Cloud Chamber 143
August 2003

A slight case of pre-travel jitters is detectable at this address. I'm off to a North American worldcon (Toronto) after more than two decades' abstinence – my last was Boston in 1980 – and, well, gibber gibber. Bear with me.

Commonplace Book. Dept of Nothing Changes. 'British Rail report that trains are arriving anything up to three hours late at Waterloo, which is a considerable improvement on normal. To safeguard departures, in a short but moving ceremony this morning the 7.40 to Folkestone was renamed the 11.10 to Folkestone and left at 12.05 for Guildford.' (Miles Kington, Moreover, 1982) • George Moore on Proust: 'If a man chooses to dig up a field with knitting needles, is there any reason why I should watch him doing it?' • Punctuation Dept. Sign brandished by angry protester in US newspaper photo: 'No! Sexual predators belong in family area's!'

Errata Corner. Denny Lien browsed the on-line corrections to Tim Cottrill's Ultimate Guide to the Pulps. P298: 'The v1-1 description of Horror Stories is erroneous and should read "ghoul grabs leg of terrified brunette in bat-cave of cult".' P442: 'The cover description for the first issue of Spicy Adventure should read "post-bound platinum blonde menaced by African warrior dragging male victim by his neck" (not a decapitation cover).' Denny is 'also pleased to ponder the ... rightness ... of page 411: "Sex Stories is in bedsheet format."'

Random Reading

John Fuller, The Adventures of Speedfall (1985), short stories of donnish humour with a university setting, rather in the fantastical manner of Michael Innes. Includes some flirtations with genre: a credulity-defying murder mystery; a ghost story which introduces an unusual spectre and then stops dead; an sf oddity featuring a biological equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut's ice-nine (or nanotechnology's 'grey goo' fear) which most implausibly multiplies unchecked in the absence of nutrients or visible energy input. Amusing, stylish piffle.

Matthew Ruff, Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997), a single, standalone novel despite the title. Surreal sf which distantly reminded me of Illuminatus!, owing to such elements as vast conspiracy theories and daft doings on a colourful submarine. It happens in 2023, years after a selective holocaust which has wiped out virtually all black people and which proves to have been no accident. That favourite US theme of wildlife in New York's sewers provides one incidental menace, a great white shark called Meisterbrau which tirelessly eats minor characters, suffers spurts of evolution thanks to – ahem! – eating a packet of mutagens, and is clearly destined for a role in the socko climax. (Meisterbrau? Cunning spin from the NY Dept of Sewers Zoological Bureau, which cagily refers to appalling fauna by the longest possible Latin species names, while individual sharks are cosily nicknamed for beer brands. 'There's bacteria loose in the tunnels they don't even have long names for yet.') Besides an eccentric human cast – some of them perhaps a little underused – the novel features three self-aware AIs. One is inimical and buried under Disneyland, one gets accidentally booted up during the narrative to function as an emergency plot device, and one simulates the personality of Ayn Rand, whose ultra-rightist political theories are summarized and subjected to much knockabout analysis. The fiendishness of the arch-villain is shown when, to open a certain dread portal, the protesting AI Rand is compelled to speak the loathed password 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' Then there are the eco-terrorists who like to sink ships intended for Antarctic exploitation, in televised spectaculars involving such exotic weaponry as a 20lb kosher salami accelerated to Mach 9 with a railgun; and the renegade robot servitors conducting a programme of elaborately ironic homicides; and the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, who turns out to have a lot to answer for; and more, and sillier. The finale involves a weirdly choreographed sequence of assaults on – and above, and beneath – the world's tallest building, in a tongue-in-cheek attempt to outdo every Bond extravaganza, while, of course, the clock ticks towards an apocalyptic explosion. Very entertaining on a page-by-page basis, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable about the use of deliberate racial genocide as a mere background device for a comic romp, and we've all read a few too many stories featuring all-encompassing, manipulative and machine-planned schemes which finally go astray thanks to human gutsiness (notably on the part of our tough, liberal heroine) and convenient random factors (notably Meisterbrau).

