Cloud Chamber 141
June 2003

The hot weather is upon us, and I'm feeling smug because this year I finally got around to buying a portable air-conditioner for the office. (A Homebase special offer, cunningly acquired on one of their 10%-off-everything days. 'Portable' here has the meaning 'Langford can just about haul the bloody thing upstairs but has to lie down for a while afterwards.') So this is being typed in relative comfort at the usual computer desk, rather than on a laptop in the musty gloom of our cellar. Bliss. Unfortunately these improved working conditions don't imply a long, luxurious, multi-page issue of Cloud Chamber, since we plan to be away in Wales for most of the time between now (31 May) and the Acnestis deadline....

Other reasons to be cheerful? The Clarke Award result pleased me no end – and congratulations to Chris on also being shortlisted for the Sidewise alternate-history award. More good reviews for Up Through an Empty House of Stars emerged in The Washington Post Book World (gosh wow, I have been reviewed by Michael Dirda Himself!), SFX and – real soon now – Vector (many thanks to A Certain Acnestis Person, and to Tony Cullen for showing me the proofs at the May BSFA meeting). I also managed to get it mentioned in New Scientist, by shameless use of the biographical note attached to my review of Pattern Recognition. On the small press front, it's nice to gloat over real printed copies of John Sladek's Wholly Smokes and David Masson's The Caltraps of Time at last. But, as Pat Cadigan so rarely remarks, enough about me.

Crunlop! Frank Key complains of abject poverty and asks for subscription forms to be sent far and wide. The essentials: 'I enclose £20, in cash or in the form of a cheque made payable, for some reason, to P J Byrne, and I am breathless with excitement at the prospect of receiving my first few issues of Crunlop!' Send to: The Hooting Yard Foundation, 5 Crusoe Court, Woodhouse Road, Leytonstone, London, E11 3NY. By the way, Our Frank's website home page is ingeniously baited with the following 'Search Engine Lure':

duffel-coat homunculus pencil sharpener baize tungsten hebetude ullage toxin orlop custard Ordnance Survey Map guillemot basin creosote bandages orrery airbag gristle linctus subterfuge porlock hobbledehoy mucker crumple scrofula usufruct flap palinode chutes myrmidon bindweed vinculum blazer sponge porridge remorse pelf cyclops treadmill pins

A very characteristic approach to what they call Keywords.

Random Reading

Chris Wooding, The Weavers of Saramyr (2003). Well, um. Yes, this trilogy opening has much of the pace, inventiveness and sense of danger expected from the gifted author of The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray. But I have an unworthy feeling that the liberating thrill of at last writing for adults has gone to our lad's head. (It's not as though he pulled that many punches in work for 'younger readers'.) The bad guys of the title aren't just ugly, treacherous, murderous, semi-insane, and responsible for both poisoning the land and putting the blame for this on innocents, but are hideously rotted and afflicted with cancer as a side effect of their nasty practices, and have drifted into the habit of repeatedly raping and killing children (sometimes, for variety, elderly women), to which everyone turns a blind eye because the Weavers' powers are so jolly useful. At one point, seven horrified men stand for two hours listening at the door as a Weaver has his repellent way, again and again, with a twelve-year-old boy who does not survive the experience: 'None would move, for it would be an unpardonable shame to turn their backs; and yet none dared intervene, either.' All of which, I submit, is overdoing things. Plausible villains whose motives we could (however slightly) share would play so much better than these absurd, nightmare caricatures. • Dave Barry, Big Trouble (1999), first novel by this US humorist, and not bad at all: a very silly and gun-happy romp in the manner of Carl Hiaasen, 'who is the master of the genre I tried to write in – the Bunch of South Florida Wackos genre'. The plot is held together by at least one coincidence too many, corresponding to the frayed string in a Heath Robinson device, but it kept me chuckling.

Culture Corner:
Jane Austen's Laptop Word-Processor

This rec.arts.sf.fandom posting by James Follett tickled me greatly, not least because – like so many others – I had always taken the Austen line about writing on two inches of ivory as some kind of obscure metaphor. Now read on:

On Wednesday I paid a visit to Jane Austen's house at nearby Chawton in Hampshire. Unfortunately she wasn't in but a nice lady in the front parlour selling souvenirs allowed us to look around on payment of £2 each. It was very strange looking over this modest little cottage where Miss Austen spent the last years of her short life, and where she completely revised and finally agreed to have published the most-read and best-loved novel in the English language.

One of the many items on display that belonged to Miss Austen caused me considerable astonishment. My mother-in-law died ten years ago and among the odds and ends in her writing box, that had belonged to her grandmother, was what we, including my mother-in-law, had aways assumed to be a fan. A somewhat clumsy fan because it consists of a swatch of ten thin rectangular ivory panels held together with a single rivet. Each panel measures approximately five-inches long by two-inches wide.

It isn't a fan, it's a late 18th-/early 19th-century word-processor. Paper was expensive, therefore those who used a good deal of it first composed their paragraphs on these wafer-thinivory panels before making fair copies on paper. Pencil could be erased with one's fingertip, ink erased with a damp cloth. The order of paragraphs or sentences could be changed depending on which panels were exposed from the main swatch. Other advantages were portability – it could be carried in a pocket and used on one's lap because the wafers were sufficiently rigid to make a desk unnecessary.

The fan explains a paragraph in one of Jane Austen's letters to her sister, Cassandra, which has always puzzled me, in which she refers to 'The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work ...'

