Cloud Chamber 144
September 2003

Well, guess what: I've been to the Toronto Worldcon.

Wednesday 27 August. A deeply uneventful outward trip, which is how I like it. By way of subtle foreshadowing, one of the in-flight films was a Hugo winner: despite refusing earphones, I eventually realized that this endless succession of gravity-defying martial arts setpieces must be the famous Crouching Subtitles, Hidden Soundtrack. Toronto's international airport turns out to be 28km out of town: a long wait for the AirportExpress shuttle coach was enlivened by many predatory taxi drivers offering to cover the distance at the speed of light for practically no cost, but I already had my (return) ticket. Since Torcon had neglected to provide maps, there was some comfort in the bus brochure's teensy, not-to-scale plan showing the various con hotels strung out along the same street and separated by, um, a distance. Having laboriously tracked down the Renaissance Hotel at the far end of all this, I found it was embedded in the city's number-two landmark – the SkyDome stadium – which in turn nestled at the foot of the biggest sight of all, the 553m CN Tower. Oh well.

Good news: my US dollar account card proved capable of sucking Canadian notes from Toronto ATMs, $CAN400 at a time. Pausing only to stoke up at a convenient ethnic restaurant (East Side Mario's: New York Italian), I made my way to the Royal York Hotel where all the parties were to be. There Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden seemed to be running up an enormous Tor Books tab in the overpriced bar, surrounded by such thirsty luminaries as Charlie Stross and Liz Williams. What could I do but join in? This buffered me against the later Los Angeles in 2006 bidding party, where treats like Hugo-shaped cookies and the vast presence of fan guest of honour Mike Glyer could not entirely conceal a total lack of alcohol. Again, foreshadowing – of five days in a dry convention centre linked to another hotel where loudly ongoing reconstruction work had closed the bar for the duration.

Thursday 28 August. Up morbidly early. After drafting my holiday-assignment review on the palmtop (Robin Hobb: see below), I explored the local streets and had breakfast in an underground food court obsessed with healthy eating: you could order wicked substances like hash browns, but they came with a couple of raw carrots on top by way of balance. Next, the Metro Convention Centre and my first intimation of Torcon's organizational disasters.... (To be continued.)

Random Reading Abroad

Robin Hobb, Fool's Fate (2003), concluding the 'Tawny Man' trilogy, a sequel – albeit with a 15-year gap – to the 'Assassin's Apprentice' trio. I read this 800-page doorstop en route to Canada and wrote the HugeSouthAmericanRiver review while over there, so will just add a couple of footnotes. First, although I missed the first two volumes of this set, Hobb writes with sufficient charm and unobtrusive backfill that it was a pleasant read. Indeed I was pleased that our narrator Fitz made a comeback from the gloom and decay into which (for no very good reason) he'd settled by the end of that first trilogy. However, it does seem a little much that the last-ditch Get Out Of Death Free card played in 'Assassins' Apprentice' has not only been already repeated with variations in this new sequence, but happens yet again here, even more implausibly since this time the body is well into decay.

Neil Gaiman, Adventures in the Dream Trade (2002), a NESFA Press collection of oddments, introductions, miscellanea, and – at length – the terrifying weblog account of seeing American Gods into print and then going on a promotional tour of more-than-Pratchettian excess that merely begins with signing 5,000 title pages for the 'limited' edition. Particularly harrowing for me was the notion of living exclusively on sushi for all those weeks, but I gather this was voluntary. (Neil at Torcon: 'NESFA sold you the hardback? There are typos! There are errors! There are paragraphs out of order! Please, please remind me to send you a paperback copy to read....')

Keith Roberts, Anita (1970), mostly light-hearted stories about the eponymous incarnation of Roberts's 'Primitive Heroine' as a sexy young witch, but with occasional deeper notes and passages of fine writing amid the froth. God knows why I had to go to Toronto to find a copy of this.

John Carey, The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination (1973), an interesting essay sequence based on Oxford lectures exploring various patterns of grotesquerie in Dickens. As the blurb begins: 'Bottled babies, wooden legs, walking coffins, corpses, umbrellas, land-ships, living furniture ...' Intelligent stuff, offering much to argue with. Carey adopts rather a to-and-fro approach, laying into Dickens's moral and political inconsistencies and failure to have a modern liberal conscience, then backtracking for a bit of 'but of course despite all this he was a towering genius' before returning to the fray.

Agatha Christie, Partners in Crime (1929), another Toronto acquisition: sheer tosh, read for distraction. Within a loose frame story, the gimmick is a series of investigations in the manner of various fictional detectives, which (a) shows that Christie had no gift for pastiche (except when doing Poirot), and (b) has dated badly in segments depending on forgotten sleuths like Baroness Orczy's Old Man in the Corner.

M.A. Foster, The Morphodite (1981), sf somewhat in the vein of Jack Vance, though with the exotic colours and vocabulary partly muted. It is entirely Vancean that an offbeat world's favourite game should prove to be a ramified, status-ridden and extensively footnoted version of Tag. Foster offers an interesting approach to the house-of-cards planetary society so common in early and middle Vance, waiting to be toppled by the right push: a stasis-obsessed government, a underground movement that favours change, and secret outside observers whose principles of noninterference have been subverted into tacit propping-up of that stasis. The Morphodite is an engineered assassin whose special talent is to identify the unsung key person whose death will make a movement or an entire society fall apart, to perform the kill, and to disappear via genetic transformation into a new person of opposite sex. The choice of victim is logical, and the consequences neatly worked out. Less plausible is the elaborately daft ploy whereby this dangerous wild card is created by the local equivalent of the Ministry of Love – here called The Mask Factory, another little homage to Vance? – and released with the underground's approval to do the underground's work, the secret assumption of the Mask Factory being that the Morphodite's 'programming' is flawed and will bring disaster to the rebels. Which is also the end result of unflawed performance: when serious upheaval begins, there's no place left for a faction whose only goal was to initiate change.

Lord Dunsany, The Ghosts of the Heaviside Layer and Other Fantasms (1980), a nice packaging of 35 previously uncollected pieces: stories, essays and even a couple of plays. Minor Dunsany for the most part, but any Dunsany is worth reading. This one seemed overly expensive when first published; 23 years later it's a bargain at the same price, $20 (US).

(Sorry, no mailing comments. Jet lag, a cold, a funeral....)