HugeSouthAmericanRiver. All 2003: Stan Nicholls, Quicksilver Rising, a typical Fantasyland with mildly interesting magical-police-state politics and bog-standard selection of incidents: the sword fight, the other sword fight, the other other sword fight, the fortified-house assaults, the sewer crawl, etc. • Terry Goodkind, Naked Empire, eighth in 'Sword of Truth' sequence: some determined attempts at moral complexity, but the bad guys keep demonstrating their Badness by needlessly revolting sadism, which does pall; and then comes the incredibly original plot device whereby the hero gets poisoned and must consume all four vials of antidote, of which three are hidden in widely separated ... oh dearie me. • Dean Koontz, The Face, stalker/killer thriller with supernatural elements, in that the hero has a measure of ghostly protection but the boy victim he's guarding doesn't. Effectively awful villain with a set policy of disrupting society via acts of chaos; but the book seems inflated far beyond its natural length by (Goodkindianly) demonstrating this fellow's wickedness as he remorselessly kills a whole series of accomplices to his ultimate Big Bad Plan, while – being a deconstructionist professor – he naturally passes his spare time starving and tormenting a kidnapped colleague who gave offence by admiring such classics as Mark Twain. • James Barclay, Shadowheart, more sword-and-sorcery in the 'Raven' sequence, specializing in utterly impossible assaults, pursuits and defences against odds so staggeringly overwhelming that our heroes can only be saved by the ultimate, godlike power of the Author himself. On Discworld, for comic effect, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten; in Barclayworld, rather more often. But it moves fast and reads pretty well. • Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver, 'Volume 1 of the Baroque Cycle', the long awaited prequel to Cryptonomicon. A joy to read, with a genuinely fresh slant on 17th/18th century history (or ahistory), but I'm only part way through the 927 pages of the proof copy....

The Book of Lists

It seems to me that practically everything – from the Iraqi war to the downfall of Big Engine to delayed BSFA mailings – can be explained by some subset of this list of 210 reasons for the fall of the Roman empire, as enumerated in Professor Alexander Demandt's Der Falls Rom (1984) – which needless to say I have not read in either German or English, but which some kindly journalist has summarized. Read and marvel:

Abolition of gods, abolition of rights, absence of character, absolutism, agrarian question, agrarian slavery, anarchy, anti-Germanism, apathy, aristocracy, asceticism, attacks by Germans, attacks by Huns, attacks by nomads on horseback.

Backwardness in science, bankruptcy, barbarization, bastardization, blockage of land by large landholders, blood poisoning, bolshevization, bread and circuses, bureaucracy, Byzantinism.

Capitalism, change of capitals, caste system, celibacy, centralization, childlessness, Christianity, citizenship (granting of), civil war, climatic deterioration, communism, complacency, concatenation of misfortunes, conservatism, corruption, cosmopolitanism, crisis of legitimacy, culinary excess, cultural neurosis.

Decentralization, decline of Nordic character, decline of the cities, decline of the Italic population, deforestation, degeneration, degeneration of intellect, demoralization, depletion of mineral resources, despotism, destruction of environment, destruction of peasantry, destruction of political process, destruction of Roman influence, devastation, differences in wealth, disarmament, disillusion with state, division of empire, division of labour.

Earthquakes, egoism, egoism of the state, emancipation of slaves, enervation, epidemics, equal rights (granting of), eradication of the best, escapism, ethnic dissolution, excessive aging of population, excessive civilization, excessive culture, excessive foreign infiltration, excessive freedom, excessive urbanization, expansion, exploitation.

Fear of life, female emancipation, feudalization, fiscalism, gladiatorial system, gluttony, gout, hedonism, Hellenization, heresy, homosexuality, hothouse culture, hubris, hyperthermia.

Immoderate greatness, imperialism, impotence, impoverishment, imprudent policy toward buffer states, inadequate educational system, indifference, individualism, indoctrination, inertia, inflation, intellectualism, integration (weakness of), irrationality, Jewish influence.

Lack of leadership, lack of male dignity, lack of military recruits, lack of orderly imperial succession, lack of qualified workers, lack of rainfall, lack of religiousness, lack of seriousness, large landed properties, lead-poisoning, lethargy, levelling (cultural), levelling (social), loss of army discipline, loss of authority, loss of energy, loss of instincts, loss of population, luxury.

Malaria, marriages of convenience, mercenary system, mercury damage, militarism, monetary economy, monetary greed, money (shortage of), moral decline, moral idealism, moral materialism, mystery religions, nationalism of Rome's subjects, negative selection.

Orientalization, outflow of gold, over-refinement, pacifism, paralysis of will, paralysation, parasitism, particularism, pauperism, plagues, pleasure-seeking, plutocracy, polytheism, population pressure, precociousness, professional army, proletarization, prosperity, prostitution, psychoses, public baths.

