Cloud Chamber 151
November 2004

Went to Novacon in Walsall. Came back early, having met everyone, handed out Ansible, signed all Rog Peyton's Langford stock (he had hefty piles of my various Cosmos books and sold very nearly the lot), and then started to feel uneasy about all that remained to be done before another North Wales trip in the coming week. Thus, on Saturday 6 November, I was on a speeding Inter-City train at the time – though not on the same line – as that horrific Ufton Nervet rail crash. On reflection, this was a great deal better for my nerves than travelling after reading the next day's grim newspaper headlines; the first I heard about the disaster was when my mother rang at 9pm on Saturday evening to check on me. Phew.

I'd spent that journey tranquilly doing a crossword whose deviously hidden theme quotation was, topically, from Richard Nixon: 'The voters have spoken, the bastards.' Well, yes. That's quite enough about recent overseas election results.

Overleaf: I unearthed some surplus copies of Stu Shiffman's cover for my fanzine Twll-Ddu 19, published in April 1981....

Random Reading

Clifton Fadiman, ed., Fantasia Mathematica (1958), the legendary anthology of mathematical tales, extracts and oddments which – with its companion volume The Mathematical Magpie (1962) – inspired many further sf stories on related themes. Greg Bear once described his 'Tangents' as a homage to the Fadiman collections; Rudy Rucker loved them and recreated their quirky flavour for a later decade by compiling Mathenauts: Tales of Mathematical Wonder (1987). Fantasia Mathematica is full of tasty material, including Kurd Lasswitz's thought experiment 'The Universal Library', the inspiration for that unforgettable Jorge Luis Borges nightmare 'The Library of Babel'. (See also Borges's essay 'The Total Library'.) Though aware for decades that this volume existed, I never came across a copy until one day a black grimoire taught me how to conjure the demon and pay its terrible price....

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (2004), marking the 21st anniversary of Discworld. Again Mr Pratchett examines just what makes his great and malodorous city of Ankh-Morpork tick, and the means by which devious dictator Lord Vetinari keeps it ticking. Past novels have transformed the deadbeats of the City Watch into a functional police force that now struggles to cope with the side-effects of technological upheaval – like the printing press of The Truth (2000), which rapidly spawned newspapers, investigative journalism, and a close equivalent of the Weekly World News. The space programme in The Last Hero (2001) was a one-off; of far greater consequence is the 'clacks' semaphore system that has revolutionized global, or discoid, communications thanks to rapid c-mail. Noting the vicious business practices of the major clacks cartel, Vetinari slyly introduces competition by reviving Ankh-Morpork's moribund Post Office under new management – a convicted con-man 'named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents.' Ensuing complications involve much postal lore and legend, golems, dread initiations, obsessive collectors (pins rather than stamps; there's a truly excruciating scene in a pin hobby shop), arson, a nonhuman assassin, and the equivalent of net hackers. The climax sees a John Henry challenge of man versus machine, with von Lipwig and the high-speed c-mail system racing to deliver a long-distance message. Our swindler hero rises to the occasion, rejecting one way of fighting dirty – a clacks virus that could make the semaphore net literally crash and burn – in favour of his own special skill with words. Very clever and very funny. • The Discworld Almanak (2004), by Terry and Bernard Pearson, is another spinoff containing much silliness like this seasonal distillation of wisdom about wild mushrooms: 1. ALL FUNGI ARE EDIBLE. 2. SOME FUNGI ARE NOT EDIBLE MORE THAN ONCE.Once More* With Footnotes (2004), the Boston Worldcon's book of Pratchett short stories and nonfiction. NESFA Press was not sufficiently savvy to notice that 'Why Gandalf Never Married', Terry's speech at Novacon 15 (1985) has been on one of my websites for many a year – but otherwise it's a pretty comprehensive collection, with the pardonable omission of his dire 1960s New Worlds story 'Night Dweller'. Since the contents include three introductions to Langford books and a credited reprint from Ansible, I can hardly complain.

Lemony Snicket, The Grim Grotto (2004). Book eleven, and events are accelerating towards an ultimate showdown at the Hotel Denouement – punctuated by the usual paranoid silliness, scrutable ciphers, and auctorial intrusions. A running gag about discussing the very boring atmospheric water cycle (in preference to the stark horror of ongoing events) is over-used, with joke tedium shading inexorably into real tedium.

Reviewed. Banks, The Algebraist; Barclay, Demonstorm; Donaldson, The Runes of the Earth; Feist, Exile's Return. Tra la.

Mailing 134, October 2004

Kev McV. My ignorance of film is sufficient to make me suspect that your mini-article on the alleged DVD excerpt from Cremaster 3 is in fact a Borgesian fictional review of a work having no existence outside the eerily warped mind of Kev McVeigh. Was it meant to end in mid-sentence? • Bruce G. Congratulations on your move from the doomed House of Usher – or its cognate in J.P. Martin's 1966 fantasy Uncle and His Detective, prophetically named Crack House. • Steve J. Though I too loved the great John M. Ford's Heat of Fusion, I'm fairly sure I didn't tell you that '20 Questers' is 'based on Auden's poem "Questors"', but that I thought it homaged Auden's 1940 sonnet cycle 'The Quest' – updated in the light of modern genre fantasy. • Alison. I'd dip more into Hazel's books by famous Romans, except that all too many of her editions are in Latin. Exit Langford, with forehead villainous low.... • Cherith. I was tempted by Kathryn Lindskoog's theory that C.S. Lewis's The Dark Tower is a forgery by Walter Hooper. Apparently, though, she's not always reliable. A.N. Wilson briefly summarizes the Lindskoog controversy in the preface of his C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1990), and says of The Dark Tower: 'A manuscript of this depressing fragment is deposited in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and experts have made it clear beyond doubt that it is written in Lewis's hand.' • Tony K. 'Why oh why do I still bother with SFX?' My own answer to this one is perhaps not universally applicable, but runs along the general lines 'because I need the money.' • You wonder where you read Fredric Brown's 'Answer'. It's been collected lots of times – see the Locus on-line index. I have it in Brown's own Angels and Spaceships and in the anthologies Best SF 3 (Crispin), The Metal Smile (Knight), Space Opera (Aldiss), and Machines That Think (Asimov et al). • Paul K. Jolly good paper on George Turner: I wanted it to be longer. • Chris A & Gary D. Much sympathy re the passing of your fathers. I have been there. • Everyone: Thanks! [8-11-04]