Cloud Chamber 149
July 2004

What a strange summer. I am slowly learning not to worry that people are flinging gravel at my office window; it's just another sudden hailstorm. The last Sunday of June brought a cloudburst so violent that London Road (three lanes) was flooded halfway across in record time, while the local water table rose to the level of our cellar window. This opens on a cuboidal space covered by a grating – a space with drainage holes which for the first time in recorded history operated in reverse, pouring many gallons of water over the sill. Much frantic baling followed, and I spent most of Monday cutting up and removing the sodden – but fortunately very old and horrible – cellar carpet for disposal. At least we didn't have serious quantities of books and fanzines stored down there, as did Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden on 7 July when (owing to a broken safety valve) the boiler flooded their new home's basement with warm water. A fearful synchronicity.

Books: my relentless reprint instincts continue. This month, at last, I can start the machinery to release The Space Eater's print rights from the toils of the dread E-Reads, about whose e-book marketing model I will only remark that (a) after three years I've wearied of the publisher's regular circular explaining that that sales are just about to take off mightily and we should all have faith, while (b) individual Langford short stories on sale as Fictionwise e-books consistently outperform the novel. Fingers crossed for a new POD edition from good old Cosmos – whose editor Sean Wallace reports that despite the recent Big Engine reissue, 'The Leaky Establishment is selling like hotcakes (relatively), so I'm boggled. Your backlist moves.' Well, well. Meanwhile, having now written more than 120 columns for SFX, I fear I have no compunction about collecting them as yet another Cosmos book. The tentative title, for reasons evident to anyone familiar with the clichés of SFX cover design, is The SEX Column and other misprints.

I've been rearranging the Langford web empire a bit, to use a single hosting service rather than 'free' webspace scattered around various ISPs, and incidentally to save money. Ansible remains at Glasgow University, but my pages are now at If you have links to any of the former, please remove the '.demon' part of the URL. Thanks!

Random Reading

Karl Sabbagh, Dr Riemann's Zeros (2002), another pop-maths exposition which does its best to convey the complexity and excitement of the Riemann Hypothesis, now (with the four-colour problem and Fermat's Last disposed of) the sexiest unresolved issue in mathematics. But unlike its predecessors, the RH has no deceptively simple formulation to lure you in. Non-specialists need to treat the horrors of the Riemann zeta function as a black box that churns out intriguing results, which is pretty much how Sabbagh handles it – though he does steel himself to print the equations. Much interesting stuff about relevant maths history, politics and personalities.

Frederik Pohl, The Boy Who Would Live Forever (2004), a belated fifth book in the Heechee series. Intelligent and engagingly told, as always, but very much a book of bits. I felt this even before checking the copyright page to discover that three chunks, with different protagonists, appeared separately as standalone stories. The overall action starts during the time of book 2, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, and fast-forwards through the rest of the sequence and beyond, thanks to time-dilation effects. There are pleasant characters, such as the 'stovemind' AI who finds haute cuisine the best challenge to his vast processing power, and handles military issues as a sideline (delegated at one stage to 293 AI sous-chefs). A villain is recycled from earlier, and – like other not very convincing bad guys in The Annals of the Heechee – is too easily disposed of. The universe-killing 'Assassins', sinister but no longer regarded as a menace, make one brief, bodeful appearance and then vanish unsatisfactorily from the story. A book of bits.

Dornford Yates, Blind Corner (1927), fast-moving thriller in the John Buchan mode. The fascinating 1983 introduction by Tom Sharpe combines admiration of the storytelling with loathing of the author, a loathing intensified by actual detective work into his real-life behaviour as Major Cecil William Mercer.

Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea (2002): I too enjoyed this 'progressively lipogrammatic' allegory of constraints imposed by Language Police. One niggle: the McGuffin or quest object is a pangrammatic sentence, 'accidentally' written and much later recognized as what it is. But it's a well-known pangram (quoted by Steve this mailing) which, for those familiar with word games, sticks out like a fluorescent thumb on its first appearance. Hence a tendency to drum my fingers and mutter, 'When are they going to spot it?' James Blish once argued that authors who pattern stories on chess games should invent their own, like Lewis Carroll, rather than copy classic matches, like Poul Anderson and John Brunner. Should Dunn have constructed a new pangram? Too difficult, maybe.

Mailing 132, June 2004

Maureen. Congratulations again on becoming Certifiably Distinguished, or Distinctly Certified! • Tony K. Chris Priest allowed me to put his Eastercon GoH talk on line as a supplement to Ansible 202; see website. • The 'Yes, now there is a God!' story is 'Answer' by Fredric Brown, now half a century old. • Penny. Even dafter than an anthology whose stories all begin 'It Was a Dark and Silly Night' is one where every story has the same twist-ending plot: The Fothergill Omnibus (1931). I have a copy because G.K. Chesterton is in it; the 'Eighteen Eminent Authors' also include L.P. Hartley, Storm Jameson, Rebecca West, and several now utterly forgotten. • KVB. I used to wonder whether Cordwainer Smith's underperson guru the E'telekeli was named to evoke the call of shoggoths in Lovecraft's 'At the Mountains of Madness': 'Tekeli-li!Tekeli-li!' Much later I realized that H.P. Lovecraft took this mysterious repeated cry from the inimical savages (and later, seabirds) in another sinister Antarctic exploration, Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. A well-known allusion, it seems, though not to me. • Alison. Your analysis of Oryx and Crake, which I confess I still haven't read, made me grin evilly but did not, alas, send me rushing out to buy a copy. • 'Moth wrangler'? Well, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends by the magicians Penn & Teller explains the need for a skilled 'bug wrangler' to prepare a trick whose nature I will not reveal but which appears in a lavishly photo-illustrated chapter titled HOW TO PRODUCE FIVE HUNDRED COCKROACHES ON DAVID LETTERMAN'S DESK.Paul K. Thanks for a heap of good, thoughtful reviews. I must buy Matt Ruff's latest. • Jae. For no special reason I re-read the Riddle-Master trilogy last weekend. I still like it. • Iain. Enthusiasm for books can survive at Waterstone's! I keep hearing from Joe-who-never-gives-his-surname in the Edinburgh branch; in Reading, Lori Jolly displays Ansible in the sf section every month. [13-7-04]