminded me of a playful suggestion – by Andy Sawyer? – that the recent Savoy book Zenith the Albino by Anthony Skene might be a clever modern pastiche rather than a 1930s rediscovery. For what it's worth, Turner's long list of Sexton Blake's regular foes does include 'Zenith the Albino, afflicted with a colourless skin but far from colourless personality, whose possession of infra-red binoculars put all London's wealth at his peril'. It is also revealed that plots revolving around absurdly many plot coupons have been around a lot longer than commercial fantasy: e.g. a 1920s 'story of twelve seaports scattered all over the world in which were twelve sailors each with different portions of a map tattooed on their backs; all would have to be traced before the sunken galleon with the gold aboard could be located. [...] It did not follow that a series involving seven feathers or twelve pieces of map would necessarily run for seven or twelve instalments. If the series was a flop the hero could recover two or more keys or pieces of map in one instalment; if it was a success he could be tricked out of the whole lot and have to start again.' • Greg Egan, Teranesia (1999), a belated catch-up. It's an odd coincidence that another Greg tackled issues of rampant genetic reprogramming in the same year: Bear, with Darwin's Radio. Egan's story moves well for most of its length, but defied my (fairly well developed) power of suspending disbelief with a closing scene in which the story's nightmare McGuffin, a species-crossing gene which rebuilds its victims into forms it 'thinks' better adapted to survive, displays a sufficient collective understanding of evolutionary game theory that it can be reasoned with or even bluffed. 'Oh good, I've been given an opportunity to reproduce myself outside the hero's body, which satisfies my biological imperatives, so now I can halt his hideous ongoing metamorphosis and restore him to normal....' Sorry, I just can't believe it. • Edward Gorey, The Headless Bust: A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium (1999) – a happy surprise, one last Gorey chapbook that I hadn't known about. Certain characters from his Christmas Carol-influenced The Haunted Tea-Cosy (1997) are wafted from one allegedly morally improving scene to another, with bizarre illustrations captioned in doggerel. A characteristic moment of post-seasonal charity when all is over:

Fruitcake was sawed in blocks and sent
To Havens for the Indigent,
Where it was used for scouring floors
And propping open banging doors.

I also acquired, thinking that it would be nice to have a copy that wasn't part of the unwieldy omnibus Amphigorey, the early and very splendid The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, in several ways the absolute last word on being an author. Heretically, the publishers (Harcourt Brace) have junked all Gorey's painstakingly hand-lettered captions in favour of typeset replacements. The descriptions just aren't the same that way – e.g., at a literary party:

... The talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others' declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.

Mailing 121, February 2003

Tony C. Welcome back! I suppose a fair number of fans must trace their decline back to that ghastly moment when Ansible was forced upon them at a London pub meeting, but fortunately none of them seems to blame me particularly. • Alan S. Yes, Ted White has been doing 'syndicated' fanzine reviews in sf club fanzines for a while now, in hope of introducing new fans to the good stuff. Seems a blameless activity. Bill Burns puts the columns on line at • AMB. I thought the canonical Pogo line, also the title of a 1972 Pogo collection which I have here, was: 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' (Not 'We has found ...') Maurice Horn's 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics confirms this wording. • Ian S. The sf original to which Alastair Reynolds nods in 'Diamond Dogs' – and to which there's a third explicit homage, if you know the book – is Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon (1960). Budrys's story works much better, with (a) an alien artifact or maze or spare part which doesn't offer anything as cosily comprehensible as overt mathematical puzzles, but can only be solved (escaped from) by trial and error – and every wrong move is fatal; (b) serious issues of identity as a matter transmitter is used to run off successive backups of the death-obsessed character who does the exploration; (c) a ding-dong psychological battle between this chap and the differently obsessed scientist in charge; (d) a jolting double punchline set up by all the above. Some of the technology has dated badly, but I think the book holds up rather well. • Chris A. The mention of Warhol reminds me that when Ian Watson was editing Pictures at an Exhibition, an anthology of stories based on works of art, I sent in a one-page submission consisting entirely of the repeated words CAMPBELL'S SOUP. Ian laughed a lot but inexplicably failed to buy it. • Vampire cockroaches? The mind boggles. • Tanya. How good that Colorado's light was cheering. Coincidence: I just received a letter (and I know I'm not the only one) from an sf author I know slightly, who wants to emigrate to the sunny USA and escape SAD forever. So will I write to US Immigration affirming that this brilliant author is a priceless literary asset which America would be mad to turn away? Argh. I have never owned or so much as opened any of this person's books.... • Dop. Thanks for the Columbia thoughts. As you can imagine, Moorcock's typically contrarian grumble in Ansible 188 was heavily cut by me. • Steve J. I'm kicking myself for not having mentioned The Iron Grail as a BSFA Best of 2002 choice. I jogged my memory by whizzing through my HugeSouthAmericanRiver and Other Reviews folders, but had written about the Complete Works of Rob Holdstock for a reference book, so that one long essay was filed elsewhere under Projects.... • Paul K. I was surprised to read that, in the 1993 Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 'you will search in vain for any statement about what science fiction actually is.' My copy has an entry called DEFINITIONS OF SF which seems fairly relevant in this context and runs to nearly 3,000 words! However, I don't blame you for omitting Leroy Kettle's spoof definition, infinitely memorable though I find it:

