Cloud Chamber 153
May 2005

While Acnestis has been slumbering – APA QUONDAM APAQUE FUTURA – I've drifted into the habit of putting odd diary notes on my home page at, and won't repeat myself here. The infamous Langford deafness has been a worse than usual annoyance this year, making me unreasonably grumpy about Eastercon (apologies to Tony Keen, who caught some of the fallout here), and causing immense frustration at John Brosnan's funeral/wake and the Clarke Award bash. Finally, on 14 May, I nagged the audiology dept of the Royal Berks Hospital, where they previously hadn't seemed interested in a layman's diagnosis of hearing aid malfunction and had assured me that all was well. This time, the (different) audiologist spotted the exact problem I'd suspected, and issued a brand-new machine. Phew! Things certainly seem better now, though the acid test of a crowded pub or party still awaits.

The day of the Clarke event also saw one of Hazel's rare London visits, a pilgrimage – with me in tow – to various haunts of her ancestors. Kennington: ancestral dwelling found and photographed, but local church replaced by a modern horror. Lambeth Cemetery: entire 1916 burial area ploughed up and grassed over for re-use, but record of sought-for grave preserved in cemetery office. Brixton: whole street where Hazel's mother lived now redeveloped (we were loudly accosted by two drunk/mad locals in the few minutes it took to discover this). St Martin-in-the-Fields, happily, is still there.

Besides the usual round of reviews and magazine columns, I was pleased to be asked to write a piece on H.G. Wells as part of a Wells feature planned for Fortean Times 199. Though nominally the August issue, this should appear at the end of June in nice time for the July release of that Spielberg War of the Worlds remake. Oh gosh, the responsibility!

Letter Column

Chris Priest sends a charming specimen of spam prose: 'After the 24 years, our trunk sluggishly stops carries out a momentous hormone known as Person Increment Hormone. The decrease of it, that governs grades of other internal secretions in the organic structure is at once answerable for all of the largest frequent hallmarks of geezerhood, such as wrinkles, gray hair, decreased power, and vitiated sexual purpose.' (Chris: ' Yours, deep in geezerhood ...')

Michael Swanwick was stirred to reminiscence by Ansible 214: 'Your "Dead Past" item about a bookseller who didn't want to sell books reminded me of a book dealer here in Philadelphia in the early Eighties who literally went mad and would accept only books in trade – not cash – for his stock. If you didn't approach him with books in hand, he would drive you from his shop with a stunningly creative gush of obscenities. Eventually the shop, by then choked with literally thousands of Jacqueline Suzanne paperbacks and their ilk, closed and the owner went I know not where. But for years afterwards local booksellers would occasionally have somebody open their door and, sticking in a head, meekly ask, "Excuse me. Do you accept money for your books?"'

Tanaqui Weaver continues to plough through books I should have read, plus the 'new' Heinlein that I'm studiously avoiding: 'I've read all the recent good stuff (e.g. Innocents Aboard, Iron Council, Mobius Dick), and am now reduced to reading For Us, the Living by Him, the Dead, and noting with alarm that he had time-travelling shagmeisters before Rocket Ship Galileo (which originally had a title almost as clumsy as this posthumously retrieved piece of crap), as well as long after.... • Usual big fat lectures on the prison of 20th C marriage, so like the ones in e.g. Glory Road that I wonder if Virginia just lifted a version of the argument from files and dumped it into the story. • It's been edited, at least, unlike the "unexpurgated" (i.e. untouched by copyeditor) version of Stranger in a Strange Land. Interesting that the right of RAH to be the author is asserted for copyright, even though this novel did not exist in its current form while he lived....'

Random Reading

Reviewed for HugeSouthAmericanRiver: Terry Goodkind, Chainfire, umpteenth Sword of Truth fantasy, now doing a Robert Jordan with a plot-line that doesn't actually reach closure within this book; Richard Morgan, Woken Furies, third Takeshi Kovacs excursion into sf ultra-violence – rather good of its kind, with an eventual touch of compassion.

Reviewed for SFX: Ian Christie, The Franklin Saga, excruciatingly clumsy and old-fashioned sf/adventure/romance from a small press (self-published?); L.E. Modesitt, The Ethos Effect, gloomily realistic space-war saga with a superfluity of moralizing lectures; Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, Burning Tower, laboriously planned fantasy sequel to The Burning City – readable enough but having the characteristic heaviness of a narrative whose authors are determined to include every last scrap of research and sociological spadework from their notes; Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen, Darwin's Watch: The Science of Discworld III, good pop-science fun despite a particularly flimsy Discworld narrative frame; Martin Sketchley, The Destiny Mask, sf sequel to The Affinity Trap – disappointingly reliant on repeated pursuit/capture/escape tropes and countless firefights (I longed for the protagonist to just once use a bit of finesse and ingenuity rather than burst in with guns blazing); Allen Steele, Coyote, where I generally agreed with Paul Kincaid's views on this first book of the series.