Racial degeneration, racial discrimination, racial suicide, rationalism, refusal of military service, religious struggles and schisms, rentier mentality, resignation, restriction to profession, restriction to the land, rhetoric, rise of uneducated masses, romantic attitudes to peace, ruin of middle class, rule of the world.

Semi-education, sensuality, servility, sexuality, shamelessness, shifting of trade routes, slavery, Slavic attacks, socialism (of the state), social tensions, soil erosion, soil exhaustion, spiritual barbarism, stagnation, stoicism, stress, structural weakness, superstition.

Taxation, pressure of terrorism, tiredness of life, totalitarianism, treason, tristesse, two-front war, underdevelopment, useless diet, usurpation of all powers by the state, vaingloriousness, villa economy, vulgarization.

This proves it. I am strangely comforted to think that Rome was undermined by Bolsheviks, feminists, socialists, public baths, and, above all, the decline of the Nordic character.

Mailing 126, July 2003

Gary. A very quick dip into my review copy convinced me that if there is One destined reader of Matrix Warrior: Being the One, that One is definitely not me. It did seem dreadful tosh, and I'm relieved to have this confirmed. Regarding your aside about James Blish's Jack of Eagles, I wouldn't call that unadulterated 'teenage SF telepathic power fantasy'; though it's hardly one of his mature novels, Blish was to some extent reacting against routine sf wish-fulfilment by forcing his hapless hero to grapple with understanding the universe – e.g. quantum mechanics – as an essential preliminary to being able to manipulate it reliably. • Kev. Good heavens, someone who knows or at least can quote lyrics by my little brother! Which is more than I can.... • Steve. I got my RACTER quotes directly from The Policeman's Beard Is Half Constructed, but never mind. That we should choose the same ones simply betokens shared Perfect Taste. • Paul. Ben Jeapes also has indelible memories of Digital Dreams, which contained his first sale: thirteen years later, reading my collected 'Critical Mass' review columns, he berated me for not having found space to list all the DD stories and authors. • Damien. There are quite a lot of Nero Wolfe novella collections, two or three or (once, I think) four stories assembled into a novel-sized package. But they never seem to have been popular with UK publishers; I got nearly all mine in US editions from a second-hand dealer over there, who no longer trades. • Jae. Your mention of Laputa reminds me that this is the villain's surname in the Dean Koontz doorstop mentioned above. At first it seemed rather an unlikely name (Spanish for 'whore', a deliberate choice by Swift), but it was pretty clear that Koontz had the floating city of Gulliver's Travels in mind when the villainous Laputa began his assault on a mansion with extensive perimeter defences, by arriving from above in a blimp. • Tony. Welcome to the madhouse.... I shouldn't carp, but Flann O'Brien loved to claim that James Joyce's life was much shortened by the stress of repeatly seeing a false apostrophe inserted into Finnegans Wake. Which I haven't read, although getting through the whole of Ulysses on a US trip a few years back (mostly on the plane out) was a distinct personal landmark. • Maureen. I suppose it would be terribly, terribly sad and obsessive for me to note that it isn't Harry Potter but Hagrid who puts a pig's curly tail on the despised cousin in Book 1. But Harry does – though not apparently with conscious intent – inflate an appalling aunt in Book 3. All thanks for your sensible meditation on the A.S. Byatt essay (of which Diana Wynne Jones – also mentioned favourably, in passing – complains that she's been bombarded with copies). We've swapped some grumbles in e-mail about the sainted Rowling's weaknesses, with me muttering that although she's generally good at pace and information feed, the sheer use of language often flags. The Hensher review which you reprint homes in on banality and cliché; what occasionally grates on me is the use of a word that lacks the needed precision in context. For example, 'skeletal' and 'fleshless', which in a fantasy world one somehow expects to have a literal meaning, rather than just being a way to say 'skinny'. Earlier books mention the 'skeletal' (thin) cat at Hogwarts; the latest introduces 'skeletal' and indeed 'completely fleshless' (very bony) horses. Admittedly it is noted that the latter beasties do have hide, but the word used on their first appearance is 'coats', which of course had me imagining skeleton horses in woolly blankets.... • Bruce. Many thanks for that fine celebration of John Foyster. I confess to getting nervously tongue-tied when such tributes need to be made, and am very grateful that fans like you can do the right thing with such a sure touch. And I look forward to more 'Foyster's Greatest Hits' reprints! • [7-8-03]