Cloud Chamber 146
January 2004

Seasonal lethargy still grips me, and I'll have to keep this short because I'm still badly behind on all those damned reference-book essays. Mea culpa.

Letter Column. A learned response to CC138, from Philip Eagle: 'Some time ago I noticed an allusion on your website to allegations that the Savoy edition of Zenith the Albino was a prankish pastiche by Michael Moorcock and/or others. / I have just studied the British Library's copy of the original Monsieur Zenith, and I hope that you will believe me when I say that the book exists and the text is identical. / Although I think MM was joking in the introduction when he talked about the lapis lazuli-bound limited edition.'

Commonplace Book. Martin Morse Wooster sends this fine extended metaphor from a history of Jim Beam bourbon: 'The Beam family tree ... is an imposing two-century-and-counting, still vigorous, gnarly mammoth, complete with ham-thick primary limbs that support Schwarzenegger-like arms that themselves fork into a wiry mesh of whip-like tendrils ready to sprout new leaves and, more importantly, acorns.' (F. Paul Pacult, American Still Life, 2003)

Random Reading

Leslie Charteris: various shorter 'Saint' stories reread in a spirit of abject idleness when I should have been researching something else. Not for the first time, I couldn't help noticing the bits of product placement: could it be that crates of Peter Dawson whisky were regularly delivered to the author by a grateful manufacturer? At one late period the Saint makes a point of drinking Dry Sack, which I recall as a marketing ploy to sell a fairly sweet aperitif (sack traditionally being very sweet) as a dry and therefore slick, cool, fashionable tipple. Sounds like a drink for wannabes rather than Saints. Yet another story features an utterly gratuitous plug for 'One of the best dry sherries,' called Cleopatra – good old Spanish name, eh? And, savouring that thought, the suavely debonair Langford sipped delicately at his Typhoo while applying a soupçon of HP Sauce to hand-picked slices of gourmet Wonderloaf.

Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume II (2003). Fresh from dealing with Moriarty and Fu-Manchu in Volume I, the League now faces a Martian invasion. The action begins on a panfictional and very red Mars, with Lt Gullivar Jones (complete with flying carpet) joining John Carter and his multi-armed Barsoomians, with backup from C.S. Lewis's sorns, to attack the fortress of the unpleasant 'molluscs' – the Martians of The War of the Worlds, who now appear to be launching spacecraft. Cut to huge crater in a field outside London.... The tripod war machines, heat rays, and scenes of destruction are most strikingly re-imagined. As humanity is betrayed by the most unreliable member of the cast, and Captain Nemo's Nautilus defends besieged London, it becomes necessary to seek dark biological expertise from Dr Moreau – whose current hybrid experiments include the creation of Rupert Bear and chums, plus familiar figures from Beatrix Potter and The Wind in the Willows. (Uncontrollable giggling from Langford at this point, you bet.) As before, the whole book is crammed with such little treats and allusions. Moore's best work of re-invention is the monstrous Mr Hyde, who develops into a genuinely complex figure without ever ceasing to be a monster. When he crosses London by cab at the height of the war panic, Hyde's thoughtful, even tranquil, expression makes a pointed contrast with wild scenes of looting and Hogarthian drunkenness on the streets; but next comes his most appalling and protracted (although arguably justified) murder to date. Finally, with dozens of Martian tripods massed on the South Bank for their last push to victory, Hyde gets to play Horatius at the Bridge – dressed up to the nines and singing, for whatever mad reason, 'You should see me dance the polka ...' Volume II is full of unforgettable scenes and images, even more so than Volume I. (Let us not speak of the film.)

William Golding, Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989), completing the Australia-bound seafaring trilogy begun with the harrowing Rites of Passage (1980). These are generally cheerier, lighter-hearted volumes; the diarist narrator even comes to an almost absurdly improbable happy ending. Interesting tension en route as a young officer full of ingenious ideas – almost a Hornblower figure – attempts radical repairs to the ancient, disintegrating ship, opposed by more conservative officers whom our ignorant landlubber narrator supports for reasons of personal friendship. The ship's deep-seated ills and dangerous remedies are described with the unnerving architectural intensity of The Spire, which is perhaps Golding's best book.

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), finally acquired when Waterstone's made me a half-price offer I couldn't refuse. OK, really, although full of familiar material, and with the occasional rather odd emphasis or omission that made me suspect that Bryson hadn't fully understood an explanation given by one of his innumerable advisers. I suppose Maxwell's equations, despite being so iconic (presumably we've all seen the t-shirt that shows them preceded by 'And God said ...' and followed by '... and there was light'?), are a little off the beaten track of Bryson's 'how we got here' theme; but it was disconcerting to find such a major physicist mentioned solely in passing as the chap who edited someone else's papers.

Mailing 129, December 2003

Tony K. Chris Priest's first published story was actually 'The Run' in Impulse SF, 1966. • Penny. I share your enthusiasm for Promethea – Volume IV appeared in hardback in 2003, and I hope there will be a Volume V despite Moore's planned retirement from comics at the end of 2003. But Bone (first and third books seen here) has so far failed to grab me. • Paul K. The famous Langford indifference to music would leave me knowing nothing whatever of Warren Zevon if it hadn't been that a fan friend – you know who – was sustained through the Great Fannish Unpleasantness of the mid-1980s by 'Send lawyers, guns and money / The shit has hit the fan ...' • Bruce. Your review of Up Through an Empty House of Stars is much appreciated. Doubly so, since you also sent it to me in an entirely different fanzine where it appeared in a different position, causing some puzzled head-scratching here. Then I saw that this review was followed by my own comments.... • AMB. If Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek had been a whole lot thinner, it would have been tempting to slip in the unpublished Wholly Smokes in defiance of the general rule of assembling published but uncollected work. But Ben Jeapes was already overwhelmed by the vast amount of stuff I'd dug up! • Cherith. I liked That Hideous Strength better when I came across the full text and realized how much the 1955 Pan edition had been cut (by Lewis himself) to fit into the 250-odd pages regarded as the maximum feasible size for the paperback. Hollow laughter.... • Others: Thanks! [13-1-04]