Stephen Baxter, Exultant (2004). The trilogy connection with the hive-mind novel Coalescent is tenuous. Now it's the far future after 25,000 years of human/Xeelee galactic war, with hopes of breaking the long stand-off with new technology resisted by our hidebound politicians and engineers – beginning with a supercomputer using time travel to crack arbitrarily complex problems in zero real time. Baxter offers a twin Grand Tour of the transformed solar system and of odd stories/concepts from his Xeelee sequence (e.g. a rehash of the 'configuration space' weirdness from 'Reality Dust') while assembling a Dam Busters mission to shoot up the black hole at the centre of the galaxy. Extravagantly silly. I quite liked it.

Diana Wynne Jones, Conrad's Fate (2005). Yet another Chrestomanci fantasy, which as usual (the exception is The Lives of Christopher Chant) shows the Big C from outside, though here as a teenager with a major role rather than – as usual, with the same exception – a more or less remote adult. It's funny, fizzy and inventive as always, and I enjoyed it hugely. However, speaking with the authority vested in me by Dr Thackery T. Lambshead, I am concerned about the presentation of Christopher Chant's established reaction to a certain metal. We know from both Charmed Life and Lives that his powerful magical talent is temporarily cancelled by contact with silver, but with no other ill-effects: his silver cutlery, pocket-piece and tooth-brace cause him no pain. In Conrad's Fate, though, the mere proximity of a tiny silver salt-spoon makes him deathly ill ... although, as Yvonne Rousseau points out, 'Christopher Chant seemed to have no trouble carrying a large silver tray of sandwiches on page 109.' Dr Lambshead suspects that the prevalent isotope of silver in Series Seven of the Related Worlds (setting of Conrad's Fate) is unusually inimical to our man, and that the sandwich-tray was an import from another Series. A further anomaly is the ad-hoc talisman given to this book's viewpoint character Conrad, for the sole purpose of appeasing a karmic entity who will provide him with his deepest need (and whom no one in the story could wish or dare to offend): the talisman later proves to be plastered with death spells, and I cannot for the life of me think why. A final nitpick concerns the introduction of the Philip Pullman Gotcha, as deployed in The Amber Spyglass to snatch a bittersweet ending from the very jaws of ecstasy: we learn that 'No one can leave his own world forever' since after a few years they 'would start to fade', a ruling which would seem to make life problematic for one ongoing character (Millie) who also features in this story. Dr Lambshead will provide a definitive explanation Real Soon Now, I'm sure.

Clifford Pickover, Surfing the Cosmos: Understanding Higher Universes in Six Easy Lessons (1999). A pop-science book about four-dimensional geometry with much interesting content, but also a tiresome vein of cod X-Files dialogue related in the second person ('You feel her tremble slightly') whose supposed reader-friendliness in fact arouses much the same emotions as Microsoft's bloody dancing paperclip.

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones (2002). Harrowingly and touchingly effective. I don't really have a lot to say about this, besides acknowledging its power and compulsive readability, but I'm grateful for all the recommendations.

Caroline Stevermer, A Scholar of Magics (2004). Sequel to A College of Magics, which I rate very highly indeed. This doesn't quite match up – perhaps because the 1908 English town/university settings feel less exotic than the first book's alternate Europe with Ruritanian add-ons; perhaps because the magic here is less artfully elusive and, well, magical; perhaps because I read it on a bad day. Enjoyable enough.

'Verity Stob', The Best of Verity Stob (2005). Since 1988 the pseudonymous VS has written funny columns in serious software mags: EXE, Dr. Dobb's Journal, lately The Register. Now, at last, a collection! Wide-ranging silliness, occasionally a bit technical, but great fun throughout. E.g. 'What Any Bule Kno' has Molesworth in comp class, chiz chiz: 'Most comp is about Bule, who was so clever he invented bule alg (sick) 200 yrs befor ther was any use for it.' (PS: Certain sf people – hello, Mr Pratchett! – believe I write this column. Not true, alas.)

