Harlech in June: mostly familiar encounters, with a few modest surprises. Swarming summer chafers (again). New shops in the village, including a promising books & antiques place that maddeningly wasn't quite ready to open; but the long-abandoned Chinese takeaway is derelict and tatty as ever. At the flat, thirteen increasingly menacing demands from the TV licensing people, whose previous indication that harassment will cease once you assure them that you have no TV at this address (we did, twice, and now three times) proves to be a lie. The most enormous woolly-bear caterpillar needing to be saved from its suicidal tendency to cross the beach road. On the beach, hecatombs of stranded jellyish, but all tiddlers, none as enormous as recorded in CC85; also bards (see CC88) of vast and exhausting size, in particular a seaweedy length of ship's hawser which I couldn't lift but trailed behind me for subjective hours until the blessed relief of the rubbish bin. Domestic repairs whereby, with ill-concealed surprise, we managed to fix two bathroom taps and a clock. Innumerable jackdaws bullying smaller birds but in their turn getting pushed around by unmannerly seagulls. Four prize crosswords completed and sent in (Me, between long pauses: 'Bloody Scots ... Bloody Shakespearean spelling ... Bloody Spenser again!' Hazel: 'Are you getting just a little bit obsessive about this?' Me, unconvincingly: 'Only on holiday....'), with a fifth awaiting confirmation of the one word presumably featuring only in the latest Chambers Dictionary. (Later: acharya, as correctly deduced from the clue construction, but – 'Bloody Hindi!' Later still: D & H Langford of Reading announced as winners of The New Oxford Dictionary of English, which is one we didn't have.) Busman's-holiday horror for Hazel as the usual venue for an antiques fair in Criccieth proved to contain a Jobs Fair: in her part of the civil service, staffing these lugubrious events corresponds to a merry day outing to the Gulag. In general: rode trains, bought books (see below), compared pub lunches, read a lot, attempted to cultivate idleness. Mostly the usual mixture, then, but we like it.
Cover Story. Following the demise of Big Engine, I've been pursuing a master plan to have 'my' BE titles reissued by – as usual – good old Cosmos Books. One day I woke up with the memory that a nifty and suitably comic cover painting for The Leaky Establishment had long ago been published, though not on any edition of the book. This was in Frontier Crossings, souvenir book of the 1987 World SF Convention in Brighton, which ran a portfolio of full-page art illustrating the guests' works. Within, I found to my surprise and delight that one George Parkin had read, learned and inwardly digested Leaky, and produced an appropriately cartoonish homage. Where was the original now? I e-mailed Rob Jackson, who edited Frontier Crossings, and set him searching his attic, but in vain. Even the colour separations, Rob eventually remembered, 'went to be auctioned off at the Great (rather sad, actually) Conspiracy Near-Bankruptcy Sale. (We tried to flog off anything we thought we could sell for more than about 5p.) So that would probably be why they weren't in the attic.' Web searches for 'George Parkin' disclosed only an Australian photographic artist whose style was, to say the least, different. Eventually I twigged that despite the formal credit in Frontier Crossings, our man actually signed himself 'Geo Parkin', and contact was rapidly established: see www.geoparkin.com. He still lives in Brighton, he still owns the original painting, and his 1987 image should shortly be adorning what will be the fourth edition of The Leaky Establishment. Part of the deal is that I've arranged for Geo to receive a copy of Frontier Crossings, since, shamefully, he never ever saw the Worldcon book to which he contributed....
Letter Column. Simon R. Green expands on his Ansible 192 remark: 'It's official; you are now a character in Deathstalker Coda. You are deLangford, head of the ThrillKill Cult. Your head explodes, on the dark side of the moon.'
