Cloud Chamber 154
July 2005

What's there to talk about besides the 7 July London bombs? Well, not only do I have nothing original to say, but I've already said it in a draft SFX column now awaiting titivation: with deadlines every four weeks, one grabs what material one can. I'd planned to go into London that day, sample the delights of Walkers of Holborn, and rendezvous with Peter Weston there – but I can't claim any high drama or narrow escape, since I was still pottering in Reading when the bad news came through. Must say I find it strangely pleasing that despite all the efforts of lunatic terrorists, the continuity of London First Thursday meetings was maintained by six fans, including Dop of this parish, plus ex-Acnestians Tanya Brown and (back in the waiting list) Tony Cullen. Good for them all.

I should have a couple of books out this month. One is a new edition of that 1996 Discworld quizbook The Unseen University Challenge, reissued with corrections and sensible layout (i.e. no answer pages actually facing the questions) in Gollancz's patent small-hardback-parody format. Fortunately I was not required to become D.R.R.R.R. Langford. The other opuscule has been promised in time for Worldcon, if I'm very lucky: The SEX Column and other misprints from Cosmos, much delayed by the burn-out and replacement of their cover designer. As previously noted, this collects all my SFX columns and other sizeable contributions, from the magazine's launch in 1995 up to March this year. Fingers crossed, now.

Later: yes, it was out in time for Worldcon! Rog Peyton (Replay Books) and Bob Wardzinski (The Talking Dead) ordered lots of copies for their dealer tables.

Nothing to report from the recent sojourn in North Wales, except our sighting of a highly plausible winking UFO in broad daylight over Porthmadog (later, correlations were made with a local market stall's bunch of half-black, half-silvered helium balloons). Wildlife observation in the High Street: 'That woman's got an enormous cockroach on her back!' said Hazel in a stage whisper, and indeed it was so. One wondered just when, and in just what kind of shop, this huge shiny brown insect would panic and take flight.

Speaking of insects, Hazel seemed less than enchanted when I told her that we had rat-tailed maggots. These deeply unprepossessing little beasties live in stagnant water, i.e. in back-garden puddles not seemingly large enough to support life. Their 'tails' are breathing tubes, and the Bumper Book of Creepy-Crawlies reveals the creatures to be larvae of the innocuous drone-fly (a bee-like, nectar-eating hover-fly). The lesson I am trying to learn, while contemplating these marvels of Nature, is not to keep calling them rat-faced maggots.

Meanwhile, The Scottish Convention is looming. Gulp.

Letter Column

Martin Sketchley suspects he's been overdoing the cheese at bedtime: 'You were in a dream I had last night. You stopped off at my house out of the blue on, you said, Chris Priest's recommendation. Jon Courtenay Grimwood lived across the road. He drove a small black car. You told me my stairs were illegal, but when I was returning from the shop I saw that the registration plate on your car was broken, and that part of it was missing. "Ah-ha," I thought. "Now I've got him!"' • Me, an authoritarian member of the Staircase Police?

Tanaqui Weaver revealed the original title of Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo, referred to last issue: 'The Young Atomic Engineers and the Conquest of the Moon. Yes, really.'

Random Reading

Reviewed for HugeSouthAmericanRiver: nothing, actually, but I've toiled through Peter F. Hamilton's Pandora's Star (882pp) in readiness for the coming HSAR-decreed assault on part 2 of this immense single novel: Judas Unchained (949pp, October), a proof copy of which is staring at me balefully....

Reviewed for SFX: Kelley Armstrong, Haunted, a posthumous-fantasy romp linked to KA's other genre novels (e.g. that lady werewolf from Bitten gets a mention though not an actual appearance). The demon-hunting activities of this story's tough, wisecracking, ghost heroine moved me to coin the phrase 'ectoplasmic chopsocky'. • Allen Steele, Coyote Rising, which charmed me with the post-Banksian subtlety of its evil commie starship names: Spirit of Social Collectivism Carried to the Stars, etc, etc.

Algis Budrys, Hard Landing (1993), his most recent novel and perhaps his last, acquired after many recommendations from Greg Pickersgill. This has something of the shape of a conspiracy-theory novel about the ripples caused by a small crew of stranded aliens (though very human ones) among us. But behind their 'hard landing' there lies a betrayal which with the relentlessness of Greek tragedy leads to death after death. Indeed Budrys nods openly to the Greek tradition, introducing himself ('A.B.') as an occasional Chorus who links the multi-stranded narrative and underlines its ironies. Well crafted, bleakly effective and memorably depressing.

Gene Wolfe, Innocents Aboard: New Fantasy Stories (2004). A fine mixed bag of 22 pieces, fantasy and horror.

Penelope Farmer, Charlotte Sometimes (1969), timeslip fantasy with a school setting by the author of A Castle of Bone.

Mailing 137, May/June 2005

Penny. Thanks for the kindly mention of DkoD! (I'm almost sure I included a few 'namby-pamby fantasies' in there somewhere.) • I remember mentioning in some SFX piece that readers of Alasdair Gray's A History Maker might miss the key of the story if they skipped the notes at the end – could this have been an influence on Ben Jeapes? In The Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe's afterword coyly explains a plot point so wilfully enigmatic that some of us hadn't realized what needed explanation. • Paul K. Of course I'm hugely grateful for that substantial review of my two critical books. Let's be obvious: thank you. • Damien. Perversely, I liked the second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen even better than the first. • Jae. Of course J.G. Ballard finds CSI fascinating, and recently wrote about it in Circuit magazine. His final paragraph:

'I suspect that the cadavers waiting their turn on the tables are surrogates for ourselves, the viewers. The real crime the C.S.I. team is investigating, weighing every tear, every drop of blood, every smear of semen, is the crime of being alive. I fear that we watch, entranced, because we feel an almost holy pity for ourselves and the oblivion patiently waiting for us.'

Oo-er! • Cherith. All sympathy with your 'bloody Blair' and 'detestable and repellent Blunkett' rantlet. I cringe when the PM publicly vows that terrorists will not be allowed to change our way of life. Our sacred right to imprisonment without trial. Our glorious heritage of ID cards. • Steve J. Could there be a hint of remorse in Brian Aldiss OBE's 'cosy catastrophe' quip in Ansible 216? • Ian S. Oh dear, do people say 'phanatique' in Neal Stephenson's 18th century? I haven't got beyond Quicksilver even now. • Other duties call. See (some of you) in sunny Glasgow! [12-7-05]