Sci-fi can be succinctly defined as speculation, whether based on established scientific facts or on logical pseudo-facts consistent with the framework of the fiction in question, involving smelly green pimply aliens furiously raping or eating, or both, beautiful naked bare-breasted chicks, covering them in slime, red, oozing, living slime, dribbling from every horrific orifice, squeezing out between bulbous pulpy lips onto the sensuous velvety skin of the writhing sweating slave-girls, their bodies cut and bruised by knotted whips brandished by giant blond vast-biceped androids called Simon, and written in the Gothic mode. (True Rat 7, 1976)

Myself. I asked Frank Key of Crunlop! fame whether he was familiar with Anthony Burgess's The Clockwork Testament, which I quoted last issue, and he said yes. Also: 'At the moment I'm reading the biography of him by Roger Lewis, which is marvellous. Having hero-worshipped Burgess, Lewis grew to loathe him more & more, and the resulting book is not so much a biography as a sustained vituperative rant, with many wonderfully entertaining footnotes & some superb invective. Highly recommended, whether you care about Burgess or not.' (The next thing I had from Mr Key was a barrage of Klez virus attachments. He explained: 'I caught it from a Quaker, of all people.') • Maureen. I envy those who did the decent thing and marched. Who was it who pointed out that this must be the biggest focus group our PM – who allegedly sets such store by these things – had ever seen? And gentlemen in Reading now a-bed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here ... but I'm still getting used to longer walks following whatever went wrong with my knee last year, and was terrified by the thought of being in a vast moving crowd with nowhere to sit down. I'll just go and hold my manhood cheap, shall I? Except that it sounds like another double-entendre. • Jae. Thanks for the Dave Barry Two Towers silliness, which I'd heard about but hadn't seen. • Oh dear, it's ... [14-3-03].

The David Brin Incident

Several people have demanded – none more loudly than Pat Cadigan – to be told every gory detail of the coke-hurling episode at Boskone 40, mentioned in Ansible 188. With apologies to those for whom this is of no interest whatsoever:

Jo Walton

'Well, OK. I did pour coke on David Brin's head at the Tor party. And he deserved it. And it was impulsive and intemperate, and I'm intending to apologise for being impulsive and intemperate, just in case he thinks that I did it because we have a substantive argument about feudalism, Tolkien, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. In fact, I did it because he was being so smugly condescending and patronising and sexist that I couldn't stand it for another moment. I do disagree with him about those things, and I think he's wrong about them in really irritating ways, but I'd have been quite happy to either let it go – we'd disagreed about them at length on a panel earlier in the day – or argue about it in good faith. I'll argue about things with anyone any time. It was his tone that caused me to completely lose it.

'If you don't know me, you don't have any right to put your arm around me and pat me on the shoulder. If you want to say that we disagree and you respect me, OK. It would be better if you actually did, but never mind that. Going on to lay down the smarm and say I am intelligent and permitted to be a Romantic because I am British is really annoying, but acceptable. If, however, you continue with a list of my fake virtues and add "beautiful", while patting me on the shoulder, you will get coke poured on your head, should I have coke in my hand and wine in my bloodstream, because "beautiful" is bringing the physical into it, and gets a physical response.

'I think what he said after I'd poured the coke on his head (which I don't hold against him in the slightest, goodness me, I had just poured coke on his head, he was entitled to yell at me!) did rather prove how false everything he'd been saying before had been. But there you go. It was impulsive and intemperate, and messy, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

'You also would not believe the people who have been congratulating me for doing it, which embarrasses me no end. Doubtless I shall be remembered for all time as the person who pours coke on people for calling her beautiful – which, incidentally, for people who may be reading this who haven't seen me, I am not, not that it would make any difference to how much it was intended as belittlement.


So now you know what goes on at these exciting Tor Books convention parties. Fandom being fandom, the word that went around the con hotel like wildfire was that when David Brin was first asked to be guest of honour (which, that weekend, he was), he'd replied: 'The drinks are on me!'

Don't worry, I reassured Jo, fans will soon forget, just as they forgot my own regrettable beer-flinging lapse at the 1987 Brighton Worldcon. Actually, she confessed, about a hundred people mentioned that to her at Boskone and after. Oops.