Avram Davidson, Vergil in Averno (1987), which like the better known The Phoenix and the Mirror belongs to Davidson's unfinished sequence 'The Vergil Magus Matrix'. The promising basis was to assume the truth of the medieval legends of Virgil as sorcerer; the kind of stories which tended to attach themselves to learned men, most notably Roger Bacon and Johann Faust. In this dark novel – eccentrically paced, crabbed and crusted with strange erudition – Vergil Magus is obscurely summoned to the 'Very Rich Town' of Averno, where volcanic activity provides cheap power for the arts of fire and metal, all under a thick haze of associated pollution. The city magnates apparently want him to do something about their dwindling subterranean fires; but secretly they 'know' what needs to be done, they have laid plans which only begin with appointing a madman as King of Averno, and they make appalling use of our hero's ingeniously salamander-researched maps of the underworld. Despite many fine scenes and an apocalyptic climax, there is something unsatisfactory about Vergil's ineffectiveness here – forever groping in fog, slow to understand the sinister motives and portents all around him, saved only by a barely foreshadowed magical intervention. A very tasty read, though, and I liked the irony that quite falsely weaves the ultimate fate of Averno into Vergil's own legend, as the natural retribution for not paying your hired magus. Also notable are brief flashbacks to a harsh school of magic which makes Earthsea's look wimpish. One test requires the class of would-be mages to compare two fungi for a set period ('the smallest of sandglasses, such as the frugal housewife uses to time the boiling of a pigeon's egg') and use all their carefully honed skills to identify and discard the specimen unsuitable for the pot. Then, of course: 'That one which now remains in front of you. Pick it up. Eat.' It is so characteristically Davidsonish to skip straight from this line to a brief exchange which ends the flashback: 'Ser Proctor, was it needful that those who erred did die?' [...] 'Their clients will not die.'
Glen David Gould, Carter Beats the Devil (2001), bought as a result of Acnestis and other recommendations, finally devoured on a long cross-country rail journey. I loved the evocations of the feel of period stage magic, as long enjoyed in Robertson Davies's Fifth Business and World of Wonders, and more recently in Chris Priest's The Prestige. Besides presenting and (sometimes) unmasking its mysteries with tremendous gusto, the story flirts with the alternate-history genre, with the fictionalized life of the historical US magician Charles J.Carter – alias Carter the Great, whose original performance posters you can buy expensively from web sites even now – entwining itself with the revered Houdini (of course), with the fate of President Warren Gamaliel Harding (for whom, like illusionist Magnus Eisengrim for Boy Staunton in the Davies books, Carter seems to have granted a last, ambiguous, inmost wish), and with – of all things – the development of television. Terrific fun, most ingeniously paced and staged.
Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder (1956; third edition, 1996), the first decent book of criticism to emerge from within the sf field: I cherished the 1967 second edition since my early days in fandom, and learned only this year that the late Damon Knight had added another 30,000 words, mostly autobiographical, for this definitive version. A snip at $20 (which includes sea mail; mine was accidentally routed by air and arrived in just three days) from Advent: Publishers, Inc. PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690, USA. I'll gladly sort out the dollar conversion for anyone in Acnestis who feels the need of a copy. Mind you, I already had some of the extra text, which includes Knight's contributions to Hell's Cartographers: Some Personal Histories Science Fiction Writers (1975), ed. Aldiss and Harrison, and that anthology of author-annotated sf Those Who Can (1973) ed. Robin Scott Wilson, plus material from Dick Geis's semiprozine Science Fiction Review. Nice to have these far-flung bits all together, though; and there's more and harder-to-find stuff besides, scattered throughout. For example, I spotted an extra page or two at the opening of the chapter on John W. Campbell, putting the boot in a good deal harder ('monster of arrogance ... overbearing manner ... occasionally expressed his doubt of the mental competence of blacks') than, one can't resist noting, Knight chose to do in 1967 when JWC was still alive and pugnacious.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003). I am not ashamed to admit that, days after publication but with Potter frenzy still ravaging the multiverse, I got around to reading this. Plenty of the inventiveness and charm expected from Rowling, with several engaging new locations and devices, somewhat weighted down or circumscribed by a four-book accumulation of world-building impedimenta. The plot requires young Harry to be, once again, isolated from familiar adult mentors with barely plausible justification – an isolation so extreme that our all-knowing, kindly headmaster seems unconcerned about the habits of a new teacher whose favourite punishment for minor infractions consists of quite literal torture. (Eventually the Head apologizes for failing to disclose a mass of important information. And so he bloody should.) Various good set-pieces and a rousing finale keep the book moving despite its numbing length and contorted plotting, but there's a faint whiff of curate's egg here too. Thog prefers to avoid the debate among science-minded fans regarding Harry's observation, in his Astronomy OWL exam, of Venus around midnight in mid-June (just barely possible, it seems) and Orion shortly before (definitely no: it's a winter constellation). All thanks to Tony for this information.
Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), the famed neurologist's effective evocation of early life as a lad obsessed with chemistry and chemicals. The remembered magic of reactions, families of elements, and the Periodic Table rises from the pages like that nostalgic reek of school laboratories: I was wildly envious that Sacks grew up at a time when you could buy over the counter (or even be given, by like-minded relatives) a wide variety of those arcane ingredients in Victorian volumes of One Thousand and One Edifying Stenches, Bangs and Toxic Fumes for Boys. By my day, pharmacists had taken to pretending they didn't even know what muriatic acid and oil of vitriol were. Oh, I think I'll fudge up a column for SFX about all this. Greatly enjoyed.
Kurt Busiek and others, Astro City graphic collections: Life in the Big City (1995-6), Confession (1997), Family Album (1998) and The Tarnished Angel (?2000). One reviewer suggested these as an inspiration for Alan Moore's utterly splendid Top 10, which seemed sufficient reason to take a look. Rather than Moore's delirious over-the-topness and rampant homage (including, I now see, a nod to Astro City), this is an avowed attempt to tell full-throated superhero stories in a fresh though densely populated setting free from the clutter of the DC and Marvel universes. Indeed there are several nice tales here, especially among the short episodes making up the first and third books: I liked the account of one incredibly crowded day in the life of a too-conscientious Superman figure who most of all loves to fly and, from rude awakening to exhausted collapse, manages to notch up just 56 seconds of flight: 'Best day since March.' The other two have continuous, intermittently wobbly narratives: Confession expands into an account of a global alien invasion which rather mucks up the focus of the coming-of-age story at its heart, while the noir detective investigation of The Tarnished Angel doesn't seem to have quite enough plot to stay the course, and strays off into an included narration with a British setting and some rather embarrassing British supervillains. 'Clever Dick ... was originally called Spotted Dick ... but that was too much even for us, so we changed his name and left the spots.' Good fun, though.
Holiday Reading. Mostly the fruits of random forays into the scattered antiques and charity shops of North Wales. Arthur Ransome, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea (1937), another dip into the Swallows and Amazons saga which I missed when of appropriately tender years. This one is a lot more exciting than the first book's mimsy make-believe, with a couple of plausible accidents turning the boat-mad kids' estuary explorations into a blind voyage through the North Sea without their older minder, in weather that would have given Hornblower a bad time. Compelling stuff, with many an unsparing puke. Michael Gilbert, Death in Captivity (1952), detection that rises above Gilbert's usual reliable but routine performance thanks to the unusual setting: a World War II POW camp in Italy, almost farcically riddled with escape tunnels and other ingenuities devised by British inmates. When the body of a murder victim turns up in the best and most secret tunnel project, life becomes complicated. Meanwhile the camp plans a performance of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, with a great reception anticipated for Elizabeth's rapturous speech: 'Italy! Oh, it's so hard to take in even the bare possibility of going there. My promised land, Doctor, which I never thought to see otherwise than in dreams ...' Which, it is agreed, should bring the house down. High-spirited, with the actual (post-escape) murder solution being faintly anticlimactic. Richard Gordon, Dr Gordon's Casebook (1982), the Pooteresque diary of a middle-aged GP, Gordon's famous medical-student persona now come to his inevitable harbour. Some new jokes, some old ones comfily reworked: rude mnemonics about the cranial nerves finally appear in clear rather than being cautiously bowdlerized as in the 1950s ('Well, I'm mucked, Said Wharton's duct ...'). Better fun than the later, increasingly weaker 'Doctor' books with their grim burden of plot. Alexander Pope, The Poems of Alexander Pope (Methuen, 1963), a volume for some reason copiously available in Snowdonia at the going rate of three quid, or a fiver in hardback. So far I have merely dipped in, emerging with this hint that Pope had dealings with some body closely resembling the TV Licensing Authority:
On all the line a sudden vengeance waits,
And frequent hearses shall besiege your gates.