Out of curiousity I composed this entire post on the fan using a pencil. The efficiency of the device is remarkable. Each of the above paragraphs is written on an individual wafer. The post actually started with the second paragraph with the opening:

'An item on display in Jane Austen's house at Chawton caused me considerable astonishment ...'

I moved it from first to second place simply by switching the wafers around. Longer paragraphs were continued on the reverse. I've taken to carrying the 'fan' with me and jotting notes on it. Although it's 200 years old, I think it'll last out my lifetime. If it inspires me to write a tenth as well as Jane Austen I shall be well pleased. – James Follett

Mailing 124, May 2003

Chris P. Many thanks for the flashback to 1966 fandom and its ructions. Most of the news items which caused hideous offence in 24 years of Ansible have been those I thought quite innocuous. The most harrowing examples had better not follow, but I was bemused by recent e-mail that pounced (more in sorrow than in anger) on this aside in Ansible 174:

The Hubbard Award was announced as a special ConJosé Hugo rewarding 'outstanding achievement in presenting science fictional concepts as fact to the general public' – to be given to Whitley Strieber for unforgettably linking the phrase 'alien contact' with 'rectal probe' and so setting back the SETI movement by fifty years. Yes, it's all a joke from a satirical website ...

Nevertheless, the PR boss of a certain outfit in East Grinstead argued that millions of people who revere L. Ron as a spiritual leader and inspirational author of countless 'humanitarian' books could be terribly upset by this, and so it should be removed from the website. In response, I have so far pursued a policy of masterly inactivity. • Chris A. One Borgesian story in which the sum total of human knowledge and creativity can be stored in a ridiculously small space is Hal Draper's 'MS Fnd in a Lbry' (F&SF Dec 61), in which 'nudged quanta' technology allows the whole lot to be kept in one small drawer. The index takes up much more room, and the catastrophe comes when the original drawer goes astray in endlessly ramifying indexes which now occupy whole artificial planets, solar systems, galaxies ... • Paul K. Thanks for the Chris Evans essay. Oddly enough, Seacon '03 also begged me for a programme book piece. I groaned at the suggested 'Ansible Review of the Year' – a format I am madly bored with – but sent something else in November 2002. Receipt duly acknowledged. Then, nothing. • KVB. I've never owned a copy of The North Ship. One of the irritations of the posthumous Collected Poems (1988) is that you don't get the flavour of the slim volumes whose contents Larkin had carefully arranged for effect: it all comes in two chronological lumps, 'mature' (1946 onward) and 'early', the latter mixing the North Ship material with unpublished work and published poems which Larkin himself chose not to collect. • Jae. I don't receive Twink either, and never have. Idle study of a copy in some UK con's fan lounge indicated that E.B. Frohvet had not felt it necessary to show me the issue in which he disparaged Ansible. Tra la. • Steve. Charlie Stross's recent breakthrough period also featured Hugo and Nebula nominations. David Brin used the gimmick of the Holocaust being a ritual-magic sacrifice to buy the Nazis supernatural aid, in his 1986 story 'Thor Meets Captain America'. • Didn't we have the RACTER conversation last autumn? Yes, and in Cloud Chamber 133 I quoted both RACTER passages now quoted by you! • Maureen. Judith Hanna's response to that Diana Wynne Jones anecdote was squeezed out of Ansible 190 (a very crowded issue):

'Interested in DWJ's experience with Daily Mail insisting she wear a skirt. I didn't have to when they featured me, but they did insist on conventional face-painting. Perhaps the trick is to be a gardener, or as their Fe-Mail headline put it "Women who grow their own". I wore nice green nail varnish, and Chris Atkinson's old green flying suit overalls, against a tasteful background of permaculture allotment.'

• Snap! I too like Julian Barnes best as an essayist, and my favourites among his 'novels' are those built from essays and fragments: Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 13 1/2 Chapters. I even enjoyed most of the essay collection Something to Declare despite abject ignorance of so many of the French writers discussed and a certain sneaking sympathy with the final quotation on the back cover: 'I wish he'd shut up about Flaubert' – Sir Kingsley Amis. • Gary. Something very similar to your rundown of sf's precursors of the oh-so-original The Matrix came to mind when Ansible received a hot news story about this Tasmanian author who reckons the film is making free with stunning ideas that he first published in ... wait for it ... 1994. Some of the astonishing parallels:

Er, that's it. One wants to clout him about the head with all that old sf you mention. A few I'd add to the list, pre-computer but with that same 'trapped in artificial reality' feel: James Gunn's The Joy Makers (1963), Frederik Pohl's 'The Tunnel Under the World' (1955), and Robert Sheckley's 'The Academy' (1954). Maybe also Philip K. Dick's Eye in the Sky (1957, written 1955), with its succession of parodic dream-realities which must be seen through in order to escape. Best of all, there's Wolfbane (1959) by Pohl and Kornbluth, which deploys the basic notion of machines exploiting us in a way that actually makes sense: rather then using people as batteries or whatever silly gobbledegook it was in The Matrix, the robotic alien 'Pyramids' plumb us into their cybernetics systems as data-processing components. Until one very special chap wakes up to the reality of his situation, and with likewise awakened companions learns more from a father figure (well, a dead but still chatty member of the extrasolar race that unwisely created the Bad Guy Machines). • And now it's time to pack for the traditional journey to Wales. More in July. [3-6-2003]