Cloud Chamber 147
February 2004

The essay slog continues. I have at last delivered the long entries on James Branch Cabell, John Myers Myers, and Thorne Smith for the US Dictionary of Literary Biography (Volume 5,271,009, Pre-1950 Fantasy Authors), and was slightly surprised to be told 'Congratulations – you're the first contributor to turn in his/her assignment.' Am now well into the 35 puny 1,000-word pieces for Gary Westfahl's Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, but the required critical citations are a pain even with the help of Hal W. Hall's Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database (see Where does one scrape up half a dozen nonfictional discussions of the theme of, say, antimatter in sf? With a sigh of relief I begin with the SF Encyclopedia entry, and then groaningly recall that the list of types of reference that should not appear includes 'Relevant entries in other reference books ...'

Meanwhile, I am dead chuffed that Up Through an Empty House of Stars made it on to the Locus recommended reading list for nonfiction of 2003, and was also positively reviewed – in tandem with John Clute's Scores – by the great Gary K. Wolfe in their December issue. Additionally, a copy of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases has reached me at last: a demented labour of love and silliness by editors Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Price. Furthermore, here's Patrick Nielsen Hayden's YA anthology New Skies (glimpsed in Toronto, where I signed a couple; but my initial complimentary copy was eaten by the post office), with yet another reprint of 'Different Kinds of Darkness'.

I made a rare emergence into the outside world for Picocon in Imperial College on 7 February – good to see certain members of this parish there. I'd forgotten the local tradition of tempting cheap meals chalked up on menu boards over a food counter whose metal shutters remained firmly closed all day, leaving our digestive systems to be ravaged by a choice of crisps, peanuts or pork scratchings at the bar. Dave Lally, bless him, sent out for sandwiches and tossed me one with a remark about starving Hugo winners. It seemed wise not to stay too long, since our once great railway service had announced a total absence of trains between Reading and Paddington from 9pm, and I've had quite enough of exciting transfers to coaches or minibuses when in North Wales....

Letter Column. Paul Barnett confides: 'Something I'd quite forgotten, but have just now been reminded of by the arrival of my contributor copies of Maxim[ Jakubowski]'s Best New Erotica #3. The rock star hero of my piece used to play lead guitar for the band Critical Assembly but, on his return from Faery, is now with the band Look at the Evidence. Can't imagine where I got the band names from.' • Mike Moorcock on the 20th anniversary of Public Lending Right payments, as mentioned in a footnote to the electronic Ansible 199: 'Re PLR, it's an irony that I've managed to reduce my old PLR fees by about three quarters by putting all those books of mine into omnibus volumes. It never occurred to me how much I was going to lose in royalties when I did that. So that's the end of the bloody omnibuses, at least in the US. From now on I'll be bringing each original book back in three separate volumes of 20-25,000 words a piece, which appears to be the minimum length for a "novel" these days, judging by some of those I've seen out there (including Walter Mosley's latest which, however, I'm sure is good value for money). So in future watch for the Stormbringer quartet (each original magazine part done individually) and the Behold the Man trilogy. And no more short story anthologies, either... The world is ready for the demi-octavo single. And expect the Dancers at the End of Time centology.... The director's cut with earlier drafts and bootleg tracks. And bloopers (thanks be to Thog). It's time books caught up with CDs and DVDs.'

Commonplace Book. Anecdote from this month's mini-AIR (the e-mail Annals of Improbable Research). Doug Peterson of the University of South Dakota has an alertness test for his class: 'I always open with and reiterate one particular quote (that is also displayed on the door to my office): "Education is not the filling of a pail, / but the lighting of a fire" – William Butler Yeats. The last question on my comprehensive exam (multiple choice) was: "Complete the following quotation which summarizes your professor's view of education: 'Education is not the filling of a pail, ...'" 41% selected the distracter which read: "it is the emptying of a bucket."'

Random Reading

S.M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician (1976), autobiography of a Polish mathematician who found himself working among physicists in the crucial war years at Los Alamos and (according to others) also contributed key insights to the development of thermonuclear weapons. Stylistically a little bumpy, but with much quirky humour and anecdotes about colleagues like Fermi, Feynman, von Neumann, etc.

Mailing 130, January 2004

Alison, Del. Welcome aboard! • KVB. I'm afraid it took me many years to learn that the title of Malcolm Muggeridge's collection of essays and squibs, Tread Softly For You Tread On My Jokes, was a Yeats allusion. • Thanks for thoughts on The Iron Grail. This 'Celtika' series – or rather, the two books so far published – had to be covered in my essay on Rob Holdstock for Richard Bleiler's Supernatural Fiction Writers (2nd ed), and the relevant extract appears (with permission) on his website: • Paul K. Good essay, or draft essay, on Chris Priest. I'm not sure that I'd quite have the courage to circulate such a piece in a forum whose members include Mr Priest.... • Steve J. I was slightly discouraged from opening Dan Simmons's Ilium since Tanaqui Weaver sent several examples of sloppy writing and/or editing (noted here by Ian).

'There's this vision pool on Olympos that the "gods" use, right? Well, I think there are more problems with this implausible topography than there are with numerate grammar: p.38 "the gold floor steps down to a recess larger than any combination of Olympic-sized swimming pools, and in this space flickers [sic] and floats [sic] more real-time images [sic] from Ilium". Now, this struck me immediately as very weak: any combination of Olympic-sized swimming pools would surely be enough ... and lo, here is p. 265 "the rectangular pit – looking like a dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools laid end to end, now broiling". Er, right. So 12 will do it. Ahem.'

Cherith. Your sane comments on Biblical interpretation came to mind when I had to review Babylon Rising by Tim LaHaye & Greg Dinallo, which heavily promotes the Pre-Millennial Dispensationist view of total Biblical inerrancy. LaHaye is a US bestseller for the 12-book 'Left Behind' series, in which the Rapture happens and what follows is one long sustained gloat of we were right! [15-2-04]