Sylvia Waugh, The Mennyms (1993): interestingly offbeat children's fantasy about a household of life-size, animated rag dolls who live furtively in an English town. Effective contrast of physical limitations and quirkily human personalities.

Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer, The Grand Tour (2004). Sequel, in similar epistolary vein, to Sorcery and Cecelia. Insubstantial, but well supplied with charm and fun.

Mailing 136, March 2005

Penny. Yes, one does need to be an antiquarian crime fiction buff to spot all the detectives pastiched in Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime ... though I can't believe you missed the explicit Holmes/Watson stuff in chapters 2-3 (and 9)! Next, chapters 5-6, is a Clubfoot spy yarn (Valentine Williams) which turns into a Bulldog Drummond adventure (Sapper). Chapters 7-8 contain, as you noticed, a rather perfunctory mention of Poirot and the little grey cells (more of this in chapter 23, with a specific allusion to The Big Four). Chapter 10 has an imitation of the blind detective Thornley Colton created by Clinton H. Stagg – the most obscure of the lot, according to me. (Ernest Bramah's Max Carrados would have been a better and more distinguished example.) 11-12 drag in Father Brown, via a clerical disguise rather than any Chestertonian detection. 13-14 are generic Edgar Wallace. 15-16 echo Baroness Orczy's The Old Man in the Corner, who unravelled problems while obsessively tying knots in a piece of string. 17-18 refer to A.E.W. Mason's Inspector Hanaud from The House of the Arrow etc. – I've actually read those novels! 19, 'The Unbreakable Alibi', invokes Freeman Wills Croft's Inspector French, who specialized in prolonged and toilsome cracking of such alibis. In 20-21 the model is Roger Sheringham from Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (once regarded as a crime classic) and others. 22 features H.C. Bailey's surgeon-detective Mr Reginald Fortune, perhaps my favourite forgotten sleuth. • Chris H. My Ansible mention of KVB's death was all too brief and hasty; later I added a longer appreciation by Steve Sneyd to the website as a supplement to issue 210. • Damien. Congratulations on the GUFF victory, to both you and Juliette! See you later this year.... • Iain E. Thanks for the Water Babies essay. It's such a long time since I read this (I was quite relieved to confirm that there's a copy on the shelves here) that I have only a dim 1066 And All That recollection of its story: 'all the Kingsley that you can remember'. • Steve J. I liked your Vector review of the Disease Guide, so don't worry. • Most-reprinted stories? The figures in Mike Ashley's The Illustrated Book of SF Lists (1982) are well out of date by now, but the top-rated stories in this reference are: 'Nightfall' with 16 appearances, confirming your suspicion, followed by '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman' and 'The Cold Equations' with 14 each, and Clarke's 'The Star' with 13. Figures for the same four stories in the 1999 Locus CD-ROM index are 39, 32, 26 and 31. (Godwin is at a disadvantage here, since the stories of the other three are regularly re-permuted as single-author collections.) • Paul K. Sympathy regarding publicatus interruptus. Here I'm still waiting for the appearance of the Langford nonfiction collection I'd hoped would be out from Cosmos in late 2004. Although I did this book's electronic typesetting myself – and then redid it to add more material after the first round of delays – the current bottleneck is jacket design. Our Cosmos expert is not only routinely swamped with work, but became literally swamped thanks to a flood; his house move was another problem. Fingers are desperately crossed in hope that the book will be available at the Glasgow Worldcon. • Harking back to Conversation Piece in Mailing 135 and the review of Pratchett's A Hat Full of Sky: you mention Death with a remark that this 'skeletal figure doesn't appear'. But he does, briefly, on pages 308-310 of the hardback. • Ian S. I seem to have given up on Honor Harrington – or rather, the review copies stopped coming – while the series was still reasonably OK. • The one DVD I saw in 2004 was Spirited Away – with subtitles – and like everyone else here who commented, I thought it was wonderful. It gave me high hopes for Howl's Moving Castle (which is to have a preview showing at Interaction), not least because Miyazaki seems very much in tune with the sort of things Diana Wynne Jones does, like hidden identities and transformations. She herself is highly pleased with Howl: see Ansible 210. • I'm still at the 'must reread Love and Sleep before tackling Dæmonomania' stage. • Tony K. Not to worry: I can use a market of non-SFX-readers who might still want a book of the Langford columns! (See comment to Paul K. above.) • Jae. London: I really must try the new First Thursday venue, after too-long absence owing to dislike of Dead Nurse acoustics. • Maureen. Thanks! • Everyone. Sorry: must stop now. Deadlines loom. [15-5-05]