There passengers shall stand, and pointing say,
(While the long fun'rals blacken all the way)
Lo these were they, whose souls the Furies steel'd,
And curs'd with hearts unknowing how to yield.
Iain Banks, The Business (1999), an almost effortless-seeming romp whose background assumption is the actually more or less benign global conspiracy of the title. Full of enjoyably offbeat ideas, from the lunacy of transmitting a significant number via binary-coded tooth extractions performed on an unwilling victim, to the ingenuity whereby our tough heroine wrenches vital information from an alpha male by locking herself in his beloved Ferrari and boosting the revs into the red zone until, outside, he cracks at the shriek of tortured metal. I didn't believe a word of it, but for all its frothiness The Business oozes charm and sophistication. Tor Double #4 (1989), comprising John Varley's 'Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo' (1986) and Samuel Delany's 'The Star Pit' (1966). Varley's story, set on and around the Moon, deploys much plausibly exotic technology and – admittedly with clever pacing – unveils a less than plausible situation, with the orbiting habitat Tango Charlie tightly quarantined for 30 years (and programmed to vaporize anything that approaches) thanks to an outbreak of the Dread Plague Worse Than AIDS, only for it to emerge that TC is still occupied by a girl apparently eight years old plus a large breeding colony of Shetland sheepdogs, a discovery made with mere days to go before TC's decaying orbit intersects the lunar surface. Preparations for this event have so far consisted of marking the spot with a figurative X and noting with relief that it's uninhabited. Complications duly ensue, no one at all having considered the consequences when an object bristling with 'bevawatt lasers' to maintain its interdiction zone passes really close to the ground on the penultimate orbit. Ho hum. The Delany novella features some nonsense about galaxy-hopping ships with a crew of one – not to mention a distinct sense that galaxies are homogeneous regions approximately the size of Wales – and digresses into a barely relevant fascination with the eponymous gadgetry of Heinlein's 'Waldo', but focuses effectively on the psychological gulfs between a group of memorable though mostly unlovable characters – the least lovable of all being the 'golden', human psychotics who alone are able to survive the Deadly Piffle Barrier between one galaxy and another. Early Delany at his most hypnotically gaudy. Robert Youngson, Scientific Blunders (1998), a competent run-through of – for me – generally familiar material. In one case, the US physicist R.W. Wood's debunking of the 'N-rays' discovered by the self-deluded Professor R. Blondlot of France, the account here differs from Wood's classic report in ways that made me wonder whether Youngson worked from erratic secondary sources. Elsewhere he retells the legend of T.H. Huxley's supposed demolition of Bishop Wilberforce in evolutionary debate, without reference to Stephen Jay Gould's meticulous researches indicating that this was a tale which grew substantially in the telling. Conversely, the account of Galileo's run-in with the Church is sensible, detailed and free of the usual mythic baggage. But it really strains the definition of 'blunder' to devote a whole section to how 'Newton got it wrong' on the basis that, while admittedly wrapping up the problems of gravitation brilliantly enough for his laws to go unchallenged for centuries, Sir Isaac fatally failed to anticipate Einsteinian space/time. Oh, come on! 'Harry Graham', Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes (1961 omnibus of 1899 and 1930 collections) – a birthday surprise from Susan Murosako. A few of these anti-sentimental, sub-Belloc squibs are widely familiar; I hadn't known there were nearly 50. Random sample:
In Burma, once, while Bishop Prout
Was preaching on Predestination,
There came a sudden waterspout
And drowned the congregation.
'O Heav'n!' he cried, 'why can't you wait
Until they've handed round the plate?'
Acquired on Holiday, Still Unread: The Second Century of Humour (a vast 1936 anthology which I grew up with, the original copy long lost by some feckless family member in South Wales; it was in here that I first encountered Anstey, de la Mare, Richard Garnett, Leacock, Milne [as an adult humorist], Saki, Thurber, and Wodehouse); Frank Harris, Bernard Shaw (1931; notoriously much rewritten in proof by Shaw after Harris's death, to correct the misrepresentations and sloppiness of 'the most impossible of biographers'; inscribed 'Garrick Theatre, 1942'); Peter Lovesey, Invitation to a Dynamite Party (1974); Sapper, Bulldog Drummond: His Four Rounds with Carl Peterson (1938ish omnibus of 1920s crap; a retro thriller too far?). Oh, and I'm finding Mike Ashley's Edgar-winning The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction (2002) a useful supplement to my much-thumbed Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (1980 edition).
Mailing 125, June 2003
Andrew M. Welcome aboard! I liked Pattern Recognition and thought its 9/11 link was suitably restrained and oblique – far more successful than Iain Banks's quickie first-chapter exploitation, rapidly followed by forgetting all about it, in Dead Air. One of my recent HugeSouthAmericanRiver review assignments was the new Frederick Forsyth, Avenger, which (though overladen with massive info-dumps) develops some useful irony from the positioning of 9/11 on its narrative calendar, as a pre-emptive CIA operation against Al-Qaeda collides with the freelance 'Avenger' commissioned to grab – and deliver to US justice – the stinking rich Serbian war criminal who happens to be the CIA's intended stalking horse. Alan. John Sladek's collection Maps is now out of print, but should be reissued by Wildside Press or its Cosmos imprint before too long. In fact 'Ansible E-ditions' hopes to arrange Cosmos/Ansible reprints of the four Sladek collections published during his lifetime: Sandy Sladek loves the idea, but it will take time to digitize the text and handle challenges like John's ambitious story 'The Master Plan', with its nine nested levels of narrative distinguished (though never very well in paperbacks) by different fonts. Maureen. We shuddered at the news of your unpowered freezer, and fled in different directions for nervous checks that our ground-floor and cellar freezers were still working.... Penny. I have yet to see a copy of Ella Minnow Pea, but the premise sounds reminiscent of James Thurber's little classic The Wonderful O – which is or used to be available in a lovely Puffin Double edition with The Thirteen Clocks, both books illustrated by Ronald Searle. The mystery word 'Bannus' that crept into your dream is the name of the central plot device – which also turns out to be a character – in Diana Wynne Jones's Hexwood. (I bet everyone will point that out!) Dop. I marvel at the idea of The Tiger Lillies' music CD with Edward Gorey lyrics. But is there a book of the words, because I know I'll never follow them by ear? Martin Hoare made me a CD of the Radio 4 programme The Gorey Details (broadcast March 2003), but I haven't yet overcome technofear and tried to listen to it. Steve. Yes, losing Dave Mooring like that just didn't seem possible. I also felt irrationally uneasy as the July Ansible obituary column filled up, with no fewer than four sf fan suicides. Chris H. Bill Bryson writing on pop science invokes a sense of vague distrust, remembering as I do many negative comments made about allegedly dodgy erudition in his book(s) on the English and American languages. Must put aside prejudice, though, and have a look at his A Short History. Cherith. Thanks, especially from Hazel, for circulating those exotic Egyptian bookmarks! Real papyrus, too (says Hazel appreciatively). Perhaps I should have circulated analogous souvenirs from Snowdonia: if I'd separated the English and Welsh versions, there'd have been almost enough menacing letters about TV licences for everybody to have one.... [8-7-2003]